JK Rowling & Harry Potter: A guide to writing better
I finally see what all the fuss is about
At the age of fifty, I finally read the Harry Potter series. I have no idea why I waited so long, but I absolutely loved them. J. K. Rowling is a masterful writer, which brings me to my post today. As I read her books, I got out my journal and started taking notes on the way she wrote. I wanted to learn from her.
Sometimes she reinforced something I’d previously learned, and sometimes she taught me something completely new. Those books and her writing delighted me.
What did Rowling do?
I want to share with you things I picked up reading as a writer, paying attention to how a master works. I may not teach you anything you don’t already know, but as we look at how Jo works her magic, perhaps a light bulb will go on for you as it did for me and you’ll feel a new spark for your writing. That’s my hope.
Having poured so much of ourselves into our books, we want our readers to keep turning pages. How do we do that? How did Rowling do it in the opening of The Sorcerer’s Stone? Conflict. Suspense. Curiosity. Consider these examples:
- SUSPENSE: When the book opens, we meet the Dursleys, and we learn that the Dursleys don’t like the Potters, and that there’s a secret about the Potters that the Dursleys don’t want anyone to know. (Who doesn’t like to discover a secret?)
- CURIOSITY: Mr. Dursley sees a cat reading a map and lots of people in cloaks, but he misses all the owls flying everywhere – during the day – not to mention, some man in a cloak calls him a Muggle. What, pray tell, is a Muggle?
- SUSPENSE: Mr. Dursley hears the people in cloaks whispering about … the Potters. Gasp. It’s also interesting that here very early, we don’t know what could be so bad about the Potters, so it’s even possible that way back when, before everyone knew Harry was a hero, early readers might have feared for the Dursleys because of the dreaded POTTERS!
- CURIOSITY: Everything about Albus Dumbledore invites curiosity and makes the reader want to know more about him. Rowling does most of this through his physical description and in his first conversation with Professor McGonagall.
- SUSPENSE/CONFLICT: The Potters – James and Lily – are dead at the hands of … say it with me … don’t be scared … Voldemort. Jo gives us THE conflict in the series here in these first pages of the first book: The POTTERS are dead. And a grown woman – a professor! – is scared to say the name of the villain. We know very little (next to nothing, actually) about Voldemort here, but look at the suspense Rowling’s created just by revealing the murder and fear associated with him.
- SUSPENSE: Voldemort – the evil, frightening murderer – couldn’t kill Harry. He tried, but he couldn’t kill a BABY. Why on earth not? That seems ridiculous. Or magical. Don’t you want to read on to find out how a little baby survived such an attack? Of course you do!
Dissection time …
Let’s take a look at these six elements from this first chapter and try to figure out how and why they work.
- When she introduces us to the Dursleys, Jo is appealing to our human nature. She shows us characteristics that we can identify with in the Dursleys. (I didn’t say that we admired or respected them, necessarily, but we can identify with them.) And she appeals to, as I mentioned above, that part of our human nature that is sparked by secrets.
- Because the Harry Potter series is a fantasy (magical realism, to be specific), Rowling has to introduce us to the world. Parts of the world look very ordinary and make it easy for us to see ourselves there. But other parts, such as the cat, the cloaks, the owls, etc. are obviously very different, not normal, possibly magical, and they entice us to read on. Do you see how she slowly dips our toes into Harry’s world?
- When we first hear about the Potters through the Dursleys’ POV (mostly Mr. Dursley’s POV), we learn the Dursleys fear the Potters. Fear is an emotion we can all relate to and it conjures suspense well. We don’t know why they fear the Potters, but we want to find out.
- Our introduction to Dumbledore is another toehold in the magical world. We not only learn things about Dumbledore himself when we see him with Professor McGonagall, but we learn things about the magical part of Harry’s world too. We learn a little about how they dress, and we learn that they can transform (or transfigure, if you’re taking McGonagall’s class) themselves into animals. Rowling doesn’t beat the reader over the head with these details either. She doesn’t make a big deal out of the way Dumbledore appears; he simply looks the way he looks. She doesn’t show McGonagall becoming a cat or becoming a human after being a cat; she simply is one and then the other. Rowling allows us to put some elements together for ourselves.
- In a way it’s brave of Jo to begin the whole series with two deaths. We don’t know Lily and James when we find out they’re dead, so there’s a chance we really won’t care about them, right? Except that we know because of the way McGonagall and Dumbledore react and talk about it that their deaths are tragedies and that their lives mattered. So that compels us to know more about Lily and James and about why they died (and Rowling teases all of this out for books and books and books). And, again, Rowling uses fear as a driver. Why is McGonagall so scared to even say Voldemort’s name? I must know … I must keep reading …
- Harry’s conflict with Voldemort is the most basic of all conflicts: man vs. man. (Yes, I know, it’s wizard vs. baby wizard, but in literature we know this is called man vs. man.) It’s all about survival. Harry survived. How? Why? And what will Voldemort do to finish the job? Jo starts a circle right here, doesn’t she? The whole series is built around this conflict. Even when Harry himself doesn’t know it, Jo did, and she used seven books and more than 4,000 pages to work it out. Much to our delight.
Here be the bullet points:
So how do we learn from this? What, as writers, can we do to follow in Rowling’s footsteps?
- Appeal to human nature – think about what makes us human at our core and appeal to those qualities.
- Build a world your reader can see, feel, hear, touch, and taste (pumpkin pasty or butter beer, anyone?), and give them details to hold onto as you do.
- What emotions drive you? What do those emotions drive you to do? How can you use emotions to drive your characters?
- Don’t be afraid to start big.
- Know your basic conflicts (man vs. man, man vs. nature, man vs. himself, as well as man vs. machine, man vs. society, and man vs. fate/supernatural) and use them.
I wish I could sit down with Rowling and talk about her writing. Because I can’t do that, and because I think I have something to offer others through this process, I’m going to talk about it here for a while. Maybe next time we’ll look at characterization. Maybe we’ll look at all those magical names. Come back and see. I’ll post another one soon.
In the meantime, tell a writer friend about my blog. Share my blog. Tweet about my blog. I used to teach. I like helping people.
If you’re a writer who’s ready to move to the next stage and hire an editor, please
email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell me about your work in progress. Let’s see how I can help you make that book the best it can be.