How to Write Like J.K. Rowling - The Breakdown of Harry Potter
As we continue our examination on effective storytelling, we cannot overlook the phenomenon that is Harry Potter. First published in 1997, the robust series of young adult books has transcended itself into the hands of old adults and onto the big screen, becoming the highest grossing film franchise of all time.
Author J.K. Rowling's manner of writing aids the digestibility of her stories. Like the pop music of literature, she utilizes carefully produced and interwoven plot lines. Sentences are flowing — almost poetic — and thus lend themselves to silver screen transfer. The books, in and of themselves, were already cinematic.
Of course, one could write a complete volume on writing style. Here, we share some of the more outstanding elements.
The first characteristic of what makes the Harry Potter series so engaging is that it serves as an enjoyable escape from human life. Within a church experience, as described by mythologist Joseph Campbell, we reach higher levels of spiritual awareness from our extraction from the everyday. With stories, this effect holds true in a more cognitive sense. A viable escape sets our minds free to explore with the reminder that there is more to life than ourselves. In other words, the writer creates a vibrant and distracting universe for the audience to play in.
Harry Potter was created during a commute from Manchester to London, a crowded train ride in which Rowling initially scribbled her ideas onto napkins. In formulating the story arc, she outlined events well beyond her first book. By doing this, events far into the future often have ties to events in the past, something that can only be done by planning well beyond the first episode.
One of the most compelling aspect of each book/film is the element of mystery. Think of all the best stories in your life. How many of them include this? It keeps the audience in their seat. Here is the breakdown by episode:
Harry Potter and the…
… Philosopher’s/Sorcerer’s Stone: Who is Harry Potter? Who is trying to steal the Stone?
… Chamber of Secrets: Who is opening the Chamber of Secrets and petrifying students?
… Prisoner of Azkaban: Who is Sirius Black? What is the Grim?
… Goblet of Fire: Who put Harry’s name in the Goblet of Fire? Who will win the Goblet?
… Order of the Phoenix: What is the prophecy? What’s happening to Harry Potter’s head?
… Half-Blood Prince: How did Voldemort become who he is? Who is the Half-Blood Prince?
… Deathly Hallows: How does it all end?
Add to these questions the compelling universe, extraordinary situations and clever wit, and it’s a quick read from beginning to end.
As the memory of Voldemort tells Harry Potter in Year Two:
"How is it that a baby with no extraordinary magical talent was able to defeat the greatest wizard of all time?"
Throughout the series, we ponder this question in regard to our protagonist’s future. How does a teen wizard defeat the most powerful and menacing dark wizard of all time? The adversity he must overcome is an exaggerated reenactment of the drama we have in our everyday lives (replace “Dark Wizard” with “huge laundry pile”).
As a protagonist, Harry Potter is effective because of his relative lack of talent and physical strength. His survival ability comes from his courage (internal) and his close relationship with loved ones (external). As he says in Year Six:
"But the truth is most of that was just luck. I didn’t know what I was doing half the time, I nearly always had help."
No one likes a perfect hero. They’re boring. It’s the protagonists who are unsure, ill-prepared and scared that exhibit the greatest levels of heroism, because they have more adversity to overcome.
What is a story without heartbreak? What is life without loss or tragedy? Some may argue against the darkening of the Harry Potter series, but isn’t that what happens in life? As we age, life becomes complex, hefty and with serious consequences for our actions. Likewise, our victories are grander and our efforts yield more meaningful results.
Even stories meant for children need a level of gravitas.