Nathan Bransford, Author


Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Five Writing Tips From Reading J.K. Rowling's HARRY POTTER

Reading the seven books in the Harry Potter series is like taking a master class on plot and character development and world building and pacing, and, well, pretty much everything else that goes into writing one of the most beloved series of all time. It would take an entire book to delve into all of the way the series succeeds, but I thought I'd hone in on a few elements that really stood out to me and what writers can take away from them.

1. You can accomplish amazing things with a third person limited perspective

In case you aren't familiar with the definition, third person limited means that the novel is told through one character's perspective and only that character's perspective (in this case: Harry's). We only know that one character's thoughts and don't otherwise jump into another character's head. Other than the very beginning of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's/Philosopher's Stone and a few other scattered moments throughout the series, we only know what Harry knows and only see what Harry sees.

This very constrained perspective is a big part of what makes the story great. We really feel close to Harry and his struggle, as the rest of the world of Harry Potter is literally on the outside. Like Harry, we're gradually getting to know this magical world, we learn the answer to the mysteries at the same time that Harry learns them, and feel anchored to Harry throughout the series.

But this limitation isn't without its immense narrative challenges. At some point the characters need to know what's going on in the broader world. And Rowling is remarkably adept at finding creative and suspenseful ways to let Harry learn what he needs to know: he overhears things while using the invisibility cloak, he sees things through the pensieve, he sees things in newspapers, and he develops a tenuous connection with Voldemort so he can see some of what is going on with him as well.

Yes, all of these things are amazingly clever as elements of Harry's world, but they also solve sticky narrative moments: they turn info dumps into fully-realized scenes, they let Harry see things he wouldn't be able to otherwise, and they get around the challenges posed by constraining the narrative to what the protagonist knows.

So if you're going to write in first person or third person limited, try to think of creative ways to let your characters in on the things they need to know.

2. Don't be afraid to show your characters' flaws

Yesterday's blog post is a testament to how many beloved characters J.K. Rowling created. And part of what makes her characters so amazing is that they aren't perfect people.

When we fall in love with our own characters we have a tendency to be too good to them. We can't bear to see them do something bad or do something that might make the reader love them less than we love them. Rowling does not possess this fear.

Harry, let's be honest, can be kind of a jerk sometimes, particularly in Order of the Phoenix. And this is amazing! He is not perfect. He's growing up. He's going through a really dark time. And the fact that he's feeling sorry for himself before moving on and embracing what he has to do is part of what makes the second half of the series so powerful.

Even Dumbledore can be imperious and careless sometimes. Rowling knows her characters' flaws just as well as she knows their strengths. And that's what makes them so great.

3. Making it look easy is really really hard

One of the greatest achievements of the series is just how unputdownable it is. In terms of flow and rhythm and scene to scene and book to book construction, reading Harry Potter is just. so. easy.

And when it's so darn easy to read, it's tempting to feel like it sprung forth fully formed from Rowling's pen and was correspondingly easy to write.

Nuh uh. As anyone who has written a book knows, building a compulsively readable 700 page book with intricate plotting and incredible polish is not just something that happened.

I don't know Rowling, nor have I read much about her writing habits, but she has to be one of the hardest working writers in the business. These books didn''t just happen. Yes, she's obviously phenomenally talented, but don't for a moment forget the rule of ducks: look pretty on the surface and paddle like heck under water.

Rowling was paddling like heck to write these books.

4. "You might try and go easy on the adverbs when the emotion is apparent from the dialogue,"

Nathan said apologetically.

5. Have fun with your world

To be sure, Rowling is not afraid to go dark or kill off beloved characters like it's the end of a Shakespeare play. But while so much of the Harry Potter series is chilling and thrilling, the reason we care so much is that the world Rowling created and want to spend so much time there is that it's just so darn charming.

Peeves and the Bloody Baron and the Weasley twins and Hagrid's antics and Arthur Weasley's fascination with Muggles and Luna Lovegood. There is so much of Harry Potter's world that's charming and funny and endearing.

The grimmer things get in Harry Potter, the more we crave those innocent and hilarious moments and want the characters to set things right. The charming-ness of the world is the foundation for the depth of the danger and suspense to come. 

And there's only one way to make a world charming: by loving the world you're creating, spending time with it, and infusing it with personality, humor, and spirit.






82 comments:

Fadzlishah Johanabas said...

Am I first?

Woohoo! Good post, Nathan.

treeoflife said...

"It would take an entire book to delve into all of the way the series succeeds"

Has there been such a book written? I'd buy it for sure as long as the author knows their stuff.

sapphicscribe said...

Great post!

hannah said...

Brilliant post.

Donna G. Cooper said...

You speak my mind! As I read your blog post, I am listening to the HP6 audiobook. It helps me get through the grueling day of 9-5 work while holding on to my unyielding desire to be published myself.

Rowling and her novels have been my inspiration for keeping at it for exactly the reasons you mentioned. You're as much a potterhead as I am! I love it!

Clare said...

Great advices! I love third perso limited, works perfectly for me

Brigita said...

Another great post. I love the Harry Potter series, so much so, in fact, that I wrote my Master's thesis about it. And even after countless reads that that required of me, the books are still full of pleasant surprises and a suspenseful read.

Brooklyn Ann said...

Ms. Rowling deserves every penny she earned from creating such magic.
And yes, Harry was a jerk in book 5, but what 15yo boy isn't? I bet the whole voice-squeaking was getting annoying.

jjhoutman said...

I love first person limited, too. It does require some creativity to reveal information not known to the protagonist, but it can be done (unlike with first person, of which I'm generally not as fond). Unfortunately, those of us who write realistic fiction can't use invisibility cloaks and mental connections with the antagonist.

Remus Shepherd said...

Nathan, the first book of HP is written in Omniscient POV.

You seem to recognize this with: ...a few other scattered moments... If it seamlessly breaks into other characters' heads -- and the first book, at least, does -- it isn't tight third person.

It's a very self-restrained POV, and JKR gets a lot of credit for showing how to restrain an omni POV, but it is definitely omni.

Wordy Birdie said...

Right on!

Also, did you see this Nathan?
http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=131144212

It's only a matter of time before Quidditch takes its rightful place in the Olympics...

Brooke Johnson said...

I'd like to think that the Harry Potter series is a sort of Writing 101 in novel form. The books certainly taught me most of what I know about writing.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Thank you for giving one of the most beloved MG books of all time such a wonderful analysis! I don't think you can truly appreciate the amazing work that JK Rowling did to creat this work until you've tried to write a novel yourself. At least, I know I appreciate her on a whole new level now (I was a big HP fan before becoming a writer).

And HP7!!! Can't wait. :)

Katie Ganshert said...

You pretty much summed out so many of the reasons why I absolutely love this series!!

Kat said...

I'm going to come out and freely admit it--I love adverbs. I love to scatter them around unreservedly, and then it cuts me--acutely--to cut them.

I have an adverb problem, evidently.

I do cut them eventually.

Oh, but it hurts. My little adverbs! (Bother, that was an adjective. I'm rather fond of them too.)

K.L. Brady said...

Great tips. I too am a MAJOR Potterhead. LOVE the series. Read two of the books, including the Deathly Hallows, twice. It's incredible how well she wrote these books. Just incredible.

If you want to see something cool though, you should check out the claymation version of The Deathly Hallows on YouTube. It's AWESOME. Whoever did the claymation action put A LOT of work into the series. Check it out.

Matthew Rush said...

You make several incredibly astute points as usual Nathan, another great post.

Another thing that I always like about all the HP books was how UNIVERSAL they were. I mean yes it's all England and it is very British but except for a few bits of slang it could be anywhere. And it could also really be anywhen. I mean except for the Ford Anglia, there are no obvious clues as to when the stories take place. I don't know that it matters THAT much, but I always loved that aspect of the stories, along with everything else you've already pointed out.

aineschulmire said...

"spend time with it."

Perfect.

Thank you for a great post, Nathan!

See Elle Oh said...

Amazing, spot on, thoughtful post. It reminded me of all the reasons I love reading the series and how to take a step back and think of them from a writerly perspective.

Yamile said...

When I grow up, I want to be JK. SHe's my idol.
This is a wonderful post, and I'm so glad I decided to read it before going back to my NaNo. I love these books in an irrational way. I think about them all the time. Good thing my kids love them too. In fact, my oldest is having a HP birthday party and we're watching the new movie with a ton of family and friends. And we'll all dress up!

Anita Saxena said...

So loving Harry Potter week. I've said this many times to friends and family, J.K. Rowling is her own brand of intellect and sheer genius. And also, like you said, she has to be a hard worker. I admire that so much more than someone who says they can write a novel in 30 days and get published. There's something to be said about diligence and hard work. Great post!

Bane of Anubis said...

Her world-building and character building are incomparable. Her plotting and pacing fell off a bit for me in the last three books (and the 3rd book is too often given a pass for its deus ex machina time turner), but it's hard to keep up such relentless momentum for so long without a few bumps along the way.

Mira said...

Terrific analysis, I completely agree. And thank you for giving JK Rowling her fair due! I think her immense talent is sometimes overlooked - she really is amazing.

A wonderful moment for me as a writer was when I saw one of her first drafts. It was terrible! (Anyone can see it, it's on her website. I think it's an award for playing one of her mystery games). But I could see the glimmerings within that awful first draft of the book to come. That helped me accept my own terrible first drafts just alittle bit more easily.

But it also speaks to how much work went into the books. I heard she had a complicated system for tacking plot points, and for dropping hints in each book about plot points that moved through the series. Post-it's all over her office just to track that. Amazing.

Courtney Odell said...

I am very much going to enjoy this week's blogs. Very well said and right on the money.

word2live said...

An excellent post, it came to me at the very right time as I am trying to write a fantasy now accidentally, and I've never done that before.
These were all very good points and I saved me time to try and check into these books again!
Thanks very much!

Heather said...

No. 4 is abundantly clear when you listen to Jim Dale's audio version! He injects the words with so much life, then says the emotion that he just gave, and it sounds so...wrong. Just wrong.


But yes, her world-building and character development is just awesome. Even the villains make you feel sorry for them sometimes. (Except maybe Umbridge. I never really felt sorry for her.) Ugh, and the wordplay! Brilliant.

Anne R. Allen said...

Wonderful advice. Glad you're going to be doing a week of Potteramics.

And thanks for commenting on my blog!

Christina Lucas said...

Ha ha! No.4 is hilareous-the old show, don't tell rule. One of my faves!
And No.1, that was the first thing I noticed and admired about Rowling's technique! Another thing about it being 3rd person limited is I was surpried at how much I and everyone feels SO deeply connected to Harry even though it isn't 1st person. I noticed Rowling takes every opportunity in her narration to stop and let the reader know exactly how Harry is feeling and what he is thinking before he says something or makes his next move.
Man I can't wait for the movie!!!

Vickie Motter said...

You summed Harry Potter up so beautifully. It's like four years of Harry Potter club narrowed down in one blog post, and we never summed it so perfectly! There should be a book just on Harry Potter. There are so many tiny nuances though, I'm not sure it could ever do it justice. The best thing is to read it, absorb it, read it, practice it, read it, repeat.

T. Anne said...

Love the rule of ducks! Shall employ this in my rules to live by. ;)

mskriswolf said...

The rule of ducks is also the rule of Synchronized Swimmers.
Shamed to admit that I skipped over the HP mania. Looking forward to reading them now though, with all of your recommendations.

Other Lisa said...

Someone beat me to the Rule of Ducks...

Sarah Laurenson said...

I'm in awe, not only of her ability to write one 700 page book, but writing 7 books and keeping things (mostly) together across the entire series. She even foreshadowed bits and pieces 3 and 4 books in advance - by design or not, doesn't matter.

Yeah, there are some things to nit pick. Aren't there always?

The one thing that I've been pondering lately though is how little I cared about the deaths of the human characters in the last book. There were only 2 deaths that bothered me and neither of them were human. Overload, happened too quickly, glossed over? Dunno. Still pondering why such wonderful human characters didn't stick for me emotionally.

midnightblooms said...

I should print out Number 5 and tape it over my computer for when writing gets hard.

My second book was third person limited and each day I wrote my respect for Rowling's writing increased.

Diana said...

Nathan, I'm going to disagree with you as it regards Book 7, The Deathly Hallows. I found this one to be torture to read. There's a whole lot of wandering around the woods arguing about stuff that didn't move the plot forward. The info dumps while inventive could have been trimmed back. Some of the same info is dumped more than once, though in different ways. If the first book was written the way the seventh book was, I would not have finished the book nor read the entire series. The only reason that I did read Book 7 and have read parts of it more than once, is because I wanted to know how the story ended.

If the next book that she writes is written in the same manner as Book 7, then I won't be buying it nor reading it.

Yes, Rowling is brilliant and one can learn a lot from reading her books just not the last one.

Sophie said...

Great post Nathan. I'd also like to say my piece regarding Rowling's use of adverbs. I know a lot of people have blasted them, but that's because they're all just a bunch of big fat muggle adults without the least bit of magic in their blood. Just kidding.

But seriously, I think if you read the books as a kid, as I did (I was one of those who waited every summer for the next one), then the adverbs make a lot of sense.

Sure, if I were to open up a random page without the intention of getting into it, I would probably cringe at every 'ly' too. But start at the, "Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of Number Four Privet Drive,” and there's something (reusing Nathan's word) charming about the prose. I never once heard any of my friends or classmates say, “Rowling’s writing is lazy,” and that’s not only because they would’ve had the Avada Kedavra curse flung at them all day.

Also, for the longest time, I had a crazy idea that the adverbs were really a secret joke between me and Rowling against all the grown-ups in the world. I thought that she understood how thick most of them were; a lot of adults forget or don't acknowledge what it was like growing up, and the heavy-handed use of adverbs were there as guides so y'all would know what the heck was going on!

Sundance said...

I wonder how many realized that very thing about the entire series being from Harry's point of view, and then reached the inevitable conclusion as to Harry's once heatedly debated chances of survival in book 7. Sometimes the form constrains the content; maybe this is something to keep in mind as we plan out the plot and writing style.

Kathleen said...

On #1, I agree, except that in the last book, I thought she went overboard a couple of times. Like Snape's whole convenient series of thoughts. I couldn't see how else to do it, but it was like Snape knew exactly which pieces of his memory Harry needed to know. (Well, okay, there's that legilimency thing, but still...) But up till that point, I agree wholeheartedly.

Elaine AM Smith said...

I read books One to Five aloud with my daughter, when she was growing up. She insisted on reading Six and Seven herself. I was devastated. Race reading and sharing just weren't the same.

Munk said...

Go Ducks!

Munk said...

Elaine...
I am reading #2 to my daughter of seven right now. I will use your post as an advisory to pick up the pace.

The Red Angel said...

Wow, you just gave me several ideas and a confidence boost from this post, Nathan! =) Thanks!

These are really great tips and you are so true in that even though HP is so easy to read, it must've been darn hard for Rowling to make it that way!

~TRA

http://xtheredangelx.blogspot.com

Nikole Hahn said...

Thanks for the tips! That helps as I create my world. I'm halfway through my book, but I realized that I didn't have enough flaws and the world is definitly needing a little more darkness.

Steppe said...

Thanks for the information Nathan.
Can you/anybody think of other popular or classic title books that use that exact third person narrative. Maybe I am addicted to the opposite extremes of first person unreliable riff-omatics and the opposite stage master controlling reliable omniscient narrator and don't easily recognize third person limited or the rarer second person. Good stuff on the analysis. I definitely have narrative range limits.

Anonymous said...

Totally. At age twenty-five I had a special shirt embroidered saying Ravenclaw Seeker with my name on it. I'd definitely be in Ravenclaw because they don't feel the need to be cool. They just ARE cool. And they probably have the secret back room with the bong....

M.A.Leslie said...

You left out the step that involves keep a box of tissues handy. How could you forget?

Jen Daiker said...

Like this post (yes I realize this isn't facebook).

Great post! Harry Potter is the most awesome of all! I added the countdown widget to my blog today so that everyone knows about my addiction!

Great points! We can learn a lot from Rowling.

BTW - You took a picture of one of my favorite scenes ever! I love how Snape gets so frustrated with their chit chat!

Mia said...

Great tips! Thanks for the post, the Harry Potter series has always been inspiring to me.

:)

Kristin Laughtin said...

Flawless post. Every time I read a Harry Potter post, I realize just how far I have to go. I feel like I can capture a couple of these qualities with each manuscript...my mind boggles over how she does it all so well. Her passion shines through so brightly.

Lovelyn said...

Great post! I enjoying reading books that use the third person limited perspective, but I haven't tried writing from that perspective as of yet. I'm into first person these days.

Hart Johnson said...

I think they offer PhDs on the Potterverse. I cut my writing teeth on this world and think Jo has SO MUCH to teach us all.

I particularly love that third person limited for its ability to MISlead the reader--if Harry perceives it wrong, so do we, and I think it makes for a more sincere journey--we FEEL IT.

The lesson Rowling taught ME though, is true mastery can be read on many levels. My kids were perfect ages... they got the early ones at kindergarten and first grade... at that age, you understand the magic and the plot at its most basic level. At late elementary you get the romantic tension and 'that authority isn't always right'. In high school you notice some of the simple foreshadowing. but seriously--a PhD can look into her mythology research and see how carefully she used existing mythos and established symbolisms--the NAMES she gives characters--I honestly spent 4 years HAPPILY discussing what might come next based on the logic she wove under it all.

I feel honored to have been part of these books coming out in real time.

writerjenn said...

"don't for a moment forget the rule of ducks: look pretty on the surface and paddle like heck under water."

Yeah, that's exactly what it's like to write a book!

kdrausin said...

Excellent post, thank you.

Anonymous said...

I think what made her books so good was her unique characters. Each character had their own set of quirks that made them memorable. This is something I can definitely do better in my own fiction.

However, I did struggle to Order of the Phoenix. The rest of the books I flew through, so I need to go back to see what made that book so difficult to get through.

Nicole L Rivera said...

Not sure if someone else mentioned this yet, but you should so write a book on this. I'd love to learn writing technique through a guide that specifically dives into Harry Potter. It would be that much more fun. Actually: Please, please, please write it!!!

Haste yee back ;-) said...

Oh, c'mon now... Harry Potter couldn't land Huck Finn's smallest catfish!

Without the aid of unexplainable magic and deus ex machina gadgets, Potter better stick to cutting bait.

Haste yee back ;-)

Ted Fox said...

But someone had to create that entire world where the magic could exist, and that is just one reason why I'll forever be in awe of J.K. as a writer. She's inspiring, no matter what genre you work in.

And that advice about adverbs ... that's like the writer's golden rule.

Ann Elise said...

I adored Harry Potter from the instant I opened the first book back when I was, like, ten. Before Harry Potter, I was an advanced read but didn't bother reading because I never found something I liked. Harry Potter single-handedly incited my love of reading and inspired me to write my own stories.

In fact, if it hadn't been for Harry Potter, I wouldn't started writing my novel because one of the pivotal characters was invented as an original character to insert into a Harry Potter fanfic (that I never finished, sadly).

Roland D. Yeomans said...

In a series of seven very thick books, J K did an amazing job of interlinking and foreshadowing. Inventive post, Nathan.

Debra L. Schubert said...

There's so much to think about while writing and editing. Thanks again, Nathan, for a useful and timely (for me, anyway!) post.

Raj said...

Great post!
JKR has created a magic world, complete with all the minute details. Very much like Alice in Wonderland, but on a such a grandeur scale that it takes your breath away.

Elie said...

Enjoyable post.
But I disagree about the adverbs - I think they're essential for the humour!
I think they add flavour to writing, used well, in the appropriate context. For children, I think they provide a richer experience of language, and I find leaving them out often makes writing too dry for me.
I know I'm not 'supposed' to think this way - but I do!

Hillsy said...

I'd like to chime in, from a non-fan's point of view, something that you can admire about JKR whether you like the books or not.

It's pitched perfectly for it's audience. From plot, to character, to pacing (especialy in the early novels), to world: it clips the sweet spot of each for a YA audience.

Someone commented earlier about teenagers and adjective and how they aren't as noticable when you are that age, especially if there's magic and wizards and what not to be getting on with. The same goes for plot (Conveniant Deus Ex Machina arrivals and discoveries), World building (James Bond gadgets: namely everything performs one specific function and it just so happens to come up), character and aso on.

Fans of the YA genre, and young readers themselves, will let these things slide more in exchange for thrills and wonder. That's JKR's magic right there. The rest is lots and lots of hard, hard work!

Fawn Neun said...

I've got to agree with 'haste ye back' here. Although I love the characters and am in complete awe of JK's endurance, I didn't love the writing. The concept of the world is pretty creative, mixing in old boarding school Britishism and alchemy. But it's littered with 'conveniences'; deus ex machina. In some cases, it feels as though she made some of it up along the way, with no reason except that she needed it to resolve plot problems.

The first book was so over the top, formulaic, I was groaning internally the whole time I read it to my kids. Seriously? Abused orphan kept in a closet? Come on! You expect me to believe that people as status-seeking and concerned with appearances as the Dursleys are going to keep their orphan in a closet and show any outward signs of neglect? In the 20th century? No way. The school of wizarding is the most credible part of the whole book.

But it IS bloody charming and it does hit every kids button and it is rich and it does have wonderful characters. JK is heartless with them, but fine plotting and seamless narrative? Not so much.

Ishta Mercurio said...

Great post! I'm with treeoflife - if anyone writes a book on all the ways the Harry Potter books succeed, I'll definitely buy it. (I'd write it, but who am I to say? What do I know?)

Love the "rule of ducks" - I'll have to remember that one!

Madeleine said...

Have fun with your world is my fav bit of advice, because it's important for creativity and drowingin ouot the internal editor which often prevents that kind of thing :O)

Julie Hedlund said...

I agree on all points - including the adverbs. I think Rowling even created adverbs that didn't exist before HP.

That said, if you can write a whopping great story, I suppose you can throw all the adverbs in you want.

Donea Lee said...

I agree. Harry Potter and JK are brilliant. I'm sure if you really sat down and picked apart the creation of this series and then tried to do the same with your own work (in your own way, of course) you might just have your own bestsellers! There's so much to be learned from Harry Potter.

And I do love his world. I keep hoping they'll all realize I'm not really a muggle and let me in! :)

Theresa Milstein said...

#3 "Easy reading is damn hard writing."

- Nathaniel Hawthorne

#4 made me laugh. I reread the series this summer, and my first thoughts were:

Dialogue tags much? Is there an adverb she doesn't like?

And I say this respectfully.

Jan Markley said...

Good tips (and I'm with you on the adverbs!). I like how what happens on the first page of her books is integrally connected with the conclusions.

lotusgirl said...

Great advice. I need to work on showing more of my mc's flaws.

KD Sarge said...

Can I just say I love the screencap you used to illustrate this post? Ahh, Snape, how I adore you...

I mean, I love all seven books and think JK Rowling is amazing, but everyone (nearly) already said that.

SelfMadeManiac said...

Great post, and spot-on.

Karri Justina said...

I am enjoying all the Rowling love here. I too believe that her storytelling abilities are sublime - deus ex machina or not, if you can captivate that many children (and adults) with your books you are doing something right.

And I never realized until now that my own propensity for adverb use was likely influenced directly by hers.

Cynthia Briggs said...

Brilliantly said, Nathan! My husband and I have read all the Harry Potter books and find them completely enchanting!

I'm soon going to embark on writing my own novel; third person limited is an interesting approach for my amateur sleuth MC.
Thanks!

Eric J. Krause said...

Excellent post! These books certainly are great ones to read to learn how to craft novels and series. I'd buy a "how-to write" book from Ms. Rowling.

Stefanie said...

Brilliant perspective! Personally,I think writers can learn alot from the Harry Potters series if they can get past the jealousy of it's success.

life in a pink fibro said...

I love this. So much is written about JK and her writing that the sheer *achievement* of it can be overlooked. She tells a rocking story. We can all learn from that.

jesse said...

I love this post.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the tips! I'm a young author just trying to achieve her dreams eventually, so this is really helpful. :) The third person limited part- genius. And the part with, 'Nathan said apologetically' made me laugh 8D

ephraim said...

You really know your stuff man! Insightful post!

RJ Lynch said...

Thanks a million for writing this - Who wouldn't want to get an insight to JK Rowlings success!!!

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