How to “Write Like Rowling”

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by Larry Brooks on September 22, 2013

A Deconstruction of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

I don’t think of myself as a name dropper, but I do love to show how famous authors and bestselling books adhere to the principles of story structure.  Especially when those authors are still breathing… I get nay sayers who like to cite Shakespeare and Cervantes as examples of… well, nay saying.

The earth isn’t still flat, either.  But I digress.

They aren’t remotely my principles, by the way, I just put them into instructional buckets that I call The Six Core Competencies.  They are universal.  A sort of inevitable outcome of a process of natural selection within the craft of story telling: stories that work, even if their authors have no idea what they’re doing or what to call the structure when they stumble upon it, end up aligning with these principles… almost every time.

When a draft isn’t working, when an agent or editor suggests a change, that change almost always moves the narrative closer to the universal structural paradigm (the one that optimizes available story physics) that awaits… what it’ll look like when it finally does work.

It’s not formula, it’s story physics.  It’s the gravity of storytelling.

And that includes the Harry Potter books.

Author names don’t come any bigger than J.K. Rowling.  And because of that, readers regularly request a deconstruction of the Harry Potter oeuvre.  Some, I suspect, want to see the theories disproved.  Others simply want to see it exposed, lifted from the pages to becomes an example we can learn from.

So here you go.  And I’m happy to give credit where it belongs: I didn’t do this one.

Today I’m referring you to a great website called Write Like Rowling, which offers four posts on this analysis, in addition to other good stuff on all things Rowling.  This link takes you to the first in that series (they’re all there, a click away from this first one).  The author even cites page numbers of the major story milestones, with rationale showing how these story turns fulfill the mission of each.

It’s creator and author, Carolyn, wrote me recently to introduce herself and let me know that Story Engineering has, in her words, changed her writing life, and to alert me to her application of those principles (a test, really) to Rowling’s books.

No surprise (to me, at least), it worked.  Somewhere out there, a guy named Cervantes is rolling over in his grave.

Martha September 23, 2013 at 10:50 am

Thanks, Larry, for the tip about this interesting website with its posts about JK Rowling’s work. I am an avid follower of story structure as outlined in your Story Physics and Story Engineering books — and in the many classes I’ve taken from you. This is just another example of how powerful the paradigm is. It certainly helped me make sense of all the amorphous ideas floating around in my head, and may have even helped me snag my agent.
Keep up the good work.

Shaun September 23, 2013 at 4:33 pm

Thanks for this. I think another reason why the Harry Potter series is so successful (while some trilogies/series fall flat) is the fact that something NEW is being introduced to the reader. Whether it’s the world or characters, you’re always learning something new. New spells. New characters. New magical beings. New places. etc. It keeps things fresh and intriguing.

I notice a lot trilogies (in my opinion) don’t always deliver. Rarely do I find trilogies that are equally great or get better with each book. The Hunger Games works. The Divergent series so far has not let me down with two great books so far. The Matched series started off great but put all it’s eggs in the first book and the remaining were not that great. The first two books of the Uglies series were great. The third… I personally didn’t care for the direction it took.

You get the point. Sometimes I think (Matched) for instance, was never meant to be a trilogy or at least shouldn’t have been but the author (or agent?) thought it was a great idea. That’s the vibe I get with sequels that don’t live up to their predecessors.

Jason Waskiewicz September 23, 2013 at 8:28 pm

I don’t care for JK Rowling, but it comes down to personal taste. I agree that she actually writes very compelling stories that hold the reader’s interest.

But, dare I admit that I owe her a huge debt? I’m 37. I’ve known I should plan my novels, but I never did because the vision in my mind was the rigid, Roman numeral outline I was forced to use in high school. Luckily, JK Rowling published some of her outlines. Bang, the light went on! She had a great format for handling multiple viewpoints, overlapping storylines, and a bigger story.

So, I may not like her books, but that is a matter of taste. I respect her as a writer. (I may also have issues because of my Physics background: where did Harry find the energy to do this? Where did the extra mass come from in this spell? Sadly, I’m also a teacher, so I have no problem believing how badly Harry Potter was treated by his adoptive family. I’ve seen how some parents treat their own children, so, if anything, JK Rowling may have made the Dursleys too nice.)

But her simple outline in which she put each character’s story in a simple column along with a timeline column was amazing for me. I made this outline, edited the heck out of it several times, and created a novel that is far better than anything I ever wrote before. (Time will tell if it’s actually good.)

The moral of this story: even authors we don’t care for have something to teach us. I don’t really care for the Harry Potter books, but I learned a ton of things from those books and their author. I’m not even posting from the cynical “what not to do” perspective. Good story is the same, no matter the genre or topic.

Olga Oliver September 26, 2013 at 6:09 pm

@Jason W. Can you tell me where I can find Rowling’s outline method you speak about in your post. Thanks.

Jason Waskiewicz September 26, 2013 at 7:51 pm

@Olga Oliver Just in case one link disappears, here are two of Rowlings outlines:

http://unclutterer.com/2010/10/12/organize-your-writing-j-k-rowling-style/

http://blog.paperblanks.com/2013/05/j-k-rowling-book-outline/

As I noted, this opened my eyes in a big way and made my much better new book possible. Her format is simple, but very flexible.

Robert Jones September 30, 2013 at 5:40 am

I would also be interested in seeing Rowling’s outlining method. Any links would be appreciated.

Thanks for the deconstruction info, Larry. Trying to get caught up from last week’s fiasco of switching Internet providers and losing a lot of computer files (long story)…but will read the deconstruction as soon as I finish patching up some tech stuff.

Sandra September 30, 2013 at 6:07 am

V interesting, I always learn from structure analysis so thanks for the links. SD

Carolyn P. September 30, 2013 at 1:25 pm

Thanks to Larry and everyone else for checking out my blog, Write Like Rowling. Your comments were insightful, encouraging, and much appreciated. And yes, Jason, if you can post the link to Rowling’s outline that’s definitely something I’d love to look at more in-depth on my blog. In the meantime, though – Olga, Robert, and Sandra – I will try to track it down on my own and get it posted. Thanks again. I have some more posts I’m working on right noq and hope to hear from all of you soon!

Carolyn P. September 30, 2013 at 1:25 pm

Urgh. *now*

Tiffany T. Cole September 30, 2013 at 5:20 pm

Thanks for sharing the post! I had no idea there was a website dedicated to writing like Rowling. That’s pretty cool.

Carolyn P. October 8, 2013 at 2:42 pm

@Olga, Robert, and Sandra – I posted the first part of my deconstruction of Rowling’s outline on my blog if you’d like to check it out: http://tinyurl.com/ok76g3c.

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