This is a long one but bear with me. I’ll come through in the end. Probably.
The world is not howling for my thoughts on the Harry Potter books. I know this. Last week, I published a series of blog posts analyzing J. K. Rowling’s book Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone – and I surprised myself.
See, I wasn’t a J. K. Rowling fan.
I kinda didn’t like Harry Potter.
Like lots of things, when something is good, like a song or a movie, its promoters ram it down your throats. You’ll hear the song played on the radio every five minutes until you’re sick of it. You’ll get ads for the movie, then ads for toys for the movie, then ads for sequels and finally a theme park.
This was my knowledge of Harry Potter. Which is to say, no knowledge.
But I have a kid and we went to the theme park and I liked a lot of what I saw. I said, if I were a kid and read a book or saw a movie and they made all this from it, I’d be in heaven. (My kid was in heaven, because she’d seen all the movies. Allll of them. Several times. Maybe several dozen times. Each. Which is another reason to hate all things Harry Potter.)
Anyway, I decided to see what all the fuss was about. Was Rowling really a great writer?
In fact, she was. For reasons I listed in that series of blog posts I published last week.
But I learned a lot of stuff too. I listed a lot of that in the series. Did you read it? No reason to recap, then.
And since I was telling you what I saw in the book as I read it, you got an idea of how engaged I was in the story – a mystery.
See, that’s what I didn’t expect Rowling to do. I had no idea J. K. Rowling would teach me how to write a mystery.
But she did.
And by looking at the posts, you’ll start to see how to write one, too. Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone is listed as children’s fiction. Its genre is adventure.
It’s a mystery, and the characters are children but the audience is largely adults.
Let that sink in a moment.
The audience is adults not because they buy the books for the kids but because they read the books – and liked the stories as adults.
And the second book, Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets, is the same way. Listed as children’s fiction and an adventure story, but really a mystery adults can and will enjoy. It’s not written for eleven-year-olds. Well, not really. As I later learned, Rowling had stated, “You don’t write down to children.” Therefore, you just write. Kids get it and so do adults. Because it’s written for people. Not uneducated and unsophisticated little beings, but beings that will be us one day.
Romance is the largest genre. Mystery is second largest. If you wanna be a successful writer, you might want to write in one of those two genres.
If you wanna learn HOW to write a mystery. Read them. See what you like and what made you go Aha – and what made you say Oh, bullshit!
You can maybe learn along with me as I once again take what Rowling wrote and put it on the examination table.
Why not learn from a master?
Okay? Then let’s begin. (I was gonna give this a fun name like Wizarding Wednesdays and run the posts all through the month of December, but seriously, that’s a lame name and I don’t have the patience to spread it out like that.)
Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets
The opening chapter gets us up to speed relatively quickly on what happened in the first book in case you didn’t read it. But not in so much detail but if you did read it, you feel like you’re reading book 1 again.
Adverbs are everywhere. The horror.
But right away Rowling sets up sympathy for the MC. Harry is back with the Dursleys for the summer but he misses his friends. He has received no letters from them all summer. Meanwhile, the Dursleys continue to treat him like crap.
So very early on, using two basic means, we sympathize with the MC. Who hasn’t missed friends? Who hasn’t felt unappreciated by someone else?
The essence of great storytelling is: Put your characters up a tree and throw rocks at them.
Harry is definitely up a tree.
At the beginning of chapter 2 – really the end of chapter 1 – we are dealt our first mystery. The thing Harry wants most, to go back to Hogwarts and be with his friends, he is told he can’t do because his life will be in danger if he does. Dobby tells him: Harry Potter must not go back to Hogwarts!
A message delivered to him by none other than a combination of Rainman and Yoda, Dobby, an annoying long eared elf. (Almost Jar Jar Binks annoying. I’m guessing Rowling was a Star Wars fan.)
But in this way, Rowling is hurling rocks at her character in the tree. No letters from his friends. His cruel uncle again. No recognition of his birthday. And an elf who insists he can’t go back to the one place he’s dying to go.
So we have obstacles and we have another mystery. Why can’t he go back? What is the big plot?
And that, I think, is the key to Rowling being a master storyteller
– as my friend Jenny said. Lots of little mysteries are laid out for you, but told to you in an almost simplistic manner, like you are listening to a good friend tell his children a story. Kids who refer to you as their uncle or aunt even though you aren’t related. Not a story to put them to sleep, but a story to awaken their imaginations. The friend sits in the middle of the kids and has to come up with something thrilling every few minutes to keep their minds engaged.
So, as writers, do we. Whether our audience is kids or not.
And the elf just tortures Harry, who’s trying to be quiet and not ruin his uncle’s dinner party that Harry isn’t allowed to attend.
The rest of the chapter, Rowling throws a few more rocks at Harry. I guess it’s obvious to do that in children’s stories, and maybe less obvious to need it adult stories, but it’s necessary in all stories – and that’s what we miss out on when we dismiss HP as kids’ fiction. Don’t do that. You know me; I rarely rave about anybody. I’m doing it now because we have rich lessons to learn.
In chapter 3, Rowling uses another minimalist approach to giving her information. If you had to describe a flying car in your story, how would you do it? I’m sure I would go on and on.
Ron was leaning out the back window of an old turquoise car, which was parked in midair.
That’s all the description you get from Rowling.
That’s all you need.
The action scene is relatively minimalist, too. The uncle bursts into the room during Harry’s escape, and grabs Harry as his friends pull him out the window. That’s the outline version. The full version shows the uncle growling, the friends being excited, and Harry thinking all is lost. Just by adding that additional elements of emotions to the other characters, you get a much more dramatic scene.
Tell the reader how you want the reader to feel, by showing the actions and emotions of the characters.
You make the reader feel how you want the reader to feel by showing the actions and emotions of the characters.
Yes. That’s it. That’s important. You’ll see Rowling do it again and again in book 1 and book 2 (the ones I’ve read so far) and if you don’t do it, you are making a mistake.
See, I didn’t read this stuff to learn how to write; I kinda started reading it to see if was crap, like 50 Shades. It’s not. It’s good. And I’m learning stuff from it – how to do settings, how to get a reader turning pages with excitement – that I never expected to learn. And I can share it with you. You can catch the outline format here or dive deep by pulling out the book (about $3.00 online for a used paperback copy) and reading the referenced sections yourself. I’m gonna point you right to lots and lots of helpful examples.
I’m also gonna point out stuff she does that you shouldn’t do.
Yeah, I’m that arrogant, saying books by the world’s most popular author has stuff in them that oughta be changed.
Come back tomorrow to see what.
7 thoughts on “How To Write Better Stories: Add Some Mystery”
Reblogged this on Don Massenzio's Blog.
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You’re welcome. Great post, Dan.
Glad you liked it!
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I loved the Harry Potter books. I bought them to try to get my son to read – he thought books were boring. But then he asked me to read some to him at bedtime, so I did…and I ended up reading all the whole series to him (and sneak-reading ahead after he fell asleep – I didn’t even mind re-reading them!) He loved them. I’d like to say that he ended up a reader, but I’m afraid not – he’s a listener and a viewer, but my older son is an avid reader.
Apart from the mystery and fast-moving action, I loved her clever little puns (like Diagon Alley) and references to Latin (I won’t give examples in case you haven’t got to the part I’m thinking of). I think she is brilliant!
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Considering she is the worlds first billionaire author, I would have to agree there’s some brilliance in her work.
You can tell me about some of the Latin stuff. I don’t speak Latin and I’ve been curious whether some of those spells they’re throwing around actually mean anything. I’m sure they do.
That Diagon alley and some other words started to tip me off when I heard people in the movies say them. When I read them, I didn’t put two and wo together.