How To Write Better Stories: Subplots and Controversy

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I wasn’t a fan of Harry Potter and I wasn’t at all certain J. K.  Rowling was a good – let alone great – author, despite my author friends saying she was. Then all that changed, and in the process, I saw lessons we could all take away from her writing that’ll help us become better writers.

Using Harry Potter and The Chamber Of Secrets as a reference so you can see examples, I’m showing where the pieces are that  make for great storytelling – and stuff you probably shouldn’t do, too.

Rowling IS a great author, and studying what she did can help you become a better writer, so follow along with me.

For example: Relating to characters in a good way. I don’t know what your mother was like, but Ron’s mom reminds me of mine. Yells at her own children until she’s hoarse, then turns to the neighbor child and smiles and welcomes them in for breakfast.

SO been there. It’d be easier to have Ron’s mom be one way or the other, wouldn’t it? Sure. That extra layer makes the difference between 2-dimensional and being relatable, even though it’s done in a humorous way.

Also for maybe a counterexample: Can’t say I care for the treatment of the gnomes. Seems a bit cruel. They wouldn’t toss cats 50 feet, would they? (In the first book, I sensed an undercurrent of racism I didn’t care for.)

The next few chapters introduce us to some new characters and some short scenes at school. Since the characters are new we can assume they’re going to be playing an important role in this book. Good or bad, I’m not sure; she fooled us with Snape didn’t she? So my guard is up. (Although I do like the guy with the dashing smile for some reason.)

Around chapter 7 I was beginning to think the story had slowed in book 2. Why? Well, it’s hard to keep the excitement of all the new things people read in your first book, and you kind of have to get people up to speed in your second book if they didn’t read the first one, or if it’s been a while since they read it. In any case, we didn’t have to wait long for the mushy middle to dissipate. Chapter 7 re-introduces the mysteries. What’s Lockhart up to? What’s Hagrid been expelled for back in the day? And of course we have some inter-student hassling with the kids on the Quidditch field.

Subplots

These episodes are nice diversions that allow us to do things other than hunt the mystery in the story. Subplots rock, in general. Make sure you have some in your story. In my book The Navigators, there were about four. The main plot was the discovery and use of a time machine, but some of the subplots were: Barry has the hots for Melissa, Peeky wants revenge for his grandfather, Melissa’s dad is running for mayor and her actions may screw it up for him, Mr. Mills has secretly started dating again… there are more, but you get the idea. Subplots aren’t distractions, and if you don’t have any, your story will tend to feel flat to readers.

Back to HP. I like how Lockhart has pictures of himself all over his office. Some are even autographed. I would totally do that.

Controversy

I have to admit, the introduction of the term “mud blood” to refer in a derogatory way to somebody who’s not pureblood wizard, that was interesting – especially after what I perceived to be some racist overtones in the first book. Rowling is quick to have a character say everybody understands wizards of mixed blood are just as good as everybody else, but…

I think my concern is more in the matter-of-fact delivery of the information. The characters, good guys and bad guys, act completely as if non-magical people are not as good as the magical people. I still have a problem with that.

As for subplots, it’s cute that Ron’s little sister has a crush on Harry. Can’t wait to see where that goes.

But the new mysteries are really small and mysterious. And the big one, the bait on the big hook, that Harry’s life might be in danger if he went back to Hogwarts, that was dismissed by characters as a joke – but was it a joke? I tend to think no. So I am still waiting for that mystery to reveal itself, along with the reason for the title “chamber of secrets” – what’s that all about?

As I was reading about Professor Lockhart, I immediately thought of the actor Kenneth Branaugh (the actors who plays him in the movie). I had not put two and two together prior to that, but I just figured from the glimpses I had seen of the movie that Branaugh must be playing Lockhart. And it made me think: as soon as you introduce a visual actor to your characters, the reader kind of buys into them. I never read anything of Harry Potter but I certainly knew who the character was and what he looked like through commercials for the movie or ads for the theme park stuff. So that is always who he’s been in my head. Less so was Ron and Hermione because I didn’t pay that much attention. But Harry in the movie has always been Harry in my head when I read the book. Lockhart, too, now that I’m reading book 2.

But to recap: we got introduced to a new big mystery in the very first chapter, and we’ve been introduced or reminded of several other mysteries along the way. And as of chapter 7, about one third of the way through the book, they haven’t resolved too many and they’ve been adding more.

Considering the only reason we care is because we’ve grown to like these characters, then we again have to look at: what is the essence of a great story?

It is unique and interesting characters that we can identify with in some way, certainly unique settings have been part of the story, and a big theme helps. Good versus evil is about as big as it gets, but we have lots of small-theme stuff that ties in to make it personal, like being picked on at school, or several other things that have been the apparent in the HP stories. Rowling keeps adding little mysteries under the umbrella of the big mystery.

And right on cue, a mysterious voice that reeks of violence – and that only Harry can hear.

By the start of chapter 8, we have four or five plot lines going on. I don’t need to recite them all, but I will. Is Harry’s life still in danger? Why did Hagrid get expelled? What’s the deal with Lockhart? The smaller ones are: the crush by Ron’s little sister and the goofball kid who keeps taking Harry’s picture, as well as each chapter being it’s own little story episode: the threat of his opponents’ speedier brooms could cost Harry the Quidditch match.

That’s a lot to have going on in one story. Do your stories have that much going on in them?

Is that the another underpinning of great storytelling?

You can the debate having the scene where the characters go to a “death day” party full of ghosts. Seems like one big distraction, and not really all that interesting. On the other hand, you can say that simply thinking up something like that and writing it out as a scene is pretty imaginative.

Some of the depictions of action seem a little backwards, and Rowling does this a lot. It bugs me, and here’s why.

Nearly headless Nick tried mainly to recapture his audience, but gave up as Sir Patrick’s head went sailing past him to loud cheers.

That’s… all wrong.

Chronologically, the head sails past, then the cheers go up, then Nick gives up. But that’s not the order we read it. The original wording makes us stop and re-work it in our brains, basically slowing the pace. You don’t wanna do that. Also, “he” might refer to Nick or Sir Patrick, and we have to descramble that, too. Yes, we do it quickly, almost instantly, because it makes no sense for Sir Patrick’s head to sail past Sir Patrick, but why make your reader figure something like that out? If you write it in chronological order, everybody gets it, zero confusion. And when you have a scene where heads are flying around, you certainly allow the possibility for a head to fly past its own body.

That’s right, I’m advising the worlds best author on how to structure an action sentence.

She might be able to get away with it. You can’t.

Because your readers won’t be distracted by a flying head.

And then, right as I’m turning my nose up, the mystery intensifies. The sinister voice returns.

… Rip…tear…kill…

Gotta read on to see what that’s all about.

Something to do with Lockhart (and him being a bad guy) I’ll bet!

And no sooner than I ask that, Rowling creates the next layer of mystery. Written in blood, an eerie message.

And a dead cat.

I’m not much for cats but I don’t know if I would’ve killed one in a kids book.

Chapter 9. I was told by Allison that Harry is threatened with expulsion a lot, or fears expulsion constantly, throughout these books. It’s definitely true. This is at least the second mention and we’re only in chapter 9!

That’s tension. Never hurts to remind the reader what the stakes are for your main character.

On a negative note, use of adverbs is almost out of control. I would probably be sick of them by now even if I wasn’t a writer. He said darkly. She answered quickly. Jeez.

Chapter 9 of book 2 further reveals a mystery that was started in the first book. Filch is a child of magical parents but he has no magical ability. Ron explains that’s why Filch is so bitter and hates the students. But Jenny said that occasionally Rowling has a plot line goes nowhere at all, so who knows? (And not like red herrings, either, to throw us off the trail of the bad guy in the mystery.) I’ll keep my eyes open.

More reaction before action: “I just hope he’s got time to petrify Filch before he’s expelled. I’m only joking –” Ron added hastily as Ginny blanched.

Ron should say his line: “I just hope he’s got time to petrify Filch before he’s expelled.” THEN Jenny should Blanche. THEN Ron should say, “I’m only joking.”

That makes more sense to my brain. Chronology. Honestly, I’m just gonna say it – it’s sloppy to do it the way she did it.

Just as revenue tends to hide all sins in business, successful sales tend to hide things that could’ve been done better in a book. There’s no reason to have your brain jump around in the chronology. Again, she got away with it. You won’t.

Your readers may not be able to explain why your book is not as polished as it could be or as polished as someone else’s, but things like this will be the reason.

Info Dumps

And another info dump in chapter 9! “You all know of course…” Followed by big info dump. If they all know, then there’s no reason to tell them. You are telling us readers. Sloppy?

And by sloppy I mean poor craftsmanship. There are better ways to do it. This is a borderline case because it’s a history teacher and so he’s reviewing history. You won’t be able to get away with that.

This is an info dump’s info dump: 1 1/2 pages. That’s huge.

And it seems like if the four houses at Hogwarts were named after people, that would’ve come up sometime in book 1 or before page 150 of book 2. When you do it this way, it reads like a mistake. If you’d had any kind of mention of it at all in the first book – when he first goes to school and the houses are named – nobody would blink an eye.

But as far as the info dump goes… If you’re going to do it, do it the way Rowling did it.

Create an argument, and after laying out the whole situation, have another person say, “That is complete nonsense; it doesn’t exist.” What could be more compelling than to spend a page and a half telling me a story and cap it off with denying it? “It doesn’t exist! It’s not true! Look no further!”

And this next scene is well played: the sorting hat had originally considered putting Harry in Slitherin house. Harry wanted to be in Gryffindor house, so that’s where the hat put him. Now, that may be a bit of intricate plot layering by Rowling, or just a nifty way to take a small bit of tension and parlay it into something more. Either way, that’s the kind of stuff that gets people standing and applauding.

Continuing with chapter 9, Allison referred to the book as being episodic in nature. I think that’s true. There’s one big “book” story and each chapter has one or two “small” stories. The smaller ones don’t necessarily relate to each other but they keep things moving. I don’t know that a lot of stories are told that way, but many of my novels are – because I can write for three or four hours and then I get tired and that kind of self-creates a little episode while I keep the big story up in the air like a beach ball being batted around the stands in a crowded football stadium.

Here, Rowling has hinted several times about this chamber of secrets – including in the title of the book itself – and only halfway through the book do we start to really delve into what it is. Talk about teasing your audience.

But audiences love being teased. Reveal the stuff slowly but give hints throughout.

And after discussion among our three principals, the reader is adequately primed to start chasing after the big mystery. That should carry us through the end of the book. And for some reason, we didn’t mind too much that it took half the book to really start the mystery. We minded. Just not too much. That’s teasing. Right about the point where I was complaining about it, it kicked into gear. That’s pretty good. A little earlier and I would’ve thought the pace was incredible. A little later and I would’ve thought the book was really slow. So since everybody’s a little different, I’m gonna have to say this was dead set perfect.

And if it’s perfect, it’s great storytelling.

Again.

I have more. You just have to come back Wednesday to get it. Maybe nest week, too. You don’t mind, though, do you?

7 thoughts on “How To Write Better Stories: Subplots and Controversy

    • I don’t know if they do it to prove a point. I think you have to look at things like it’s on a balancing scale. Lots and lots of great story on one side of the scale, a few minor nit picks on the other – I’d let it go. I think if she were writing it today she might change a few of those things but she’s not writing it today. We are.

      Liked by 1 person

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