Three Writing Tips From Harry Potter

Harry Potter Angry
“Great characters, great plot, realistic outcomes and a gripping premise that never lost its edge.”

The above are common reasons for Harry Potter’s high readability. Other authors have also extolled the series’ magic, most notably Nathan Bransford’s Five Writing Tips From Reading J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, but I’m going to put the formula to the test.

The Test: flip to a random page in a random Harry Potter book, and determine why it makes me want to finish the rest of the book.

Tip 1: Foreshadow The Crap Out Of Everything

Harry Potter Philosopher's Stone Page

Page 77, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

J.K. Rowling is a master of the Chekhov’s gun device. She introduces seemingly innocuous objects or characters in the form of mirrors, scars, and in this case, a trading card with information on Nicolas Flamel that will become important later down the story, whether it’s a few chapters away or, in Grindelwald’s case, a few books away.

After a few more of these smoking guns, readers will be hooked on speculating the meaning behind every sideways glance or clump of dust. Now that kind of mystery is addicting.

Tip 2: Incredibly Strong Characterization

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Page 112, Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets.

There are numerous essays that ruminate over J.K. Rowling’s portrayal of race and “otherness”, and the attached political and socio-economical implications. Then there is the characterization of one’s personality, and nearly all characters in Harry Potter, minor or major, retain a core set of attributes that make them instantly recognizable. And, in some cases, instantly relatable.

Harry Potter’s awkward teenage romances? Check. Ron Weasley’s constant bemoaning of ridiculously long homework assignments? Check. Hermoine’s rigid moral compass that incites her to make hats and scarves for house elves in protest? If you watch the news, check.

Tip 3: The Conflict Never Stops, And I’m Not Sure I Want It To

Harry Potter and the Order of The Phoenix

Page 261, Harry Potter and The Order of The Phoenix.

Poor Harry. If he’s not getting hexed by Death Eaters, he’s getting insulted at school by his enemies’ teenage counterparts. In the summer months, he fights with the Dursleys, and at the Weasleys’, there’s too much chaos from moving bodies and Molly’s dramatics to properly exhale.

Harry Potter is never in a place where everything is alright. I repeat: Harry Potter is never in a place where everything is alright. If he is, then he doesn’t linger there for too long. This non-stop conflict sets readers on a seesaw of emotions as they live vicariously through a boy who doesn’t know what’s going on or what he’s doing most of the time. Now that makes a story worth reading (and rereading, and rereading…).

Millie Ho Character Sketch

Here’s a sketch that was inspired by the Harry Potter series, from back when I sketched with pencil like a normal person.

Hope this post was helpful for your writing endeavours. Let me know if you have additional tips!

23 thoughts on “Three Writing Tips From Harry Potter

  1. Steve says:

    i like that sketch from back when you were a “normal” person,
    a lady frustrated by a man.
    can i spin a song for harry potter to soothe his “never in a place where everything is alright?”
    i’m listening and i hear you saying “yes, it’s ok, spin a song.”
    thank you. here goes.

  2. kvennarad says:

    I always deliver the minority report on JKR. I think she’s good enough, just not THAT good. Her use of ‘Chekhov’s gun’ became so entirely predictable that by about book three I was actively looking for it; that and the fact that the plot followed the formula – It’s a new semester at Hogwarts, Dumbledore is in disgrace, Harry is in disgrace, someone turns out not to be who we think they are, Harry does something brave, Dumbledore is proved right, Gryffindor gets all the points – and was as predictable as the Chekhovian sidearm drove me away from the series. I also disagree about the characterisation; I found it two-dimensional. This all transferred to the films – Daniel Radcliffe’s acting (give him the benefit of the doubt, as he was doing what the director told him) ran the gamut of all the emotions from A to B, the adult actors hammed it up to the sky, but what else could they do with that material? Only Jason Isaacs (Lucius Malfoy) was at all convincing, only Rupert Grint had any charisma, and the best scene had nothing to do with magic but was when Hermione decked Draco with a right hook.

    To give JKR her due, though, who would have thought anyone could have revived the ‘boarding school’ novel in the 21st century! Okay, so while I am here, whom in children’s literature would I elevate above JKR? Well, I don’t think she is ahead of C S Lewis, for all his Christian triumphalism. Alan Garner – to my mind – is one of the first modern writers to assume that his young readers were intelligent, and that says a lot; although his ‘Weirdstone of Brisingamen’ seems to follow a sub-Tolkien quest-metanarrative and object-of-magic-power-metanarrative his setting the story in a familiar place, into and out of which it flickers really works, it grips. Nothing beats his ‘The Owl Service’, and I would recommend it to any child who tires of HP.

    • Millie Ho says:

      I thought her formulaic way of storytelling balanced out the otherwise chaotic events in every book. By tricking readers into anticipating the familiar, she conjures up the mere-exposure effect and centers the multiple facets of the storyline around something concrete. Even her ‘Chekhov’s gun’s became a kind of ritualistic Easter Egg hunt that generated a large following of amateur detectives. I agree that some characters were not entirely fleshed out (possibly due to the sheer size of the world), but their two-dimensional attributes were drawn from stereotypes that, like the formulaic storyline, put the reader at ease and made speculating easier. I wonder if that’s where the rub is—the Harry Potter books have less to do about the quality of the writing or even the plot, but more to do with its ability to cover all the bases in generating an enormous readership.

      I have read ‘The Owl Service’, and it was a great read. I also recommend ‘Tom’s Midnight Garden’ for its scientific approach to children’s fantasy.

      • kvennarad says:

        “the Harry Potter books have less to do about the quality of the writing or even the plot, but more to do with its ability to cover all the bases in generating an enormous readership” – that is their strength (as a commercial product) and their weakness (as literature) summed up in one sentence. In granting that the HP books are not exactly bad, and in fact quite good, I’m saying that they could be a lot better. They have sacrificed being excellent books in favour of selling in enormous quantities. They fall down in not treating their readership as intelligent readers, not stretching them. Young readers deserve much better. That’s where Garner scores, and why I would save one tattered copy of ‘The Owl Service’ from a burning building, and let a whole collection of autographed 1st editions of the Harry Potter canon go up in smoke. 🙂

  3. quixoticsemiotic says:

    I definitely think she uses the Chekov’s Gun device very effectively. But I think others have used it better. So it comes down again to the brilliant storyline and just the strength and vividness of her imagination to create characters that are so memorable. But I think she kind of messed up with ‘The Casual Vacancy’, at least for me personally. I couldn’t see any of her magic in those pages, it just read like a British soap.

    • Millie Ho says:

      ‘The Casual Vacancy’ was disjoined at the very start, but the problem was she didn’t tie together the multiple story lines quickly enough. Unlike Harry Potter, where you would be inclined to wait for the mysteries to unravel, a standalone book has less power over the reader’s patience.

  4. Jen says:

    I love the babushka dolls as a metaphor and think that’s both a really challenging and worth goal to aim for…esp. when writing fiction.

  5. colonialist says:

    I am highly confused by the date of posting and then comment dates!
    The HP Sauce has an enduring quality to it which popularity proves. I would venture to guess that JKR wrote a far better series than she set out to do. It was meant to be narrative-driven and provide entertainment. I don’t think for a minute she was aiming at highly-analysed literature. The formula certainly works right through the series, although the increasing doom and gloom became overdone for my own personal tastes. The invention and innovation is commendable in a genre where one expects everything one can think of to have been done before.

    • kvennarad says:

      Les, before you cite ‘invention and innovation’, you might like to read read Melanie A Kimball’s excellent essay from 1999, ‘From Folktales to Fiction: Orphan Characters in Children’s Literature’. You will find that what JKR has done, in a series in which the basic plot of at least the first four novels is near-enough the same, is write something which contains every single trope of a story-type which probably goes back millennia. NB, the article is NOT about Harry Potter. JKR is at her most innovative in establishing the ‘rules’ of the fantasy world in which she sets her stories, and the little touches like the pictures which have life, names like ‘Diagon Alley’, and so on. Otherwise – yes – I’m afraid it HAS all been done before. [Counter-argument: Shakespeare hardly ever used a plot that he hadn’t pinched from somewhere.]

      “…an enduring quality to it which popularity proves…” – it always intrigues me that the same argument is made for Harry Potter that is made against Barbara Cartland, Jeffrey Archer, and E L James (it must be good/bad because it is ‘popular’).

      ‘…I don’t think for a minute she was aiming at highly-analysed literature…’ – Les, I think this argument belongs to a period when the division between ‘popular’ and ‘canonical’ literature was marked and maintained almost religiously. JKR has put a product out there, and the least she can expect is that we look at her workmanship. Indeed she states that she did not feel she was creating ‘literature’, but on the other hand she always intended a series of seven books, so maybe her declaration was a little disingenuous. We live in an era when writing for younger readers is taken more seriously, both by those who write it and those who study it, than at any time before.

      I myself never intended to become a writer for the YA readership, but I seem to have fallen into it. I hope that before I’m much older I find a little of the time and the energy that kept and keeps JKR going. Whether I do or not, the fact remains that JKR can afford to ignore OUR opinions all the way to the bank and back anyway.

      [Millie, thanks for putting up with our debating the subject on this comment thread.]

      • colonialist says:

        I must pick up on a couple of points here – an extension of the plot argument would have every story ever written coming in for the same crit. That isn’t really what the sort of innovation I was referring to is about.
        In the final analysis, it is far better to have eyes on pages of a book assessed as ‘mediocre’ by intellectuals than to have brilliant literature sitting on a shelf. It is, sadly, possible that the very factors which would turn it into ‘brilliant literature’ would remove the eyes from the pages.

        • kvennarad says:

          Les, I don’t think I like the use of the word ‘intellectuals’ in this context. We are all possessed of an intellect and, no matter how and by what standards other people may judge that intellect, we can all take a shot at recognising workmanship when it’s there to be seen. If it wasn’t innovation in plot that you admire about JKR, and as it doesn’t seem to be the ‘touches’ I mentioned (otherwise you would have acknowledged them), that doesn’t leave much room for ‘invention and innovation’ elsewhere, does it?

          Neither do I think that brilliant literature precludes a large and avid audience – just think of Charles Dickens who could justly claim both. The very (necessary) breakdown of the distinction between ‘popular’ and ‘canonical’ literature means that every story ever written now DOES come in for its measure of crit. There always has to be room for a deeper assessment of a book than “I like it” or “I don’t like it”, or than “It sells”.

          • colonialist says:

            I would think it is clear what I meant by that term – those who apply an analytical rather than subjective approach.
            On the premise that all art consists of variations on themes – the originals of which will never be known,- there is innovation in plot as well as treatment in the variations applied by JKR. I am not, by the way, a particular fan of those books, but I do recognise effective writing when I see it.
            By this time Millie has either dived under a bed or is hunting for a broomstick …

          • kvennarad says:

            The analytical and the subjective need not be kept at arm’s length, each can be brought into one’s reactions to a piece of work in any proportions you like. Your recognition of ‘effective writing’, by the way, acknowledges JKR’s ‘workmanship’. 🙂

  6. Annaliese Maree says:

    Harry Potter is still on my list of books to read. I went through a 10 year non-fiction phase and I’m trying to catch up now! I will have to decide whether Harry Potter or A Song of Ice and Fire will be next after I’m finished The Lord of the Rings…

    • kvennarad says:

      One day Millie is going to get mad at me for hi-jacking her blog comments while she’s away, but I couldn’t resist giving you some unsolicited advice. I would say go for the George R R Martin, simply because of the awesome momentum of the ‘Song of Ice and Fire’ series. If you read JKR, you’ll be into the third book and suddenly thing, “Hey – she’s writing the same story over and over again!”; if you make it through to the last couple you’ll realise she has got bogged down. Of course if you want to read something totally different, I would recommend the Jo Nesbo ‘Harry Hole’ thrillers before either.

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