Besides passion, perseverance and patience, what are the other tools a fiction writer needs in order to soar to the top of the best seller lists and stay there for months, sometimes years? What is the magic elixir that motivates readers to turn the page and read all the way through to the end of a book, often non-stop?
As you’ve probably already guessed, the art, craft and business of writing are an integral part of the Harry Potter success story. Let’s take a look at the opening pages of the first volume, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, to probe behind the scenes and answer some of those Burning Que$tion$.
The title of Chapter One is already a hook: “The Boy Who Lived.”
So… what boy (or girl), or person for that matter, doesn’t live? Why would that be a chapter title? It must be more than a WYSWYG (what you see is what you get). Have you already entered Curiosity City?
After such a perplexing chapter title, the first paragraph proceeds to deliver a huge part of the “who, what, where, when, why and how” that are critically important to set the stage for the rest of the book:
“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, [a privet is a hedge that delivers a metaphor of blocking off consciousness and ‘Drive’ implies ‘suburbia’ (yawn)…] were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”
We are told at the outset that these are boring adults because they are normal and want to be normal—self-righteously so. (What pre-teen and teenager wants to be “normal,” or resemble their parents or parents’ lifestyle in any way, shape or form?) The Dursleys also don’t want to be disturbed by anything different from their own brand of unconsciousness. Note how much information the author delivers in these few opening sentences.
The second paragraph proceeds to describe the Dursleys, delivering a specific “who” and “what,” while folding in humor and information:
“Mr. Dursley was the director of a firm called Grunnings, which made drills.” (Yuk! Does this remind you of the dentist, or what?)
“He was a big, beefy man with hardly any neck, although he did have a very large mustache.” (Can you picture this caricature of a man?)
“Mrs. Dursley was thin and blonde and had nearly twice the usual amount of neck, which came in very useful as she spent so much of her time craning over garden fences, spying on the neighbors.” (A ‘rubberneck’ know-it-all gossip is what the reader gets from this description… someone who doesn’t have enough going on in her own life, so she busies herself meddling in everyone else’s affairs.)
“The Dursleys had a small son named Dudley and in their opinion there was no finer boy anywhere.” (Of course Dudley would be the best of the best! The Dursleys are the kind of people who always have to be right. They are convinced that their beliefs and opinions and whatever belongs to them are better than anyone else’s.)
The stage is set. Clearly, the author wants the reader to be turned off by these ugly, boring, self-centered people. Dudley, their spoiled brat son is also introduced here.
Amazing how easy it is for most people to identify with the Dursleys! For many, it could be their Aunt Minnie or their next-door neighbor.
Paragraph three delivers the plot:
“The Dursleys had everything they wanted, but they also had a secret.” Note that the word “secret” is deliberately used here. More mystery, more curiosity-building. The reader will want to know right away what the Dursleys’ *secret* is! Then the sentence goes on to say, “...and their greatest fear was that somebody would discover it.”
Can you see how magical that sentence is? It sets the stage for suspense and also lets the reader know that someone is going to discover the Dursleys’ secret. That discovery with its repercussions is The Big Unknown that moves the story forward.
What will happen when the Dursleys’ secret is discovered? The reader is already hooked by excitement, curiosity and fear of the consequences of the Dursleys’ “being found out.” Bring on the adventure!
All of this text is on the first page of the novel that also includes an illustration of a baby wrapped in a blanket. Hmmm. Who is that baby? What is this story really about?
On page 2, we learn more about the Dursleys. The author starts to build on the already planted emotion of fear by introducing Mrs. Dursley’s sister, “Mrs. Potter.”
Now we learn what the Dursleys are afraid of: what would the neighbors say if they found out about Mrs. Dursley’s weird sister?
Subconsciously, you the reader already know that the Dursleys’ secret has something to do with Mrs. Dursley’s sister, who is considered weird, and you also know that someone is going to discover what the Dursleys are trying to hide.
The story actually begins in the middle of page 2 with the statement straight-out: “When Mr. and Mrs. Dursley woke up on the dull, gray Tuesday, our story starts.”
The preceding paragraphs serve as the preface or “teaser” before the curtain rises. And now, the play or story begins with the sentence: It was an ordinary “dull, gray Tuesday.”
Why make it a DULL Tuesday? To contrast it sharply, of course, with “something that is about to happen.” You, the reader, can feel it in your bones!
As Mr. Dursley heads for work, “the first sign of something peculiar” is delivered at the bottom of page 2. A cat is reading a map! Next, he notices “strangely dressed people were about.”
All of these plants from the author continue to add spice to the story: mystery, weirdness, suspense, humor… A dull, ordinary person would obviously be somewhat taken aback at seeing a cat reading a map!
Proper names are important. In fact, every detail is important. Note that “Dursley” and “Dudley” both start with the same letter and they have a cartoon or caricature-like sound, especially when spoken together: “Dudley Dursley.”
Using Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Book 1) as your success model, here are a few exercises in analysis that will help you strengthen your writing craft and technique:
After you have read the book:
1. Make a plot outline.
2. In 2-5 sentences, describe each character.
3. Find 5 places where the author describes each character. How does she do it? Through narrative, dialogue, body language, gestures, or all of these? Copy down each of these descriptions and note how they are folded into the story line.
4. Find 5 places where the dialogue moves the plot forward.
5. Find 5 places where the reader becomes frightened, or where the tension builds. What makes that tension build? Are the characters racing against time? Is there something they need to accomplish before a “terrible” or “uncertain” event is destined to happen? (Before being captured? Killed? Found out?) What will happen if the “time is up” before they are able to successfully complete their mission?
6. Find 5 humorous places. Why do you find them humorous?
7. Find 5 places where Harry Potter is delivered as a character with whom almost every reader can identify. Tell how and why this identification occurs.
*Excerpt quoted from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, by J.K. Rowling, ©1997 by J.K. Rowling, Scholastic, Inc.