How J.K. Rowling wrote the Harry Potter Book Series

Spoiler free!

As an aspiring author it is my duty and joy to read great books.  I have done so rather diligently knowing that the best way to find my voice is to imitate another’s.  In my quest to achieve this end, I analyze what the author wrote and how he or she wrote it.  There will be no spoilers here.  Just a very brief commentary on how J. K. Rowling wrote the Harry Potter books.

Let us first examine her overall plan.  She wrote the first book knowing how the seventh would end.  Everything was detailed and written out beforehand.  This gave her an incredible freedom to add little bits and puzzles that she could put off solving until later.  Some of the smaller puzzles even I, as the reader, forgot about.  But she was very thorough.  She did her job and solved them all, bringing everything to an immensely satisfying close.

Each book had a strong moral theme at its core: friendship, working together, facing death bravely, falling in love.  How the characters faced these morals was haunted by a mystery (sometimes more than one) that must be solved.  This was done using an episodic formula.

The first episode of the book was before school started, Harry’s horrible life with the Dursleys.  The tension of this episode was built around the fact that he might not even make it to school.  Would this book even begin to start?  Or would it be thwarted by the Dursleys’ scheming ways?  These questions carried through the first part of the book all the way until it ended with the train to Hogwarts.

The second episode was the first semester of school.  It began with the sorting hat and ended with Christmas.  During this time the main mystery was reveled and the search for clues began.  The third episode, the second semester, ended with the mystery solved and a grand battle that Harry would face alone or with his friends.

The last episode was the resolution.  It would end after Harry had faced death and won to tell the tale.  Then he’d go back home to the Dursleys’ who could care less about his exploits.  Moving from the joy of overcoming death and the disappointment of living with Dursleys’ ended the book on a certain sort of uneasy tension.  In fact Rowling used a lot of tension with all her various plots and between all her characters, a tension that was eventually and always released.

The first three books followed this formula very carefully.  Everything was brought into a satisfying close.  The last four books, beginning with The Goblet of Fire, varied from the formula and did not end as satisfying.  There was a hook that led you onto the next book, until the seventh book, The Deathly Hallows, which ignored the episodic formula almost completely.  The stakes were always raised higher and higher as each book progressed in connection with Harry who grew stronger and stronger.  These stakes made a leaping high jump from book three to four however.  Everything and everyone was in trouble and about to face death.  It was much more likely Harry would die, or miss the train to Hogwarts, or lose his friendships.  I cannot explain further without giving anything away.  Suffice it to say that doing this created a since of urgency (a tension) that was not resolved or released until the very last word was read.

What made the books so intriguing though?  The story world was vastly detailed and believable enough for a young-adults fiction.  Almost every character had flaws to overcome which made them fascinating to read.  The mysteries were masterfully produced by Rowling and cleverly explained.  All of these things drove the story forward.  They were all great elements to help create the whole.

What made these books the most intriguing, however, was the boy that she placed in the middle of it all.  Harry Potter was the conduit in which she used to explain all of these mysteries.  Everything was voiced from his perspective.  And he just so happened to be the most intriguing and fascinating character to the reader and to the other characters within the book.  This was not idly done now.  She made a conscious effort in forming her idea of Hogwarts.  She created a world on the brink of a war that would doom everyone, including us non-magical folk.  She told this story of a magical war through the eyes of the only boy that could stop it.  She chose to tell everything from Harry’s ignorance, also keeping the audience ignorant, even to the point of not understanding himself.  Only when he figured all this out could the reader understand and grasp how everything would end.

Rowling’s writing voice had a goal in mind.  She wanted to write a page-turner full of interwoven mysteries.  Very rarely did she separate her plot with her description of the world it all took place in.  In most cases they were in the very same sentence.  Because of this, her sentences were often very long and complex, yet simply written so that any could grasp them.  She never had too much detail in describing her world.  It was just enough to express the story.  Even though it was a fantasy, she used objects we know of such as cars, castles, and suits of armor– and transformed them into something extraordinary with magic.  By doing this she didn’t have to go into long pages of explaining how something looked or worked, which would not have gone over well for a young adult’s book.

I’d also like to add my personal tastes here.  Most books don’t go over well with pages and pages of explanation.  The author Michael Creighton is the only acceptation that I have found.  If I wanted things explained in such detail I’d read an essay, or a blog.  Fiction is to be first and foremost about telling a story.  On the other hand, you can also describe things too sparsely so that the reader doesn’t even know what is going on.  Rowling did a great job of balancing the two, or rather unbalancing it since the story far outweighed its descriptions.

The magical world and its mysteries were only the icing on the cake.  At the heart of her story were the characters themselves.  Whenever Harry Potter had to make a decision, his two best friends would act as Harry’s conscience.  Ron was his right hand man, often foolhardy, acting as the “devil” side of Harry’s conscience.  Hermione was clever, diligent and, very smart.  She acted as the “angel” side of Harry’s conscience.  Whenever Harry and Ron got into trouble it was Hermione that expressed how they needed to be punished.  But she also had perspective.  When things were at their worst, she would be the first one to break the rules for the sake of protecting a friend or saving the world.  Apart from playing as Harry’s conscience Ron and Hermione had their own personal flaws to overcome, which gave them depth.  The friendship of these three was a glue that connected the plot and moved it forward or, in some cases, held it back.

Harry’s villains were also very mysterious and fascinating.  The most fascinating of them being Professor Snape.  Valdemort was the ultimate evil it is true, but he was mostly hidden in shadow and only showed up as a lead character towards the end of the series.  I’d also like to add that Rowling made a conscious effort to make Valdemort comparable to Adolf Hitler, which added that much more depth to him.  It was Snape though who was there to antagonize Potter as his potions teacher.  Towards the end Snape only became more and more fascinating.  His role as an antagonist in Potter’s life, toughened the boy up for his greater role of defeating the ultimate evil of the “warlock Hitler” Voldemort.  I’d get into Dumbledore’s friendship with Potter and the fascinating relationship of Snape and Dumbeldor, but I promised no spoilers here.  That second triangle of trust and mistrust is wisely used by Rowling.

Rowling wrote for the present.  As her audience grew up so did the story.  The greatest difference was the fourth book, Goblet of Fire, which was almost twice as large as the third.  It was during this time that she also began to grow and expand her episodic formula.

There are so many things that I could talk about in this series.   I only wanted to highlight a few practical writing tips that she has taught me.  Here’s a review.

She worked everything out before she wrote the first book.

She used an episodic circular formula: Dursleys’, the mystery, it is solved, back to Dursleys’.

She used tension and release with her plot and characters.

Her story was written from the view of the most fascinating character Harry Potter.

She used long complex, yet simply written sentences, to compose a page-turning tale of mysteries and magic.

She used the friendship of three major characters to glue together the plot as well as the trust and mistrust of three others to… well, read the books!

She gave Harry equally fascinating villains to face and overcome.

She wrote for her present audience, as they grew older, so did her books.

3 thoughts on “How J.K. Rowling wrote the Harry Potter Book Series

  1. Exactly right! Proper story planning and structure is so crucial in the writing process. How could anyone write a book series without laying out the overall story arch? If more series authors would remember this, then they would probably have greater success.

  2. Love the post. This is so true: Rowling was always very methodical in her writing and was able to create a series that roped in children and didn’t make them lose interest as young adults.

    As a geek/crazed fan, though, I must make a canonical correction: Harry stayed with the Dursleys, not the Dudley’s. Dudley was his cousin.

    Thanks for sharing your observations!

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