Friday, April 17, 2015

Story Structure & The World Of Harry Potter

I don’t often blog about the craft of writing, but I do love a good story. Good stories tend to have good plots, which usually means they’re well-structured. This week, I’m blogging a bit about story structure . . . and Harry Potter. Why, you ask? Let’s just say it all began with a wager.

Welcome to Hogwarts!
Last year, I encouraged my daughter to read all seven Harry Potter books to fulfill her advanced reading requirement at school. As incentive, I gave her a challenge – or call it a wager, or a fool’s bet, if you will – by promising that we’d go to Harry Potter World at Universal Orlando for Spring Break if she finished the series. Let’s just say, my daughter loves the books and we’ve recently returned from a wonderful trip to Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley! (Plenty of pictures to follow.) Before I left, I brushed up on the books (which I read years ago), and that led me to this post.

I’ve long tried to think of ways to write a post on the Harry Potter series that would fit my blog. Yes, they began as middle grade fiction and evolved into YA (young adult) literature, but in my view they’ve become true classics in the fantasy fiction genre. The books are well-written and tremendously entertaining, and it’s fair to say that J.K. Rolling deserves her seat among the pantheon of great fantasy authors. Fellow pantheon-member, Stephen King, has written glowingly of Rowling and her work, and I agree with everything he’s had to say. 
“The fantasy writer’s job is to conduct the willing reader from mundanity to magic. This is a feat of which only a superior imagination is capable, and Rowling possesses such equipment.”
– Stephen King
After spending a week thinking about the books (so I wouldn’t miss any of the details Universal has sprinkled around the parks), I realized how perfectly the series as a whole fits the structure of a well-crafted story. When it comes to story structure, I’m aware of the more erudite views such as Joseph Campbell’s the “hero’s journey,” based on what Campbell calls the “monomyth.” Yet I’ve always preferred the less erudite but more straightforward structure outlined in Save the Cat, a book on screenwriting by the late Blake Snyder. Snyder takes storytelling’s classic three-act structure and breaks it down into 15 parts (or “beats”) that I’m convinced are common to most well-crafted tales. To prove my point, let’s take a look at “Harry Potter and the Fifteen Beats” (with a brief description of each beat for those unfamiliar with Snyder’s work; obviously, *SPOILERS* ahead):

The Hogwarts Express takes you from Hogsmeade to Diagon Alley.

1. The Opening Image


According to Snyder, this is the opening scene that sets the mood and tone for the story. In the series, this is the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, which opens with a scene set at the Dursley residence, Number Four Privet Drive. “You-Know-Who” has been killed and the mysterious Dumbledore appears with Professor McGonagall and Hagrid on his flying motorcycle carrying the Boy Who Lived. The infant Harry survived Voldemort’s attack, leaving only that lightning bolt-shaped scar on his forehead. This event is a catalyst for the entire series, and even though it probably should have been a prologue instead of chapter one (because it takes place nearly eleven years before chapter two), it’s a fitting opening image for the story of Harry Potter.

Hagrid's Hut - An example of the detail in Harry Potter World!

2. Theme Stated


This beat is just like it sounds – an event or dialogue that establishes the story’s theme. J.K. Rowling once said the Harry Potter books were largely about “death.” That’s a bit grim, but clearly death is a big part of the series (think Harry’s parents, Dumbledore, Sirius, and Cedric Diggory). And I suppose the opening chapter sets this up quite well. Yet another theme—and perhaps the biggest one to me—is love and friendship. In book one we meet Ron and Hermione, who become Harry’s new family when he gets to Hogwarts and his beloved friends. This theme runs through the entire series and it’s set up well in book one.

The gateway to Hogsmeade!

3. The Set-Up


This beat is also just like it sounds, and in Harry Potter it’s all done in the first book. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone sets up the wizarding world that Rowling has built. We’re introduced to Quidditch, Hogwarts, Diagon Alley, Gryffindor, Slytherin, and a host of memorable characters who will stay with us through seven books. Rowling’s world building is as good as that of any fantasy author out there, and like the world of Star Wars it’s become part of our culture. 

We had plenty of fun in Hogsmeade!

4. The Catalyst 


This is the moment everything changes for the hero and he or she is thrust into the central plot. In the series, this begins when Harry and Hermione learn of the break in at Gringotts, which leads them to learn about the Sorcerer’s Stone and the mystery surrounding who is trying to steal it. This the first of many puzzle-like plots that Rowling gives us in the series, even if it’s perhaps the weakest of the seven. That said, the efforts of Harry, Ron, and Hermione to solve this mystery ultimately lead them to Voldemort (or what’s left of him), plunging them into the plotline that dominates the series, namely Harry verses Voldemort to determine the fate of the wizarding world. 

The Sorting Hat talks to you while you wait in line.

5. The Debate


This is the point where the hero must decide whether to answer the call to adventure or reject it. Series-wise, it takes place when Harry believes that Snape is about to steal the Sorcerer’s Stone. Harry wants to get the stone first, but Hermione and Ron try to talk him out of it.
“I’m going out of here tonight and I’m going to get the Stone first.”
“You’re mad!” said Ron
“You can’t!” said Hermione. “After what McGonagall and Snape have said? You’ll be expelled!”
“SO WHAT?” Harry shouted. “Don’t you understand? If Snape gets hold of the Stone, Voldemort’s coming back!”
Harry wins the debate, and the three of them answer the call!

You could spend a whole day in Diagon Alley.

6. Break into Two


This is the part of the story where Act One ends and Act Two Begins. It’s the point where the hero leaves the old world behind and enters one where everything is different. In the series, this happens at the end of book one when Harry discovers that Professor Quirrell has been possessed by the spirit of Voldemort. From this point on, Voldemort becomes the major antagonist in the novels – You-Know-Who is back and nothing will ever be the same so long as he’s around!

Hogsmeade Station

7. Fun and Games


According to Snyder, this is the “promise of the premise.” In the first four books, that is solving magical mysteries in the world of Hogwarts, and that’s just what the next several books in the series offer. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets presents what is probably the best pure mystery tale of the lot. Students are being petrified at Hogwarts and many suspect the Chamber of Secrets has been opened – an event that hasn’t happened for decades when someone called the Heir of Slytherin was responsible for murders at the school. We also meet Tom Riddle and his diary, and the revelation of who he really is provides one of the series’ best twists. It is also our first experience with one of the Horcruxes, unbeknownst of any of us at the time.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azakaban gives us another fun mystery, but it also establishes some important backstory. Through the Marauder’s Map, we’re introduced to Padfoot, Wormtail, Mooney, and Prongs. We discover why Snape hates Harry and who really betrayed Harry’s Parents to You-Know-Who. This is also our first real exposure to the Ministry of Magic, which ends up playing a huge role in the later books. And it’s the series’ only foray into time travel, which it handles quite well. The story is fun and games through and through, and it’s the last time for a while that a Harry Potter book has a happy ending. 

It continues in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. After all, nothing screams “fun and games” like a Triwizard Tournament! Book four has its own mysteries to be solved. For instance, how did Harry’s name get into the Goblet of Fire? And is there really a death-eater at Hogwarts now that that Durmstrang group has arrived? Each Triwizard task has its own puzzle to be solved too.

The goblins at Gringotts practically seem real!

8. The “B” Story


In Snyder’s structure, this is often a subplot that gives the audience a break from the main plotline, and in many stories it’s the love story. In Harry Potter, the B story blossoms in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire when a fourteen-year-old Harry realizes he’s interested in girls (and has to find a date for the Yule Ball, ye gads!). Cho plays the role of Harry’s desired, but unavailable, paramour. Ginny Weasley takes up this role in latter books, though J.K. Rowling recently admitted that Harry should have ended up with Hermione. I could not agree more.

The dragon atop Gringotts breathes fire every few minutes!

9. The Midpoint


This is the middle of the story where something enormously important is supposed to happen. Sometimes it’s a marvelous victory. Other times it’s a crushing defeat. In Harry Potter, it’s the latter and it takes place at the end of Goblet of Fire. The Triwizard Cup turns out to be a portkey that lures Cedric Diggory to his death and Harry to his first battle with Voldemort, mono-y-mono. The Dark Lord is all-the-way back, the Death Eaters have returned, and the whole series is about take a turn toward the dark side. A third theme of good versus evil, which has been lurking in the shadows of the first four books, rises to the surface. Big time. 

Another look at the dragon from Diagon Alley.

10. The Bad Guys Close In


After the midpoint, the bad guys start to put a whole lot more pressure on the heroes, sort of like the opposite of fun and games. The midpoint raised the stakes and things are starting to get real. In the series, this begins with the tale of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Voldemort is back, but the Ministry is refusing to believe it. Even worse, they send Delores Umbridge to keep Hogwarts in check. Umbridge might just be the series’ best villain. I can’t remember hating anyone in the books more than her, which means Rowling had Umbridge playing her role perfectly. Umbridge brings themes of authoritarianism and rebellion front and center in this book. And if ending her tyranny is not enough, Harry must stop Voldemort from retrieving a prophecy that could allow him to triumph this time around. The book ends with a showdown in the Ministry of Magic and the death of Sirius Black. The war against Voldemort is getting real. 

The bad guys continue to close in in Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince. Here, we learn Voldemort’s backstory through Harry’s sessions with Dumbledore and his Pensive. We also learn about the seven Horcruxes, which hold Voldemort’s life force, sort of like Sauron and the One Ring. Meanwhile, Draco is now working for the Dark Lord, and Harry knows it. And when the Death Eaters assault Hogwarts, the series takes its darkest turn yet. 

Inside Hogwarts - and yes, the picture move and talk.

11. All is Lost


Snyder calls this the “whiff of death,” a point in the tale when all hope seems lost. A classic “all is lost moment” is when Darth Vader strikes down Obi Wan in Star Wars. In the world of Harry Potter, this comes at the end of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince when Snape kills Dumbledore. Harry’s guardian is dead and it looks like the Dark Lord’s forces have won. 

They make their own brew at Hog's Head Tavern!

12. The Dark Night of the Soul


This is the aftermath of “all is lost” when the hero experiences the full impact of the major defeat in the prior scene. This happens at the end of Half-blood Prince. Harry is devastated by Dumbledore death. He decides not return to Hogwarts next year. Instead, he’s going to find the remaining Horcruxes and kill Voldemort once and for all. 

Inside The Three Broomsticks

13. Break into Three


The hero finds a way to press on and a plan emerges to solve the story’s major problem. It begins in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. With the Death Eaters on the warpath, Harry, Ron, and Hermione receive three mysterious gifts as part of Dumbledore’s last will and testament. By solving the mystery behind these objects, they learn about the location of another Horcrux and set out to destroy it.

The dragon in all of his glory!

14. The Finale


This is the story’s climax! Harry learns that the final Horcrux is in Hogwarts, and when he gets there he discovers Voldemort and his army of Death Eaters are on their way. Everything soon comes to a head. We experience the final confrontation between Draco and Harry, and we learn the reasons behind Snape’s actions and why he killed Dumbledore. We also learn that Harry himself is the seventh Horcrux because a piece of Voldemort’s soul was bound to Harry’s when Voldemort tried to kill him as an infant. So in order for Voldemort to die, Harry must die too. Of course, there’s still a way out, and with a little help from the spirit of Albus Dumbledore, Harry learns what it is. Just when it looks like Voldemort has triumphed, Harry slays him in a final duel. 

A parting shot of Hogwarts.

15. The Final Image


This is the final scene, the denouement if you will, where we understand how the character’s lives have changed as a result of everything that’s happened. In the series, it is the epilogue in Deathly Hallows, which takes place nineteen years after the events of the last book. Harry is married to Ginny, and Ron is wed to Hermione, and all of them are taking their oldest children to the Hogwarts Express for their first year of school. It’s a fitting end to a wonderful series.

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