What I Learned from Harry Potter

Way back when, before I started Fantasy Debut, I would read successful debut fantasy novels in an attempt to discover their secrets of success. Harry Potter was one such novel. I didn’t generally read YA, although I do enjoy the genre from time to time, and I wasn’t interested in Harry Potter because in my mind, it didn’t even qualify as YA. The protagonist, after all, was only 11.

But this was about when book 3 came out, and there was considerable hoopla building up along with talk about a movie. I decided to read it because I figured as a serious writer, I had to. My niece had the first two books, so my sister lent them to me.

ChamberOfSecretsI found the opening chapters to be fun, but I had suspension of disbelief problems. Things got better at Diagon Alley, and more so at Platform 9 and Three Quarters. And by the time school was in session and the Quidditch season got going, I was rolling my eyes. The whole invention of Quidditch seemed so obviously constructed to appeal to little boys. (I learned from that too — although I didn’t want to admit it.) I finished book 1 in short order, and started book 2.

Then, I started noticing something. The scenes all had structures that went something like this:

Scene set-up
plot advancement

Rowling didn’t do much of this in book one–I just looked. I noticed it in book 2. Here’s an illustrative scene. Everyone get out your copies–you do have a copy of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, do you?– and turn to Chapter Fourteen, Cornelius Fudge. The first scene is about Hagrid. The second scene is about choosing subjects for the next year at Hogwarts. It ends with this little paragraph:

But the only thing Harry felt he was really good at was Quidditch. In the end, he chose the same subjects as Ron, feeling that if he was really lousy at them, at least he’d have someone friendly to help him.

What do you think the next subject is about? That’s right: Quidditch. That short scene ends with a revelation about the main plot, and the next scene is about a Quidditch match that gets cancelled and ends with McGonnagall about to address the students about canceling the match. The next scene is about that announcement, and ends with Harry deciding to snoop around in his dad’s invisibility cloak. And the next scene is about sneaking around with the cloak and listening to a conversation between Fudge, Dumbledore and Hagrid, and ends the chapter with a speculation about the overarching plot.

Each scene led to the next one with a little nugget about what was to come. It wasn’t obvious, and they weren’t always cliffhangery. But whenever a scene change leads to a subject change, you almost always know what is coming next.HalfBloodPrince

Let’s check out how good Rowling got at this technique by her later books. I’m going to open Book 6 at random and find a scene break.

Ok, I opened to chapter 6 and it appears to be all one scene. And so does the next chapter. Hmm. Rowling seems to have dispensed with scene breaks entirely, and scenes are now chapters. But the technique still stands. At the end of Chapter 10, Harry notices a ring that Dumbledore is wearing. He asks Dumbledore about the ring, and Dumbledore responds that Harry will have to hear the story another time. And so the pages turn on and on.


Before I noticed this in Rowling’s books, my scene transitions were nonexistent. Now, I always think of the next scene as I am concluding the previous, and I try to think of a segue that works with both scenes.

If I may be so bold as to put a quote from my own book on the same pages as a quote from Ms. Rowling, here’s how Chapter 5 of The Sevenfold Spell ends:

I was picky, in my own way. I looked for the men so often rejected by other women: the too thin, the too chubby, the too pocked, the too graying. But I also looked for shyness, for awkwardness, for the socially inept. Was I looking for another Willard? Perhaps. I never found one, but I did find some men who stayed with me for lengths of time that measures in months rather than weeks. One even stayed with me for over a year.

Only one was handsome.

And what do you think Chapter 6 is about? Yes–the handsome man.


Please let me know what you think of this little series. I’m already thinking of the next one, where I’ll take an opposing approach–I’m going to write about something I learned not to do from an author whose earlier books I admired.

9 Thoughts to “What I Learned from Harry Potter”

  1. Jessica

    I liked this post – despite having read HP several times, I hadn’t noticed how it was all set up. Maybe that is why it reads so smoothly.

    1. Tia Nevitt

      I try to keep alert for things like this. Always learning!

  2. Deborah Blake

    Cool. I like it. I’ve been doing chapter endings that way for years 🙂

  3. Interesting, Tia! I’m going to have to try that.

    I’ve been reading the first three Harry Potter books to my 6-year-old. They’re a stretch for her, but she’s turned into an avid little fangirl, and it’s a thrill to have her so interested in books, and books that I enjoy. Until her recent interest in Harry Potter and Narnia, all she wanted was Scooby Doo comics.

    Anyway, I re-read Books 4-7 on my own to remind myself how they turn out, and one thing that struck me is how well she sets seemingly small things up that turn out to have a big payoff, often several books later. I’m thinking especially in terms of characters like Neville and Dobby that I didn’t think much of when I first read the series but can now see how carefully she put the pieces in place for the role each one played in Book 7.

    1. Tia Nevitt

      I have not tried reading them with my little girl. Maybe I’ll start tonight! And yes, I love rereading books for that very reason.

  4. Chicory

    That’s something I’ll have to start looking toward doing. I have a tendency to meander around instead of ending a scene and picking up later. Looking for ways to just cut and link is going to be really helpful.

  5. Tia Nevitt

    Deb, for some reason, this skill didn’t come naturally to me. Chicory, I hope it helps!

  6. That is an interesting observation. I have observed that you can treat paragraphs, scenes, or chapters the same way structurally as you can the overall plot– at least in so far as keeping a reader’s interest and attention via foreshadowing and cliffhangars.

  7. I’ll have to look at that. I hadn’t noticed it either. Then again, I haven’t really studied the books the way some of my friends have. {Smile}

    Anne Elizabeth Baldwin

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