When my oldest daughter first started reading the Harry Potter series, she wouldn’t put it down. We were on a car trip seeing the sights in the southwest. I thought it was great that she could keep herself entertained the whole time. But when we stopped at the Grand Canyon, she refused to stop reading and get out of the car. She missed seeing one of the seven wonders of the natural world to read Harry Potter.
What makes a story so enticing that kids and parents will stand in line at midnight to buy a book? This was what I wanted to figure out when I started reading the series myself. I had filled quite a few pages with my own writing by then and read numerous books on how to write. I sat down with the whole set from Scholastic and a notebook and pen and started taking notes.
Of course, it was hard to stay with the effort. The story pulls you in and you just can’t stop to write down what you’re thinking. But I noticed two things right away that changed the way I write.
1. Adverbs and “non-said” dialogue tags.
I’ve heard people complain what a bad writer Rowling is because she uses so many adverbs. Stephen King noted that Rowling “never met [an adverb] she didn’t like.” It’s true she tends to tack an adverb onto at least half of her dialog attributions. When I counted them on a few random pages in Prisoner of Azkaban, I got about five adverbs per page. Yet, Philip Pullman, author of The Golden Compass, is held up as an author who writes laudable prose, and in the first ten pages, he used five adverbs per page four times, for an average of 3.1 adverbs per page. Of course, he had a lot less dialog. Author Lois McMaster Bujold, who has won Hugo and Nebula Awards, uses 3.6.
So, Rowling does tend to use a few more, but it’s not vastly more than other writers. Most of the time, in fact, readers don’t notice them. One blogger noted that it was only when listening to Jim Dale’s amazing reading of the story that the adverbs jumped out at him. Most of the time when he read silently, he found the adverbs helpful.
“He bit Goyle for us once!” Ron said indignantly.
When Dale reads the line with the indignity already in his voice, the adverb jumps out as obviously unnecessary.
For me, a writer wanting to learn how to write such an engaging story, it struck that when she used these adverbs, her characters were saying all these things with dramatic intensity:
“Not now,” said Lupin firmly. “You’ve had enough for one night. Here– “
“What gives you that idea?” he said sharply.
She used “non-said” dialog attributions too:
“Riddikulus!” roared Lupin, springing forward.
Using these adverbs and attributions to convey the emotions and conflicts behind them seems justified, at least most of the time.
I wondered why I didn’t seem to have as much use for them in my story.
And that made me realize that these words tended to go along with drama and conflict. If a scene didn’t get intense enough to need these kinds of emotional cues, then maybe that scene needed more conflict.
2. Make little mysteries
One of the notes I wrote to myself while reading Chamber of Secrets was to “make little mysteries.” Of course, the whole story in Book 2 is essentially a mystery. Yet, I noticed that every scene brought up an unanswered question that I, the reader, wanted to know the answer to so much I couldn’t put the book down.
I later learned that these questions, which might be called a hook or a suspense element, are the backbone of narrative drive. (see my post on narrative drive). Rowling always keeps her narrative drive strong (although in some of the later books, it gets bogged down by backstory).
This was just the beginning of things I learned from reading Harry Potter as a new writer. Later, I learned even more, which I will share tomorrow.