We all have those books that make us write better. The books we turn to when our creativity tank is running on fumes. The books that make us want to write. The books that made us feel like writing was possible.
I wanted to share five writing lessons I’ve learned from one of my favorite book series, Harry Potter. JKR’s fantasy series is lusciously liberal with description and teeming over with amazing characters; it’s no wonder that this is a book series that readers return to time and time again. Can writers learn something from JKR’s crafting of the Wizarding World? What are some of the elements of Harry Potter that make it so inherently, and insatiably, readable?
1. Plot is everything.
Yes, vivid characters are important. Yes, your writing itself needs to be comprehensible and easy on the brain. But, a well-planned plot will make your writing soar. Your readers want a story, they want to feel like they’re in the hands of someone who knows what they’re doing. There was always something deeply satisfying about getting to the end of a Harry Potter book and watching all the story threads fall into place.
Take Prisoner of Azkaban, for example.
- In an early chapter, Harry sees a newspaper clipping of the Weasleys on vacation in Egypt, and Ron has Scabbers on his shoulder.
- Soon after, we hear that Sirius Black has escaped from Azkaban. He’s presumed to be going after Harry, as he was heard in his cell, in his sleep, mumbling “He’s at Hogwarts…”
- Chapters and chapters later, Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge says he gave Sirius Black a newspaper to read during a visit to Azkaban.
- Then, in the book’s climax, Sirius reveals that he’s not after Harry, he’s after Peter, the Animagus who has disguised himself as a rat for the last twelve years, and who Sirius recognized in that photograph, sitting on Ron’s shoulder.
It feels good to read a book and see all these past clues and seemingly unconnected plot points come together at the end. Make sure everything in your story happens for a reason, and find ways to connect all your seemingly disparate moments into a single, cohesive, satisfying narrative.
2. Describe characters succinctly, focusing on a few core images that repeat whenever the character is introduced.
Hermione has bushy brown hair and (until Goblet of Fire) rather large front teeth. Ron is tall, redheaded, with a long, freckled nose. Harry is too skinny, has messy black hair, and striking green eyes just like his mother — oh, yes, and he has a lightning bolt shaped scar across his forehead. Snape has greasy black hair, a hooked nose, and a pallid, sallow complexion. Dumbledore has long, silver white hair and beard, half moon spectacles, blue eyes that seem to pierce straight through you, and a crooked nose.
Notice that all of these descriptions include just about three or four main defining features that sets that character apart from everyone else. And with these three or four seemingly simple descriptions, we can create a full, vivid, flesh and blood character in our minds. Descriptions don’t have to be overlong and overwrought. Focus on three or four details that make your character unique from everyone else in the story, and use those strokes to paint the character in the reader’s mind.
For more about writing character descriptions, and how much or how little you should include, check out my post: Are Your Characters Faceless Blobs? (Or, How Exhaustively Do You Describe Your Characters?)
3. Add mysteries!
One of the joys of reading the Harry Potter books as they were being published was participating in the fandom’s theorizing and clue-hunting to figure out what was going to happen. Within a single novel, and within the series overall, there are dozens of mysteries that need solving.
In-Book Mysteries: For the first book, for example: why did Voldemort kill Harry’s parents? Why did Harry survive the Killing Curse? What was stolen from the vault in Gringotts — and later, what is hidden under the trapdoor beneath Fluffy? Who’s trying to steal it, and how can Harry protect it? You also have mysteries of why Snape seems to hate Harry so much, who is helping Voldemort come back to life, and whether or not Harry is going to survive his first year at Hogwarts.
That’s a lot of uncertainty and intrigue going on in 75,000 words!
Overarching Mysteries: Overall, the series has several mysteries that whet readers’ appetites over the course of the seven books. Can we trust Snape? Who does he really work for? How will Harry bring down Voldemort? Why did Dumbledore get a twinkle in his eye in Goblet of Fire — does he know something he’s not yet telling us? Who will Harry, Ron, and Hermione romantically end up with? Are clues being laid to hint at their future partners? Are clues being laid suggestion that one of the golden trio is going to die before the series is done? Who will survive through to the end?
Adding mysteries to your novel, whether it’s a fantasy, science fiction, contemporary, anything, will keep the reader engaged, wondering, theorizing, and turning pages.
4. Bring the Fun.
One of the reasons the Harry Potter books are so comforting to reread is that they’re genuinely fun to read. Yes, Harry goes through harrowing trauma, and yes, the books can be extremely sad and scary in equal measure. But, Harry has successes. He wins the Quidditch Cup. He solves mysteries, he wins. And the book itself is genuinely funny. Characters crack jokes and make each other laugh, and the narration is never shy to poke fun at its own characters with a sometimes scathing wit.
One of my favorite lines from Chapter 2 of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone:
Ten years ago, there had been lots of pictures of what looked like a large pink beach ball wearing different-colored bonnets — but Dudley Dursley was no longer a baby, and now the photographs showed a large blond boy riding his first bicycle, on a carousel at the fair, playing a computer game with his father, being hugged and kissed by his mother.
Harry Potter is fun. There’s exciting action sequences, like the Tasks in the Triwizard Tournament. There’s humor all over the place. You know, when you pick up a Harry Potter book, that it will be comforting and fun and a good way to spend an afternoon. There is an overarching feeling of hope in these books, even when the story is in its darkest throes. That’s important. That’s vital. That’s why we love this series so much.
5. Create Characters Who Fail, Who We Can Root For To Succeed
Every one of the main characters in Harry Potter have personality faults. Harry is a mess, sassy and sarcastic, and can get obnoxious. Hermione has a tendency to Do The Most. Ron can be selfish and stupid. Showing characters’ bad sides makes them fully fleshed out people readers can relate to.
Fans to this day disagree over whether Dumbledore’s masterminding of Harry’s future was a brilliant strategic move from a man trying to rid the world of an evil scourge, or the work of a manipulating, meddling man who viewed Harry not a person, but as a pawn in a much larger game. Giving your character layers, making them a good person with bad habits, or a bad person with sympathetic motivations, is a sure-fire way to make your characters engaging, exciting, and easy for readers to connect with.
For a little bit more about this, check out my post: Use Your Character’s Strengths and Weaknesses to Build Your Plot.
What are some lessons your favorite book has taught you about writing? Leave a comment below, let’s chat!