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Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Top Six Tips I Learned from Studying Harry Potter by S.P. Sipal

I confess.  Over the last ten years, I've had an unhealthy obsession with The Boy Who Lived. I've written editorials, presented workshop at conferences, started my own blog, and even published a Kindle book -- all with the goal of unearthing JK Rowling's secrets.

But what has been a bit on the obsessive compulsive side for me is a good thing for you! You don’t have to pore through all seven books to ferret out Rowling's tricks.

So, here for your amusement or edification, not sure which, are the top six tips I've learned from studying JK Rowling's phenomenally selling series:

6) Quirky Gamekeepers can be Captivating:

Who couldn't love Hagrid?  I mean, what's there not to love about a half-giant who hatches dragons in his fireplace and calls a three-headed monster Fluffy? 

Rowling is universally acknowledged for creating characters readers latch onto.  Fans just can't get enough of them! Which is why they create their own fanfiction and demand more and more details from the author.

So, how does Rowling do this? Her techniques for character development are too numerous to detail here, but one tip is that she created each character with exquisite detail and then gave each one their own quirky flair.

Pomona Sprout always has dirt beneath her fingers.  Sour and sneaky old Filch has an equally sneaky old cat he adores. The twins create candies that make students vomit. Mr. Weasley, who's a Muggle-lover, collects electrical cords.

These rich, interesting details are what make Rowling’s people come so alive to the fans.  Make sure you've fully envisioned your characters, right down to your batty old cat-lady squib neighbor!

5) You've Got to Have a Snape:

And speaking of well-loved characters, there is no character in Potterverse more discussed and dissected than Snape.  Not even Harry.  Harry, the reader knows and understands. Harry, for the most part, was always on the side of right.  But Snape....

Snape was a mystery, an enigma.  And beyond his mystery, he most definitely was a man of ambiguity.  Because the readers could never pin this gray Potions master down for sure, he captivated their attention.

Have you written a character who flits between your dark and light sides, whose backstory will not be fully revealed until the end, who is in every way an ambiguous anti-hero?

Explore the full breadth of your most important themes with a character who inhabits the outer reaches.  After all, a Snape can go where both hero and antagonist fear to tread!

 4) The Dark Lord's in the Detail:

The level of detail with which Rowling creates her world is amazing, and that’s truly one of the great secrets of writing.  Solid details breathe life into your characters and world.

I liken it to pregnancy when women are told to make sure every bite counts because every morsel that goes into your mouth contributes to the health of your growing baby.  In writing, every word you create should provide as powerful an impact on your developing story as possible. Don't just toss words around.

JK Rowling created a character whose leather boots are the size of small dolphins (Hagrid), a family home where a petrified gnome decorated the Christmas tree (courtesy of Fred and George), a plot that hinged on the loyalties of wands (the Elder Wand).  Your own details can be just as fascinating.

If you do your job right, you'll have more details than you can realistically work onto the paper.  The details you choose to insert should be carefully chosen to carry the greatest amount of impact with the least amount of words.  Because, like Voldemort, lack of interesting detail is truly a killer!

3) Be like Dumbledore -- Withhold your backstory until the very end:

J.K. Rowling has said that if you were to put all the multiple drafts of the first chapter of Philosopher's Stone together, you'd have the whole story from the very beginning.  The fact that she got wise and so judiciously cut out all that backstory from the start is a huge reason as to why her novels became the phenomenal success they did.

Donald Maass, the great literary agent, says "Backstory is called backstory because it belongs in the back of the story."  J.K. Rowling intuitively aced this lesson.

What would Harry Potter fandom have been without the search for what actually happened in Godric's Hollow? Who was Snape truly loyal to? And how would Harry defeat the greatest dark wizard who had ever lived?

All these questions were dragged out until the end of the series because they all involved backstory which had been withheld until the reader was dying to know.

Don't dump it all on your first page, your first chapter. Weave in enough backstory to keep your reader from getting confused, but then withhold it until they are begging for the knowledge only you can give.

2) Engage the Reader...like J.K. Rowling

J.K. Rowling so thoroughly engaged her reader that they brag about how many times they've read each book.  Not only that, her works have birthed several smaller spinoffs: fanfiction, fanart, wizard wrock, theme parks (if you can call that small), and of course, we can't forget the movies.

Why all this action outside her text?  Because in almost every aspect of storytelling JKR gave the reader MORE than they were expecting.  More fascinating characters, more complex plots, more mysteries that threaded throughout the series, more fascinating worlds to explore, more intriguing subtext.  And each one of these categories invited the reader in to explore and interact with the story.  By giving them more, and challenging their abilities, she engaged their interest.

Do whatever you can to make your story interactive and engage your reader's interest, and this starts by giving them more than they are expecting.

1) Above all...Have fun like you're Ron (or the Twins)!

It is evident on every page of each story that JK Rowling was enjoying herself immensely crafting Harry Potter.  She played with her reader from The Boy Who Lived (1st chapter of Philosopher's Stone) until The Flaw in the Plan (final chapter of Deathly Hallows), and they eagerly joined into her game.

I'm sure there were many down times (especially during the lawsuits) for Jo, but the stories stayed exciting and passionate.  Something like that can only come from an author thoroughly immersed in her world and characters.

Why are you writing if you're not having fun?  Enjoy yourself!  Take the time to refill your own well so that you will have the water of life to give back into your stories.  Chose your worlds and your people from an imagination full of stories only you can tell and desire passionately to do so.

Then do it with every skill and trick you possess!

Check out the FF&P Workshop being given by S.P. Sipal this October:  A Writer's Guide to Harry Potter
BIO:   Susan Sipal
Published in fiction and non-fiction through essays, short stories and a novel, Susan has presented multiple workshops, both at home and abroad, to help writers develop their craft as they analyze the mysteries of Harry Potter. She is now thrilled to be an editor with Musa Publishing. As an author, her most recent release is “Running Raw” in Sweeter Than Tea from BelleBooks and has an upcoming story, "Lighting the Sacred Way" appearing in Journeys of Wonder, vol 2, from Fuzzbom Publishing in the fall. She Tweets at @HP4Writers and blogs at Myth, Magic, and Mystery (

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