Rowling’s Brilliant Storytelling

As I said in my last post, in the month leading up to the release of Harry Potter and the Very Long Subtitle, I re-read the entirety of the Harry Potter series. I hadn’t read any of the books since the first time I’d read them, usually just after they came out, so it had been about a dozen years since I’d read the earliest ones. I couldn’t even have told you how the seventh book ended, other than that Voldemort lost — I guess I had read DH so quickly, I just hadn’t retained the details very well, though I’d certainly enjoyed it at the time.

So reading them all over again was a fascinating experience for me. I was able to rediscover just how good they were, and enjoy the great plots all over again, and cry when Dumbledore died and everything.

Reading them in such a short span of time also allowed me to really appreciate just how brilliant a storyteller JK Rowling is.

I suppose arguments could be made that she’s not the most brilliant WRITER, that her prose aren’t the best, that she perhaps overuses adverbs and dialogue tags… But that’s not what I’m talking about. I really mean that she is a great STORYTELLER.

When you read the books a couple years apart, you can follow along the story and see the arc of the plot line, of Voldemort and everything, and of course each book has a nicely self-contained storyline of its own. But read them together and you can see the ways in which Rowling clearly had everything set out in her mind before even starting the first book.

It shows itself in small ways — how Dumbledore mentions Aberforth in one of the early books, in an off-hand way; how the crazy cat lady Harry’s forced to stay with sometimes in Book 1 turns out to be a Squib watching over him in Book 5; how the first Horcrux is destroyed in Book 2, establishing the means of their destruction and what they can do to those who possess them; how Harry’s Invisibility Cloak is better than others and turns out to be one of the Deathly Hallows.

How at every step, Snape’s every action is perfectly explained by his character as fully revealed at the end of Book 7.

Even little world details — like how Godrick’s Hollow is named after Gryffindor. How Book 4 establishes Durmstrang and its connection to Grindelwald. She talks about the goblin wars in all the boring History of Magic classes, and then shows us in Book 7 how goblins are so different from wizards, and makes it a point of conflict with Griphook.

How Neville’s birthday and parents, and thus connection to the prophecy, are known long before we know about the prophecy. How Dumbledore mentions that Trelawny only ever made one real prophecy before the one in Book 4, but won’t say what it was.

And while Harry Potter and the Lengthy Initialism was a fantastic movie and absolutely succeeded at what it set out to do, it and the other movies were never able to capture this brilliant full realization of the world and context and through-lines of the books.

But not only are these things established in such a way that makes it clear Rowling knew the whole story beginning to end. That just requires planning. Rowling’s amazing ability for storytelling shows itself in how that information is revealed. She established a rule of the world in one book, and then has it be extremely important again in a later book.

She establishes animagi in Book 3, and then uses them as part of the mystery in Book 4. We know all about werewolves before we encounter Greyback. We know all about veritaserum before Umbridge tries to use it on Harry. Book 2 establishes polyjuice potion and all its features before Crouch uses it all through Book 4. The Room of Requirement. Moaning Myrtle. The Grey Lady. Rita Skeeter. Entire family trees. And did I mention Snape?

But at the same time, Rowling doesn’t bog us down with unnecessary details. When we learn something about the world, it’s because it’s important now — and then we already know it when it’s important again, later. We don’t really learn that Harry’s cloak is better than other invisibility cloaks until Book 7, but when they talk about the ways in which it is, we go, “Hey, yeah, that’s totally true.” There’s no blocks of exposition just for the sake of establishing something for later, but when it does come up later, it seems so natural.

I find this even more masterful in some of the broader arcs. For instance, Harry learns expelliarmus early in the series, and then uses it against Voldemort in Book 4. This is his downfall at the start of Book 7 when — because it’s seen as his “signature spell” — it reveals which Harry is the real one. But then, in a brilliant completion of the full arc, he uses it at the end to best Voldemort, and take the Elder Wand. It’s the full Hero’s Journey in one spell, one plot point getting the full three-act structure.

And Rowling doesn’t rely on us remembering all that. She makes sure to re-establish expelliarmus at the start of Book 7 so we see the arc at the end. She always makes sure we can follow — but if we do remember the things established in earlier books, it’s all the sweeter.

This would be great storytelling in one book. Sustained across seven, on many, many fronts, it’s genius.

Writing , , , , , , , ,


  1. Love your post and am glad to have found your blog! I totally agree with all you say, especially about how JKR always gave a heads-up to one of her magical creations before using it as a major plot point in a later book.

    She is also a master at subtext, both with mythical allusions and with leaving her trail of clues in her mystery plotting. The amount of planning and research she put into her work is simply amazing.

    • What a fantastic coincidence, I just found YOUR blog a few days ago, and was going to link to one of your posts in a post I’m going to do next week on character arcs!

      Thanks for the comment, and I completely agree about the clues. It’s usually not enough for you to be able to figure it out before it’s revealed because you’re often still missing a piece of information, but it’s enough for you to go “Ohhh! Yeah, that makes sense, she totally set that up!” when it IS revealed. =)

  2. LOL, Lucas, indeed what a coincidence! And thank you!

    And you’re so right about the clues. JKR is the ultimate magician with her sleight-of-hand. :-)

  3. Pingback: Silverstring Media » Building Hooks: Taking a Cue from the Harry Potter Series

  4. You’re right, she is brilliant. I usually re-read the books every time a new one was coming out, but it wasn’t until the lead-up to the final book that I really grasped everything in a similar way to what you just described. I read so much Harry in such a short time, whenever I wasn’t reading I felt like the story was continuing on without me, and I had to get back to it as soon as possible. You know you’re a good storyteller when your readers actually fret that your novel is moving on without them!

    Plus, I remember when I first read Order of Pheonix. I thought it was too long, a bit boring compared to the Goblet of Fire (which, arguably, was a hard act to follow) but when I did the re-read I realized how much that book mattered.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>