Friday Focus: Three Lessons in Pacing from J. K. Rowling & Harry Potter.
There are many aspects to J. K. Rowling’s writing that I could focus on today; from her amazing ability to weave a story, through to her colourful, intricate characters. This week, though, I’ve decided to focus on three of the ways Rowling keeps the pacing of the Harry Potter series lively.
She moves between scenes effortlessly: Rowling isn’t afraid to jump forward in time a long distance, and she does it with ease. Since the Harry Potter books are based around school years, Rowling can move forward very quickly by describing a change of season, or a coming holiday. On the other hand, Sometimes a scene will change as you’re reading it – from being in class to suddenly sitting in the Common Room doing homework. The way in which Rowling phrases her transitions doesn’t leave you feeling disconcerted, though – instead it’s just a natural flow: One moment Harry is being harassed by Professor Snape in class, and the next moment, Hermione is calling him names in the common room. It’s a wonderful use of conversation to move between settings, since you know that Hermione is unlikely to have an outburst in class, you’re subconsciously ready for the fact that the characters are talking in another setting.
She keeps conversations flowing: Rowling keeps conversations moving through small asides about what’s happening as the characters are speaking. A great example of this is in The Order of the Phoenix when Harry, Hermione, and Ron are chatting inside during a rainy lunchtime. Peeves the ghost is floating overhead firing ink pellets at people:
‘What?’ said Harry and Ron together.
‘Hermione, it was your idea in the first place!’ said Ron indignantly.
‘I know,’ said Hermione, twisting her fingers together. ‘But after talking to Snuffles …’
‘But he’s all for it,’ said Harry.
‘Yes,’ said Hermione, staring at the window again. ‘Yes, that’s what made me think maybe it wasn’t a good idea after all …’
Peeves floated over them on his stomach, peashooter at the ready; automatically all three of them lifted their bags to cover their heads until he had passed.
‘Let’s get this straight,’ said Harry angrily, as they put their bags back on the floor, ‘Sirius agrees with us, so you don’t think we should do it any more?’
Hermione looked tense and rather miserable. Now staring at her own hands, she said, ‘Do you honestly trust his judgement?’
‘Yes, I do!’ said Harry at once. ‘He’s always given us great advice!’
An ink pellet whizzed past them, striking Katie Bell squarely in the ear. Hermione watched Katie leap to her feet and start throwing things at Peeves; it was a few moments before Hermione spoke again and it sounded as though she was choosing her words very carefully.
‘You don’t think he has become … sort of … reckless … since he’s been cooped up in Grimmauld Place? You don’t think he’s … kind of … living through us?’
The conversation moves the plot along, whilst the presence of Peeves moves the scene along. It’s a simple tool that Rowling uses to great effect.
She writes compelling villains: Throughout the Harry Potter series, Rowling sets up her villains really well – they’re often in positions of influence, such as Rita Skeeter or Dolores Umbridge. In these cases, the villain leaves you feeling powerless as they run around causing havoc, which compels you to read more in order to find out if and how justice will be served. This really plays to a child’s sense of right and wrong, and the need to make sure Harry Potter is alright in the face of such villainy.
The other aspect of Rowling’s villains that keeps you reading is when their identity is unknown. When you don’t know who the character under Voldemort’s influence is, you’re compelled to read on to find a resolution. I won’t list any specific examples of this here out of respect for spoilers, but one of my favourite moments in all of the Harry Potter books is the reveal of the villain in The Goblet of Fire. It’s a twist that’s very hard to see coming, and just blows you away. The need to find out who’s pulling the strings keeps you reading right to the end.
Through these three techniques, J. K. Rowling keeps scenes flowing, and compels her readers to keep turning the pages. It’s rare to find someone who weaves characters, narrative, and plot so well together – but it’s such a treat to see these aspects of writing come together in Rowling’s work.
I hope I can incorporate even a jot of her narrative style into my stories in the future.