What Harry Potter Teaches about the “Rules” of Writing

Today (June 26th, though it might be the 27th by the time I finish this post!) marked the 20th anniversary of the release of the book Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

Harry_Potter_and_the_Sorcerer's_Stone

Twitter, Facebook, and basically the whole internet have been all abuzz today sharing how the wizarding world of Harry Potter changed their lives. It’s been inspiring to see just how much one author’s words can really impact the world.

In honor of that anniversary, and in doing research for a presentation on how best selling books convey emotion, I have recently started re-reading that first Harry Potter book. But instead of getting lost in the magic like I did all those years ago when I approached it as a reader, when I go back to re-read it now with writer’s eyes, I have been surprised to see so many “rules” of writing being broken right and left.

First off, it starts out in an almost omniscient POV,  (offering adult POVs which is odd for a MG book), and then it switches POV to be 3rd person limited (to Harry’s POV) from Chapter 2 onward. Some might argue the first chapter is really more of a prologue, which is also something new writer’s are told to avoid like the plague. So whether you see this is as an inconsistent POV, or a prologue parading as a first chapter, the opening of the book goes against conventional writing “rules.”

There’s also lots of adverbs all over the place.

  • “said Harry furiously.”
  • “He eyed them angrily.”
  • “He cleared his throat nervously.”

We’re talking seven adverbs a page in some cases. There are almost more adverbs in this book than references to magic.  And if ever there was a writing “rule” written in stone, it would probably be: “Thou Shalt Not Write Adverbs.”

With that over use of adverbs is another rule Ms. Rowling breaks. In so many cases those adverbs tell, instead of show, emotion.  We are just flat out told a character is furious, angry or nervous instead of really being shown it.  (This is one of the reasons the rule against adverbs exists.)

Also, there is a “rule” out there these days that says not to use anything but “said” in your dialogue tags, as all other synonyms are distracting from what’s actually being spoken and the word “said” is more or less invisible to a reader. Yet in this book, in the first chapter alone, there’s all kinds of “said synonyms.”

  • “snapped Mrs. Dursley.”
  • “she pressed on”
  • “cried Professor McGonagal”
  • “repeated Professor McGonagall faintly.”
  • “hissed Professor McGonagall.”
  • “sobbed Hagrid.”

At first, seeing all these broken “rules” bugged me.  The struggling new writer in me wanted to stomp around on the playground screaming, “No fair! How come I have to play by the rules and she doesn’t!”

But then I realized, I wasn’t mad at J.K. Rowling. I wasn’t even mad at the rules themselves. I was really mad at myself for feeling so bound by the “rules” and not seeing them for what they truly were: suggestions, guidelines, and advice.

Once I recognized where my frustration was really coming from, I took another look at the “flaws” in this first Harry Potter book, and instead of bugging me, they comforted me. The presence of all those adverbs, said synonyms, and switching POVs sends a clear message to me now:

If your characters and world building are good enough,
all kinds of writing “sins” will be forgiven.

Whew! Isn’t that a relief to know? Think about it. Not only did some publisher take on The Sorcerer’s Stone with all those adverbs and told emotions and varied dialogue tags, but they didn’t make her edit them out before publication either. Because they worked. Because the story was magic. And all the readers and sold copies testified to it as well.

Does that mean I advocate for ignoring all the writing rules? No. I believe everyone’s writing is stronger without the adverbs and by following show don’t tell as a general rule. But in an effort to have “stronger” writing by obsessing over all these rules, I fear some writers (ahem, me) are missing out on developing their true strengths: characterization, world building, and conflict. I believe those three things will always carry a story further than any adherence to the “rules” of writing ever will.

So, by all means, know the “rules.” They will make you a better writer and help you not seem like an amateur author when your manuscript is pulled from the slushpile. But don’t fall into the trap of thinking that these “rules” are the end-all-be-all of writing. Your focus should always be on your characters, your world building, and your conflict. That’s your story. The “rules” are just a more polished way of presenting your story, but they will never make up for a lack in the story itself.  And if you struggle to follow all the “rules,” take heart. Your story could still be a success.

After all, it worked for J.K. Rowling.

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