Thursday, December 21, 2017

The Hunger Games: The Archive

Let’s do one last post before the holidays to archive the Hunger Games posts I’ve done over the years:

But I had lots of posts before that as well (and most of them were a lot more critical than my recent posts):

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Rulebook Casefile: How “The Hunger Games” Fills the Reader In on What’s Going On

Let’s look at how the first chapter of “The Hunger Games” parcels out information.

  • Katniss wakes up, sees her mother and sister, interacts with cat, mentions to us that it’s Reaping Day but doesn’t explain what that means.
  • Katniss goes out the door, sees the town, explains to us what District 12 and the Seam are.
  • She slips out through the fence, mentions that her father died in a mine explosion.
  • She gets her bow, explains black market economy and peacekeepers.
  • She meets up with Gale and they eat, and she tells us about the capitol.
  • They find the black market, then interact with the mayor’s daughter, in her nice reaping clothes. They discuss the mathematics of who will get chosen, which we don’t understand, then, as they leave, Katniss explains the system to us.
  • Katniss returns to her family and they go to the Reaping. Katniss explains to us how the lottery works.
  • Katniss sees the officials lined up. For the first time, she tells us the story of how North America became Panem, then she explains how the Hunger Games works.
  • Effie addresses the crowd. Prim is chosen.

So over the course of ten pages, we gradually find out everything we want to know, and it’s very effective. Let’s look at other ways Collins could have done it.

  • The book could have done what the movie did: The movie just begins with onscreen text explaining in a few paragraphs what the Hunger Games are, before Katniss is introduced. Then we get a snippet of Caesar Flickerman interviewing the game-maker Seneca Crane, where they fill in more of the what the games are, then we cut to District 12 (identified by an onscreen title)
  • On the other hand, it could have all been mysterious until we arrived at the Reaping at which point Effie could have described everything to the crowd (even though they already knew it)
  • Even past that, they could have waited to actually show us what the Hunger Games were.

The book on other hand, makes good use of first-person direct address. Katniss just tells us everything we need to know, in little pieces, sometimes motivated by something she sees, but sometimes not. The key is that it’s all interspersed with action and dialogue. She’s up and about, visiting several locations, hunting and killing, having several conversations while she’s telling us all this.

She also tells it to us in the most intriguing way possible: She first mentions Reaping Day and the Hunger Games without telling us what they are. She lets us dangle for a few pages, and engages in some dialogue about it with others that we don’t understand, and then, once our interest is built for a while, she finally explains to us what they each are.

We get the information fast enough that the book can get going quickly, but just slowly enough that it never feels like an info-dump. It’s a model of how to set-up a future world.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Juxtapose the Melodramatic with the Mundane

It’s hard to care about melodrama. When characters are feeling huge emotions about huge events, the natural tendency as a reader is to roll your eyes and say, “Whoa there, it’s too big, too much, too silly.” All we know are our piddly little lives. We don’t know what we would do in these shocking circumstances and we can’t imagine.

So it’s hard to write big shocking moments without losing your audience. But here’s a trick: juxtapose the melodramatic with the mundane. Here’s Katniss when her sister’s name is called:

  • There must have been some mistake. This can’t be happening. Prim was one slip of paper in thousands! Her chances of being chosen so remote that I’d not even bothered to worry about her. Hadn’t I done everything? Taken the tesserae, refused to let her do the same? One slip. One slip in thousands. The odds had been entirely in her favor. But it hadn’t mattered. Somewhere far away, I can hear the crowd murmuring unhappily as they always do when a twelve-year-old gets chosen because no one thinks this is fair. And then I see her, the blood drained from her face, hands clenched in fists at her sides, walking with stiff, small steps up toward the stage, passing me, and I see the back of her blouse has become untucked and hangs out over her skirt. It’s this detail, the untucked blouse forming a ducktail, that brings me back to myself.

We’re in the same position as Katniss: Only the untucked shirt makes it real to us. It’s too hard to comprehend the horror that a twelve-year old will be sacrificed in a future gladiatorial game. It’s absurd. It’s too big. But an untucked shirt is small. We can comprehend that. It’s real. And if it’s real, juxtaposed with the other, then the other must be real as well.

A twelve year old, telling us about the wild gladitorial dream she just had, wouldn’t mention that untucked shirt. It’s too mundane. That’s the sort of detail you would only notice if you were actually there. So when we see it, we’re suddenly actually there.

The more outlandish your scenario, the more important it is to include little glimpses of mundane details, just to make it real.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Get to the Premise Quickly (Even if It Means Skipping Some Set-Up)

So we get to the Reaping in “The Hunger Games”, and they’re going to read out the names of the tributes. First we hear the female tribute: Oh no, it’s Katniss’s sister Prim, who we care about! Then we hear the male tribute and it’s…Peeta Mellark! And we say, “Who?” We’ve had the chance to meet various villagers that morning, but not Peeta, so the name lands with a thud.

Then Katniss fills us in that she’s not close with Peeta, but she does know him and like him because of something nice he did for her a while ago.

Why not establish beforehand who Peeta is, so that his name will have an impact on us when it’s read out? Because there’s just not time. A little set-up is fine, but the reader wants the plot to start going as soon as possible.

If there’s time, then there’s some value in letting us know who someone is before something happens to them, but not if it takes too long. The book is called “The Hunger Games”, not “Life in the Seam”, and we want to get to find out what that is and begin the process.

We have about ten pages of set-up (most of which is action in the woods). During that time we get to meet three possible female tributes: Katniss, Prim, and the mayor’s daughter, but we only meet one potential male tribute: Gale. If Collins had introduced Peeta during this time, she also would have had to introduce some other men so it wouldn’t be too obvious, and we could have some shock that it’s Peeta. (Also it would be too much of a coincidence if Katniss had only interacted with a few people that morning and two of them had their names called. It’s far more believable that she only met one that morning.)

Finding out a reason to care about Peeta after his name is called works out fine. Collins knows she can just make us care retroactively, after the name fails to get a reaction from us. In fact, we’ll care more. She’s lost the potential for shock, but she knows we’ll feel more for Peeta’s backstory now as a result.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Rulebook Casefile: The “Drown the Cat” Intro in “The Hunger Games”

The late Blake Snyder wrote three great books of writing advice that are still widely disseminated today, but I have a problem with his central piece of advice, that heroes should be introduced by a selflessly heroic moment in which they “Save the Cat.”

“The Hunger Games” takes a different path. Let’s look at the third paragraph:

  • Sitting at Prim’s knees, guarding her, is the world’s ugliest cat. Mashed-in nose, half of one ear missing, eyes the color of rotting squash. Prim named him Buttercup, insisting that his muddy yellow coat matched the bright flower. He hates me. Or at least distrusts me. Even though it was years ago, I think he still remembers how I tried to drown him in a bucket when Prim brought him home. Scrawny kitten, belly swollen with worms, crawling with fleas. The last thing I needed was another mouth to feed. But Prim begged so hard, cried even, I had to let him stay. It turned out okay. My mother got rid of the vermin and he’s a born mouser. Even catches the occasional rat. Sometimes, when I clean a kill, I feed Buttercup the entrails. He has stopped hissing at me.

I guess you could say she saves a cat…from her own murderous impulses. But she still describes her as disgustedly as she possibly can!

Why do we like this nasty heroine? In the parlance of my book, we believe, care and invest:

  • Believe: This one paragraph does a great job showing a consistent worldview. Every word is colored by a very unique way of seeing the world. She doesn’t seem like an accumulation of author-imposed traits. She seems like a fully-realized human.
  • Care: She’s suffering and doing what she can to survive. If she was living a comfortable life in the suburbs, we would hate her for wanting to kill a cat, but seeing her hunger, our heart goes out to her. We wonder what we would do.
  • Invest: We definitely trust her to solve whatever challenges this book offers. She’s bad-ass, and she’s ready to make hard decisions.

Don’t worry, Katniss does get a chance to kill a cat a few pages later:

  • Then when this crazy lynx started following me around the woods looking for handouts, it became his official nickname for me. I finally had to kill the lynx because he scared off game. I almost regretted it because he wasn’t bad company. But I got a decent price for his pelt.

All of this cat killing ironically sets us up for her one big moment of selflessness later. If Katniss volunteered for the Hunger Games because she was a super-nice person, we wouldn’t buy it. It’s only because she’s so vicious that it’s believable and compelling.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Annotation Project: The Hunger Games

Well folks, I didn’t get any non-bot comments on two weeks of “Gone Girl” pieces. I’ve always been reluctant to do books due to my fear that nobody actually reads, and that suspicion feels like it’s being confirmed. Let’s do one more book, see if anybody responds, then see where we’re going from there.  UPDATE: As requested, here’s a link to a downloadable Word file.

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Straying from the Party Line: Starting in Their Heads Instead of With Dialogue in “Gone Girl”

As a general rule, you want to resist the urge to have characters tell us a lot about themselves before we get to hear them have an actual conversation out loud. This is because the audience knows to distrust whatever people say about their own personalities. Anyone can tell you about how nice and charming they are, but it’s only when we hear them engage in conversation with someone else that we get to judge that for ourselves, which is what readers want to do.

“Gone Girl” breaks this rule, but it does so for good reason: Neither of Flynn’s two heroes is very appealing in real life. This is a really brave thing to do, writing about people who are pretty, shallow, and clever-but-not-as-clever-as-they-think-they-are. After all, shallow people are people too, and they too deserve books. So Flynn begins both Nick and Amy’s sections by letting them speak directly to us, giving us their versions of their lives. They’re trying to make themselves sound good, and not entirely succeeding.

Interestingly, she has one good chance to give us some dialogue, when they have breakfast together, and she doesn’t. Instead we just get this description:

  • Amy was in the kitchen, oblivious to my hesitation. She was humming something melancholy and familiar. I strained to make it out – a folk song? a lullabye? – and then realized it was the theme to M.A.S.H. Suicide is painless. I went downstairs.
  • I hovered in the doorway, watching my wife. Her yellow-butter hair was pulled up, the hank of ponytail swinging cheerful as a jumprope, and she was sucking distractedly on a burnt fingertip, humming around it. She hummed to herself because she was an unrivaled botcher of lyrics. When we were first dating, a Genesis song came on the radio: ‘She seems to have an invisible touch, yeah.’ And Amy crooned instead, ‘She takes my hat and puts it on the top shelf.’ When I asked her why she’d ever think her lyrics were remotely, possibly, vaguely right, she told me she always thought the woman in the song truly loved the man because she put his hat on the top shelf. I knew I liked her then, really liked her, this girl with an explanation for everything.
  • There’s something disturbing about recalling a warm memory and feeling utterly cold.
  • Amy peered at the crepe sizzling in the pan and licked something off her wrist. She looked triumphant, wifely. If I took her in my arms, she would smell like berries and powdered sugar.
  • When she spied me lurking there in grubby boxers, my hair in full Heat Miser spike, she leaned against the kitchen counter and said, ‘Well, hello, handsome.’
  • Bile and dread inched up my throat. I thought to myself: Okay, go.
  • I was very late getting to work […]

This is the only modern day scene with the two of them together until the end of the book, and they don’t get any real dialogue. It’s a shocking decision. We do get a warm moment between the two here, but it’s his memory of a warm moment, not one in real time. We don’t hear what they’re actually saying other than one line.

Why not give us what we want here? Because Flynn wants us to spend the first half of the book unable to determine who’s right about their relationship, but if she gave them a substantial conversation here, we would have enough information to make a more informed decision about their personalities and relationship, and she doesn’t want that.

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Straying from the Party Line: The Unreliable Narrator Fake-Out in “Gone Girl”

Another trend recently is the increase of unreliable narrators. In “Gone Girl”, Gillian Flynn takes advantage of this trend in a clever way: She plays with us by letting us assume that her narrator is more unreliable than he actually is. The fact that our narrator isn’t lying to us (much) turns out to be a big twist!

One of the most famous unreliable narrators of all time is to be found in Agatha Christie’s “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd”. At the beginning of that story, our narrator, Dr. Sheppard, tells us of the day of the murder, then about his experiences “assisting” Hercule Poirot is solving it. Only at the end, after Poirot has solved it, does Sheppard admit to the reader that he left out some key information: He committed the murder himself.

Flynn encourages us to treat her co-hero Nick as a modern-day Dr. Sheppard. We begin with the words “Nick Dunne, the Day of” then we get his first person tale of that day, but we instantly wonder if he’s just skipping over the part where he kills her.

Obviously, as an author, this is a very dangerous game. Usually, your whole job is to get us to fully bond with your hero, to share his POV, to know what he knows, to wonder about the same things he wonders about, to trust him to solve the challenge that we want him to solve.  Flynn is doing the opposite. She’s encouraging us to distrust our hero, to assume that he knows more than he’s saying. We suspect that he won’t really try to solve the mystery we want solved: What happened to his wife?

Flynn isn’t going to reveal until halfway through that Amy is still alive, so how does she fill our time with Nick while she’s encouraging us to suspect him? Amy has created a mystery for Nick to solve: a scavenger hunt. We suspect that he’s trying to solve it idly after killing her, rather than genuinely trying to solve it to look for clues to her disappearance, which is the truth.

By choosing to play this game, Flynn is limiting her own options. She can’t show us anything, or have him think anything, that would make it clear that he isn’t guilty. What a fiendish thing to do to herself! It’s amazing that she keeps it interesting. Cutting to Amy’s diary helps. We identify more with her than him, wondering along with her if he intends to (which is to say, already has) hurt her.

Flynn does gratify our suspicion that he’s an unreliable narrator a bit when he admits to us that he has been eliding part of the story: that he’s having an affair. Ironically, it’s when he admits this to us that we really begin to suspect that’s all he’s lying about.

What about you? Did you suspect Nick? When did you stop suspecting him? Do you think the trick was worth the effort it obviously took for Flynn to pull it off?

Sunday, December 03, 2017

What I Wish I'd Heard at Graduation: Take Any Writing Job (And Two Rulebook Casefiles)

 Gillian Flynn doesn’t have an MFA. From a profile in Elle:
  • Knowing she wanted to be a writer but too practical—self-effacing, as well—to apply to an MFA program, the de rigueur move for an East or West Coaster with similar preoccupations, she applied to journalism school instead. Claiming novelist as your ambition sounded, in her words, "Mmm, yeah, a little…lofty." She thought she'd become a crime reporter, combine her love of words with her love of sex and death. Only, as it turned out, she had, of all things, a squeamish side, which effectively put the kibosh on a career covering the mean streets. So after graduating from Northwestern, she moved to New York and took a job with Entertainment Weekly. At EW she could be up to her eyeballs in kiss kiss bang bang, but kiss kiss bang bang at a remove, safely confined to the screen, dissipating once the credits rolled and the lights came up. She stayed on staff for 10 years, writing about movies and TV.
If you imagine yourself as a great novelist, then writing reviews for Entertainment Weekly (not even the New Yorker!) might seem like too much of a comedown, but for Flynn, it was the apprenticeship she needed. What’s a huge part of writing reviews? Coining unique adjectives and similes! You don’t want to say, “I liked it because it was good.” You want to say what it was like.

Every writing job gets you writing, and the more manipulation of words you do, the more facility you’ll have.  If you must get a graduate degree, do what Flynn did and get a journalism degree.  Unlike MFAs, journalists learn to write on deadline, listen to real speech, and crystalize it into just the most interesting bits.

This leads us to two Rulebook Casefiles: Give Every Hero a Part of Yourself and Tap Into Real Life National Pain.

Of course, the problem with the advice I’m giving you is that these jobs are now much fewer and farther between than they used to be. But of course that change is a big part of this novel. Flynn has gifted her backstory to her character Nick, and by doing so, she’s tapped into a real source of national pain: the death of a huge sector of the economy due to the rise of the online space, culminating in a total wipeout with the 2008 crash.

Indeed, I learned a lot about writing by writing reviews but I was part of the problem: I gave away my reviews for free on this blog. I would have loved to have made the jump to writing paid reviews, but nobody was hiring because the magazines were failing because they couldn’t compete with free content like mine!

Flynn knew her pain was real, and widely shared, and that she could bestow it upon her character to make him real, and more meaningful. Giving your own life away is the greatest gift you can give your characters (And then, once you gift them your real past, you craft a present that is more interesting than your actual present. You don’t want to get too realistic.)

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Storyteller's Rulebook: Coin Unique Similes

People read “Gone Girl” for the crackerjack thriller plot, but there are dozens of clever thrillers published every year. Why did this become such a phenomenon? Because the actual writing is also pretty great. The book makes great use of language.

It’s hard to write unique similes. In our actual lives we fall back on familiar similes as much as possible, so it’s believable enough when your characters do that, but your readers don’t want to read that. Familiar similes are stultifying to readers. They’re a waste of space. Readers crave unique similes, even if it’s not entirely realistic that your narrator would be coining them.

  • Nick begins the book by rhapsodizing about Amy’s head, which is “Like a shiny, hard corn kernel or a riverbed fossil”
  • He says of Amy and his mother: “Their few meetings had left them both baffled. Amy would dissect the conversations for days after – ‘And what did she mean by …,’ – as if my mother were some ancient peasant tribeswoman arriving from the tundra with an armful of raw yak meat and some buttons for bartering, trying to get something from Amy that wasn’t on offer.”
  • He mentions “an Eisenhower-era linoleum floor, the edges turned up like burnt toast”

Is it entirely believable that Nick would come up with such unique similes? He is, after all, a writer. Granted, he’s a retired “Entertainment Weekly” writer, but so is Flynn. If she can come up with these, so could he.

Last time, I praised how different their voices are, well here’s another example: Her similes aren’t as good. She was, after all, a personality quiz author, not a reviewer. She says things like “Like some sort of feral love jackal”. One of her better attempts is “adopted orphan smile”, but then she brags about how good it is, ruining the goodwill that she built up.

(The book also does a great job with unique adjectives, like “thick afternoon naps” and “fish-white feet”)

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Rulebook Casefile: Different POVs with Different Voices in “Gone Girl”

I talked last time about how I’m not a fan of including lots of third-person POV characters, so it’ll be no surprise that I’m not generally a fan of multiple first-person POVs. You know that I’ve always been a fan of having one hero for the audience to totally bond with.

If Suzy is wondering what’s going on in Bob’s head, then I want to stay with Suzy and bond with her as she tries to figure Bob out, I don’t want to briefly jump into Bob’s head to find out what Suzy will never know.

But if you have to do it, “Gone Girl” is a beautiful example of a multiple first-person POV novel done right:
  • It has a reason to exist: This is the story of a poisonous marriage, viewed though two radically different points of view with radically different facts. Either POV would be insufficient to tell this story. It’s richer for having both. This isn’t a case where we have the hero and an additional POV, the two are given equal weight. The interplay of the two POVs is more interesting than either on its own.
  • It’s careful to let us know exactly where we are at all times, beginning each chapter with the name of the narrator and where we are in the timeline.
  • It actually gives Nick and Amy genuinely different voices. The biggest risk in having multiple POVs is that the reader won’t be reading closely and miss the jump entirely. There’s no risk of that here. After six pages of his bitter, wistful, depressed, regretful, self-lacerating voice, looking back on their wreckage of a relationship, we jump to her chirpy, manic, needy, optimistic voice, looking forward to the sure-to-be-great relationship to come. Her first line is something he would never say “Tra and la!” 
  • And yet both voices are sympathetic, albeit in very different ways. We bond with both, to a certain extent, though we also look down on each (he for being a loser, her for being na├»ve)
Next we’ll talk about how even their similes are different...

Sunday, November 26, 2017

The Annotation Project: Gone Girl

Alright, Harry Potter worked well, so let’s do an adult book this time. Obviously, I’m trying to stick to books everybody has read (or at least seen the movie). If you’ve done neither, be warned that I will spoil the story here. As usual, I’ll have a lot more to say about these pages over the next two weeks.  Once again, I apologize for the less than ideal presentation here, making you click on each of these (in a way that doesn't really work on phones).  It’s bizarre that Blogger doesn’t offer the option of images the same size as their column size.  Any ideas for a better way to present these?  (I offered a Word download last week.  Should I do that again?  Did anybody actually do that? UPDATE: Here it is.)

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Harry Potter: The Archive

I’m all ready to go with the next book, but it’s Thanksgiving week, so I figured I would just wrap up for this week with a review of all the Harry Potter pieces I’ve written over the years.
Last week I annotated the first twenty pages of Harry Potter and wrote a series of posts about what we can learn from those pages:

But Ive written a lot about Harry over the years.  Most infamously, I did my Harry Potter Meddler Week:
But Ive also written lots of other posts about Harry over the years:

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Storyteller’s Rulebook: The Value of Rowling’s Omniscient Third Person

It’s my opinion that readers crave as few points of view as possible. I prefer either first person or third person that’s strictly limited to one head. But writers love to skip from head to head, because it’s more convenient to tell a story that way, and Rowling is no exception. The first chapter begins in Mr. Dursley’s POV, then switches to McGonagall’s, then to Dumbledore, and only in Chapter 2 do we switch to Harry, where we will remain for most of the rest of the book.

But there’s also a fourth POV here, and it’s the one that makes all the others work: Rowling’s own. The very first time we leave a POV, as Mr. Dursley goes to sleep, on our way out the window to McGonagall, we pause for a one sentence paragraph where Rowling inserts her own voice.

The POV isn’t just idly wandering from one character to the next, our goddess is plucking it away from one character, commenting directly to us about what a fool he is, and then safely setting us back down in the POV of McGonagall.

In the above excerpt, “How very wrong he was,” makes all the difference. It establishes that we have omniscient third-person narration, and that our omniscient third-person narrator might sometimes, very rarely, have something to say directly to us. This isn’t Harry’s book, it’s J. K. Rowling’s, and she’s going to show some character herself.

Even before this, Mr. Dursley’s thoughts aren’t necessarily summarized in the way he would summarize his own thoughts, but rather in the way that Rowling would:
  • Mr. Dursley was enraged to see that a couple of them weren’t young at all; why, that man had to be older than he was, and wearing an emerald-green cloak!
That “why” is key. It diminishes Mr. Dursley. It’s also a subtle hint that we’re reading a children’s book, despite the adult characters. It sounds like the narrative voice of a picture book. Even when narrating our POV character’s thoughts, Rowling’s omniscient narration is making itself heard.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Storyteller’s Rulebook: To Prologue or Not to Prologue?

Should you start your book with a prologue or chapter one? Declaring your opening pages to be a prologue can have its uses.

When we begin to read a book, we’re desperate for a hero. We want to find one character we can believe in, care about, and invest in, then settle in comfortably to that character’s POV as we launch into this book. But sometimes it’s not convenient to begin your book that way. Sometimes you have a good reason to begin your book away from your hero’s POV.

Maybe you want to begin with a scene featuring the eventual villain, or one of the victims of that villain. Maybe you want to begin in the past before your hero had his or her current personality.  In each of those cases, you have a problem: You’re not presenting the audience with what they want, a fully-realized hero in the story’s modern-day to start the story with. The danger is that they’ll try to bond with whatever character you’re giving them, only to find them woefully insufficient, because of course this isn’t your hero yet.

One solution is to tip off your audience that this isn’t your hero yet by declaring those opening pages to be a prologue, not chapter one. This is a way to buy yourself some time. You’re assuring your reader: Don’t be alarmed if you can’t find anybody to care about yet, the book hasn’t really begun yet, this is just to establish plot or tone or whatever. Character will have to wait.

This way, you can maybe get a few more pages out of your gatekeeper as well.You can’t put it down after five pages if you haven’t even gotten to chapter one yet! You at least have to give me that long.

So all of these are reasons that the opening pages of Harry Potter book 1 could have been identified as a prologue. We begin in the POV of Mr. Dursley, of all people, for five pages, then jump briefly to a cat, then Dumbledore, then meet our hero as a baby. It’s only in the next chapter that we’ll jump ahead ten years and the real narrative begins.

But Rowling calls her opening Chapter One. Is it possible that this hurt her with the twelve publishers that rejected her? Would they have kept reading longer if they had been reassured that Mr. Dursley wasn’t going to be the hero of the book?

Would there have been any downside to declaring it to be a prologue? Would it seem too fussy? Would kids be less likely to pick it up if it didn’t seem like it would get going right away? Or is there some fear that they would simply skip those pages?

Ultimately, the book sold, and caught on like wildfire, and now it’s the first book that many kids read on their own, so clearly it did something right. Maybe we should do away with prologues altogether? What do you think: Is this intro better off as a prologue or chapter one?

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Rulebook Casefile: Harry Potter Goes From Hero to Zero

It’s the greatest paradox of writing: Readers want heroes to be underdogs, but they don’t want them to be losers. They don’t want your main character to actually go from being zero to hero: they want him or her to start out with skills and admirable characteristics that will carry him or her though the story.

But Harry Potter does come off as sort of a loser in the first chapter of his first book:
  • Harry had always been small and skinny for his age. He looked even smaller and skinnier than he really was because all he had to wear were old clothes of Dudley’s, and Dudley was about four times bigger than he was. Harry had a thin face, knobbly knees, black hair, and bright green eyes. He wore round glasses held together with a lot of Scotch tape because of all the times Dudley had punched him on the nose.
Harry then takes a lot of abuse, without much pushback.  He’s really downtrodden.  Rowling is totally playing up the underdog aspect. We fear for him more than we cheer for him.

Why does this work? Because of the first chapter, when we saw Harry at age 1, having defeated the scariest wizard of all time. We don’t find out until book 4 (in a moment that I think should have gotten more emphasis) that Harry did not defeat Voldemort due to any inherent powers, but simply because of a spell his mom cast to bounce Voldemort’s spell off the baby. Until that reveal, we assume that Harry has some sort of special superpower that leaves all the greatest wizards in his world in awe. He’s the great hero they were all waiting for, right from the start.

So we’re more willing to put up with loserish qualities in Harry when we meet him again at age 11. He’s allowed to go from zero to hero, because he’s already gone from hero to zero. He’s secretly the ultimate bad-ass, so it’s ironic that he seems so weak now. If we didn’t know better, and we had the sense that he really was simply a weakling, we might be put off and quit reading.

Thursday, November 09, 2017

Storyteller’s Rulebook: The Value of the Baby in a Basket in Harry Potter

One of the basic story archetypes is the baby in the basket: A baby is destined for a glorious life, but then, usually to save his life, he is taken away from his parents, who often die, and he’s sent to live in more modest circumstances, where he is raised humbly, believing himself to be a commoner. When he gets old enough, he finds out about his glorious legacy and rises to become a hero.

Oedipus is a baby in a basket. So is Achilles. So is Superman. One variation on the theme is Moses, who is sent to less modest circumstances, but even there, he’s separated from the source of his future super-powers until he discovers his birth parents.

And of course Harry Potter is a classic “baby in a basket” hero.

Why does this archetype work so well? Because there are two competing human impulses: the inclination to admire those of great birth, and the contradictory inclination to admire those who learned from rough circumstances. The magic of the “baby in a basket” is that he gets to be both at the same time, ensuring that everyone will like him

These stories also speak to us because they reflect our universal sense of being misunderstood. We all feel like we are destined for greatness and mistreated by a world that insists on treating us like ordinary people, and we long to read about characters for whom that’s really true. The moment where the hero finds out that he was born to be great is the ultimate wish fulfillment for the reader.

Rowling also taps into another universal feeling, as least for anybody with a sibling. Every sibling feels, at one time or another, that they’re being slighted in favor of another sibling. Rowling takes that universal sense of injustice and magnifies it a thousand-fold, creating deep identification.

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Straying from the Party Line: Harry Potter and the First Five Pages Test

Update: This post originally said that Rowling had no agent, which is what I was told by my wife, but my mother-in-law has now corrected me, so I’ve rewritten appropriately.
So we all know that J. K. Rowling had a hard time selling Harry Potter.  Her packet with the first few chapters and a synopsis got turned down by twelve publishers before a Bloomsbury editor decided to take a chance on it.

It’s entirely possible that those twelve publishers never even took a look at it before they rejected it, but what if they did? It’s well known that most gatekeepers will only read five pages before they give up on a manuscript that hasn’t grabbed them. So you’ve got to subject your work to the five-page test. How would you feel if you stopped reading there?

If I just read the first five pages of this book, would I buy it? Nope.

This is now one of the most of the most beloved books of all time, so it’s easy to see the greatness in those opening pages. They’re funny. They’re a good entry into this world. But those pages are a big risk, and they could easily have kept the book from ever being published.

Rowling chooses to start with what I would call an anti-POV character: We’re seeing hints of amazing things, but we’re stuck in the head of a buffoonish character who refuses to look at them. Because Rowling is a great writer, she makes this POV very entertaining anyway: We enjoy laughing at his buffoonery and we enjoy peeking over his shoulder to see the things he’s trying not to see.

But if you’re a reader for those first twelve companies, then rejecting this is a no-brainer: We’re reading about an unlikeable character! There’s virtually no dialogue! The title character doesn’t appear! We’ve been promised a fantasy book by the pitch but we’re in a world that’s mostly mundane.

Rowling took a huge risk. She starts us off in an unlikeable head, then introduces our hero as a baby with a huge info dump, then jumps ten years ahead in chapter two, only belatedly letting us get to know our hero then. It’s all well-written, but it’s no surprise that twelve publishers rejected it. The patience of that thirteenth editor was a miracle. He stuck with it and discovered gold.

If Rowling had been more concerned with the rules, this classic novel would have had a very different beginning, for good or ill. Instead, we have this odd beginning that has gone on to enchant so many readers.

Sunday, November 05, 2017

The Annotation Project: Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

So let’s try something new: I’m thinking it would be fun to annotate famous books with my thoughts as to why the writing works. I wish I could post these bigger so they were actually readable here, but instead you have to click on every one (and it’s not going to be very readable on people’s phones.) I’ll also include all twenty pages as a downloadable word document if that’s easier. We’ll start with Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling (Actually, the only version I could find for download was the American-ized version, so I guess we should say Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone)

We’ll do this like the checklists, with a big document dump on the first day, followed by follow-up pieces for the next two to three weeks. See you then!