Hello dear friends! I apologize that my Lessons from Literature series got interrupted; some personal things came up (nothing terrible, just lots to attend to) and so I couldn’t work on my blog the way I wanted to. But I have returned!
Welcome to the fourth and final Lessons From Literature post! Today we’ll be discussing a “children’s” novel: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling.
Any good writer has to be, first and foremost, a great reader. In this blog series, we’ll explore the writing lessons I learned from some of my favorite 2017 reads. Each post focuses on one major lesson from a single piece of literature that I read for the first time in 2017. These pieces come from all ends of the genre spectrum, from classic novels to comic books, to illustrate that skillful storytelling depends on the writer and not the format.
Yes, that’s right: I read the Harry Potter series for the first time in 2017. Growing up, my family was one of many Christian households that forbade the reading of Harry Potter books, and for me personally, I think it’s better that I read the series later in life. However, the focus of this blog post is not to evaluate the acceptability, or lack thereof, of Rowling’s magical tales. Rather, I want to explore the best writing lesson I took away from her stories, particularly the first book.
One of the main reasons I decided to read the Harry Potter books is that I wanted to see what made them so popular. As an aspiring novelist, particularly of middle grade and YA fiction, I thought there could be a lot to glean from examining Rowling’s writing. As it turned out, I was right (I usually am, hehe).
Lesson from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone: Leave room in your storyworld for your readers.
I’ve noticed that some of the most enduringly popular fantasy stories provide their readers with a way to “enter” the storyworld. Readers of J.R.R. Tolkien’s vast Middle-earth can become an elf, dwarf, or hobbit during any number of centuries of history. Those who open The Chronicles of Narnia can easily imagine themselves slipping into a magic wardrobe, or falling through a magic picture.
In Rowling’s case, she designed her fantasy world to exist alongside the real world. It’s not hard for her readers to imagine that their Hogwarts letter simply got waylaid, or to figure out which of the four Hogwarts Houses they would belong to. Rowling told a good story, but she also left room for fans to make her fantasy world their own.
When you write, you don’t have to create a fantasy world that’s connected to our world—in fact, you don’t have to create a fantasy world at all—in order to find Rowling’s lesson useful. Consider this: is the story you’re writing “big” enough for readers to step inside, or is there only space for your characters?
To use a widely-known example, it’s not particularly easy to place yourself in the world of Snow White, at least as the original fairy tale stands. You might be able to imagine yourself as Snow White, or the prince, or maybe one of the dwarves (hopefully not the evil queen), but there’s no space in the story for other characters, including the readers. It’s all about Snow White and what happens to her. That’s as big as the world gets.
Rowling, on the other hand, creates a very “roomy” storyworld. Even though the books focus on Harry, the framework of the world can support any number of new characters. Not every student at Hogwarts is named; one of them could very well be you (at least in your imagination). Not every corner of Diagon Alley is explored; perhaps there’s a hidden shop there that only you know about.
Rowling’s world is also very imaginative and, in spite of the rather troublesome bad guys, it’s the kind of world that most readers would love to visit. This adds to the possibility for reader immersion. Let’s be honest, who wouldn’t like to have a pet owl to deliver mail? Or go to school in an old, magical castle?
No matter what kind of storyworld you create, you need to leave space for your readers to become characters. That’s when storyworlds endure throughout lifetimes and even across generations. If you’re writing about a realistic town, does it have a feel of its own—enough to make your readers want to visit the old, mom-and-pop ice cream shop on the corner of Main Street? If you’re writing about a fantasy world, your task is even easier, because you can entice readers with possibilities that the real world lacks.
There’s such a thing as making a storyworld that is too big, or simply spending so much time creating that you never write the actual novel. But don’t be afraid to create. Brainstorm some ideas. What would you like to experience if you were the reader? What would draw you into the storyworld? Who knows, you could write the novel that catches up to Harry Potter’s success. And if you do, please send me a signed copy. 😉
I hope you’ve enjoyed this blog series as much as I have. Would you like me to do more Lessons From Literature sometime? Leave me a comment below with your thoughts!