Harry Potter and the Perfectly Plotted Novel

Although I would give Harry Potter and the Cursed Child a bit of a mixed review overall, I’d still say that I liked it. Perhaps my favourite part of the play has nothing at all to do with the actual content, though. From the release of The Prisoner of Azkaban on, I have had a Harry Potter tradition. After reading the new book in a single sitting (unless I had to sleep for a few hours), I would immediately turn to The Philosopher’s Stone and read the entire series through, including the new addition. I never expected to be able to preform this ritual another time, and I’m grateful Cursed Child exists simply because it gave me a great excuse to spend a couple weeks with my nose stuck in some of my favourite books.

I don’t need to tell you the history of Harry Potter, or why the series is so well-loved. I also probably don’t need to tell you that I’ve read the earlier books in the series so many times that I barely need to pay attention to them. At one point in my life, I’m fairly certain I could have recited entire chapters of The Chamber of Secrets from memory. You could say that Harry Potter was always one of my Fave Favourites. Despite that, it has been a few years since last I read through Harry Potter, so when it came to reading those earlier books for the 60th time, I really paid attention. I don’t think I caught anything new that I hadn’t noticed before—they are, after all, rather simple books—but I gained a new appreciation for how tightly plotted the books are, especially the first three entries in the series.

I’ve read a moderate amount of fantasy literature in my life. Probably more than your average citizen, but less than your huge fantasy fan. Over the years I’ve come to appreciate what I call the Law of Fantasy Bloat. That is to say, a fantasy story or series, if left to its own devices for long enough, will eventually fill up with so much extraneous detail, world-building, and ridiculous subplots that the story begins to feel padded out or a little bit lost. It’s inevitable. I suspect that in many cases, this is a result of fantasy authors trying to include every idea they have rather than curating those ideas or engaging in ideation (George R.R. Martin is perhaps the worst villain of A Song of Ice and Fire for engaging in some of the worst fantasy bloat I’ve ever seen). Even Charlotte’s Journey started with an eye to being the first entry in a huge series. Because I felt set-up for later stories would be biting off more than we could chew, I pushed for the idea of writing a stand-alone.

The crux of fantasy bloat seems to be the authorial impulse to be imaginative. There is something incredibly fun about being the master of an entire world. There are always rules, but you get to make them up as invent the world they exist in. The temptation to share all that has been imagined is huge, and difficult to overcome. Invariably, though, extraneous fantasy detail, no matter how interesting and imaginative, is still extraneous. You have to build your world, yes, but you also have to tell your story while you’re doing it.

Enter J.K Rowling. Her Wizarding World is imaginative, engaging and obvious. At close inspection, it doesn’t actually hold up to scrutiny, but we forgive it because it is such a joy to visit. Rowling’s great success was in resisting fantasy bloat. Harry Potter’s world is rich in extensive detail, history, and lore. The really brilliant part is how we are introduced to all that fantastical detail. Nearly every bit of world-building exposition directly influences the plot. If something is not important to the book in hand, it is often left ill-defined.

Case in point: the easy example of Harry Potter’s first-ever chocolate frog card in The Philosopher’s Stone. The scene establishes the friendship between Ron and Harry, taps into the sensory-based wonder that is designed to be attractive to children and anybody that remembers what it is like to have fun, and gives us some world-building detail about the life of Albus Dumbledore. Of course, the card directly references Nicholas Flammel, the creator of the eponymous Philosopher’s Stone. Harry spends a significant part of the book trying to remember where he had read the name before.

For a deeper example, consider the first questions Professor Snape ever asked Harry in a potions lesson. The questions seem designed to flummox young Harry, and indeed add a bit of potion-based colour to the scene, but I sure as hell never recognised that Snape was giving away the reason he would be protecting Harry from Quirrell for the duration of the novel.

On the other side, before The Prisoner of Azkaban, both Professor McGonagall’s status as an animagus and Dementors are part of the story, but neither is fully explored (or named!) until the third book, when they become relevant to the plot.

In fact, even the parts of Harry Potter books that feel like Fantasy Bloat on a first read often prove to be important context for later novels. The Order of the Phoenix, which is the longest and most bloated book in the series, has a number of these scenes. The extended time spent at St. Mungo’s, running into Gilderoy Lockheart, and learning about the fate of Neville’s parents is essentially irrelevant to the plot, but the Neville portion at least becomes relevant in later novels. In fact, the only subplot in the entire series that doesn’t seem to go anywhere is that of Hagrid’s half-brother Grawp.

The Harry Potter books are often criticised as being stories that are too convenient, where Harry succeeds by luck and being surrounded by the right people more than skill. The Boy Who Lived seems to live a charmed life (in fact, given Lily Potter’s final act, he does live a Charmed life, but not in the way people mean). While there is some truth in this, I’d say this criticism is more a result of the way the stories are plotted and told. We have seven novels where the important details of Harry’s life are given, and everything else is cut away. He seems lucky or charmed because we are only shown the absolute bare minimum of important events. We are not given the day-to-day context of Harry’s life except in bridging passages that often describe how the weather outside Hogwart’s Castle is shifting, or how the temperament of the student populations is changing. There is a real ‘right place at the right time’ feeling to the books because we are only ever given access to the important events and nothing more.

The Harry Potter novels are, in short, almost entirely devoid of fantasy bloat. All creative and wondrous events, the parts of the world we love, the very Wizarding World itself, is described only in plot-relevant context. Compare this to a fantasy novel like Scott Lynch’s (excellent) The Lies of Locke Lamora, where the first sentence has five nouns that are either made up or name something in familiar words that readers do not yet understand about the world they are reading. Luke and I had fun making up nouns like Totallyawesomeburg when we were ideating for Charlotte’s Journey. We could get away with ridiculous names because we knew then that the names we were creating were irrelevant—there was no connection to the larger world in a story treatment.

Don’t get me wrong here, imaginative detail is fun. Its just that imaginative detail that serves the plot is fun and useful. Harry Potter’s world is so close to our own that Rowling doesn’t need to do a lot of the groundwork in world-building that other fantasy authors need to, but that doesn’t undermine her successes with keeping her detail plot relevant. If anything, it demonstrates an awareness of how to tell a good story, and that, perhaps, is why nearly everybody fell in love with the world of Harry Potter. It turns out that Harry Potter is simply a simple story that has been very well told.

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