A few weeks ago, I asked you all for insights on what made Harry Potter work for you. I’m in the middle of prepping for a substantial revision to my latest work in progress, a prequel of sorts to GET CUPID that takes place at a school for magical delinquents. After reading through my first draft, I decided that I was doing a pretty good job getting the criminal aspects of the book right, but I was failing spectacularly at getting the “school” bit down. It just felt like too much to handle easily–have all the school bits and the main plot and make it all work together.
Harry Potter handled it okay, though. Right? So I reread Sorcerer’s Stone to find out what was up.
A few things became clear right away. First off was the fact that a lot of the complexity to the series doesn’t show up in the first book at all. Rowling spends a bit of time on a few issues that get elaborated on much later in the series (Ministry of Magic anyone?), doesn’t even mention others (house elves come to mind), and instead spends the majority of the book on Harry discovering this whole new world and understanding how it all works. So that’s one key to the book’s success: keeping it simple whenever possible. If she’d tried to dump all sorts of backstory out to explain everything that’s going on, it would have been confusing and–worse–boring. But if you just rattle off a few references to a bigger, deeper world, you can explore those references in later books, and still bring a sense of depth and reality to the world as you’re describing it in the moment.
She also did a great job of spacing out the character introductions. By the end of the book, there’s quite the cast of characters on hand, but because we meet them a few at a time, it never seems too overwhelming. When it is overwhelming (right when Harry gets to Hogwarts, for example), it’s that way on purpose–we can be overwhelmed, because Harry is overwhelmed. And then it all evens out over the course of the novel as Harry figures out who matters (and we do too).
Add to this the fact that most of the characters are nothing more than caricatures at first, so remembering who they all are is much easier than it would be otherwise. Draco is that awful jerk of a human being. Ron’s the kind of clumsy, friendly one. Hermione’s the know it all. Neville’s the forgetful one. Through the course of the book, only a few actually start doing anything complex, and even then it’s stuff that isn’t very “deep.” Rowling saves that sort of thing for later on in the series, as well.
How does this all relate to my current book? As I read Harry Potter, I noticed how empty my school was. There are the main characters, and then some nameless other characters. The ones who don’t matter don’t get any attention at all. Same for the teachers. So I realized I definitely need to fill out some of the student population. Not that they all start having starring roles or anything, but there’s a need for the school to feel lived in. To have upperclassmen, and minor teachers. Groundskeepers. People. It’s not a change that will require thousands of more words added to the manuscript. More like filling out scenes here and there with some background noise.
Another surprise for me was how few scenes there were with students in class. You’ve got a bit of potions class, a dose of transformations, and that’s about it. Everything else is put in as students are talking and worrying about class, without actually being in it. Homework assignments they’re working on while they’re doing other things. Exams they’re studying for. I had assumed I needed to add in some big “class” scenes to bring the school feel to the novel. It doesn’t look like I’ll have to, which is a big relief. But I definitely need to be looking at what’s going on around the main action–which actually is easier than it sounds, I hope. A lot of the time, I’ll have scenes where the main characters need to discuss something. Typically, that’s something that works better if the characters are doing something else at the same time, so that they’re not just talking heads. Now I know what I can stick into those scenes to act as the “something else.”
Finally, I had to face something: I hadn’t really put much thought into how my school operated. What the semesters or trimesters were like. How many students were there. How many classes a semester. I had tried to ignore as much of that as I could, and I think the book suffered as a result. So the past few days I’ve been spending my writing time coming up with that sort of information. It helps that I’ve been in education for so long, though since so much of that is college-based, it’s harder for me to remember what the big differences between high school and college are.
In any case, it was an interesting activity and one that was well worth my while. I’m very much looking forward to getting back into the writing stage so I can start putting some of these lessons to work. Wish me luck!