Story Structure in Harry Potter

Harry_Potter_wandI read this great series of articles on the Write like Rowling website.


It’s based on the concepts presented in Larry Brooks’ book, Story Engineering.


In the section on story structure, Brooks says that in order to be successful, a story needs to have each of these five pivots:


  1. The first plot point, when the hero receives her marching orders and sets out on her journey


  1. The first pinch point, when the hero is given a reminder of the nature and power of the antagonistic forces arrayed against her


  1. The mid-point, when a crucial piece of information is discovered


  1. The second pinch point, which again reminds the hero of the antagonistic forces


  1. and the second plot point, the final injection of new information into the story that gives the book a kind of forward momentum as it speeds towards the end.


Brooks even tells us at what percentage of the way through the book each of these pivots needs to make its appearance.


The first plot point occurs 25 percent of the way through the story;


the first pinch point occurs 3/8ths of the way through the story;


the midpoint occurs at the midpoint;


the second pinch point occurs 5/8ths of the way through the story;


and the second plot point occurs 75 percent of the way through the story.


Interestingly, in Harry Potter & the Philosopher’s Stone, Rowling lands four of these five pivots on the exact page they need to be on according to Brooks’ model of story structure (he excludes the prologue as not being part of the main plot). C. S. Plocher on the Write like Rowling website gives us a rundown:


Harry boards the Hogwarts Express on page 90 of the 259-page plot;


He gets his first glimpse of Snape (and, even more crucially, Quirrell’s turban) on page 126;


He realizes who has the Philosopher’s Stone at the end of chapter 9, exactly halfway through the book;


He catches Snape with a bloody leg 5/8ths of the way through the book.


The only exception is the final plot point (Harry realizing that Dumbledore has departed for London and the stone is going to be stolen), which is 25 pages later than it would normally be because Rowling is setting up a seven-volume fantasy series and has a lot of world-building to do. (Moreover, I would argue that the true second pinch point in the first novel is the scene with the unicorn in the Forbidden Forest).


So if I made it my goal to write a 300-page book:


the first plot point would occur on or around page 60;


the first pinch point would occur on page 113;


the mid-point would occur on page 150;


the second pinch point would occur on page 188;


and the final plot point would occur on page 225 (or perhaps a bit later in a story of this scope).


I have this crazy dream to write a novel according to a strict formula. In the past I always thought I could free-wheel it; but I’m realizing, I really love formulaic writing. It’s so structured. I love following the rules. I love learning the science and craft of storytelling.



9 thoughts on “Story Structure in Harry Potter

  1. Boze, thanks for highlighting my blog. I just want to clarify that I was the author of the Harry Potter analysis (and thus, I also that decided to exclude the first chapter of Harry Potter). Larry linked to my blog on his blog to show his readers how I used his story structure guidelines to break down Harry Potter, but I conducted the analysis. Also, you mentioned that you believe the true second pinch point is the scene in the Forbidden Forest with the unicorn – did you mean pinch point or plot point? Just want to clarify so I understand where you’re coming from. Again, thanks for the shout-out.

    • P. S. In reference to my comment about the scene in the Forbidden Forest, I would just argue that since the true antagonistic force in the first novel is Quirrel / Voldemort, that scene is the moment in the first novel where Harry is reminded of the nature and danger of the evil confronting him. I’m sure a case could be made for Snape too, though 🙂

      • I definitely see where you’re coming from, and I don’t entirely disagree with you, especially when considering the entire Harry Potter series as a whole. But my reason for sticking with Snape in this case is that a pinch point is meant to remind the reader of the antagonistic force at hand, and therefore, the definition of a pinch point is based on the knowledge of the reader and can only have as much impact as the reader understands who or what that antagonistic force is.

        Although the unicorn scene does present the antagonistic forces Harry will eventually have to confront (and this scene is the first falling domino leading up to the second plot point where Harry realizes Voldemort, not Snape, is actually the one trying to steal the Sorcerer’s Stone), Rowling’s readers don’t register it as an antagonistic force because they don’t know that that’s the *real* antagonist – it’s freaky sure, but they don’t know exactly how it ties in to the rest of the plot. And that’s how Rowling throws in the twist at the end – because she’s dropped hints here and there (such as this scene) but doesn’t put the pieces together until the end. Does that make sense? Anyway, that’s my reasoning. Thanks for following up!

  2. This is really helpful actually. I thought I could write a novel without an outline and I CANNOT. This time I’m using notecards, including writing down all those nuances I forget about my characters.
    Except I’m scared of fiction.

    • Outlines are super helpful. Though I tend to have the exact opposite problem. I like outlining SO much that I don’t do a lot of actual writing. My friend Bethany used to get on to me all the time about this. I can’t help it, though. When you look at how much planning went into the Harry Potter books, I think it’s better to be calculated than to just make it up as you go.

  3. I’m sure you’re already past getting hung up on structure. What I’ve noticed is that often there are multiple inciting incidents, the beginning of the Half-Blood Prince, there’s at least one per chapter at the beginning. The first plot point? I’m not sure there is a specific single point…. unless the end of Act 1 beginning of Act 2 is when Harry enters Hogwarts. Of course I could be missing something here. But here’s what I’ve figured out. 1. The basic structure is a reasonably good guideline. 2. There are NO databases of all the great novels and movies and how they adhere to this structure. Why not? I think because the basic structure is just the middle school version of the rising action, conflict, resolution…model. 3. Following a formula (in Hollywood) increases the chances of a script being made…but only because dull-witted producers look for crutches. (This is how they end up with all those loud tedious Marvel movies…) 4. I’ve realized that I could take almost any story and if asked, lay the whole thing out according to the three act structure and no one would be able to say different– except another writer who knows that anything can be broken down into plot and pinch points. This is a good trick to calm a dull, cowardly producer. 5. I’ve learned that while there should be a plot points and pinch points, they don’t have to be just one specific point. They can be a series of incidents that build up. What’s the difference between an inciting incident and plot point? Often it’s impossible to tell, and unnecessary. 6. There are other ways as well. Shakespeare’s plays are broken down into 5 acts. Sometimes this works exceptionally well, other times this makes no sense. The kicker is Shakespeare never broke his plays down into acts and scenes. This I think is the best argument to be aware that structure is just a way of thinking about how to tell a story, but by no means is it even required. (except by dull cowardly movie producers) 7. (Actually 6 B) Preston Sturges broke his scripts into 8 parts, not quite acts. After studying this I realize that one of the reasons his movies are so much fun is that everything happens much quicker than it does in any other movie of the period, because he’s got 2-3 more ‘acts’ squeezed in. He’s given himself a more difficult problem, because while he might get away with part 3-5 not increasing in tension at their ends (maybe 5 is less intense than 4) , but he’s not going to get away with 6,7 and 8 not building up. 6C or 8? from K.M. Weiland I think I learned about a negative character arc. So many possibilities! (Sturges’ the Great McGinty is an example. The more corrupt McGinty is the better things turn out….he does one honest thing…) 9. An outline has to accomplish what the basic structure model lays out, but it doesn’t have to do it like a recipe. and 10. Lee Child’s rule: Forget ‘the hero needs to want something on every page,’ There is only the writer and the reader: The reader has to want something on every page. Everything else doesn’t exist.’ So if you can keep a reader turning the pages and sweating, and there’s no structure? No one would care. Anyway just some of what I’ve figured out.

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