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June 27, 2013

Harry Potter and the Backstory

In almost every revision of my novel, I’ve had a reader (or six) say that there was too much backstory too early on. It’s an issue I’ve noticed in other pieces within my writers’ group as well. The author wants so badly to share the history of her characters, but the audience isn’t nearly as thrilled to read it.


“Show, don’t tell,” everyone says. “Work the information into dialogue and action, rather than exposition.” Anyone who tries to do this knows it is much, much easier said than done.


Well, for some of us, at least. I’ve recently been listening to the audio book edition of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. I read the book something like ten years ago (can you believe it was published a full fifteen years ago?!), and I’ve seen the movie since, so the world and Harry’s history are not new to me.


Even with that being the case, I don’t mind hearing it all get set up again. There’s a lot the reader needs to know, and Harry himself knows none of it. At the start, Harry has no idea that he’s a wizard, never mind an incredibly famous one. He doesn’t know the truth about his parents. He doesn’t know that a school called Hogwarts or a game called Quidditch even exists.


Rowling, then, needs to communicate all this information to us while keeping the story moving. No simple task! And yet, once I decided to pay attention to her technique, I was struck by how well she accomplishes it.


When Hagrid meets Harry (chapter three or four), he has to explain much of Harry’s past to him. He gives a speech that could go on an on, but instead is peppered with Hagrid’s attempts to manage his own emotions, Uncle Vernon’s bursts of frustration, and Harry’s own disbelief.  The story continues to move in the present while the past is being related. We learn more about each character, as well as the muggle and magical worlds, along the way. Check, check, check!


Studying Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for its craft, it’s no wonder the book garnered the praise it did. I admit being biased because most of my professional training is with children’s books, but I think there’s a lot any writer can learn through studying works for younger sets. Characters must be clear right off the bat, the plot must always keep moving, suspense must build steadily to keep both kids and the adults reading to them entertained.


Perhaps the cure for your next bout of writer’s block will be returning to one of your childhood favorites with a keen adult editorial eye. What made you fall in love with that book? What can you take with you to make someone else fall in love with yours?

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