Apologies to those of you who don’t read Harry Potter, but I am father to three boys, aged 4, 8 and 11 so it is common currency in our house. Thinking about the series of books (and films, etc.) I realised something. By the end of the book, a lot of things that were axiomatic in the universe were destroyed. A dragon literally smashes through the wizard bank, Gringotts, and the relationship between wizards and the goblins who run the bank is changed. Coming back to the title of the post, Hogwarts is hugely damaged in an epic battle between good and evil. In interviews, JK Rowling actually said she wanted to kill off a certain number of major characters to indicate the seriousness of the final conflict.
Moving away from the world of Harry Potter, I noticed the same thing in Lord of the Rings. The books concern themselves with the end of one age and the dawning of a new one. Elves leave Middle Earth after thousands of years, dynasties are re-established, the world changes. Even Star Wars is about the end of the Jedi order which stood for a thousand years, guaranteeing peace.
I know these three examples are fantasy or science fiction, but I think they touch on something. Any plot requires a level of threat or upset to the established order. It is one thing that separates literary from commercial fiction. In commercial fiction, often large external matters are at stake, in literary fiction, it is often more personal, internal affairs that are dealt with. In chick-lit again it is personal institutions that are under threat. Often these books will start with the breakdown of a marriage, or a jilting, or a death or redundancy. Not as earth shattering on a global scale, but on the scale of one life, they are seismic events.
For any book not to be dull, you need a hero you can identify with who is under threat. The traditional way to start a book is to introduce the hero, in his world, and then rock that world. Shatter some institutions, put him or her under pressure, and a plot starts to emerge.
This is the classic, planned out way to start a book. You still have to decide which event actually opens the book – usually it’s not the main disruption to the whole plot. Again, to return to Harry Potter, it starts with Harry being rescued after the death of his parents, which illustrates a disrupting event in his life. But then, it establishes his life with his aunt and uncle, before the second big disruption – the invitation to Hogwarts arrives. From there on, as in any plot, you have a series of misfortunes and set-backs before wrapping it up.
As I say, this pattern follows through most successful fiction. When we get bored, my eleven year old and I watch children’s TV and analyse the basic plot points. Even the simplest cartoon still has the basic plot that I’ve outlined above. It appears to be a universal blue-print that we, as human beings and as lovers of stories, seem to need.
I think for a writer it requires a certain kind of bravery, especially if you’re writing a big novel, with large themes. You have, even with a happy-ever-after ending, to set up a world, and a hero, and then put them through troubles and hard times.