Some stories can be told over a flickering fire. Some require two hours in a darkened theater. Still, others find refuge in episodic serials that span several months. And then there are those stories that can take ten years to tell.
NOTE: The following article gives away key emotional beats hidden within the story of Harry Potter. Due to the scarcity of stories that both satisfy and fulfill the human mind’s desire for meaning, one must protect the sanctity of surprise endings tarnished by the revelation of key moments, and a warning to postpone completion of this article until the work in question has been seen.
In other words, SPOILER ALERT!
Misleading Story Structure
Inciting Incident and Three Acts. Midpoint and the Dark Night of the Soul. Status Quo and the New World. Bring up the topic of story structure around writers and story enthusiasts alike and familiar terms such as these permeate the air. A collective understanding of the system behind storytelling, but little to no reflection as to their ultimate purpose. A skeleton key for a skeletal device, sorely lacking the flesh and meat of meaningful intent. Are these oft-used terms all there is to story?
Apply these common templates to a single episode of the Harry Potter saga and the method behind J.K. Rowling’s success may be erroneously assumed. Apply them to the entire canon and the error only compounds. For what does it mean if these concepts of story structure can so easily be shifted from one context to the next with little to no effect on their essential meaning?
Rather, one should see structure less as a template of touch points and more as a carrier wave for what it is the Author wants to say with their work. Whether that takes 120 minutes or 17 hours matters not; the clarity of the message to be delivered should take central stage.
A Hint at Something Greater
On their own, each installment of Harry Potter means very little. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets secures the prize of Most Annoying and Most Pointless. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince exists only to support the removal of a key character. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I redefines plodding, content to explore the relationship between its triad of central characters at the cost of little to no plot development. So prevalent is this disconnect between what happened and what it means that those introduced to the series midway find themselves lost and wondering why the rabid following even exists.
Strangely enough the first and certainly most juvenile in the series, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, comes closest to providing audiences with something meaningful, i.e. a complete story. Complete stories are those works of fiction that endeavor to argue a certain approach to solving problems. In fact, when appreciated within the context of the entire series, that first film actually lays out a sampler—a blueprint—of the meaning that is to come. Misunderstandings run rampant. A Main Character with an ability to do and say things that only alienate him further from those around him. A stoic and good-hearted friend who encourages the boy to finish what has been started. And most importantly, a relationship between the two built up of compromises and untold adjustments, a collaboration with the sole purpose of figuring out how best the two can work together.
Fans of the series may find it difficult to place this fourth story line within the context of The Sorcerer’s Stone. All seven books? Sure. But only the first? The misunderstandings surrounding Hagrid and what he took from Gringott’s Vault resonates. As does the definition of Harry’s special powers that result in his alienation. The resolute friend could be Ron, or Hermione or Hagrid, but how they end up influencing Harry beyond simple cheerleading becomes less clear. That fourth and most important bit of story, however—an emotional argument between the two—clearly doesn’t exist at all. Not with Ron. Not with Hermione. And not with Hagrid.
An Incomplete Story Agreed Upon
This was the challenge that a group of us faced several years ago. Embarking on an analysis of the first film, and using the Dramatica theory of story as context (naturally), we found it quite difficult to identify the true heart of the story. In Dramatica terms, this emotional core of a complete story concerns itself with the relationship between the Main Character and what is currently referred to as the Impact Character. This character impacts or influences the Main Character to reassess the way they see the world, and to possibly change the way he or she goes about living. Key to this character is the emotional argument that develops between the two opposing approaches, defined by their unique relationship. Without this key argument, a story lacks the fullness or completeness that people look for when they come to a story.
Harry Potter overcame his angst of being different within that first book, yet how he managed to get there fails to develop in an emotionally logical fashion. Typically this development plays out within that special relationship between Main and Impact Character. The two characters battle back and forth until ultimately, one capitulates. Harry’s acceptance of his new home, a place where people want him, seems an inevitability—a switch flipped, rather than the meaningful conclusion to an emotional argument.
One Complete Work that Simply Works
We deemed Sorcerer’s Stone a tale at that meeting, not a story. Close, but no cigar. Tales depict a series of events culminating in an ending. Stories juxtapose alternate viewpoints resulting in meaningful resolution. Both tale and story entertain and entrance, yet only one provides more than the sum of its parts. Sorcerer’s Stone clearly fulfilled the tenants of an entertaining tale, but lacked the emotional resonance found in a complete story.
The series as a whole turns out to be a completely different story.
Taken as one body of work, that steadfast friend becomes less a cheerleader, and more a meaningful opposer driven to help the boy realize his full potential. Understanding why a Main Character needs that different point-of-view, it is clear to see that Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) is the Impact Character of the Harry Potter series. The relationship between Harry and Severus the true heart of the entire series.
The reason that flashback sequence within the final film carries such an enormous emotional punch behind it is because it makes clear Rowling’s message. Instead of simply a collection of entertaining tales, the Harry Potter series argues a particular way of solving problems. That final chapter, that revelation of Snape’s true character, crystalizes the Author’s original intent.
Snape’s love for Lilly was so great, so deep, that he was willing to accept all manners of hatred and suspicion of dark motives in order to protect her only son. He was willing to be whatever he needed to be. This attitude, and Harry’s final knowledge of it, was the only thing that could have influenced The Boy Who Lived to finally accept his own death at the hands of Voldemort. The friendships Harry created along the way—Ron, Hermione, Hagrid, even Dumbledore—were important, yet only one relationship rode the carrier wave of meaningful story structure. One relationship carried the heart of Rowling’s argument.
Dropping that Resurrection Stone sealed Harry’s emotional bond with Snape: two people willing to die—one figuratively, one literally—in order to save the ones they loved. The tears that appear during that Penseive sequence come not as a recognition of the sadness of the situation, but rather with the understanding that sometimes this is the only way one can win. Our acceptance of this message and the waves of emotion that accompany it exist only as a result of one human mind (the Author) trying to convey meaning to another (The Audience). Our hearts harmonize with our minds, simultaneously recognizing what the events within the greater story actually meant.
Meaningful Story Structure
Only a complete story, one designed to argue the appropriateness of a certain approach to solving problems, can achieve this kind of emotional resonance. Inciting Incidents, Midpoints and Fun and Games moments certainly have their place, but the real structure behind story strives to give audiences something they can’t acquire in real life: meaning. The fact that it took 1,090,739 words or 1033 minutes to do so within the Harry Potter series only magnifies that reality.
Story structure as currently understood and practiced brings its own meaning to a story. Dark Nights of the Soul exist because Protagonists need a down moment from which to bring themselves back up. Refusals of the Call to Adventure exist because Crossing the Threshold is scary stuff for a Protagonist. These moments happen regardless of how they fit in with what the Author is actually trying to say.
True story structure—meaningful story structure—facilitates the delivery of the Author’s message, amplifying it without coercion. The Dramatica theory of story has much to say about how stories should be built, yet always with the express purpose of clarifying the Author’s original intent. The Harry Potter saga as written postulates a particular point-of-view on how best to approach certain problems. When faced with an ability to do something no one else can, one must free themselves from their own ego. Give up whatever one desires. Only then, can one triumph over Evil.
The relationship between Harry Potter and Severus Snape proved this argument true. Without it, the entire series would have been as forgettable as an individual episode. With it, Harry’s struggle becomes our struggle, carrying with it the understanding that what solved Harry’s issues could very well solve our own.
Advanced Story Theory for this Article
Looking at the storyform originally agreed upon during that initial meeting, it almost seems as if Rowling was using the first book to foreshadow what the entire series was going to be about.
A storyform—a particular mesh of interlocking thematics—provides a snapshot of what a story means. Taking a look at Snape’s throughline, it is clear to see how his Fixed Attitude impacted Harry, how his Memories of Lilly and his Concern for her drove his purpose, and how his Issues of Suspicion eventually tempered Harry’s appreciation of him. Once the Actuality of what drove him is recognized, his influence on Harry finally clicks into place and pushes Harry to Change.
The storyform’s relationship, a throughline that was almost completely MIA in the first film, plays out nicely between Potter and Snape. Their Issue of State of Being, or their true natures, resonates beautifully throughout all the books. Harry’s inflated Sense of Self and superiority over Snape works as a great Counterpoint to this thematic Issue.