In a media age defined by long-form narrative, J.K. Rowling is one of our best storytellers.

When people talk about the great storytellers of the modern era, J.K. Rowling should always be included on the list. The narrative of her writing of the Harry Potter series is one often defined by good luck, creativity, and — yes — a little bit of magic. However, that muse-centric, fairy tale structure is a lazy, simplistic way of talking about Rowling’s skill with story. It takes away from the extreme intelligence, capacity for hard work, and storytelling genius that Rowling possesses.

In honor of Rowling’s 51st birthday, let’s talk about the elements of storytelling that the British author demonstrates such an impressive command of in the Harry Potter series. And let’s think about how, in a media age increasingly defined by long-form, serialized storytelling, Rowling is one of the very best…

Story structure in Harry Potter…

Rowling’s true genius lies not in prose, but in story structure, which is perhaps why the books have translated so well into film form. Even when you take away Rowling’s signature wit, the story itself can stand on its own in any medium. (We’re looking at you, too, The Cursed Child.) 

Pictured above is one of Rowling’s many notes for the crafting of plot in Harry Potter. This specific spreadsheet is from the outlining of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the fifth book in the series, and includes separate columns for most of the book’s major subplots, including: what’s happening in the main “prophecy” plot, what’s happening with Cho and Ginny, what’s happening with the Order of the Phoenix, what’s happening with the unraveling of the Snape/James Potter backstory, what’s happening with Dumbledore’s army, what’s happening with Hagrid/Grawp, etc.

Sure, this is typical authorial outlining stuff, but anyone who has read the Harry Potter series can explain to you how Rowling started foreshadowing the end of the series from the very beginning, especially picking up in The Chamber of Secrets. The Horcruxes were always integral to the story, hidden in plain plot sight — one example of the many narrative subthreads developed throughout the series and throughout each book. This development was rarely done in a heavy-handed way, which made the eventual reveals in The Deathy Hallows that much more rewarding.

For example, Harry spots The Vanishing Cabinet that Draco Malfoy would later use to get the Death Eaters into Hogwarts in The Half-Blood Prince way back in The Chamber of Secrets when he ends up in Knockturn Alley’s Borgin and Burkes. In Prisoner of Azkaban, Professor Trelawney “reads” that Harry is born in mid-winter, even though his birthday is in July. As we later find out, she is actually seeing Lord Voldemort’s birth in Harry, a sign of his Horcruxian tie to the Dark Lord.

The examples go on: Dumbledore tangentially mentions his brother Aberforth in one of the early books. We “meet” the Grey Lady in book one, only to learn about her importance to the founding of Hogwarts and the destruction of the Horcruxes in the seventh books. We could sit here listing the detail-payoff patterns in this series all day.

The fact that these narrative crumbs were spread over not just a trilogy, but seven books, is particularly impressive. The amount of forethought and adherence to planning that Rowling demonstrates in pulling off this series is mindboggling in its focus. Pair that with the patience it took to introduce extremely relevant plot points early on in the series, and have that greater relevance revealed later on, and genius of Rowling’s plotting starts to take shape.

Characterization in Harry Potter…

Plotting is important, but the Harry Potter series would not be what it is without Rowling’s command of characterization. The author creates a rich interpersonal world within the wizarding community that is so important in exploring the coming-of-age story’s main themes of love, family, and loss. We care if Harry defeats the Dark Lord because we care about these characters. It’s a simple narrative necessity, one that demonstrates emotional intelligence, but a skill that far too many storytellers don’t actually have.

For me, one of the best examples of characterization in the Harry Potter series is Ron Weasley. Rowling’s skill in articulating character is so well demonstrated with Ron because he is the character that is generally characterized the poorest when other writers take him on. In the movies (and, to a lesser extent, in The Cursed Child, too), Ron is too-often flattened for comic relief. We lose the rich texture of this character, the way his struggle to get out of the shadow of his many brothers and, now, Harry, is balanced by his intense goodness and loyalty to the ones he loves. 

Ron isn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination. He’s not great at expressing his feelings and he is often petty and stubborn when he is feeling slighted (e.g. his fight with Hermione in Prisoner of Azkaban or his fight with Harry in Goblet of Fire.) But he would do anything for his friends, and matures an immense amount over the course of the series, while still maintaining his distinct Ron-ness. When we meet Ron, he is a bumbling, yet good-natured kid who has some outdated views of a world he is very much still trying to figure out. By the end of the series, he is destroying Horcruxes and worrying about house elves, even whilst still occasionally succombing to his jealous, insecure side. 

From the book’s main protagonist to the seemingly most minor of supporting characters, Rowling has a gift for creating immediately distinct, relatable characters. Mrs. Dursley is a nosy gossip. Hermione Granger is a socially-awkward brain. Remus Lupin is a weary and mysterious, yet trustworthy authority figure. And, as with Rowling’s plotting, these characters have arcs within the individual books and the series as a whole. We understand how they exist within the wider community, how they are seen by those who are closest to them and by those who only know their family name. 

More than that, the steady adherence to characterization exists not only in the individual character arcs, but in the relationships between characters. We understand why characters do everything they do — and that’s down to consistent characterization and the carefully-constructed relationships between characters. (“‘Always,’ said Snape.”)  

World-building in Harry Potter…

You can’t talk about J.K. Rowling as a storyteller without discussing her skill for worldbuilding. Rowling’s ability to create a just-out-of-sight magical world with its own system of lived-in logic may be the most impressive thing about the Harry Potter series. Rowling created an entire subculture, complete with economy, government, media, sports, history, lore, educational system, etc. Sure, it is very much based on the British social order, but it still exists as its own vividly-realized world.

As the Harry Potter For Writers website points out, Harry’s first introduction to the wizarding world doesn’t happen at Hogwarts, but rather at Diagon Alley where he visits the Leaky Cauldron, Ollivanders, Gringotts, and a slew of other shops. It is a mini-tour of the wizarding world, both for Harry and for the reader. We learn about wizarding money, customs, and the trappings of how Hogwarts works through the purchasing of Harry’s school supplies.

This worldbuilding extends to Hogwarts in The Sorceror’s Stone, then to the larger wizarding world with The Goblet of Fire‘s Qudditch World Cup and Triwizard Tournament and, eventually, Hermione and Harry’s tour of wizarding England in The Deathy Hallows. 

Rowling slowly broadens the scope of this world from The Sorceror’s Stone onward, weaving setting and wizarding culture. However, its depth is apparent from day one. Like any good writer, Rowling exudes confidence in her writing, a promise that she knows where she is going, that every detail has meaning and value, that this narrative journey won’t end in disappointing, disatisfying chaos. She doesn’t break that promise. 

The difficult importance of an ending…

It’s hard to end a story in a satisfying way — especially a story that takes place over the course of seven books. You can’t just hope for the best. An ending needs to have its roots in the beginning. It needs to be present in everything that has come before. It needs to be a truth illuminated in the final moments, but a truth that has somehow been there all along. 

Epilogues and canon-extending plays aside, Rowling sticks the landing of the Harry Potter series, and she does it in an unexpectedly bold way by sending the Golden Trio away from Hogwarts to go on a dark, depressing adventure that not only calls into question the strength of their own relationships with one another, but the motivations of Dumbledore, a character that — up until this series-ending book — had been painted as a somewhat uncomplicated trustworthy mentor.

These challenging choices prove just how sure of her narrative Rowling was from the very beginning. She always knew where she was going, famously writing out the last chapter and keeping it hidden away in a safety deposit box, and it shows in the ending. If an ending needs to be informed by everything that has come before, then The Deathly Hallows is a parade of the Harry Potter series greatest hits, but a parade that never feels like a tired retreading of what has come before. 

If many of the questions, characters, and settings are the same, they are maturing and deepening in necessary ways. Can love conquer evil? What does it mean to grow up divorced from your past and identity? Do the ones we love ever really leave us? The answers get more complicated, their potential relevance more immediately dire, in The Deathly Hallows. 

But Rowling never lets the narrative heavy-lifting show. She makes the moving and fitting together of the many, intricate moving parts of this story look simple, doing so much work through her plotting, characterization, and worldbuilding that we never doubt for a second that she knows what she’s talking about, that this world — and its meaning — is real in some sense of the word. In the way that any fiction is real: in the expression of theme and the exploration of humanity.

Dumbledore tells Harry at the end of The Deathly Hallows: “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” With Rowling, that master of narrative, moving us through this story, how could we ever believe otherwise?

Feature

Kayti Burt

7/31/2016 at 2:11AM

Books & Comics

A complete list of upcoming Marvel movies, from Doctor Strange to Avengers: Infinity War and beyond! Newly updated!

Newly updated with information about Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers 4.

We’ve got everything you need to know about the upcoming Marvel movie schedule all in one place. The Marvel superhero movie plan now stretches all the way to 2020. The amazing thing is, it’s even more ambitious than we anticipated, with new movies getting announced all the time, and even announced projects like Avengers: Infinity War have their priorities shifted a little.

We’ve compiled as much information as we can find on every Marvel movie coming out in the next few years in a handy release calendar for you. This is where you can check out all the details on Marvel Phase 3 right here.

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But now it’s on to the new Marvel movie release schedule! Here goes…

November 4th, 2016, Doctor Strange

Marvel is betting pretty heavily on Doctor Strange, with Benedict Cumberbatch now set to star as Stephen Strange. The movie also stars Tilda Swinton as Strange’s mentor The Ancient One and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Strange’s rival, Baron Mordo. Mads Mikkelsen is the film’s big villain. Scott Derrickson is directing, from a script by Jon Spaihts.

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Here’s the official plot synopsis:

In “Doctor Strange,” famous neurosurgeon Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) suffers career-ending injuries in a devastating car crash. Seeking help in the furthest reaches of the world, Strange uncovers the hidden world of magic and alternate dimensions!  

We expect good things from this one, too.

[related article: A Reader’s Guide to Doctor Strange Comics]

May 5th, 2017, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

James Gunn will be back to direct the sequel to the most unlikely superhero hit of recent years. We’re going to meet some very important new characters in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, including Star Lord’s father, Ego, played by Kurt Russell.

Watch Guardians of the Galaxy on Amazon

We’re just waiting for that new soundtrack…

related article: A Movie Fan’s Guide to Guardians of the Galaxy Comics

July 7th, 2017 – Spider-Man: Homecoming

Spidey entering the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a seismic event. We first met Spidey in Captain America: Civil War, but this will be his first solo outing under the Marvel banner. We don’t know much about the story yet, other than that it will focus on a high school aged Spider-Man, feature villains we haven’t seen on screen before (including Michael Keaton as The Vulture), and they’re aiming for a “John Hughes” vibe.

Watch Spider-Man movies on Amazon

Tom Holland will play Marvel’s new Peter Parker/Spider-Man and Marisa Tomei will play Aunt May. The entire cast is a diverse who’s who of young talent, including Donald Glover in a mystery role. Oh yeah, and Robert Downey Jr. will be on board as Tony Stark/Iron Man, too!

Jon Watts (Cop Car) is directing. John Francis Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein (Vacation) wrote the script.

[related article: Everything We Know About Marvel’s New Spider-Man Movie]

November 3rd, 2017: Thor: Ragnarok

For the record, when folks talk about “Ragnarok” in Norse mythology, it usually isn’t a good thing. This should be, by far, the biggest of the Thor films. Taika Waititi directs from a script by Stephany Folsom, Christopher Yost, and Craig Kyle. Expect the usual core cast to return, but with a few twists. Mark Ruffalo will join the party as the Hulk, Cate Blanchett is playing Hela, and Karl Urban is Skurge. Giant fire demon Surtur will also make an appearance.

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This is a film that could conceivably take Thor off the playground for a bit, but it could, as a long shot, also set up the female Thor currently running in Marvel Comics. There’s also an excellent Thor: Ragnarok comic you should probably seek out.

[related article: Why Thor: Ragnarok Might be the Most Important Marvel Movie]

February 16th, 2018: Black Panther

Finally! T’Challa is coming to the big screen, and he’ll be played by Chadwick Boseman. He was introduced in Captain America: Civil War, and we’ll see his first solo adventure in February of 2018.

Creed and Fruitvale Station director Ryan Coogler will direct. Kevin Feige recently described the vision for the film as…

“It’s a big geo-political action adventure that focuses on the family and royal struggle of T’Challa in Wakanda, and what is means to be a king. T’Challa’s story is very important to us as it links to the next Avengers films, which is why we brought it forward.”

The Black Panther is a fascinating character, whose exploits can be as high-tech as Iron Man’s or as high-adventure as Indiana Jones. We provided a few helpful suggestions for stories Marvel should take a look at for the movie right here.

May 4th, 2018, Avengers: Infinity War

The Russo Bros. will move directly from their directing duties on Captain America: Civil War into this one, which begins shooting in 2016. Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely are writing. This was originally announced as two movies, but now Marvel has changed tactics a little bit.

Watch The Avengers on Amazon

We get the feeling, though, that Avengers: Infinity War is going to have to do some heavy lifting in terms of introducing characters and concepts from Captain Marvel and The Inhumans films, before these things carry over into whatever the next Avengers movie will be. We went into much greater detail about what this all might mean right here.

July 6th, 2018 – Ant-Man and The Wasp

Scott Lang and Hope Van Dyne will return, marking the first female superhero to have her name in the title of a Marvel movie. Peyton Reed will return to direct. We’ll get you more details as we hear them.

Watch Ant-Man on Amazon

December 21st, 2018 – Animated Spider-Man Movie

While this one isn’t technically part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, we’re including it here for the completists among you. This one comes from the minds behind The LEGO Movie, Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who are writing and executive producing. No other details are available, but don’t expect this to be in continuity with the live action Spidey movies on the schedule. There are rumors that we’ll get to meet Miles Morales on screen, though. 

May 3rd, 2019, Avengers 4

This was originally known as Avengers: Infinity War – Part II, but that has changed. Whether it’s just a title change or these are still two movies telling one big story remains to be seen. 

We’re keeping track of every character we think might appear on the Infinity War movies right here.

March 8th, 2019, Captain Marvel

If we’re lucky, Avengers: Infinity War will introduce Brie Larson as Carol Danvers (assuming we don’t see her sooner), a character who will become the cosmically powered Captain Marvel. Her origin story would make a fine superhero film, and Captain Marvel has the kinds of power levels necessary to take on a threat like Thanos. If you’re going to make the leap with a female-fronted superhero film, a character with a power set more impressive than Wonder Woman is just be the one to do it with.

Nicole Perlman, who famously helped develop Guardians of the Galaxy for the screen, is pairing with Meg LeFauve (The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys, Inside Out) to write the Captain Marvel movie. No director has yet been announced

Undated- Inhumans

We know this is coming, we just don’t know when. Marvel bumped this from it’s July of 2019 release date. Perhaps it will take over one of the slots below.

Inhumans characters and concepts are already being introduced on Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD TV series. For one thing, though, the Inhumans may help take the place of mutants in the X-less Marvel Cinematic Universe, and we’d be surprised if Thanos’ arrival isn’t also met by the Inhumans in some form, before we meet them for real in their own movie. There’s also the tantalizing possibility that Peter Quill’s father is one of their ranks…

[related article: How Marvel is Making the Inhumans A-Listers]

If you’d like to know more about The Inhumans, who are admittedly some of the more far-out concepts Marvel offers, we have a guide to their most essential stories right here.

May 1st, 2020 – Untitled Marvel Movie 

July 10th, 2020 – Untitled Marvel Movie 2

November 6th 2020 – Untitled Marvel Movie 3

Your guess is as good as ours about these untitled Marvel movies, so feel free to speculate away down in the comments!

News

Mike Cecchini

7/30/2016 at 4:17PM

Books & Comics

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