This week, I look at Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, in order to study point of view and narrative device. The novel by J.K. Rowling was published in 2005. The film based on the novel was released in 2009 and was directed by David Yates with screenplay by Steve Kloves.
- Beginning Hook – After months of Death Eater attacks and everyone realizing that Harry was right about Voldemort’s return, Harry spies Draco Malfoy up to no good in the dark arts shop, but when no one will listen to Harry’s suspicion that Draco Malfoy is a Death Eater, Harry must decide whether to investigate on his own or let it go. On the train to Hogwarts, Harry spies on Malfoy who curses him, bloodies his nose, and leaves him under his invisibility cloak where Luna helps him make his way to the school.
- Middle Build – The school year gets under way, and soon a student is cursed by a dangerous magical object, but when Dumbledore tells Harry they need a particular memory from Slughorn and Harry botches his first attempt to get the information, he must decide whether to use liquid luck to get the information or not. He takes the potion and convinces Slughorn by mentioning Lily Potter. Harry and Dumbledore learn about horcruxes and follow the clues to retrieve one.
- Ending Payoff – Harry and Dumbledore return to Hogwarts with a horcrux locket and Dumbledore tells Harry to fetch Snape and not interfere no matter what happens, but when several Death Eaters and Draco arrive and Snape attacks Dumbledore, Harry must decide whether to interfere or not. He follows directions, and Snape kills Dumbledore. Harry, Hermione, and Ron decide they will spend the next year seeking and destroying horcruxes rather than return to school.
Genre: Action-Epic-Savior plot with Worldview-Maturation internal for Harry. There are several subplots, including multiple love story episodes.
Leslie – POV and Narrative Device
If genre is what your story is about, POV and narrative device are how you deliver it to the reader or viewer.
The narrative device or situation answers the questions, who or what is the source of the story, when and where is that source located in relation to the events and characters of the story, who is the story for, and why is it being told?
POV is the technical element, which tells us whether it’s first or third-person, for example. It answers the question, how do we create the effect of the narrative device?
POV and narrative device are powerful tools that offer useful constraints to help you make content and technical decisions for solid, story-based reasons.
My bite size episode on choosing your POV can be found here, and you can find my article on narrative device here, and the article on POV here. If you have questions about POV and narrative device, I’d love to hear them. Leave a comment here, get in touch through the Story Grid Guild, or submit your question through my site, Writership.com/POV.
What’s the narrative opportunity presented by the premise?
I start my analysis by asking about the opportunity presented by the premise. The premise is a specific character(s) in a setting with a problem.
Harry Potter is an adolescent wizard attending magical boarding school in a world with magical and non-magical domains. His primary external challenge is that the dark wizard Voldemort is bent on destroying society and holds a particular grudge against Harry specifically.
We focus on the global story here, but this is what we would typically call an epic story, meaning there are lots of separate story lines. We need better terminology to avoid confusion with the Action-Epic subgenre, so for now let’s say this is a story with an expansive scope.
Expansive scope stories typically include multiple settings and may span months or years. The setting is populated by a large cast of characters (many with strong internal arcs) and multiple complicated forces of antagonism. You’ll find multiple subplots and/or storylines and several smaller story threads that are woven through the scenes. The Harry Potter series is a great example of this, along with other fantasy and science fiction series, for example Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive, the Expanse series by James S. A. Corey, and the Patternist series by Octavia Butler. We also see this in expansive scope historical fiction novels like Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, and One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez.
The opportunity here is to show how adolescents make sense of their complex world where they face existential threats, to take action when adults aren’t always listening, and trust their intuition. Just as with adults, this is a way of smuggling in advice and information in the form of an entertaining story that would probably be rejected otherwise.
What’s the POV?
The vast majority of the narrative is selective omniscience (also called “close third”) from inside Harry’s mind. The narrative distance (between the narrator and character) here is quite close. No one is filtering Harry’s experience—at least on the surface. Even within Harry’s scenes, a narrator occasionally pops in to share information about the circumstances in the scene.
But we also see instances of neutral and editorial omniscience, for example in the opening scene with the muggle prime minister, Fudge, and Scrimgeour. In that scene, the narrator has access to the prime minister’s thoughts and memories. The narrative distance is still pretty close here, but it’s filtered through a narrator. We need a way to catch up on what’s happened since the end of the prior book and to set the stage for the coming conflict.
We have the same type of narration in the Spinner’s End scene with Snape, Bellatrix, and Narcissa, except that we don’t have access to anyone’s thoughts–only actions and spoken words. The narrative distance is more remote. Rowling uses this POV when she wants to keep the characters’ true motivations a secret from the reader. In the Spinner’s End scene, she wants to keep us guessing about where Snape’s loyalties lie.
What’s the narrative device?
When you have an anonymous narrative device/situation, you have to get creative to identify it. I realize I’m on very shaky ground here hypothesizing about a well-loved story, and if these books are a fixture in your life, you probably already have some ideas about the narrative device. I’m not putting forth what I think is the right answer to what’s the narrative device, but a possibility. My goal is to show you how you can begin to uncover the narrative device in a story you want to use as a masterwork so you can that you can model for your stories.
The vast majority of stories written in some variety of third person employ anonymous or covert narrators. To figure out the narrative device, we need to use our imagination to consider what it could be. What clues are there in the text? We might also look at who might want to tell a story like this to deliver the controlling idea.
What clues am I looking at? Harry’s selective omniscient narration is different from Eilis’s in Brooklyn or Baby’s in Baby Driver because it feels like we’re in each protagonist’s experience the whole time. The events are curated by their own minds, for their purposes. What are they interested in? What details do they notice? What questions do they keep asking themselves?
Given the expansive scope of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and the different points of view and the range of narrative or psychic distance, the narration feels like a curated narrative. The narrator could be someone like Dumbledore (though not Dumbledore himself because of the way the story ends), years or decades in the future, with a pensieve—the device that allows one character to experience the memories of others—and access to a vast library of memories.
One of the main clues for me comes when we see the pensieve in action in this story. When Harry and Dumbledore are inside Bob Ogden’s memory of visiting the Gaunt household, for example, they see Ogden from the outside, which is different from the typical limited omniscient we see in the other stories I’ve mentioned. They can’t see themselves from the outside unless they’re looking in a mirror or other reflective surface.
The audience for a story like this I think would be a young person or young people who are facing life-threatening situations in addition to all the usual challenges that come with adolescence, which are quite enough without a powerful wizard destroying your world.
How well does it work?
How well do the POV and narrative device leverage the opportunities presented by the premise?
The POV and ND do a great job of delivering on the promise of the premise, with all its many, many layers. As I suggested earlier, you need a robust narrative device to carry a story this big, capable of bringing us many different perspectives on the world while also staying close to one character in particular.
Note about Scene Construction
This story’s scenes are constructed in a way that is typical of expansive stories like this one. You’ll have the inciting incident, and maybe a progressive complication or two, but then we shift to some other component of the story. It might be to explore some facet of the world or a subplot or story thread, but for a little while, our attention is taken away from the main scene problem we started with. After some time, more progressive complications related to the main problem happen, and the turning point progressive complication arises, forcing the Crisis, Climax, and Resolution of the scene. I’ll have more to say about this in the future, but this is part of what Brandon Sanderson talks about when he refers to the difference between epic and thriller pacing.
Valerie – Beginning, Middle, End – Film Version
This episode I’m returning to my study of the 3-act structure of stories. No matter how you slice it, all stories have a beginning, middle and end that are designed to hook the reader (or viewer), build the tension and stakes and payoff the story as a whole. Recently Shawn provided a strategy for us to break the middle build of a story into two parts. He writes about it in Action Story: The Primal Genre so if you’re struggling with the macro structure of your story I recommend you check that out.
As most people know, Harry Potter is a story that’s told over seven books, and while each book progresses the overall series story, it also contains a story of its own. Not surprisingly then, Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince contains threads from multiple storylines. I counted 13 plotlines in this film (six of which are love stories). Some of these are fragments from stories that begin and end in other books within the series, some begin and end within this novel, and some relate to the series-wide story.
- Dumbledore’s traveling and mysterious injuries
- Malfoy and the Death Eaters
- Death Eaters v. The Order
- Love Stories
- Quidditch match (does ron make the team?)
- Harry and Luna friendship
- Harry v himself (will he confess to notes in the book, will he refrain from using unknown spells)
For the purposes of the episode today, I’m going to focus on the main thread of this film and that is the Harry/Slughorn plotline.
However, if you’re writing an epic fantasy, a story that stretches over several books, or a story with multiple plotlines, I strongly recommend you study each of the storylines here and discover how they fit within the context of the 7-novel series.
Before I dive into that, I’d like to mention the Forces of Antagonism at play in this film. If I were to ask you what or who the Forces of Antagonism are in the Harry Potter series, you’d probably say Voldemort, Severus Snape, Draco Malfoy, Lucius Malfoy and the other Death Eaters. And you’d be right. What’s interesting about this film is that none of those characters are particularly concerned with Harry. I’ll be honest — I didn’t notice that until I started to analyze it.
There is one quick reference to it after Bellatrix and the Death Eaters burn down the Weasley home. In a walk-and-talk scene, Hermoine says, “It’s bloody easy for them to get to you Harry.”
The real story that’s happening here is that Voldemort has ordered a hit on Dumbledore. Most of this plotline is offstage however, and because of the POV, we only get little snippets of it. Harry isn’t privy to that plot and so neither are we. Harry spends the story on assignment from Dumbledore. He’s been tasked with convincing Horace Slughorn to reveal his true memory of Tom Riddle. There’s so much of the global series story to stuff into this film, that this particular storyline actually takes up very little screen time. That’s another thing I hadn’t noticed until studying for this episode.
A sidenote: Viewers know this story so well that if the filmmakers fudge a detail or two, it almost doesn’t matter because we sub-consciously fill in the details ourselves. Since I’ve read this series multiple times, I didn’t notice it when I watched the films. However, my sister and one of my friends, both of whom were completely unfamiliar with the Harry Potter world, found the films difficult to follow (especially out of sequence). That’s important for us to keep in mind if we’re studying the films as masterworks. Now listen, I’m not criticizing the Harry Potter films — I’m a huge fan of them, the books and J.K. Rowling. But if this is your masterwork, I recommend you focus on the books and then add the films if you want.
So, who or what is the primary Force of Antagonism in this film? Horace Slughorn. He’s a mentor and an ally, but he’s also the antagonist. Sure, Harry comes up against Snape, he deals with Death Eaters and he has a run-in with Draco. Interestingly though, Draco could care less about Harry in this film. He leaves Harry alone. It’s Harry who pursues Draco and forces Draco to react/protect himself.
Ok, now for the 3-Act breakdown. You’ll notice that my breakdown is different from the 3-act breakdown Leslie gave at the outset of the episode. That’s simply because we’re using a different focus — I’m using a more micro view of the story than she did. Of course, I’m also focusing on the film, whereas Leslie looked at the novel.
Beginning Hook: This is the protagonist’s ordinary world. Life might not be perfect, but at least the hero knows how it works. He knows what to do, what not to do, and who’s who. This is the hero’s home turf.
- Inciting Incident: Dumbledore asks Harry to get to know Horace Slughorn. He says that Horace will try to “collect” Harry, and that Harry should let him.
- Turning Point: Professor McGonagall sees Harry and Ron laughing at the first year students trying to find their way around Horgwarts. She suggests that if Harry wants to be an Auror, he should be in Slughorn’s advanced potions class.
- Crisis: This isn’t much of a crisis, but as it is, the question Harry is debating is whether he’ll go to potions or not. Yes, it’s an extra class that he doesn’t want to take, but it does give him a chance to get to know Slughorn, and it avoids an argument with McGonagall.
- Climax: He decides to go to potions class, and brings Ron with him.
- Resolution: Harry and Ron set off for potions class. Harry has to deal with Ron who isn’t too pleased with an extra course.
Middle Build 1: The entire middle build is the extraordinary world and it’s the villain’s home turf. Here, the hero is a fish out of water. It’s interesting because typically, a train from a non-magical world to a magical world would certainly qualify as crossing the threshold — and such is the case in book one of this series. But here, it’s all part of Harry’s ordinary world. Taking the train to Hogwarts is run-of-the-mill by this point. In this part of the story, Harry crosses the threshold when he enters Slughorn’s Advanced Potions class.
- Inciting Incident: Harry aces potions class thanks to the half blood prince. The fact that Snape is the half blood prince isn’t surprising given that he was the potions master for years, and it doesn’t really have much to do with this particular story anyway. In my opinion, this is more of a set up for future books.
- Turning Point (antagonist targets protagonist – first glimmer of the hero’s gift): I think this actually plays out in two different scenes. Obviously, Slughorn sees Harry’s gift for potions in the potions class (or what he perceives to be a gift because Slughorn is unaware of the half blood prince or the notes in the book). The second part takes place at The Three Broomsticks when Slughorn floats the idea of a dinner party past Harry. This is remarkably similar to Gatsby’s approach to Nick. The antagonist is testing the protagonist to see exactly what kind of character they’re dealing with.
- Crisis: It’s helpful to look at the MB1 crisis scene from the antagonist’s POV. Slughorn is trying to recruit Harry; he’s trying to collect him and have him part of The Slug Club. The invitation to a dinner party gives Harry a false sense of security…it suggests that getting to know Slughorn isn’t going to be too difficult. (Remember, at The Three Broomsticks, Harry doesn’t know why Dumbledore wants him to get to know the professor.) After the dinner party, Harry boldly asks Slughorn about Tom Riddle. He tests the waters but is quickly shut down. Slughorn isn’t giving an inch.
- Climax: This is the revelation that Slughorn has modified his memory.
- Resolution: Dumbledore tells Harry that without the true memory they don’t have a hope of catching Voldemort. Dumbledore says that Harry has no choice; he must not fail to get the true memory.
MB1 ends in the antagonist’s “monstrous execution of force”. At this point in the film we have the Death Eaters burning down the Weasley’s home. This is certainly monstrous but it doesn’t have anything to do with the main plot of this movie (the plot that Harry is directly involved in).
Slughorn has his own “monstrous execution of force” in the very next scene, so it’s still at the midpoint of the film. Here, we discover that Slughorn has altered his memory of a conversation he had with Tom Riddle. How is this a “monstrous execution of force”? In my opinion, it demonstrates Slughorn’s magical prowess, but it also clearly indicates that he’s putting his professional reputation ahead of the lives of thousands of magical and muggle people. Later, when he does share the memory with Harry, he asks Harry not to tell anyone because it would ruin him. Putting a professional reputation before innocent lives is monstrous.
Middle Build 2: This is the chaos phase, and when the protagonist is in chaos everyone else in the story is also in chaos.
What kinds of chaotic things happen in MB2?
- slughorn/harry:the gig is up
- Ron – love potion, then poisoned by mead meant for dumbledore
- Slughorn freezes and can’t think of an antidote (chaos for a potions master)
- Ron says Hermoine’s name instead of Lavender’s
- Bird dies in vanishing cabinet
- Harry uses the sectumsempra curse
- A bird survives the vanishing cabinet transfer
- Inciting Incident: This is an unexpected event. Harry asks Slughorn about Tom Riddle, and about rare magic, directly. Harry gives himself away.
- Turning Point: (all is lost) Curiously, this is off screen. Even though Slughorn and Harry have patched things up, and Slughorn admires Harry’s quick thinking to save Ron, Harry has still tipped his hand. Slughorn isn’t going to give up the original memory.
- Crisis: This is also off screen. Will Harry admit defeat and tell Dumbledore that he’s failed or will he try another tactic?
- Climax: Harry remembers he has the liquid luck potion and uses it to approach Slughorn.
- Resolution: After taking the potion, Harry decides to go to Hagrid’s rather than go see Slughorn.
Ending Payoff: The new normal emerges.
- Inciting Incident: Harry catches Slughorn stealing tentaticular leaves.
- Turning Point: Aragog is dead, Slughorn and Hagrid get tipsy as they mourn his death. This gives Harry another chance to approach the issue of the tampered memory.
- Crisis: This is Slughorn’s crisis, not Harry’s. Does he give up his original/true memory or not?
- Climax: Slughorn gives up the original/true memory.
- Resolution: The revelation that Voldemort has created horcruxes and the one Dumbledore risked his life to retrieve is fake.
Kim – Core Event
About Core Events
I am examining Core Events this season to better understand how to payoff a story’s global content genre and the experience our reader is hoping for.
The Core Event is one of four elements in the Four Core Framework that make a content genre the experience that it is. This framework begins with the Core Need, which is represented by the Core Values. The protagonist pursues their need which causes the values to shift which evokes the Core Emotion in the reader. The Core Event is the peak moment of this shift and the height of the core emotion.
If you’re interested in learning more about Core Events, I encourage you to check out two new titles available from Story Grid Publishing: The Four Core Framework by Shawn Coyne that explains the fundamental elements for each of the twelve content genres; and Four Core Fiction, an anthology of twelve original short stories written by SGCE, one for each of the twelve content genres, globally edited by myself and Rebecca Monterusso.
About Today’s Story & Genre
One of the many things I love about the Harry Potter stories is that they have so many layers. Internal arcs galore, Performance plots, along with Action-Epic Life and Death stakes and a mystery (or three) to solve. Much of the narrative drive for the HP novels is the reader trying to figure out the answers with Harry, Ron, and Hermione–all in service of stopping Voldemort from rising to power once again.
Today’s Core Event plays out like a mash up of the Core Events for Action + Crime: a Hero at the Mercy of the Villain scene combined with an Exposure of the Criminal scene.
Action Four Core Framework: Need – survival, Value – life/death, Emotion – excitement, Event – HATMOV
Crime Four Core Framework: Need – Safety, Value – justice/injustice, Emotion – intrigue, Event – Exposure of Criminal
About Today’s Core Event Scene
For today’s scene, let’s walk through the Core Event beat by beat to see how the Life Values are in play throughout.
The story’s Core Event takes place when Dumbledore and Harry return from their mission to the cave to retrieve the horcrux. Dumbledore is weakened from the ordeal (Life and Death values already in play).
They apparate back from the cave into Hogsmeade where they see Madam Rosmerta who tells them a Dark Mark has appeared over the Astronomy Tower. This is the INCITING INCIDENT which shifts from +/- on the Life/Death value spectrum.
They borrow broomsticks from her and fly up to see what has happened. This is a Progressive Complication (Tool) so they can get there quickly to a) find out if a crime was committed, b) possibly help someone in need, but also c) puts them in more danger. In the film they apparate directly to the Astronomy Tower and the Dark Mark is not present at this time.
It’s a trap of course.
Someone is coming. This is a PC (Obstacle) and a threat to life. Dumbledore uses petrificus totalus to petrify Harry who is hidden under his invisibility cloak so that he cannot interfere and will be kept safe. This is another PC, a tool that keeps Harry safe, and also a call back to the beginning scene on the train when Draco did the same thing to him for spying). In the film version, this is changed to Dumbledore instructing Harry to hide below and stay silent and Harry dutifully keeping his word to obey him.
This act allows Draco to disarm Dumbledore with expelliarmus (PC obstacle). Now Dumbledore is at the mercy of Draco and Harry is helpless to stop it (so the life value of the beat has shifted even more negatively in terms of life and death, but in terms of identifying the criminal we are shifting to the positive, i.e. knowledge).
Dumbledore questions Draco and the entirety of Draco’s mission is revealed. He’s been ordered by Voldemort to kill Dumbledore (PC, obstacle for Draco as well as Dumbledore), and despite his missteps with the cursed necklace and poisoned mead, he has mended the vanishing cabinet in the Room of Requirement, forming a passage to another in Borgin and Burkes. Now the Death Eaters have direct access to enter Hogwarts (PC, obstacle).
Cue the Death Eaters arrival. Dumbledore greets them in his polite and nonchalant fashion, but now he is at the mercy of the Draco and others. The values for life and death are their most negative yet in the scene.
Snape arrives and takes control of the situation. This is an active TPPC, and also a tool, just not in the way the reader (or Harry) thinks it is. It shifts from Looming Damnation to Hope for Life. Even though Snape is going to kill Dumbledore, he saves Draco from committing a murder (and his soul from splitting). Which is what Dumbledore wants, because he is already dying from the curse in his hand after he destroyed the horcrux in the ring. This won’t be revealed to us until the end of Book 7, but it’s still a factor.
In the film, Snape (who Dumbledore has assured is trustworthy) arrives below where Harry is and signals for him to stay silent. This becomes a crisis moment here of whether or not to trust Snape. He obeys. This change is presumably to keep actor Daniel Radcliffe in a more active state during this time, and to later fuel Harry’s feeling of guilt for not intervening when he had the chance and amplify the betrayal by Snape. It’s fine but HP fans no doubt prefer the scene in the book. In the book, Harry doesn’t have a crisis until his Petrificus Totalus spell lifts, at which point he has to decide whether to go after Death Eaters or not … kind of a no brainer there.
But back to the scene. Once Snape arrives, Draco has a crisis. Does he stand aside or finish the job himself? Snape too has a crisis. Does he go through with his promise (to both Narcissa and Dumbledore)? All Harry can do is helplessly watch–just like the reader! It’s so awful.
Dumbledore pleads with Snape, “Please.”
Then the climactic moment: Snape honors his promise and kills Dumbledore with Avada Kedavra. The life value shifts from literal Life to Death but in reality it’s from Damnation to Life Prevails. If Dumbledore and Snape had let Draco carry out his order and commit murder all three of them would have faced Damnation. Now, because of Snape and Dumbledore’s sacrifice, even in death, will prevail for Draco. Because that’s what love does.
This Core Event is the culmination so many of the questions we’ve had over the course of the story … What mission was Draco’s given? What did Snape promise to do–to Narcissa Malfoy and to Dumbledore? Is he really trustworthy? What has Draco been doing in the Room of Requirement? This Core Event scene delivers on Core Emotion of Intrigue (all those questions answered) and Excitement (more so in the book because this is followed by a battle between the Order of the Phoenix and the Death Eaters). It is the climactic payoff of this book, and a giant turning point for the series as a whole. It is the All Is Lost moment of the seven book series.
The structure of the series is a thing of beauty.
Book 1 – BH
Books 2 / 3 – MB 1
Book 4 – Midpoint shift, escalation of stakes, descent into chaos
Books 5 / 6 – MB 2
Book 7 – EP
For more fun story nerdery check out this List of Differences between the Harry Potter Books and Films. It’s interesting to think about how the changes between the books and film actually change the life values at stake in the scenes themselves. No matter the medium, every story we take in is an opportunity to learn something more about storytelling and the kind of storytellers we want to be.
Final Thoughts and Takeaways for Writers
We like to round out our discussion with a few key takeaways for writers who want to level up their own writing craft.
Valerie: Even if (or especially if) you’re writing a multi-plot story, you’ve still got to get the story spine of the global plot nailed down. If that isn’t working the rest of the story isn’t working.
Kim: You are the architect of your story, and understanding your own intent and what’s happening beneath the surface of your core event scene will help you craft it in such a way that every beat triggers our core emotions, leading to an all powerful payoff.
Leslie: Comparing the film and the novel I can see a clear difference between what Brandon Sanderson calls epic pacing and thriller pacing and the extra demands on the POV and narrative device we have in an expansive story like this one. Your narrative device needs to be robust enough to deliver the vast number of events, characters, and world details—you might look at it as a highway sufficient for the volume of traffic—without collapsing or creating a confused mess.
That’s a wrap for season seven as well. Join us next time when Valerie and I will share a bite size episode on the powerful argument scene in the film Marriage Story, which we discussed in episode 5 of this season. Why not give it a look and listen during the week, and follow along with us?