This week we face the Hero at the Mercy of the Villain in the Writers’ Room as we analyze the core event of the 2005 novel Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling.
But that’s not all! In addition to analyzing this excellent example of a “chase scene” in an Action Story, we discuss set pieces, emotional connections, and how to hide a character’s true motives. Don’t miss Rowling’s masterful combination of movement and POV that keeps us inside Harry’s experience without losing what’s happening in other parts of Hogwarts.
GENRE AND THREE-ACT SUMMARY
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is a global Action-Epic, Savior plot with Worldview-Maturation internal genre. Here’s a brief overview of the global story’s three acts.
- Beginning Hook – After months of Death Eater attacks, Harry spies Draco Malfoy up to no good in the dark arts shop, but when his friends won’t listen to Harry’s suspicions 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 with mysterious attacks on students and attempts on Dumbledore’s life, 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. He takes the potion and convinces Slughorn by talking about his mother. Slughorn agrees and shares the vital memory.
- Ending Payoff – Harry and Dumbledore seek and return to Hogwarts with what they believe to be a horcrux, but when Snape kills Dumbledore, Harry must decide whether to keep his promise to Dumbledore to do nothing. Harry chases Snape and Malfoy while a battle rages within Hogwarts, but they escape and the horcrux locket turns out to be fake.
We’re looking at chapter 28, “Flight of the Prince”
ANALYZING THE SCENE
Scene Type: Hero at the Mercy of the Villain
What function does this scene serve in the story?
Editor’s scene type: Core event—Hero at the mercy of the Villain or luminary agent at the mercy of the shadow agent
What kind of scene is this?
Writer’s scene type: externally, this is a pursuit scene, but internally, this is coming to terms with the truth
What does this scene type accomplish within the context of the novel as a whole?
Core event, this is the scene everyone is waiting for.
How many people are in the scene?
About 23 – this makes sense in the core event of an Action-Epic story
Where does the scene take place (location)?
At Hogwarts – Astronomy tower, in the corridors leading to the outside, across the grounds, past Hargid’s hut, the gates of Hogwarts, outside the tower. The movement from inside to the outside allows us a wide perspective on what’s happening at Hogwarts, even though we’re locked in to Harry’s point of view.
What is the power dynamic at play in this scene?
At the most macro level, this is Harry (and members of the Order of the Phoenix) against Voldemort acting through the Death Eaters.
On a more personal level, this is Harry against Snape and Malfoy, but of course the dynamic isn’t exactly what it seems.
What is the point of conflict, and how does that relate to the characters’ objects of desire?
In this scene, Harry wants to catch Snape, which is part of his attempt to deny that Dumbledore is really gone. Snape wants to escape with Draco Malfoy–and keep the secret about his promise to Dumbledore.
When we analyze a scene we need to answer four story event questions, and identify the five commandments of storytelling. These are covered in detail in Story Grid 101 which is available as a free download from the Story Grid website.
Story Event Questions
- What are the characters literally doing—that is, what are their micro on-the-ground actions?
Harry is chasing Snape and the Death Eaters.
- What is the essential tactic of the characters—that is, what macro behaviours are they employing that are linked to a universal human value?
As Leslie mentioned, Harry is trying to come to terms with what’s happened. Initially, he’s trying to save Dumbledore by catching Snape. By the end, he’s mourning the loss of his mentor.
- What universal human values have changed for one or more characters in the scene? Which one of those value changes is most important and should be included in the Story Grid Spreadsheet?
This is a massive moment in the series as a whole. Not only has Dumbledore died, but Snape has been revealed as a double agent which is a massive revelation, and cuttlefish, in the series. The reader sees Snape through Harry’s eyes so our opinion of him is Harry’s opinion—even though it’s contrary to Dumbledore’s opinion. So, values shifting in this scene:
- Hogwarts and its the students/staff: safe to unsafe, protected to threatened
- Fang: safe to unsafe to safe
- Snape: concealed to revealed (sort of)
- Hagrid: brave and strong to heartbroken and vulnerable
- Harry: like the others he obviously moves from safe to unsafe but the value shift is also hopeful (that Dumbledore can be saved) to hopeless, and that works for the external genre, but this is a major milestone in Harry’s internal development and shift along the worldview genre. A shift toward maturation; he’s no stranger to death, and certainly isn’t as naive as other children his age, but this is a huge moment in his character arc. He’s realizing that all is not what it seems, and that’s a mark of maturation. However, there’s also some revelation here; where Snape is concerned, he’s still misguided but he discovers that (1) Snape is the Half Blood Prince and (2) the necklace is not one of the horcruxes (ignorance to wisdom) and these are also significant plot points.
- What is the Story Event that sums up the scene’s on-the-ground actions, essential tactics, and value change? We will enter that event in the Story Grid Spreadsheet.
Harry chases Snape, Malfoy and the Death Eaters across the grounds of Hogwarts in an effort to keep them from reaching the exterior gate and Disapparating. Harry is unsuccessful and all hope to save Dumbledore is lost.
Five Commandments of Storytelling
Dumbledore is killed (end of the prior scene) and the body bind curse is lifted.
Progressive Complications (and how they escalate the stakes)
- Must get past the brutal Death Eater
- Stumbles into the battle within the school
- Fenrir attacks at Harry
- Bodies on the floor (emotional and physical obstacle)
- Ginny fights Amycus
- Ron, McGonagall, Lupin, Tonks are all fighting Death Eaters (beat crisis: should he stay with them and fight?)
- Trips over Neville
- Blond Death Eater attacks
- Slips in blood on the floor
- Not sure where Snape and Malfoy have gotten to
- Navigate labyrinth of staircases
- Encounters Hufflepuff students in the way
- Once outside, he sees Snape and Malfoy have a substantial lead across the grounds
- It’s cold outside
- Flash of light, unknown source
- Hagrid is engaging with Death Eaters (again a beat level crisis, should he stop and help?)
- Amycus and Electo catch up to Harry and attack
Turning Point Progressive Complication
Snape and Malfoy make it past Hagrid (action), which means there is nothing between them and the gates outside of which they’ll be able to disapparate (revelation).
Does he use an unforgivable curse against Snape?
He tries, but Snape is able to block each attempt.
Snape and Malfoy escape, Harry and Hagrid return to the tower where they find Dumbledore’s body and Harry learns that what they thought was a horcrux was a fake.
WHAT’S SPECIAL ABOUT THIS SCENE?
Context for this Scene in the Series: Although Harry, the luminary agent, survives, he comes within a hair’s breadth of the negation of the negation and actually asks Snape to kill him. Not only has he lost his mentor, a powerful wizard with knowledge they need in their defense against Voldemort, but part of the resolution includes another revelation: the locket that Dumbledore weakened himself to obtain isn’t the real thing.
Moments like this are typical in the second book of a trilogy or the penultimate book in a longer series.
Obscure Character Motivations: Snape’s true motives are hidden, and this series and story are great models for how to keep facts from the reader without cheating. (One of the best examples of this is the scene chapter 27 when everything Snape and Dumbledore do and say can be read multiple ways.)
POV and Transition Combination: Notice how the structure of the scene gives us a comprehensive view of what’s happening the way an editorial or neutral omniscient POV could do. That form of narration could really feel like a cheat. Harry leaves the tower, stumbles into the battle below, makes his way through the school to encounter what students not engaged in the battle are doing, then moves onto the grounds where we see Hagrid tangling with the Death Eaters running by his hut on the way to the gates. AND this is an interesting contrast from the prior scene when we’re in the tight confines of the tower, where Harry couldn’t do anything.
Effective Core Event: This is a great example of HATMOV for a novel—Harry meets challenges he’s encountered so far in the story. You can go back through earlier scenes and find situations when Harry had to deal with these obstacles, maybe one or two at a time, but here it is everything all at once or in quick succession, and he is operating under two major mental and emotional obstacles. First, Dumbledore is dead—though he’s hoping he can do something about that. But also it looks like Snape is a traitor—and this is one of those times when he wouldn’t mind being wrong. It’s his duty to fix this problem, both because he feels responsible for the deaths of people he loves and because no one else is available to do this. It’s down to him, so no wonder he comes so close to a fate worse than death here.
Novel v Film: I remember when we studied the film of this book on the Roundtable podcast. The HATMOV scene struck me odd because Harry was a bystander. Looking at the novel now, I see that the film really shortened Harry’s role in this major plot point in the 7-book story arc. I find the novel much more satisfying—not that there’s anything wrong with the films!
Emotional Connection: One of the reasons this series is so successful is that readers have an emotional connection with Harry. We care about what happens to him and we want him to succeed. We care about Dumbledore too, but I think the reason this scene, and the one prior, really hit home is because we know how devastating this is for Harry. He’s lost his parents, he’s lost Sirius and now he’s lost Dumbledore. Somehow, when Dumbledore is there, we all feel much safer. When he dies chaos reigns.
Dumbledore’s Death: Dumbledore’s death is not gratuitous. It’s an essential part of the plot and that’s why it works. It’s like Ned Stark’s death in A Song of Ice and Fire. It’s absolutely shocking and we’re horrified, but in the end, we understand why it’s necessary and that’s an essential lesson for writers. Everything that’s in a book must be there for a reason.
Line Writing v Story Structure: I’m not downplaying the importance of line writing, but the reality is that story structure trumps line writing. It pains me to say it, but it’s true. The goal (or at least my goal) is to have both. There’s nothing wrong with J.K. Rowling’s line writing, so don’t send me any hate mail. However, she uses a ridiculous amount of ellipses and em dashes and nobody notices. Why am I mentioning this? Because we can get so focused on finding the exact word to describe something that we stop writing. We become fixated on a very small detail of our stories and forget that spending hours or days on one sentence is a waste of time. In the end, it’s the structure that’s more important.
Chase Scene Example: Action scenes can be challenging to pull off in prose. In fact, I think that action scenes and sex scenes are the toughest to write because they both involve behaviours we don’t typically narrate. So if you’re writing an action story, or stories with action/physical scenes, Harry Potter would be a good series to look at.
Set Piece: When I took McKee’s Genre Week series of seminars, we spent a whole day on the Action Genre and he talked about set pieces. He said that an action set piece is essentially a sequence designed to create excitement and tension via the threat of death—they can also have an element of fun, although that’s not the case here. Set pieces should force choices; they must have turning points that lead to crisis questions and climactic actions (no expository set pieces!). He gives five grand set pieces and I think that in Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, chapters 27 and 28 are a two-scene sequence that combine to form a Confrontation Set Piece because Harry is confronting Snape.
Valerie: This scene reinforces the kind of stories that writers, who have a mastery of the craft, can tell. Remember, J.K. Rowling is a life-long student of stories and books. She’s been practicing her craft since she was 7 years old (so she had about 30 years of experience when she wrote this book). I found 6 things to highlight in this scene and I didn’t even dig deeply.
So again, if writing a multi-book epic series is your dream, then by all means, go for it! But please understand the task you’re undertaking so (1) you can be kind to yourself rather than being critical and (2) so you understand that studying the masters is essential. I don’t know any other way to do it.
Leslie: I keep coming back to how clever the point of view choice is for the whole series, but also in this scene that pays off so many story lines. It’s an expansive scene that covers a lot of ground physically and metaphorically. But my biggest takeaway is the way Rowling arranged the progressive complications. You could use this scene as a model for any expansive core event scene by substituting your characters and setting and situation for what appears here.