When I teach storytelling, I’ll often start by using an example from a well-known YA novel like Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Hugely successful novels like these are often transparent about introducing a story’s promise and setting a story into motion through what I call character’s dramatic truths, those issues that define a character and what they seek in the story.
I find that some struggling writers are what I call blind imitators. They think they are doing what an author like J.K. Rowling is doing, but when I read her opening and compare it to their opening, my goal is that they understand the difference.
The opening of Sorcerer’s Stone…
Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange of mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.
Mr. Dursley was the director of a firm called Grunnings, which made drills. He was a big, beefy man with hardly any neck, although he did have a very large mustache. Mrs. Dursley was thin and blonde, and had nearly twice the usual amount of neck, which came in very useful as she spent so much of her time craning over garden fences, spying on the neighbors. The Dursleys had a small son called Dudley and in their opinion there was no finer boy anywhere.
The Dursley’s had everything they wanted, but they also had a secret, and their greatest fear was that somebody would discover it. They didn’t think they could bear it if anyone found out about the Potters.
The Dursley’s greatest desire is to appear normal, and their greatest fear is that someone will unmask their secret, that Mrs. Potter’s sister is a witch. To the Dursley’s, the revelation of that secret would mean being branded as abnormal.
When the Dursley’s are put in charge of raising Harry Potter after his parents are killed, Harry is a constant threat to their secret.
The question for the Dursley’s characters is whether they can sustain their secret and, in the beginning of the first book, prevent Harry Potter from learning about his heritage. Then, when Harry learns who he is, the Dursley’s go to great lengths to hide Harry’s true nature from other Muggles (non-magical people).
I call this narrative tension, and the story operates to transfer that tension from the characters to the story’s readers.
Hugely successful YA novels can be a great resource for new writers to study the craft of storytelling.
Bill Johnson is the author of A Story is a Promise & The Spirit of Storytelling, a writing workbook. He is also the web master of storyispromise.com, a web site that explores principles of storytelling through reviews of popular movies, books and plays. Spirit is now available on Amazon Kindle.