So what’s with J.K. Rowling’s books anyway? Why are they so popular with children and adults alike, getting even the most reluctant of readers to stay up late, turning page after page? Why are her books so addicting?
Oh wait, I forgot. SPOILER WARNING: This post contains spoilers for all 7 Harry Potter books, the Cursed Child play, and the first Fantastic Beasts movie. All the plot points are labeled and highlighted like this so don’t read the parts you don’t want to know about yet.
Well, it’s because they are mysteries, first and foremost. You love plowing through her books because you want to solve the mystery; everything else is secondary.
Rowling follows a long tradition from her own country of origin: the Sherlock Holmes-style serial mystery. The reader is presented with a series of clues, characters, and events and has to try and piece together the solution alongside the main characters.
Her Cormoran Strike series (written under the now-pointless pseudonym Robert Galbraith) are marketed as mysteries, but even all her Harry Potter stories follow this same structure.
In each book, as soon as Harry gets to Hogwarts, he is presented with some kind of mystery.
Philosopher’s Stone: Who’s trying to steal the Philosopher’s Stone?
Chamber of Secrets: Who opened the Chamber of Secrets?
Prisoner of Azkaban: Where is Sirius Black and is he gonna kill Harry?
Goblet of Fire: Who’s screwing with the Tri-wizard Tournament?
Order of the Phoenix: What’s with all the weird dreams Harry keeps having?
Half-Blood Prince: What’s with all the weird dangerous stuff that keeps happening at school? And who’s the Half-Blood Prince? (The last one obviously isn’t as pressing.)
Deathly Hallows: Where are those dang Horcruxes?
Cursed Child: Why is Harry’s scar hurting again?
Fantastic Beasts: What’s been attacking no-maj’s in New York?
Most of the chapters unfold with lots of mini-stories about Harry’s year at school (or in Deathly Hallows, his year in the wilderness / or in Cursed Child, his son’s life at school / or in Fantastic Beasts, a weird version of Pokémon Go that involves rhino hormones or something) with clues peppered throughout and at the end of chapters to keep you reading. It’s like Anne of Green Gables or Little Women crossed with Agatha Christie mysteries. You get nice stories starring a likeable cast of characters in episodic adventures all while you slowly gather clues and evidence (but never enough that you could piece it together yourself).
And just like Christie’s books, you have a grand unveiling at the end, with lots of long monologues explaining and connecting all the little details (and glossing over all the red herrings). And, in classic fireside/Scooby-Doo mystery style, the real criminal turns out to be someone you met near the beginning and then totally forgot about because you were so distracted with someone/something else entirely. In fact, with the exception of Order of the Phoenix, every Harry Potter book, play, and movie ends with a Scooby-Doo-esque unmasking. “So it was ____ all along! Of course!”
Philosopher’s Stone: Turns out it was Professor Quirrell, whom you met at the beginning of the book, rather than Snape, who was trying to get the stone!
Chamber of Secrets: Turns out it was Ginny, whom you met at the beginning of the book, under the control by that weird diary, rather than Malfoy, who was opening the Chamber!
Prisoner of Azkaban: Turns out it was Ron’s rat, whom you were reminded existed when he was nearly eaten by a cat at the beginning of the book, rather than Sirius Black, who betrayed Harry’s parents!
Goblet of Fire: Turns out it was the son of that one guy… what’s his name, you met him at the beginning of the book… who was pretending to be this other guy… who messed with the tournament!
Order of the Phoenix: Turns out it was… Voldemort again… huh, guess that was kind of obvious… but the twist is he was trying to steal a weird globe-thingy from that place you first saw at the beginning of the book!
Half-Blood Prince: Turns out it was Malfoy, rather than Snape, who was trying to kill Dumbledore all year, which was what that conversation at the beginning of the book was all about! And also Snape was the Half-Blood Prince all along (once again… that last one isn’t really of any consequence)!
Deathly Hallows: Turns out Harry is one of the Horcruxes! You also met him at the beginning of the book!
Cursed Child: Turns out that one woman was actually Voldemort’s daughter… although that doesn’t really explain why his scar, which is a manifestation of him being a Horcrux, would be hurting since he’s still dead and Harry no longer contains part of his soul… anyway, you met her at the beginning of the play.
Fantastic Beasts: Turns out it’s Grindewald, whom you saw in opening credits, rather than whatever the name of the guy Colin Farrell played, who was trying to… hang on, what did he want to do with that smokey thing, again? Oh yeah, and at one point you think it’s the girl but it turns out she’s just… normal. Except she has a wand under her bed? What was that all about?
Of course, the mysteries are what gets you hooked, but it’s the side stories about dances and classes and teenage drama that keeps you there. Like the novels of Jane Austen, you go back to them time and time again because it’s fun to see all the different people interact in day-to-day activities, wondering who will end up with whom and being fascinated by the fact that so-and-so said what to who at the dance?!
What’s so interesting about Rowling’s style is that while she has loads and loads of imitators, very few of the people trying to copy her success have ever bothered to focus on her structure. All of these authors, trying to capitalize and repeat her success, assumed the popularity of her books had to do “magical dorky kids goes on crazy adventures,” rather than the way in which the stories were told.
Well, the magic and wonder is still a large part of the continuous appeal of Harry Potter, but a large part of what got people engrossed the first time they picked up one of her books or watched on the movies was the allure of solving the mystery all while spending time with likeable people you get to watch grow and mature.
It reminds me of how after Star Wars first premiered in 1977 (OK, maybe “reminds” isn’t the best word, since I wasn’t even alive then, #Millennial), it was followed by scads of imitators. But instead of looking at Lucas’ own secret to success (combining Joseph’s Campbell’s mono-myth with classic Hollywood/Japanese film sequences and set-ups), they just shoved a bunch of spaceship models and lasers on screen and assumed the cash would come rolling in.
So, what I’m saying here is this: if you want to be as rich as J.K. Rowling, go read and study Agatha Christie, Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott, and Lucy Maud Montgomery. If you’re gonna copy something, at least copy from the best. That’s what art is all about!