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    An exhaustive analysis of J.K.Rowling's writing style, based on a random two-page-spread sample from The Deathly Hallows

    Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, pages 114 and 115

    Pages 114 and 115, to be precise, the scene wherein the Weasley family celebrates Harry's 17th birthday. Why am I doing this? Because this is what I do when my novel is on submission and I'm waiting anxiously for that call from my agent--I neurose over things like dialog tags and semicolons. Speaking of which, Rowling uses them. Semicolons, I mean. I'm fascinated by the Harry Potter novels because, well, they're amongst the few novels that I've actually read cover-to-cover, word-for-word in the past, um, some years. I admit it: I'm a skimmer. It's an occupational hazard of being both a librarian and a slow reader. So many books; so much time needed to read them; so little time available. So here's what I learned (and in no particular order):

    • Semicolons: 4 total in my sample. If my sample is representative, that means Rowling's final chapter in the series contains 1518 semicolons. Impressive. Take that you semi-colon naysayers.

    • The seriel comma: You know, the one that comes just before the coordinating conjunction (usually "and") in a series. Yep. She uses it.

    • Dialog tags: "Said" wins hands down. The tag usually precedes the name of the character speaking ("said Ron"), but follows if she wants to include an adverb ("Hermione said brightly" or "he said feebly").

    • Adverbs: See "dialog tags." Used sparingly. In fact, I only noticed two others--"slightly" and "clumsily."

    • Humor: Understated, which makes it just that much funnier. Hermione: "I'm just waiting for the rest of your underpants to come out of the wash, Ron--" Ron's splutter was interrupted by . . .") [the giggle is mine]

    • Emotion: Understated, which, again, makes it that much more dramatic, while avoiding melodrama: "The rest of her speech was lost; Harry had got up and hugged her. He tried to put a lot of unsaid things into the hug, and perhaps she understood them . . ."

    • Ellipses: Yep. Three sets.

    • Dashes: Yep. Twice to show interrupted dialog.

    • Parenthesis: Once, an aside to capture a bit of dialog.

    • Participial Phrases: Phrases employing the -ing form of verbs--used after a dialog tag to indicate what the character is doing (Thanks, Suzanne, for the correction). Rowling seems to really like these. Here are some examples: "said Mrs. Weasley, beaming at him," "said Mrs. Weasley, watching him anxiously," "said Hermione, hurrying into the kitchen," "He said feebly, pointing toward the window."

    • Sentence length: Varied. The longest: 52 words. The shortest, not including dialog, 3 words (happened twice).

    • Tension: Created mostly through observation and action. Introspection is kept to a minimum. ("She ignored this. He could not blame her.")

    • Verb choices: Simple. I'm not fond of language that draws attention to itself. Strong verbs are great, but they can wear you out after a while. Here's a sampling of the verbs Rowling uses in my sample (dialog not included): "sat," "unwrapped," "was," "got up," "hugged," "tried," "bought," "contained," linger," "came," "took."

    • Description: Straight forward with little to no commentary. Cinematic almost.What you might expect the camera to pick up.

    [tweetmeme source="JanetTrumble" only_single=false]So there you have it! And, okay, maybe it isn't EXHAUSTIVE, exactly. But I do think I understand better what makes her novels so readable. When it comes to telling a great story, Rowling certainly knows how to get on with it. No navel gazing. And no skimming allowed. That's like taking a bathroom break at the movies and coming back to find out you missed something really, really important.

    Reader Comments (3)

    Wonderful. :P

    July 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBrent

    As a former English teacher and current librarian, I enjoyed reading your analysis. I love semicolons as well and abhor the fact that journalists have started this trend of omitting the comma before "and" in a series just to save a bit of space. However, the words you point out as gerunds are actually participles which are a different type of verbal (verb acting as a different part of speech). Gerunds act as nouns (i.e. Reading is my favorite hobby.) Participles act as adjectives by describing. Thanks for your analysis though; It was interesting to read. Good luck with your submission. :)

    July 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

    Thanks, Suzanne! I didn't think I had that quite right. But I knew one of my librarian/teacher-types would know! Thanks for the correction.

    July 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJanet Trumble

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