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Posts Tagged ‘Harry Potter’

I’d forgotten how enriching the words of J.K. Rowling could be until the recent surge of interest in her new Pottermore website led me, inadvertently, to a commencement speech she gave three years ago at Harvard. As I listened to that speech, I came to understand far better why the scope of good and evil in her Harry Potter series rang so true…and why the ultimate victory at the end of each book of good over evil was so empowering to me as a reader. If you haven’t yet heard her speech, here it is:

J.K. Rowling Speaks at Harvard Commencement from Harvard Magazine on Vimeo.

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Another function of dialogue in fiction is to help set the scene. This can involve actual description within the dialogue tags, or it can mean setting the tone or feeling of the scene through dialogue.
J.K. Rowling does the first well in “Harry Potter.” For example, in this scene from “The Prisoner of Azkaban,” in which Harry begins the dialogue:
“What’s happened?” he [Harry] asked Ron and Hermione, who were sitting in two of the best chairs by the fireside and completing some star charts for Astronomy.
“First Hogsmeade weekend,” said Ron, pointing at a notice that had appeared on the battered old bulletin board. “End of October. Halloween.”
“Excellent,” said Fred, who had followed Harry through the portrait hole.

Even if you’d never seen the movies, you could begin to imagine the Gryffindor Common Room through these few exchanges of dialogue, in which brief snatches of the setting have been given.
As for setting the tone of the scene, consider this example from Carol Lynch Williams’s “The Chosen One,” in which one of the elders of the polygamous community has just arrived:
“Two things,” he says before any of us says a word, holding up his fingers to prove it. “I’m here for two things.”

I think I’ve stopped breathing, but I listen.
“Number one. Sister Kyra. I would like to have you over to dinner. A date so we can get to know each other better. Tomorrow evening.”

He doesn’t even wait for me to answer. A date?
“And number two, where is the baby from last night?”

Father stands now, loosening his arm from around my shoulders. “Mariah?” Father says.
“Screaming like that,” Uncle Hyrum says. “And in front of the Prophet. It was too much, Richard. Too much.”

“She’s not even a year old,” Mother Sarah says.
Uncle Hyrum looks at my mother like he could slap her. “Don’t speak, Sister Sarah, unless I’ve spoken to you first.”

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Another nugget from the “webinar” last Thursday with Rachelle Gardner:

Your 1-sentence pitch (which I describe in more detail over on my website) should reflect the best of your writing, showing off strong nouns, verbs, and adjectives.

She provided three examples of good pitches, two of which were from rather well-known books–Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and The Help. I’ll quote the former here so you can see what she means.

A boy wizard begins training and must battle for his life with the Dark Lord who murdered his parents.

What are the strong nouns? I believe “wizard” and “Dark Lord” certainly count in that category. The strong verbs would definitely include “battle” and “murdered.” Also, I suppose you could make a case for “Dark” in the reference “Dark Lord” being actually a strong adjective.

But this got me thinking not only about 1-sentence pitches, but about opening lines of novels. Here’s a sampling of opening lines from novels I’ve read over the past year or so (I’ve also snuck in the openings of my two novels). Some novels were better than others and you may even recognize a few. You tell me which of the following are the most effective opening lines. I wouldn’t be surprised if the winners are the ones with…you guessed it…strong nouns, verbs, and adjectives.

“I clasp the flask between my hands even though the warmth from the tea has long since leached into the frozen air.”

“Heck Benham welcomed the New Year of 1935 by presiding over the death of a pig.”

“Lord Everett Spencer, the Earl of Whittington, arose in a sweat well before first light.”

“Unrepaired and swollen with rain, the gate in the orchard wall refused to move until Cameron put his full weight against it and pushed, hard.”

“When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.”

“Jessica stood alone in the silent space, contemplating the Long Gallery in front of her–a beguiling, empty corridor of oak floorboards.”

“If Daphne believed in any god, it was the god of water–the pool his holy sanctuary, the daily swim her prayer.”

“It hovered like a fly trapped inside her skull, crowding out the squeaking of sneakers, the banging of the basketball.”

“As soon as James Owen heard the Spanish priest’s final amen, he stepped back from the makeshift altar in the Colorado meadow and made his legs carry him to the edge of the forest.”

“After dark the rain began to fall again, but he had already made up his mind to go and anyway it had been raining for weeks.”

“Harris walked out the back door and down through the dark garden past the antler pole, chicken coop, rabbit pens, and fruit trees.”

I’d love to hear your top three finalists based solely on the opening sentence. Pretend you’re an agent with little time to spare. Which three really grab you? (I’ll let you know all the sources and the results on Friday.)

In the meantime, I’m re-thinking my opening sentence of my yet-to-be-published second novel.

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