(Ten Wishes for Six and Seven)
445 · 7 August 03
1. Forget the movies.
All the special effects have been done, all the sets have been modeled. We have had the joy of seeing your scenes come alive. That works wonderfully once (and saved a movie that otherwise made no sense). It kind of works twice (and the second movie knew what it risked). And then no more. The movies are on their own now, forget them. If you are to keep astonishing us, you will have to do it in ways that movie studios and movie budgets cannot. Forget pyrotechnics and metamorphoses and apparitions. Forget stunt-casting and cross-marketing. Show us the hearts of individual people. Show us the statistics of societies. Tell us stories too small and too large for surround-sound and DLP. Show us frailty and poignancy and irony and farce. Stop writing screenplays too cumbersome to photograph, and start writing novels. You are a writer, and your books are gifts to reading. Give your readers what they've earned.
2. Take your time.
Leave your media empire alone, it can take care of itself for a while. You go home and concentrate. This is where you determine whether you have written a popular series or a significant one. Don't settle. The only thing a failure of courage could save you is money, and you don't need any more money. Use as many pages as you need, and whatever words. Kids know how to use dictionary.com, and they've got the eyes for a smaller font. Four was long, five was longer. But still, neither one was epic. They travel far, but easily, and are too soon over. The final pair need weight, need scope. After the midnight fanfare on their release dates, the world should be gripped by two solid weeks of silence. Don't underestimate us. We want to forget ourselves for days, not just for two hours or ten. You will be granted the longest stretches of undivided audience attention afforded any artist of this era. Don't just borrow them, return them changed. Fill them with wonder. Confront them with pain. Make them mean something.
3. Let Harry grow up.
The best parts of year four were the ones in which Harry realized that for every way he strode ahead of the other students, there was some way in which he lagged mortifyingly behind. You established Harry's invincibility within the special rules of his cloistered society, only to then undermine it by revealing his harrowing vulnerability as a person. You must know that this is the key to how the series ends, no matter how firmly it began in escapism. It is not about a wizard learning to use magic, it is about a child becoming an adult. You must understand this. You must have known it from the moment you started, from the first visit to Privet Drive. But if you so plainly know what your story has to turn out to be about, then why did you squander year five? You accomplished nothing new with Cho that you didn't capture ten times more searingly with the dance in year four. You let Harry fall back on indignant obliviousness where he should have been terrified and confused. You let Ron and Hermione (and Draco, for that matter) languish in the same stasis. One kiss? A whole year, and your leads get a total of one kiss? You consigned vibrant, impressionable, polarized young adults to kill time bizarrely exchanging adolescents' taunts in lieu of innuendo and censure and affront. And yes, you had the sense to hand them control of their own confrontations with evil and thus of their coming of age (although you had to turn the adults into dolts to justify it, which you'll now have to undo). But then, at the final test of the children's self-reliance, you stole their right to find out if they were worthy. You threw them into corners and brought the cavalry. That wins nothing. Your adults have no stakes. They have already risen to their stations, and thus they have no way to develop. They are landmarks and shelter, and novels are not about hillsides and embankments. Heroes must journey, or strangers must come to town. Your adults are your towns, so your children must be gypsies and thieves. Wasn't that exactly the point of making them the chosen and outcast, to begin with? Remember why they exist, and what magic really means. In year six, your children turn sixteen. So do your readers, more or less. Let them.
4. Reveal the next layer.
Everything so far has been enchantingly amusing and superficial. A little too superficial, in fact, and for a little too long. Your audience is maturing faster than your story is expanding. It's time to catch up. It's time to give us something to consider, not just memorize. In year six, the complexities must emerge. Magic powers must have costs. Every individual can bear them in a different way, and Harry's crises aren't the only critical lessons that the NEWT syllabi won't cover. Shadowy, cackling Evil is a cop-out, not just an oversimplification, and I believe you've known this all along. You've placed all the pieces. Now move them. The political struggle between the Ministry and Hogwarts is not a joke or a rout. The other schools are involved, and corruption eventually etches every institution somehow. The dementors have their own agenda, as do the goblins, the elves, the giants, the centaurs, and even the ghosts and portraits. The Order has infighting. Malfoy may well be more dangerous than Voldemort, and yet there are good reasons why Slytherin is tolerated. Someone close to Harry is going to betray him, and a foe will save him, because why kill characters when you can transform them? By the end of year six, the first five years must seem like preamble. You knew this when you set the testing schedule, didn't you? OWLs are done, and the Freds and Georges chose their not-fade-aways. The last two years are for the kids brave enough to face truths. When you are young enough, every year recapitulates and recontextualizes the whole of your life. Your next book must restate and reshape your series. Your advisors will tell you not to do this. They still want money, long after you stop needing more, and their investment is in repetition. So fire them. Five years is enough of the old way. If the sixth and seventh aren't going to redefine your legacy, there's no reason to add another word to what you've already written.
5. Start in the middle, stop in the middle.
Matching the books to years was a very good conceit. Insisting that each book must begin at the beginning of the year and end at the end, however, was not. You have crippled your structure, and deprived yourself of any ability to manipulate pace or arc. Forget platform nine-and-three-quarters and the Express. Forget the sorting hat, and the yearly question of where Harry will spend what holidays, and the house cup and waving rueful goodbye to Ron and Hermione for the summer. Forget Quidditch, or get somebody to explain to you how a sports season actually works. Forget Privet Drive's usual function as penalty box and frame tale, and give it a purpose. You disarmed the Dursleys at the end of year five, anyway, so skip the summer. Just skip it, entirely. In fact, while you're at it, skip year six's whole first term. It eats holes in your story to have to find places to say "a month or two passed uneventfully" right in the middle of the action, so just get all the uneventful months out of the way at once. Give the kids the fall and winter to weave themselves into their own cloths, and then rejoin them in the spring. By then, obviously, the expected threats must all have collapsed or retreated, so you can reset and begin anew, and throw a smug audience right back into the unknown. New mysteries and tensions will have developed in place of the old ones, of course. Reveal them slowly. The fears we don't recognize until we're in their grip are the most exciting ones to discover. Book six should end with a cliff-hanger. Two weeks of silence, while everybody absorbs it, and then three years of bedlam as they wonder what will happen next.
You must raise the themes and conflicts to the next levels of complication and abstraction, so compensate by constraining your cast. You have all the characters you need, literally. Don't bother even adding bit parts, and cut your losses on the ones you already haven't developed. Luna was a distraction, and Neville didn't need the page-time. You wasted Cho, and you missed great opportunities by abandoning Viktor and Fleur. Umbridge and Fudge were cut-outs. You staked the emotional resolution of book five on Harry's grief, but then never gave us enough reason to share it, and if you have even a second's thought of arguing this point, imagine what would have happened if you'd killed somebody who mattered. Here, to be perfectly clear, are the people who matter: Harry, Ron and Hermione; Hagrid and Dumbledore in loco parentis; the Weasleys and the Order as collectively-askew white hats; Draco and Lucius, silhouetted against the shadows of Voldemort, the Death Eaters, Azkaban and the Ministry. The Dursleys, implicated despite themselves. And Ginny, especially Ginny. Ginny is your secret weapon. While everybody else has been watching her brothers' dragons, or cramming for tests, Ginny has been scouting ahead where the story has to go. You were right to leave her alone for a while. Now she's important. Now is the time to call her back and follow her. She will be the catalyst of romantic conflicts, and the sudden hero when the ordained champions falter.
7. Reveal the next layer.
You have two books left. This isn't two chances, it's one chance. Don't waste it. Year six should be unexpected, but year seven should be unanticipatable. Everyone will expect book seven to begin a minute after book six's cliff-hanger, so make it back up an hour, or a month, or a semester, and retell and review. They'll expect it to end with graduation, but remember how "The Scouring of the Shire" uplifts The Return of the King. If year six shows how little we knew, year seven will show that what little we did know was wrong, as was much of what we thought we just learned. To set up for the finale, you must have a free-for-all. You must upend everything. The kindliest people harbor furies, and the blandest-seeming ones lead secret lives. Nobody is as craven or noble as they pretend, and there's much more to almost every story we've been told (and much less to a few). We've accepted fairy tales uncritically, and should have guessed all along that that was a mistake. Most of the truths are more mundane than we dreamed, and a tiny handful are beyond belief. Dumbfound us, shock us. There's nothing left to save your strength for. Seven books is plenty. Any trick you don't pull now, you'll never get to try again.
8. Destroy Harry's world.
It's time to tear down its charmed walls and let the rest of humanity in. Harry's problems are the problems of people, that's why we care at all. So bring the people into the story, and the story out to them. They will turn out to have been there all along. The Code of Secrecy isn't worth the Melting Paper it was quilled on, there are wizards in the BBC and Muggles in Gringotts. There are Australian tourists in Diagon Alley trying to buy dowsing sticks with Euros, and Interpol aurors blackmailing cursed Belgian bureaucrats for chocolate. Most importantly, protected magic has real-world consequences, and sometimes outcasts get choices. Take apart Harry's castles and closets and OWLs and owls. Take away his wand. He is a boy with a forehead scar and a few more traumas than usual, and everything he has ever known or counted on or believed in or strived for is lying in rubble around his feet, or circling mockingly above him. Take away everything. Revolt.
9. Half the revolutions are for laughs.
Only half, but at least half. This isn't Beezus and Ramona, but neither is it Frodo and Sauron. Re-read Lloyd Alexander and The Princess Bride, not C. S. Lewis and Gene Wolfe. This will be the trickiest part of the final two years. Six and seven will make four and five seem frothy and untroubled, by comparison, but this is still a franchise built on adventure and awe. Some of your readers only want to be sixteen, for now, especially the ones who are thirty-six. So half of the incredible hidden truths must be absurd, not sinister. Some of the revealed layers must turn out to be goo, and some of the demons must just need their ears scratched. It's a glass bead game run by imps, not adepts, or a labyrinth with a miniature-golf course in the middle, or Wagner with clowns. These will be hard books to write, hard tensions to sustain. I know how much I'm asking. But re-read Tom Jones and A Confederacy of Dunces. You should always demand more of yourself than anybody else does, anyway. It can be done. Don't you want to be great?
10. And after you've taken Harry's world, give him ours.
The huge storytelling advantage of having given Harry invented gifts, up until now, is that it leaves you all the magnificently ordinary gifts to give him at once in the end. Maybe the era of magic is over completely, or maybe it's only over for Harry, but either way there must be a triumphant ending, and if a triumph is to go against everything Harry has been taught to want, it will need other virtues. His moral calculus, and ours, must by the end be inverted. This has been the solution since the beginning. This is almost always the solution, Tolkien notwithstanding. Every hero eventually figures out that heroism is a doomed enterprise, and the best chance of surviving comes from quitting. Lesser writers need their heroes too much, and so can't afford to set them free. You will be different. Seven years is enough. Harry has learned everything he needs, no matter how little of it was what he thought he was being taught. He will find his path out; don't stand in his way. Magic is stalling, and Harry doesn't need you to stall for him anymore. He is ready to go, he is ready. So are we. In his world, Harry was savior and pariah; in our world, he will be helpless and free. In his world we knew him, in ours he will come to know us. In his he was hunted and heralded, in ours he will be happy.