Saturday, December 27, 2008

How to write a book by your favorite author in ten steps or less

I love it when I read a great book and then find another book by the same author with a similar plot. Sometimes I get so familiar with an author that I can predict the plot of a book before I open it.

Here's an example:

Basic Harry Potter Plot Summary

  1. Harry is at the Dursleys for the summer and he’s miserable.
  2. An event happens before Harry gets to school. After it’s over, Harry visits Diagon Alley (or Mrs. Weasley visits it for him) and takes the train to Hogwarts.
  3. Harry arrives at Hogwarts and finds out who the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher is (who is always someone Harry’s met before school started).
  4. Harry gets a lot of homework and Quidditch practice and games happen.
  5. Major events occur on Halloween and/or Christmas.
  6. Harry, Ron and Hermione are trying to solve a mystery.
  7. Harry and friends study for exams. In the afternoon after the last exam, the answer to the mystery is suddenly discovered.
  8. The climax of the book occurs and something terrible or miraculous happens. Harry meets Voldemort and narrowly avoids death. The climax lasts all evening and takes up several chapters of the book. At the end of it, Harry ends up in the hospital wing.
  9. Dumbledore explains it all.
  10. Harry deep in thought about whatever happened during the climax, takes the train home and dreads another summer with the Dursleys.

Of course, there are deviations to this structure in various books. Harry doesn’t take the train to Hogwarts in Chamber of Secrets, he doesn’t meet Voldemort in Prisoner of Azkaban (although Voldemort is discussed during the climax), he doesn’t play Quidditch in Goblet of Fire, etc. But basically, if you think about it, the events listed above happen in Books One through Six.

**Begin spoiler alert. Don’t read the comment below unless you’ve read the Half Blood Prince and Deathly Hallows.**

One of the things I love in Book Seven is that Dumbledore STILL explains it all. He doesn’t let a minor thing like death stand in his way of summing up the entire plot and explaining every mystery that’s happened during the book.

**End spoiler alert**

Stock plot summaries can work for lots of books. Take a look at this one:

Basic Amelia Bedelia Plot Summary

It only takes five steps.

  1. Mrs. Rogers gives Amelia Bedelia a list of things to do and then leaves the house.
  2. Amelia Bedelia bakes a pie before she starts working on the list.
  3. Amelia Bedelia does every item on the list and takes each task literally.
  4. Mrs. Rogers comes home to find that the house is a big mess and that Amelia Bedelia hasn’t done anything correctly.
  5. Amelia Bedelia’s pie makes everything better again.

This always makes me wonder. Hasn’t Mrs. Rogers figured out by now that Amelia Bedelia is an incompetent maid? Why doesn’t she hire someone else? Amelia Bedelia can open a bakery and contract on the side with Mrs. Rogers to bake pies.

And it's not always plot devices. Some authors seem to have lists of characters that often appear in their books. Here are several reoccurring characters from one of my favorite authors:

L.M. Montgomery's Stock Characters

For those of you who have just read Anne of Green Gables series, believe me, these characters surface in nearly every other L.M. Montgomery book.

Primary characters

  • A female ingénue who is deeply in love with the house she lives in. She often has a teaching degree and sometimes a college degree (unusual for the time period). She has a creative imagination and writes stories and sells them to magazines for a small profit. She is usually (but not always) an orphan. The story is always told for her point of view.
  • A handsome, perfect male who grew up with the female ingénue. He crosses signals with her multiple times and moves away (a letter is usually lost or destroyed.) But he always manages to come back three pages from the end of the book at the perfect moment and declare his undying love.
  • An older female who takes care of the ingénue in a strict and no-nonsense way. She is usually not the ingénue's mother.
  • An older man who falls in love with the ingénue. He proposes and is engaged to the ingénue, but she only sees him as a friend and she eventually breaks the engagement. (Not in the Anne books, but in many others).

Secondary characters (optional, but usually included)

  • A wonderful housekeeper that the family couldn’t live without who has a mother that occasionally gets ill.
  • A gossipy female neighbor who does beautiful needlework and feels there's a enormous difference between Presbyterians and Methodists. (Presbyterians are always favored.)
  • A female friend who's had a rough life and only opens up to the ingénue.
  • A female friend or sister that dithers for years over which of two identical men she should marry, and then falls in love with a third man and marries him immediately.
  • A rich, crotchety elderly woman who dies and leaves her fortune to the ingénue.
  • Small children who have big imaginations and provide amusing stories about adventures and local people. (The stories are typically the same from book to book.)
  • A town doctor who makes house calls. (In the Anne books, he’s a primary character).
  • A town minister.


  • A farm on Prince Edward Island near a small town, where everybody’s primary occupation seems to be keeping track of the entire life histories of everyone else.

There are a few obvious exceptions. The Blue Castle is the only book that is not set on Prince Edward Island. And the male hero and the ingenue are together and happy for half the book and not just the last three pages. And Kilmeny of the Orchard is an exception because it's told from the man's point of view, not the woman's.


I love these kinds of books when they're written by a favorite author. Sometimes it's great to find many variations on the same theme. And just because stock characters or basic plot points are used, doesn't mean the books aren't original and delightful.

Also, it makes me intrigued about an author's life and when I see obvious patterns, I like to research them. A lot of it tends to be based in fact as authors frequently write what they know.

Compare the stock characters to L.M. Montgomery's actual life. Her mother died shortly after she was born and she was raised by farm on Prince Edward Island by her grandparents. She had both a teaching license and a college degree. She fell in love with the perfect boy- someone she had grown up with (her cousin) but didn't marry him and married an older man who was a Presbyterian minister instead.

Unfortunately, though, I'll never get to read a Harry Potter book again for the first time. And after a trip to Prince Edward Island and a careful search through tons of used bookstores there, I think I've exhausted all the new-to-me L.M. Montgomery books. But, by knowing the formula, I can also appreciate departures from it. I love Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and The Blue Castle, precisely because they break the mold.

And sometimes, only one book really rises to the top. I liked The DaVinci Code and read other books by Dan Brown. I was disappointed that not only were they all the same, but The Da Vinci Code (which still had flaws) was the best.

A Plea

If you found this post by googling "Anne of Green Gables characters" or "Harry Potter plot summary," please don't use what I've written above for any kind of informational purposes. They're just generalizations, and I hope that you read the books discussed above if you haven't before. Despite what I said, each one truly is unique and I've enjoyed every one. (Some more than others, of course).

Your Turn

How about you? Is there an author whose plot summary, typical setting and stock characters you know even before you start reading one of their books? Post it below. If you chose to write your own post about it, I'd love to see it and please include the link in the comments.


  1. Oh, this is so interesting for a writer to read.

    I have noticed recurring themes and situations lately in friends' work----but only after someone pointed out the recurring themes and situations in my own. It was weird to think about:
    I have written many characters in search of family (mine is small and scattered, many characters who are facing fears (I am a panic attack graduate), etc, etc, etc...

    Happy New Year, thanks for blogging and for being a literacy hero.

  2. Fabulous post! I don't tend to read a single author's work close together enough to make anything like the scientific study you have here, but in the last year I did real all of Sarah Dessen's novels and discerned certain similarities in terms of characteristics of heroine, magnetism of love interest, plot points; that said, she's so wonderful at what she does, and getting better all the time, that I could care less.

    With my own work, since I write for so many different age groups and so many different genres, I always feel as though I'm reinventing my own wheel each time, although within genres there can be similarities; e.g., in my adult books, there's a lot of impersonations, lies and betrayals - I wonder what that's all about? - and in The Sisters Eight series for young readers, because there are nine books and I didn't want there to be a readily discernible pattern each time, I started serving change-up pitches in Books 2 and 3.

    OK, I've gassed on long enough. Again, great blog!

  3. Love this post. I posted at my blog, but I sort of cheated because I ended up referring to yet another blogger's discussion of this issue.

    As a writer, I live in fear of repeating myself.

  4. Heehee! I LOVE this post. The breakdown of plot points reminds me of diagramming book plots in elementary school. And I love your sense of humor, esp in sentences like, "At the end of it, Harry ends up in the hospital wing." I think this is one of your best posts, ever. (By the way, aren't you supposed to be on vacation?)

    Regarding recurring themes: I've quickly learned as a mother that children love repetition--my son thinks having the same book read to him three times in a row, for five days in a row, is terrific. So although I think that there are definitely subconscious reasons on the author's part for often having stock characters or repeating themes (when I think back to the short story writing I did in high school and college, that was certainly true for me as well), I think that readers also get something out of this---we love the comfort of familiar characters. Isn't that part of what makes series such as Anne of Green Gables so loved by so many people? I haven't gone back to those books as an adult, but I would like to, to see if I love them as much now as I did as a young girl.

    By the way, I would NEVER put Dan Brown in the same post as Harry Potter or Anne---his stock characters and recurring themes seem more an act of bad writing than anything else!

  5. As I was reading your plot points for L.M. Montgomery I kept saying in my head, but not The Blue Castle! I should have known you would mention it. It is also my very favorite of Montgomery's books and I've read it until my paperback copy fell apart.

    One thing that I have to mention, because I'm obssessed with the Anne books, is that the cranky old neighbor lady typically argues the difference between Presbyterians and Methodists (not Episcopalians). That's just me being nit-picky!

    Great post!

  6. Very interesting post... friends gagging each other with spatulas has come up in 2 different Meg Cabot series (Princess Diaries and Allie Finkle.) If I ever get a chance to interview her, I'm asking about that. I'm guessing there's a larger story...

  7. Kathleen and Lauren- welcome to Wizards Wireless and thank you so much for providing an author's perspective.

    Kathleen- Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment. I'm flattered that it made you think about your own work. I'm a fan of your books and your list of wonderful bookstores. (Actually, I've got my own pretty extensive list of children's bookstores if you scroll down the sidebar of this blog for a while). And thanks for calling me a literacy hero! I didn't even know I was one.

    Lauren- Part of the reason I wrote this post was to see what authors thought about it. My feeling is that the repetition is mostly unconscious on the writer's part. And I'm guessing that some writers are working out personal issues. For example, I've read at least 6 books by Anita Shreve. In every single one of them, a husband cheats on his wife. I have no idea about her personal life... but I'm guessing that such a stark pattern means something. Thanks for your thoughtful comments!

    Lisa- Thanks for the link! I always know I've done something right when you link to me from your blog.

    Jody- Thanks, Jody. That's so sweet. I like how this post ended up too. During my vacation (I just got back) I read three novels by Rosamunde Pilcher. And every single one of them had the same plot and the same characters as her other books. It got me to thinking about it.

    As far as repetition goes in picture books- I think it's crucial. I've got no problem with that at all. And it's fine for early readers like Amelia Bedelia (I just put that one in to make a point or a joke- not sure which) and for Magic Tree House level series books. I was more talking about longer works of fiction that were really meant to stand alone.

    I didn't mean put Dan Brown in the same league as Rowling and Montgomery. But it's hard to talk about repetition and stock characters without mentioning him!

    Cary's Girl- Thank you so much. That was driving me nuts. I wrote this post while on a plane without access to the Internet and my books. I couldn't remember the other religion... Episcopalian didn't sound quite right. Of course it's Methodists and Presbyterians. I just changed it. And I love the Blue Castle, I think, precisely because it's so different. So funny that you thought that too while reading my post. I had to replace my paperback copy of The Blue Castle too.

    Jennie- Exactly, that's the sort of thing I'm talking about. What possible reason would something odd like spatula gagging come up TWICE unless there was a story behind it? Those are the things that make me curious... and are much easier to figure out with living writers. Although, L.M. Montgomery's extensive journals have been published, so I could always look there for clues. For Meg Cabot- why wait for an interview? E-mail her the question. There's a form on her website.

  8. Terrific post! Aren't series (i.e. Harry Potter, Lemony Snicket...) by nature formulaic? Nancy Drew is so formulaic that I started to write my own when I was in second grade. I think it is more interesting when you can find these parallels in "non-series" books, as in the Anita Shreve example.

  9. Thanks so much Corey, and welcome to Wizards Wireless! I agree with you completely- series books usually are predictable by nature. Although Harry Potter is, of course, a series... it's a different kind of series than Lemony Snicket or Nancy Drew. To me it's a trilogy like Lord of the Rings... it just has seven books instead of three. I think of it as a septology.

  10. I love this post! It's interesting how the recurring things in some authors can be part of the charm, while in others it can get quite old. I started reading Jodi Picoult books years ago, I think in '99 or 2000, starting with The Pact. For many years after, I LOVED her books. But around the time I read The Tenth Circle, I was beginning to feel like every book was the same. The story is told from many different perspectives. At some point there is almost always a courtroom scene. There is ALWAYS a BIG TWIST towards the end, and I feel like now I can see the twist from the beginning of the book. Since I've been reading her for so long, I've had a hard time judging whether she used to be good and has just gotten stuck in a rut, or if all her books are equally rut-worthy and it just took me a long time to get tired of the rut.

  11. This is simply fantastic! Thank you for sharing it with all of us.

  12. Interesting post -- I think that readers always know that there are similarities with author's works --it's just being pointed out like you did, really gets it out.
    And true, even if it's a bit formulaic it doesn't mean that the book is less interesting.
    I grew up on Enid Blyton's Famous Five series and loved it!

  13. Haha...I loved the Harry Potter and Amelia Bedelia ones. One author that immediately comes to me for this type of thing is Meg Cabot. Most of her books follow the same general plotline (for example, the main character's enemy is almost always with the person she likes.)

  14. Good stuff. I've written before about Lloyd Alexander's template. (Which he used to create amazing books!)

    I've also posted my Wizard of Oz Syndrome chart, which suggests that Alexander, Rowling, Tolkien and others (including myself) all used the same template.

    In the case of Harry Potter, I think the formula was part of the success. We wanted to hear about each of those things each time.
    I'm still mad that there was no quidditch in Goblet of Fire, for example.

    Possibly also the reason I never cared for the final book.

  15. This is a really interesting post - I've actually avoided reading any of Jodi Picoult's books specifically because someone told me they're repetitive! But I should probably try them anyway. And since you mentioned Dan Brown, I'm going to add that several of the other paperback thriller authors, such as Iris Johansen and Tami Hoag, use the same templates over and over as well.

    I'm sure the repetitive plots of the Magic Treehouse books are part of why my son loves them - Jack and Annie may get into scary situations, but he know's they'll get home in the end.

  16. I love your HP analysis, it's so true! I think if the pattern is one you enjoy and the writing is good, then reading variations on it is fun. After all, I'm perfectly happy to reread a good book and enjoy its pattern more than once, so a similar book is a treat too.

    I want to mention Carl Hiaasen's adult novels as perfect examples of a pattern I find very emotionally satisfying. I live in South Florida where the books generally take place, so I find it cathartic to have Hiaasen punish the local bad guys (polluters, corrupt politicians, etc) and reward the good-hearted put-upon down-home folks who love the land and just want to do the right thing. Happens in some form in every one of his books, but it always jives with what I WANT to have happen, so it works for me.

  17. Thanks! I teach a class called Piggyback books where I ask writers to analyze the elements that draw them into a particular story -- It can be theme, plot (as in this great post), or any other aspect -- and then re-vision, reframe, change, or somehow else make it their own. We learn to talk by listening, imitating, absorbing and re-seeing until it's ours -- which is what you've done here (and more), and what we hope to do as we write. Thanks for condensing a worthy but complex topic into such a neat little package, and then sharing it with us all!

  18. Like Jody, I see diagramming potential here, or better yet, a flow-chart. Have you seen Graph Jam? Here's the link:

    I think your flow-charts would be brilliant. Of course, I wouldn't be the one doing the work.;)

    One of my favorites, the flow-chart of "If I Had a Hammer," is here on my blog (I can't find the original link to the flow-chart, alas):

  19. Obviously this applies to Enid Blyton books like the Famous Five, which all follow the same basic formula. Somehow, miraculously, the children never get any older in spite of having endless summer holiday adventures year after year.

    Some books you might enjoy from a new author I discovered: Uncle Flynn and George goes to Mars by Simon Dillon. Both are available as free downloads from various places online like Barnes and Noble, Goodreads and Smashwords.