Giving the Reader More: A Glimpse Behind the Veil of JK Rowling’s Success by Susan Sipal

It’s 2014 and Harry Potter still makes headlines.  Seven years after the last book, Deathly Hallows, was released, the boy wizard’s Imperius spell lingers over our imagination.  Even though his megastar creator, JK Rowling, has gone on to adult fiction and detective novels, Harry still trends in social media quite frequently.

So, how can The Boy Who Lived continue to conjure news in 2014?

Let’s see…Although it was announced at the end of last year, the Internet has been abuzz for most of 2014 with speculation regarding Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, an upcoming film based off a companion volume to the Harry Potter series with JKR writing the screenplay herself.  Then there’s Pottermore, JKR’s online home for all things Potter.  Although it has not achieved the heights of popularity that many predicted, it’s garnered its share of attention with some of Rowling’s new content – such as Quidditch World Cup updates and the recently released bio of Celestina Warbeck. Finally, and definitely not least, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme park at Universal Orlando is not only NOT dwindling in popularity, but expanded with the opening of Diagon Alley at the beginning of the summer.  For us mere mortal writers, the idea of a popular amusement park dedicated to our book is truly the stuff of fantasy.

Of course, most writers are aware of Ms. Rowling’s humble start, the rags-to-riches fairy tale that mortars the worldbuilding of her vast publishing empire.  And while some writers may look upon what she and her story have accomplished with curled lips and a sneer, even more of us devoured the stories ourselves and have wished to perform a Scarpin’s Revelaspell on her works to reveal their inner secrets.

If only WE could cast as powerful a charm over our readers to necessitate embargoes on ARCs and early sales so as to avoid spoilers, inspire midnight release parties to rival a rock concert, and license our own thrill ride and soft drink.

JKR does all this with one venerable charm, the most potent of ancient magic.  Simply put, JK Rowling gives the reader more.

  • More detailed worldbuilding
  • More quirky and dastardly characters
  • More interwoven layers of mystery to keep you guessing until the next book
  • More intricately laid subtext — the hints beneath the text built of mythological links, subtle clues, and real-life analogies

Readers get more than their money’s worth when they pick up a Harry Potter novel.  JKR pulls out all the stops to engage her readers’ emotions, to ensnare their curiosity, to keep them involved in her rich fantasy world, and to ensure they return again and again.  For Rowling, “good enough” is not good enough.  If you want this level of success, you have to excel at giving your reader what they want.

She does this by going overboard…in a good way…a way that involves the reader.  Her delightfully detailed worldbuilding engages readers so that not only do they believe her world to be real, but they desire to play in it long past the last page of the latest book.  Readers don costumes, swarm fan conferences, or invade the virtual world of RPGs or fanfiction, just so that they can play in her world longer than her mammoth books allow.

Her delightful or deceitful characters appeal to a wide cast of real-world people.  From the bumbling but good-hearted Hagrid, to the greasy and ambiguous Snape, readers latch onto her people and breathe them to life in their own minds.  Fans quickly decide which house is theirs — if they would be at home in the witty towers of Ravenclaw, the maligned dungeons of Slytherin, or among the brave of Gryffindor.  JKR doesn’t just lay her story out there for her reader to pick up, enjoy, then put down and forget.

But where Rowling’s talent truly shines lies is in her use of subtext to plot her mysteries.  Fans burned up the Internet, seeking out every link to every character name, every mythological analogy, every possible red-herring or true clue so that they could be the first to discover and post–who would be the next character to die, what truly happened in Godric’s Hallow, and was Snape a Death Eater at heart or Dumbledore’s man through and through?  Her adroit use of subtext is the inner secret of what so deeply engaged her readers that her fanbase became a phenomenon.

I believe Ms. Rowling plotted this level of engagement deliberately.  Not that she could have foreseen the heights the Harry Potter mass hysteria would achieve.  But she laid the foundation carefully, from the beginning, to engage her readers’ hearts and most especially their minds…”if you’ve got your wits about you.” (From her 2003 Royal Albert Hall interview with Stephen Fry).

From the start, the thing JKR did most right was to employ techniques that engage readers’ attention, to get them digging below the text.  To give fans more than what they bargained for.  To keep them coming back again and again.

All of this, and more, we will discuss in the workshop I will present in mid-October — Harry Potter for Writers.  This in-depth workshop is designed for writers of most commercial genres, not just fantasy.  We’ll cover techniques for both new writers as well as those who’ve worked many years perfecting their craft.  Join me as we delve below the pages of the bestselling series of our time to learn how we, too, can give our reader more.


Susan Sipal has worked in the publishing industry for many years as a writer, an editor, and workshop presenter. She is best known as an analyst of the Harry Potter series with essays published both in the US and the UK discussing the alchemical and Egyptian symbolism. Along with multiple writing workshops, Susan has spoken on the mythological underpinnings of Harry Potter at several fan-based and academic conferences in the US and England.

Susan lived with her husband in his native land of Turkey for several years and enjoys writing about this beautiful, exotic land in many of her stories. She now lives back in her home state of North Carolina with her husband, two kids, a dog, three cats, a couple of rabbits (thought that’s about to multiply), a yardful of chickens, and too many frogs to count.

Her upcoming releases are the revised edition of A Writer’s Guide to Harry Potter from Fuzzbom Publishing and Southern Fried Wiccan, a YA Contemporary, from BookFish Books, both to be released in 2015.  You can read more about her musings on the Harry Potter series and her love of ancient mysteries at her blog at or on Twitter at @HP4Writers.