Sixty second writing tips: how J K Rowling twisted the tropes

One of the secrets to successful writing is offering something readers can identify with, but that has enough originality to be new. The same…but different.

Kastel de Haar, near Utrecht, Netherlands - site of the Elf Fantasy Fair at which Hobb was visitor in April 2008, though that wasn't when I took this picture of the place.
Modern meets fantasy in another way – a pic I took a few years back of Kastel de Haar, near Utrecht, Netherlands.

J. K. Rowling’s shown us how it’s done. Back in the 1990s, Brit boarding school stories were dead, dead, dead. The world of ripping wheezes at the expense of The Beak, followed by clandestine visits to the tuck shop  with Bunter Major, was soooo 1930s.

Trad magic stories were pretty much dead too – I mean, spells, wizards and potions were so cliched. Put together, they should have worked even less well.

What Rowling did was genius – mashing up two cliches and giving them a twist. That came partly from the way she reinterpreted the spell-and wand trope, partly from the seven-story plot cycle, and partly from her style – easy, unadorned and well pitched for the readership. And now writing has its first billionaire author.

Time for the rest of us to follow suit. But not with school magic mashups. They’ve been done…

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013


13 thoughts on “Sixty second writing tips: how J K Rowling twisted the tropes

  1. You’re exactly right. No approach is ever dead, but has instead become tired and needs to rest. We can thank her appreciation for what came before and re-imagining it. That makes the old and familiar instead new and familiar and oh so comfortable to curl up with on a chilly night. It’s a lesson too few learn: If you aren’t reinventing and blazing a new trail then you’re sharing a narrow path with a huge crowd. Great post.

    1. Thank you – yes, it’s amazing how reinvention also breathes different life into ideas. Rowling effectively re-framed the old for a new audience. Not too many authors can be said to have done that.

    1. I think Rowling created what is, effectively, a new genre – one that has brought reading pleasure to a whole new generation, which is great. Not an easy achievement, and I suspect not a deliberate one.

  2. I’m writing a book which involves fictional characters interacting with real historical ones set in the medieval period in England. I guess that’s a sort of mash up of fact and fiction.

    1. Sounds like a good way of approaching historical fiction. Have you ever read George McDonald Fraser’s ‘Flashman’ series? Well worth it – real historical figures mixed with some pretty clever story telling.

  3. Playing “What If” is one of the joys of writing fiction. the possibilities are nearly endless. Reviving classical ideas with new tweaks is one way to keep us writers, moving forward.

    1. Absolutely. I actually wrote a sci-fi ‘what if’ history book a while back, largely at the urging of my publishers, Penguin. It tanked rather badly in the marketplace…but was a good deal of fun to write. The scenarios I came up with included some deliberately silly ones, such as a race-off with steam powered land-speed-record cars – faster than Fred Marriott’s ‘Wogglebug’.

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