How J.K. Rowling Plotted Harry Potter with a Hand-Drawn Spreadsheet


At the height of the Harry Potter novels’ popularity, I asked a number of people why those books in particular enjoyed such a devoted readership. Everyone gave almost the same answer: that author J.K. Rowling “tells a good story.” The response at once clarified everything and nothing; of course a “good story” can draw a large, enthusiastic (and, at that time, impatient) readership, but what does it take to actually tell a good story? People have probably made more money attempting, questionably, to pin down, define, and teach the best practices of storytelling, but at the top of this post, we have a revealing scrap of Rowling’s own process. And I do, almost literally, mean a scrap: this piece of lined paper contains part of the handwritten plot spreadsheet she used to write the fifth Harry Potter novel, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

This particular page (click to view it in a larger format) covers chapters 13 through 24, during which even more happens than you may now remember. It may have amounted to more than Rowling, too, could remember, hence the spreadsheet itself. Endpaper explains some of her story notes as follows:

  • “Prophecy”: A subplot about the prophecy Harry finds himself concerned about all through the book
  • “Cho/Ginny”: The book’s romantic subplot
  • “D.A.”: What’s happening with the resistance army, or “Dumbledore’s Army”
  • “O of P”: What’s happening with the “Order of the Phoenix” group
  • “Snape/Harry”: What’s happening with Snape and Harry
  • “Hagrid and Grawp”: What’s happening with Hagrid and Grawp

If you think about Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, that’s it,” writes /Film’s Germain Lussier. “Those columns pretty much encompass the whole story.” Rowling, of course, hardly counts as the only novelist to write with such techniques, and based on this example, hers don’t get nearly as elaborate as some. (I recall once reading that Vikram Chandra had to bust out Microsoft Project to keep track of the complications of Sacred Games, his 900-page novel about the Mumbai underworld.) But Rowling must certainly rank as the most famous novelist to, quite literally, draw up spreadsheets like this. I suppose it does leave her books even more exposed to accusations of overplotting than before, but something tells me it won’t bother her.

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Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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  • Jeremy says:

    I really think J.K Rowling should consider re-writing the Harry Potter series from Dumbledore’s perspective.

    Start the series with Dumbledore’s childhood/ friendship with Grindewald, the death of his sister, as well as background on his relationship with his brother Aberforth. A perfect end to this book would be the epic battle where Dumbledore defeats Grindewald (his once best friend) and in turn rises to power.

    I hope I’m not alone in wondering where Dumbledore is on all of his horcrux missions that take him away from Hogwarts at the most inopportune moments; what better way to delve more into the wizarding world than through the eyes of the wisest (and definitely oldest) wizard of Harry’s time? Dumbledore’s age would also mean we could potentially see the likes of Hagrid, James and Lilly, Severus, and many more characters we love but don’t know as well as The primary Potter characters.

    Call the series “Dumbledore’s Army” and be done with it

  • Kevin T. Johns says:

    It looks surprisingly similar to Heller’s Catch 22 spreadsheet.

  • John reader says:

    Anyone who accuses someone of over plotting is a crappy no-name writer.

  • Aaron Wolf says:

    @Jeremy: Tons of fan authors already do stuff like rewriting books from other perspectives. It’s the fundamental cultural process. Unfortunately, it’s also illegal. But it’s absurd that you can have interesting cultural ideas like that and be censored from making or reading them…

  • E Campbell says:

    If you ever get a chance to tour William Faulkner’s house in Oxford, Mississippi, you will see a similar outline written on all four walls of his office. His desk is in the center.

  • Rejean Giguere says:

    My editor and I were just discussing this today. Plotting is like project management for a book, and is the real art part of storytelling, separate from the ability to write prose.

  • Jeremy says:


  • Anthony Lawton says:

    Intriguing; although, to be a tad pedantic, this is not a spreadsheet. It is a simple table.

    And while many an author comes at writing via plot, however planned and documented, not all do.

    My godmother, Rosemary Sutcliff (1920-92) — emminent, award-winning and best-selling writer of historical fiction and children’s literature — once said to an interviewer: “I start with an idea; never a plot. I’m not very strong on plots, but I start from a theme, which grows from the idea. I do have a certain amount of framework: I’ve got to know how I’m going to get from the beginning to the end, and a few ports of call on the way”.


  • Seth says:

    I prefer literature that starts with idea but there’s no doubt that the Harry Potter series and much of the adult and children’s fiction in it’s genre rely heavily on plot.

    Also, Rowling has a 4 ring binder!

  • Laura says:

    The world of HP became so complex, that I would have been shocked if JK hadn’t had some kind of plotting device by OOP.

    And can I just go on record as saying, I want a PREQUEL. A trilogy of prequels. I want Lily and Snape and James and their story… I already know how it ends, but it would be glorious to experience how it began. Wormtail’s betrayal. Snape falling so exquisitely in love with Lily. James getting the girl…

    So much happened in the time before Harry Potter. I want to go there.

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