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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Down­load Two Har­ry Pot­ter Audio Books for Free (and Get the Rest of the Series for Cheap)

Take Free Online Cours­es at Hog­warts: Charms, Potions, Defense Against the Dark Arts & More

The Quan­tum Physics of Har­ry Pot­ter, Bro­ken Down By a Physi­cist and a Magi­cian

Cel­e­brate Har­ry Potter’s Birth­day with Song. Daniel Rad­cliffe Sings Tom Lehrer’s Tune, The Ele­ments.

Har­ry Pot­ter Pre­quel Now Online

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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Comments (19)
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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.

  • LJ says:

    I write messy like her. :) The thoughts are too fast for the hand.

  • lolita 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.

  • Felipe says:

    This idea is gold. If noth­ing else, could at least become a future high end videogame

  • Hailey says:

    J.K should do a nov­el of HP, but in either Lil­ly’s or James’s per­spec­tive.

  • Kathy says:

    How did JK know where she’d do chap­ter breaks? I.e., how does one know where to break for a new chap­ter? How does one know how much of an idea goes into a chap­ter, if you have enough of some­thing planned, and/or how long should a chap­ter be? I’ve tried nam­ing my chap­ters, but some­times they come out only a few pages long. Am I not flesh­ing them out enough, am I too vague, or should the “next” or “pre­vi­ous” “chapter(s)” be includ­ed?

  • Deh! says:

    Despite all of her appar­ent plan­ning, Rowl­ing still man­aged to cre­ate one of the dullest fran­chise in the his­to­ry of movie fran­chis­es. Seri­ous­ly each episode fol­low­ing the boy wiz­ard and his pals from Hog­warts Acad­e­my as they fight assort­ed vil­lains has been indis­tin­guish­able from the oth­ers. Aside from the gloomy imagery, the series’ only con­sis­ten­cy has been its lack of excite­ment and inef­fec­tive use of spe­cial effects, all to make mag­ic unmag­i­cal, to make action seem inert.

    Per­haps the die was cast when Rowl­ing vetoed the idea of Spiel­berg direct­ing the series; she made sure the series would nev­er be mis­tak­en for a work of art that meant any­thing to anybody?just ridicu­lous­ly prof­itable cross-pro­mo­tion for her books. The Har­ry Pot­ter series might be anti-Chris­t­ian (or not), but it’s cer­tain­ly the anti-James Bond series in its refusal of won­der, beau­ty and excite­ment. No one wants to face that fact. Now, thank­ful­ly, they no longer have to.

    >a‑at least the books were good though


    The writ­ing is dread­ful; the book was ter­ri­ble. As I read, I noticed that every time a char­ac­ter went for a walk, the author wrote instead that the char­ac­ter “stretched his legs.”

    I began mark­ing on the back of an enve­lope every time that phrase was repeat­ed. I stopped only after I had marked the enve­lope sev­er­al dozen times. I was incred­u­lous. Rowling’s mind is so gov­erned by clich­es and dead metaphors that she has no oth­er style of writ­ing. Lat­er I read a lav­ish, lov­ing review of Har­ry Pot­ter by the same Stephen King. He wrote some­thing to the effect of, “If these kids are read­ing Har­ry Pot­ter at 11 or 12, then when they get old­er they will go on to read Stephen King.” And he was quite right. He was not being iron­ic. When you read “Har­ry Pot­ter” you are, in fact, trained to read Stephen King.

  • Fredrick says:

    Lol, you must be a blast to have at par­ties.

  • OJENIKE Olalekan says:

    This method helps a writer keep track of his thoughts, espe­cial­ly if the plot­ting is not lin­ear.

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