Tuesday, October 19, 2010

J.K. Rowling’s time scheme

I’ve got Harry Potter on my mind these days. From my recent thoughts on unplot-table buildings to the very stuff of the plot itself.

Via Text Patterns, the excellent blog of Alan Jacobs — who got it from Slash Film (and where did they get it? Rowling’s website?) — comes a great treasure for Harry Potter fans and scholars: a page of detailed plot notes for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. On a purely serendipitous note, this page happens to represent exactly the part of the book I am (re)reading at this very moment, so it is all very fresh in my mind. Since this is already available online in at least two places, I will reproduce it for your convenience here as well. (A note to Ms. Rowling or her representatives: I will be happy to take the image down upon request. Since I am unsure of the original source or the image, I don’t know whether it’s meant to be shared or simply “got out”.)

This page of notes reveals many interesting things. First and foremost, it demonstrates the meticulous care Rowling took with her plots. The page is arranged by date along the vertical access and by character, group, or concept (e.g., the Prophecy) along the horizontal. The notes also give some hints about the intermediate stages in Rowling’s imaginative process. For instance, the “title” column shows preliminary chapter titles; these often differ from those in the final published book. The page also shows other differences, of which perhaps the most notable is Professor Umbridge’s original first name: Elvira (in the published books, Dolores). I can see why Rowling considered Elvira (it contains the word “evil”), but perhaps she abandoned it because of the unwanted association with Cassandra Peterson’s comic horror hostess, Elvira, Mistress of the Dark? Or maybe it was too similar to the name, Minerva. In the end, Dolores is also very apt: the name means “sorrows”. It’s almost more schoolmarmish to my ear than Elvira.

For stories as complex and interwoven as Rowling’s, such plot notes would not only be useful, but probably essential, for keeping track of all the various loose ends. They are almost as meticulous as Tolkien’s tables for The Lord of the Rings [1]. In fact, Rowling’s notes resemble Tolkien’s synoptic time-schemes very closely. Tolkien also plots time on the vertical access and arranges his plot notes by character or group along the horizontal. (I’m not suggesting Rowling got the idea from Tolkien, just that they kept their parallel storylines straight in similar ways.) I will not reproduce any of Tolkien’s manuscript here, but you will find a reproduction of one of his synoptic time-schemes on p. 37 of the gallery catalogue, “The Invented Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien: Drawings and Original Manuscripts from the Marquette University Collection” (available for free in PDF format here). I was fortunate enough to be able to examine this document for myself, up close and personal, back in 2004 — and you need to be three inches away from it in order to puzzle through Tolkien’s handwriting!

I would like to hope we will see more of Rowling’s notes in the future. I have to imagine that university libraries the world over are already engaged in a furious (and private) bidding war over her manuscripts. Perhaps one day, scholars will be able to consult them, and fans will be able to view them on exhibit. Such plot notes and other paratextual material can reveal a great deal about how authors work.

[1] Scholars can examine these plot notes and time schemes — some 74 pages of them if my math isn’t off — at Marquette University. See MS. Tolkien, Mss Series 1, Box 2, Folder 31; and Mss Series 4, Box 2, Folders 17–18, 36.


  1. It also reminds me of Joyce's materials for Ulysses, especially the Linati schema (which was post hoc). But perhaps one is forced into some such scheme when writing a complex and plotty book, if one cares about consistency at all — notoriously Marion Zimmer Bradley did not. Not only is the published map of Darkover completely incompatible with the books, but she couldn't even keep track of whether the Dry Towns were east or west of the Domains. See "Mapping Darkover" for details.

  2. That chart does come from Rowling's website, IIRC.

  3. Oom poppa oom poppa oom poppa mow mow...
    The name "Elvira" for me will always be most associated with the Oak Ridge Boys' 1981 hit song.

  4. John, good points! And thanks for the links. Linquenollókë, thanks for clearing that up. I had a feeling. She’s shared bits and piece like that before (notes and jottings, sketches, etc.), but I don’t keep a regular eye on her website. I’m sure I should, but I find it a little tedious to navigate, if I remember.

    N.E. Brigand, too right! I don’t know whether Rowling has the same association, but many readers would have.