7 Reasons Rowling Deserves Nobel Prize (1) Syuzhet and Fabula: The Planning

In yesterday’s introduction to this series of posts about the reasons Rowling deserves a Nobel Prize, I explained why I thought the ideas of Russian Formalism and the formalist movement in general were most apt in examining the value of her work. In a nutshell, Formalism is the most stringently literary of the various schools, eschewing Freudian and Marxist concerns about autobiography and political correctness, two of Rowling’s most important influences were academic formalists as well as novelists, and formalism holds that writing, inevitably, is about the experience of writing and reading.

Today I want to introduce the formalist central tenet from which the other six reasons I’ll discuss naturally extend, namely, the difference between syuzhet and fabula. Here is an example of this distinction in a recent piece about Nabokov’s Lolita in the Inside Higher Ed that defines the terms and shows what a commonplace it is in academic reading of literature. From Anne Dwyer’s ‘Why I Teach Lolita:’

I’ve taught an undergraduate seminar on Vladimir Nabokov since 2008. In each iteration I’ve addressed the challenges of reading Lolita — a novel whose plot (the fabula, to speak in Russian formalist terms) is about the abduction and ongoing sexual abuse of a child, but whose structures and devices (the siuzhet) point everywhere else. In 2016, students debated whether I should have included a “trigger warning” on the syllabus. This year I added a few words asking students to inform themselves about the plot of Lolita and to consider what it means that Nabokov treats “a range of human experience in a highly artful, and even artificial, way.”

This author, like Rowling as we’ll see, uses ‘plot’ to mean basic story or fabula while most critics use that word for syuzhet but the distinction beyond the word used for translation is not a difficult one. Syuzhet is the story-as-told and fabula the story-in-sequence that the reader creates from the story as told or as the characters in their universe experience them chronologically. The syuzhet is the story-teller’s art and the fabula either the order of events re-created by the author or the interpretation a reader makes to understand the story events in a natural timeline. Syuzhet is the object of critical study, the deliberate story telling and use of literary devices that make a story more than a police report. It is the author’s intentional craft.

The best online explanation of this distinction I have found was ‘Syuzhet and Fabula’ by Neil Moore. Read the whole thing but here is his conclusion:

As mentioned earlier, the relation between syuzhet and fabula is a metonymic one. The syuzhet is, at least in the model considered here, given form by selecting certain parts of the fabula while omitting others: this selection usually serves to emphasize the “important” events or aspects of events, by omitting irrelevant ones. However, the elided events are often of the utmost importance: the author introduces tension, drama, and ambiguity by omitting them.

Lodge quotes Hemingway, who says that “the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood”. Thus, in “The Killers”, we do not know why the killers have been sent to kill Ole Anderson; we also do not know whether they ever find him. Likewise, in Kafka’s The Trial, we are always presented the world from Josef K.’s perspective; like K., we do not know what is happening in the courts, if anything. Thus the reader gets a taste of the overwhelming confusion, helplessness, and frustration of K.’s situation.

Though the choice of words in Russian may not be entirely clear, the distinction between fabula and syuzhet should be. What must be noted is the relationship between fabula and syuzhet in terms of content and in terms of construction. The syuzhet appears to be constructed from the fabula, and, in analysis, is usually treated as though it were; however, the fabula that readers find is one constructed by themselves from the material of the syuzhet. The ambiguity—fabula as underlying objective sequence of events versus fabula as reader-constructed theory—is important to understanding narrative fiction.

A writer deserving of the Nobel Prize, if it is more than just an award for championing politically ‘progressive’ positions (which, alas, it usually is), has to be someone who is a literary craftsman of great accomplishment. This series of posts is to establish that Rowling is more than a Kid Lit story teller, a whiz-bang fabulist, but someone who writes consumately planned novels in which the actual story events are brilliantly represented, obscured, and revealed by various structures, symbol sets, and sequencing for the most engaging and transformative reader experience.

While that is what this series as a whole concerns, on this one point and as introduction to the next six I want to emphasize the evident planning that goes into Rowling’s work. Rowling’s syuzhet differs from her fabula because of how carefully she plans her exposition of the basic story; here are three points to make that base-point for establishing her serious artistry indisputable:

(1) What Rowling Has Told Us About Her Planning: Yes, a formalist critique by definition eschews author testimony, so this is a real bending of the rules, I know, right at the start. Still, the persistence and uniformity of Rowling’s public insistence that it is her planning that is the secret of her success I think justifies this departure from formalist practice.

She planned the seven Harry Potter books in detail for five years before even finishing the first book. From the archives of the invaluable AccioQuote! website, the Larry King interview in 2000:

KING: Do you know, J.K., where you’re going?


KING: You do? You plot it out?

ROWLING: Yes, I spent five years  – it was five years before  – between having that idea and finishing the first book and during those five years I was planning the whole seven book series, so it’s already written in stone. That’s how it’s going to happen.

We know, too, that she spent two months re-planning the new Potter novel she was working on before she began writing it:

AjXTee: How long does it take you to plan a book before you even start writing? Or do you just plan as you go along?

JK Rowling replies: It’s hard to say; book six has been planned for years, but before I started writing seriously I spend two months re-visiting the plan and making absolutely sure I knew what I was doing.

Why? She believes planning is one essential difference between good writers and bad.

ALEXANDRA LE COURTEUR WILLIAMSON for the South Australian Advertiser: When you start, do you do a complete plan before you start writing, or do you just have an idea from the start and then just keep writing?

JK ROWLING: I do a plan. I plan, I really plan quite meticulously. I know it is sometimes quite boring because when people say to me, “I write stories at school and what advice would you give me to make my stories better?” And I always say  and people’s face often fall when I say  “You have to plan,” and they say, “Oh, I prefer just writing and seeing where it takes me”. Sometimes writing and seeing where it takes you will lead you to some really good ideas but I would say nearly always it won’t be as good as if you sat down first and thought: Where do I want to go, what end am I working towards, what would be good, a good start? Sorry, very dull.

She even said in August, 2000, that she wasn’t about to make market driven changes in the books and “throw away 10 years’ meticulous planning.”

I got asked the other day, “Given the huge success of your books in America, are you going to be introducing American characters?” And I thought, “You’re an idiot. I am not about to throw away 10 years’ meticulous planning in the hope that I will buck up to a few more readers.”

 More up to date, she told Val Mcdermid at the 2014 Harrowgate Festival that planning is still what she depends on:

V:  How much detail do you figure out before you start. Do you plan?

JK:  I did vast planning. But you should see the planning I’ve got for the third Strike, which is insane. It’s the best planned book I will have ever written. It’s really…yeah. I’ve got to keep track of a lot of different strands in that book, so I’ve got this, it’s like a spread sheet and it is color coded so I can keep track of everything. Yeah, it’s mad.

There is nothing ‘pantser’ about Rowling. She’s a Planning Panzer.

(2) Everything Rowling Writes Is About Obscuring Fabula via Syuzhet

Fabula is the story as the characters actually experience it in their world and as we construct it in our heads in how-it-happened in sequence at the story’s end as it was told to us. Syuzhet is largely the artistry by means of which the author obscures the police report fabula from us and delivers content beyond the ‘factual’ plot points of the narrative line. Everything Rowling does, frankly, as a writer is her effort to distract, confuse, and further engage the attentive reader to create the means of transforming him or her with the excitement of discovery.

Take, for just one example, the narrative voice of the Hogwarts Saga. With very few exceptions, we’re parked over Harry Potter’s shoulder from which position — ‘third person limited omniscient’ in geek-speak — we take in the action and listen to what he’s thinking. This is a remarkably difficult position from which to tell you a story as complicated and involving as many characters as the Harry Potter stories; every event has to be run by Harry in his experience or some artificial information dump (the Pensieve, Hermione’s trips to the library, etc.) for us to know it. It’s great advantage if you’re clever enough to pull it off is that the reader is as clueless as Harry for the story until the big reveal at story’s end, in which scene you learn about all the details we were given in Harry’s view that he just didn’t understand or, as likely, dismissed as inconsequential given his biases.

Or think about the detective story and murder mystery genres. They’re less important in Harry Potter than schoolboy stories and the Gothic romance, though still a critical part of each year’s adventure; the Cormoran Strike novels are all about the crime genre. As she told Val Mcdermid:

V:  Why did you choose crime?

JK:  Because I love crime fiction, I’ve always loved it, I read a lot of it. And I think that the Harry Potter books are really whodunnits in disguise. I think you’ve got six whodunnits and one why-was-it. So I enjoy that kind of …. I enjoy I suppose the Golden Age books. I suppose that’s what I was trying to do with these books. To take that finite number of suspects, the genuine whodunnit style, and make it contemporary, really bring it up to date and make sure this is a credible person with a credible back story for nowadays. It was a no-brainer.

What is involved in writing great detective fiction? Read any guide to this genre — I like Dolores Gordon-Smith’s How to Write a Classic Murder MysteryJames Frey’s How to Write a Damn Good Mystery, and Howard Haycroft’s anthology The Art of the Mystery Story —  and they all say the same thing. Write the fabula out as clearly as you can, the murder as committed, and then create the story as told, the syuzhet, usually from the discovery of the body forward, as the point by point, clues, logic, and events leading to revelation of the writer’s starting point fabula at the finish. And the closer to the finish that this revelation comes the better!

There is no genre more dependent on the syuzhet-fabula distinction, in other words, than Rowling’s favorite.

(3) Rowling Embeds the Syuzhet-Fabula Distinction in Her Stories

That’s all very interesting, I imagine you thinking, but so what? Agatha Christie never won a Nobel Prize and every ambitious writer has a great plan.

Point taken! The next six formalist points I hope to be making in this series will make the serious artistry point more clear than this opening salvo. But let’s not be hasty here. Rowling is special, if not unique, in her concerns about planning and making her syuzhet re-telling of the basic fabula a cathartic experience of discovery for the reader that she embeds in her stories reflections of the writer’s efforts at this, the reader’s struggle to unwind the narrative to get to the facts, and, in one extraordinary case, one writer-character’s actual discussion of the distinction.

Every Harry Potter novel, for instance, is about the Terrible Trio’s up-and-down journey to figuring out that school year’s core mystery. As often as not, it turns on a core text that they have to understand, as detail of which escapes them (the Chocolate Frog Card in Stone, Tales of Beedle the Bard in Hallows), the narrative trickery in which they overlook (the Diary in Stone, the text in Half-Blood Prince), or the meaning of which they either deny, misinterpret, or don’t want to face, most notably the Prophecy, the ur text of Harry’s life and battle with the Dark Lord. 

Casual Vacancy similarly turns on the texts of the departed Barry Fairbrother and what each character makes of these messages. Cuckoo’s Calling revolves around the search for Lula’s will, you might say, and all of Silkworm is definitely the search for the meaning of Owen Quine’s Bombyx Mori in its re-written form to get at its original meaning, the Jacobean Revenge Drama of Liz Tassel.

Why does Hermione go to the lengths of freeing Rita Skeeter to write up her Tattler interview of Harry Potter in Goblet of Fire? Because the Ministry’s syuzhet via the Daily Prophet about the Dark Lord’s re-appearance and Harry being a loose wing-nut had so obscured the fabula that she had to take some kind of direct action to create a counter-narrative — the truth! — to begin to wake up the inattentive readers of the Wizarding World’s news. Rowling’s disdain for the news media, equal and parallel to President Trump’s oddly enough, a man she considers her opposite and antagonist in all things, I think is based on her writer’s awareness that syuzhet must eventually reveal fabula rather than forever remaining biased spin.

IThe Silkworm, however, a character actually discusses the syuzhet-fabula distinction in the story.

The hapless author-blogger Kathryn Kent, a writer I have speculated is a stand-in for Rowling, posts on her weblog the only note of a writer-about-writing in the JKR catalogue. Kent makes the plot-for-fabula miscue I mentioned earlier:

Great talk with TFW about Plot and Narrative tonight which are of course not the same thing. For those wondering:- Plot is what happens, Narrative is how much you show your readers and how you show it to them.

An example from my second novel “Melina’s Sacrifice.”

As they made their way towards the Forest of Harderell Lendor raised his handsome profile to see how near they were to it. His well-maintained body, honed by horseback riding and archery skills — [The Silkworm, ch 10, p 66]

Garbled as Kent’s definitions may or may not be, this is definitely the Formalist distinction between fabula-story and syuzhet-plot or narrative, facts the reader has to get straight post narrative and the artistry that makes the story-points, in their literariness de-familiarize or just refresh the reader’s perspective.

Rowling ‘gets’ this in a profound fashion. Her readers have to as well to appreciate her artistry and accomplishment, not to mention understanding why, politics aside, she deserves the Nobel Prize or at the very least admiration on her auctorial merits. 

Tomorrow, let’s take a look at the Anglican Formalism, if you will, of C. S. Lewis and what it tells us about Rowling’s achievement as a writer. Stay tuned — and do let me know what you think in the comment boxes below.


  1. Dolores Gordon-Smith says

    Really good article, John – and thanks for the mention! I’ve always thought the technique of the HP stories is very much that of a golden age mystery. The opening of Half Blood Prince, with the mysterious murders of the Riddles reads so much like an Agatha Christie or Conan Doyle’s The Devils Foot. The difference is, of course, that we, the readers know what happened- and who. That’s very much JKR – take a convention and turn it around

Speak Your Mind