Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is the 5th book in the most popular work of fiction in history. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that this phenomenal success has come in the fantasy genre, but it does. In Hollywood, fantasy is a genre that rarely stands alone; it is usually combined with one or two other forms, like action and science fiction. Also, Americans don’t have a long fantasy tradition, which is one reason we think of it primarily as a form for children. But fantasy is much bigger than what Hollywood thinks it is. It is fundamental to the act of fiction. A good fantasy, on its own, has tremendous worldwide appeal, to people of all ages.
To understand fantasy, you have to look at it structurally. Fantasy is all about the story world, which, along with ghost, is the second of the 22 building blocks of every great story (discussed in great detail in the Great Screenwriting Class). Fantasy takes the story world element and blows it up a hundred fold. Everything depends on how you create and detail this world, and then on how you sequence it. Going in, writers think that fantasy is a light, airy story form. In fact it is the most geometric of the forms. Your hero starts in a mundane world, goes to the fantastical world, and returns to the mundane world enlightened.
The Harry Potter books have an exquisitely detailed story world. From the various school codes and hierarchy to the fantastical creatures to the technology of magic, author J. K. Rowling has examined and expressed an entire and unique world. Like other English fantasists, she has included an opposition of moral values. Setting the story in a school allows her to bring this value opposition forward without being preachy. Rowling also makes sure that Harry solves his problem at the end of each story by adhering to certain values, in spite of temptation. This way the theme is grounded in the plot.
The school of course is the key to the whole thing. The sequence of the fantasy – mundane, fantastical, back to mundane – attached to the school year brings out the best in the fantasy form. Fantasy teaches the audience how to live, and each year becomes a cycle of new growth for Harry. Also, high school is now the universal passage to adulthood. So everyone in the audience, worldwide, sees their own school experience in light of Harry. For the kids, Harry is the student they would all like to be. For the adults, he is the student they would all like to have been.
The obvious lesson of the Potter success is that you should consider writing a script or story in this form. Fantasy, along with horror and science fiction, is known as speculative fiction. That requires certain strengths as a writer. Here’s the simplest way to determine if fantasy is for you: if you like to create story worlds, this is your form.