Thursday, August 11, 2011

Tossing Snowballs at Your Clues



If you will remember, I conducted a recent poll on this blog to determine which series of posts I would do now that we've finished analyzing the final chapter of Deathly Hallows.  And even though Snape tried to jinx my pollboard to take over the lead, the lost points eventually revived and mystery plotting won followed closely by world building.  But don't worry, we'll get to the former Potions Master eventually! :-)

For this first post in Mystery Plotting, you have @Lord_Voldemort7 to thank! He posted the following Tweet the other day:

"When Fred & George charmed snowballs to hit the back of Quirrell's turban they didn't realize they were hitting Voldemort's face".. Bas***ds.
Reading this Tweet, I felt like one of those snowballs had struck me in the back of the head! A clue!! One I hadn't caught before!!!

Here's the original text from Philosopher's/Sorcerer's Stone, Chapter 12:

One morning in mid-December Hogwarts woke to find itself covered in several feet of snow.  The lake froze solid and the Weasley twins were punished for bewitching several snowballs so that they followed Quirrell around, bouncing off the back of his turban.

Now, on the surface, this is one of those amusing little details that JKR just casually tosses in at the very beginning of the chapter for scene set-up, transition, and a bit of character development.  Plus, the twins are always good for a chuckle. It's not readily apparant that JKR is actually tossing out a major clue right there!

Who is hiding on the back of Quirrell's head underneath that turban?  Of course, the reader has no way of guessing at this stage of the game that the twins are unwittingly hitting Voldemort in the face, but JKR sure is.  And she's providing a slight, and extremely devious, clue to help the reader catch on.

How is she doing this?  One way is by the use of a technique called "running bits," which was coined by Galadriel Waters who wrote the Ultimate Unofficial Guide to the Mysteries of Harry Potter series.  I worked as an editor and writer with her for the UUG to Book 5.

What Galadriel termed "running bits" were oft-repeated words or phrases that were used innocently enough, but these terms pointed to a key clue either in that particular book or the series as a whole.  So, for example, in book 1, you get lots of "turban" and "head"-like words popping up here and there because they point to a very real mystery thread -- that Quirrell's turban is concealing Voldething's face.

An even better example of this would be in Prisoner of Azkaban, where JKR uses words related to fingers or toes quite frequently.  Here's one example:


Aunt Petunia was sipping coffee with her little finger sticking out.

Why is that finger detail important to note? Because from the very start of this book, JKR is alerting the reader to be on the lookout for finger clues, because in this story, there's a very important one missing.

Here are some others:

[Aunt Marge] was inflating like a monstrous balloon, her stomach bursting free of her tweed waistband, each of her fingers blowing up like a salami--

Tom clicked his fingers, a fire burst into life in the grate.

Fudge's finger slipped on the silver fastenings of his cloak.

The witch's eyes moved from Scabber's tattered left ear to his front paw, which had a toe missing, and tutted loudly. (59)

Harry took a bite and to his great surprise felt warmth spread suddenly to the tips of his fingers and toes.

The book tried to bite, but Hagrid ran a giant forefinger down its spine, and the book shivered, and then fell open and lay quiet in his hand.

[when riding Buckbeak] the hippogriff's wings beat uncomfortably on either side of him, catching him under his legs and making him feel he was about to be thrown off; the glossy feathers slipped under his fingers and he didn't dare get a stronger grip

[As Harry notices a grindylow in Lupin's office] A sickly green creature with sharp little horns had its face pressed against the glass, pulling faces and flexing its long, spindly fingers.

And just in case we stumbled past this last one, or are skeptical that it could be a clue, JKR hits the reader with a stronger snowball:

[Lupin says] "The trick is to break his grip. You notice the abnormally long fingers?"

Lupin's clue serves double-duty. It also foreshadows a very important skill Harry will need the following year for the Tri-Wizard tournament and prepares the reader in advance for one of JK Rowling's magical creations.

Here's some more:

"Right into Hogsmeade," said Fred, tracing one of them with his finger.

And just in case we missed this clue, it's reinforced by being repeated:

Harry traced the secret passage to Honeydukes with his finger.

Until, finally, we come to the largest finger clue of all:

[Ron says] "Listen...you know what Pettigrew's mother got back after Black had finished with him? Dad told me--the Order of Merlin, First Class, and Pettigrew's finger in a box." (p. 215)

Okay, I'm going to stop there, and I'm only half through the book. Sure, you say, most of these finger references are perfectly innocent. Of course JKR used the word finger. It's a common word, we all do.

Yes, but as writers, we normally try to avoid the overuse of any particular word. And the brilliance of a "running bit" like this is that the clue CAN be woven in so innocently. It plays fair with the reader by providing a clue without drawing attention to that clue so that the author can still pull off a surprise ending.

One thing I'm most looking forward to with the release of the Harry Potter e-books is the ability to search the text electronically.  Clues like this will be so much easier to find that way.

So what does all this mean for you as a writer?  To be honest, I don't know how common this technique is among mystery writers, but it's definitely both subtle and fun.  Once the reader catches on to the game that you are playing, they'll scour your text (if you've told the story well!) hunting out these minute details.

To use this technique in your own writing, ask yourself--which threads of your mystery are the most important?  What aspects will you keep hidden to surprise your reader with at the end?  Then, how can this detail be turned into a word-clue without spoiling the surprise?  What words or images can you use to hint at this clue?  How can you dribble these words into your text slyly, without drawing attention and saying, "Look! Here I am! A clue!!!"

If you want to study further how JK Rowling did it and see for yourself, look at how she used these words/images in these books:

Chamber of Secrets: anything snake related
Goblet of Fire: words about eyes and hints at potions or polyjuice, also lots of "trunks"
Order of the Phoenix: doors and hallways
Half-Blood Prince: secrets, pacts

Have you ever plotted a mystery, even if your story was not a mystery genre? Have you used a technique like this to lay your clues, or seen another author do so?

Check out a follow-up to this post at Dogging JK Rowling's Deathly Clues.

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