We've been looking at a lot of examples for how JK Rowling plotted her mysteries and hid her clues. However, most of these have involved examples of very important clues toward the primary plot mysteries. I thought it might be fun to look at an example of a simpler clue that gives a hint toward a secondary plot to show how Rowling works these mysteries across various levels of plots and characters.
Today's example comes from Order of the Phoenix (Bloomsbury edition) Chapter 16, "In The Hog's Head," page 309, where the group that will soon become known as Dumbledore's Army is meeting for the first time. They are all rather nervous, what with Umbridge's crackdown at school, meeting in a dodgy place, and a nearby heavily veiled witch whom Harry fears may be Umbridge. The atmosphere is set for a risky venture and Hermione is about to provide an important clue.
She rummaged in her bag and produced parchment and a quill, then hesitated, rather as though she was steeling herself to say something.
'I - I think everybody should write their name down, just so we know who was here. But I also think,' she took a deep breath, "that we all ought to agree not to shout about what we're doing. So if you sign, you're agreeing not to tell Umbridge or anybody else what we're up to.'
Bolds and italics are my addition.
In this short passage, JKR laid a critical clue that there would be a traitor within Dumbledore's Army and how Hermione would reveal her. Of course, in hindsight, we all know that this is the parchment Hermione had placed a binding oath upon, which later pox-marked Cho's traitorous friend. None of that is obvious here. However, with subtle wording, JKR played fair with her reader that something was afoot, giving three words/phrases showing Hermione's reluctance for asking people to simply sign a roster. Hermione even warned the students, and thus the reader, that they were signing an agreement--she just never said it was bewitched.
Another hint of what is to come lies a few paragraphs further into the text. JKR diverts her reader from the true traitor with Ernie Macmillan's reluctance to sign.:
But Ernie was looking rather hesitant about signing too. Hermione raised her eyebrows at him.
"I--well, we are prefects," Ernie burst out. "And if this list was found...well, I mean to say... you said yourself, if Umbridge finds out..." ...
..."Ernie, do you really think I'd leave that list lying around?" said Hermione testily.
"No. No, of course not," said Ernie, looking slightly less anxious. "I--yes, of course I'll sign."
Nobody raised objections after Ernie, though Harry saw Cho's friend give her a rather reproachful look before adding her own name.
If the witted reader was alerted to a sneak about, Ernie's pompous objections spotted him as the likely culprit. Still, there was Cho's no-named friend being rather forced to sign. Not being named, Cho's friend slips under the radar more so than Ernie. And Ernie's objections leaves the reader feeling that all the hints are building to Hermione accidentally leaving the list around as Neville did in Prisoner of Azkaban ... not to a betrayer "shouting," or in US terms "blabbing," Dumbledore's Army to Umbridge.
Sneaky...sneaky. That's JKR. She lets you know something is afoot, but diverts you into another direction. No in-your-face clues, but a well-laid trail just the same.
This is a simple little clue, but shows another example of how JKR always prepares the reader subtly for what's to come.
Most of us work secrets into our stories. It's an important part of keeping the reader questioning that we talked about last week. Once the reader knows all the answers, they lose interest.
How to keep the questioning tension uppermost in your reader's mind is a critical skill for any novelist to learn. Both through primary plot-shaping clues, as well as smaller secondary hints, we need to always keep our reader on the alert and guessing what mysteries and secrets are yet to be revealed.
Have you plotted secrets and hints into your story at various levels? Levels that include your secondary characters' secrets as well as your primary? Have you worked minor surprising twists in throughout your story and not just depended on the big one at the end?