Friday, July 8, 2011

One Potent Word

This article was originally published on the blog of BelleBooks, who published my short stories, as a guest post. But because it's such a great example of how JK Rowling hides important clues so deftly, with the magician's sleight of hand, I wanted to bring it home here as well.

Sweep with me back in time to one of the greatest cliffhangers in contemporary literary history, to the penultimate book of the Harry Potter series, Half-Blood Prince. For fans of the Boy-Who-Lived, let me refresh your memories, or for the few of you who are not familiar with the magical madness, let me clue you in. At the climax of this story of trust and betrayal, Snape, the nasty, hate-filled Potions' Master with dark secrets and a darker past, kills, before Harry's very immobilized eyes, the beloved, benevolent Headmaster Dumbledore.
Artist: Neysha-Sheyla

Dumbledore, that wizened, silver-haired wizard, who had been Harry's foremost mentor, had trusted Severus Snape completely--a man Harry loathed. Dumbledore's guiding lesson to Harry had always been that love was the most powerful lesson of all, and that appearances may oftentimes be deceiving. We must look below the surface of a person and seek what is within.

After Half-Blood Prince's shocking ending, until the release of the final book, Deathly Hallows, fans ferociously, vocally, and sometimes even bitterly argued as to where Snape's loyalties lay. Did he truly kill Dumbledore as we believed we witnessed along with Harry...or was there writerly hocus-pocus that involved dangling some rather smelly fish of the reddish hue?

Artist: HaveYouSeenMyGenius

The basic argument centered around Dumbeldore's dead and blackened hand that JK Rowling had taunted the reader with from the beginning of the story -- a result of a cursed stone Dumbledore had unwittingly touched. Was Harry's mentor doomed from the beginning of the book? Had he cooked up a plan to save young Draco from committing murder by charging Snape with his own mercy killing? Had Snape raised his wand and uttered the death spell with loathing in his eyes for his hated headmaster, or revulsion at himself at what he had promised his most loyal friend he would do?

Along with many others, I argued on the side that Snape, though in many ways a nasty piece of work, was loyal to Dumbledore until the end, that he had performed the last, and most difficult service this great man had requested of him. Not that I would admit any other side now. :-)

For over five years, I have taught workshops guiding writers to discover the secret techniques that enrich JK Rowling's work to help us lesser mortals craft our own stories. Ever since Half-Blood Prince's release, I had included in this workshop a lesson on her masterful use of sleight of hand to distract the reader, a technique she used to plant crucial clues and yet disguise Snape's true loyalty. My students and I dug beneath the surface, uncovered the specific words that showed Snape protecting and teaching Harry...even as the reviled Potions Master ran from Harry's distraught, hate-filled attack. We looked at JKR's themes of redemption and tolerance and how they came to play out in this most engrossing character of ambiguity.

And yet, despite all this intense scrutiny, it was not until a few months ago that I awoke from a dream with one word emblazoned on my mind. Could it be? I consulted my text. Had she truly used that word? Swept.

The use of this one potent word awoke me to the fullness of JKR's sly methods. It exemplifies the extreme subtlety and cleverness that she employs to both tap her readers on the head, and then shrewdly point them in another direction.

The end of Half-Blood Prince has been finely picked over by a rabid Harry Potter CSI team. The emotions burning through this ending surely obscured most of our views for anything less pressing than dealing with the murder of Dumbledore at the hand of his trusted confidant Snape. But clues litter the crime scene and we must push the emotion aside to uncover them.

   Malfoy stepped forwards, glancing around quickly to check that he and Dumbledore were alone. His eyes fell upon the second broom.
   'Who else is here?'
   [Dumbledore says] 'A question I might ask you. Or are you acting alone?'
   Harry saw Malfoy's pale eyes shift back to Dumbledore in the greenish glare of the Mark.
(p. 546, HBP, Bloomsbury)

Note: Draco instantly notices the second broom, the one belonging to the immobilized and hidden Harry, and correctly surmises someone else is present. But Dumbledore expertly distracts his attention, then keeps him talking for several pages, until three more Death Eaters arrive, including the deadly werewolf Greyback.

Now, compare the above lines with the most over-analyzed scene in Potterdom a few pages later:

   'Draco, do it, or stand aside so one of us -' screeched the woman, but at that precise moment the door to the ramparts burst open once more and there stood Snape, his wand clutched in his hand as his black eyes swept the scene, from Dumbledore slumped against the wall, to the four Death Eaters, including the enraged werewolf, and Malfoy.
   'We've got a problem, Snape,' said the lumpy Amycus, whose eyes and wand were fixed alike upon Dumbledore, 'the boy doesn't seem able -'
   But somebody else had spoken Snape's name, quite softly.
   'Severus ...'
   The sound frightened Harry beyond anything he had experienced all evening. For the first time, Dumbledore was pleading.
   Snape said nothing, but walked forwards and pushed Malfoy roughly out of the way. The three Death Eaters fell back without a word. Even the werewolf seemed cowed.
   Snape gazed for a moment at Dumbledore, and there was revulsion and hatred etched in the harsh lines of his face.
   'Severus ... please ..."
   Snape raised his wand and pointed it directly at Dumbledore.
   'Avada Kedavra!'
(p. 556, HBP, Bloomsbury)

Revulsion and hatred, yes. But...for whom?

From the moment of his entrance, Snape's “black eyes swept the scene, from Dumbledore slumped against the wall, to the four Death Eaters, including the enraged werewolf, and Malfoy." Could any astute reader not believe that Snape would have noticed all that Draco saw, and more?

Many writers would have written a line such as: "Snape's gaze lingered on the second broom." But not the extremely devious JK Rowling. No, for her, that would be too revealing a clue, or pardon me, a dead give-away. Instead, she slyly hints at the broom Snape sees with the deliberate use of the word "swept." By paralleling Snape’s scanning the area with Draco’s own discovery and instant understanding of the second broom, JKR gives a powerful hint -- but one the reader has to work for.

So what? Snape saw the second broom?

Couple it with another subtle, but potent clue. Dumbledore’s pleading. Albus Dumbledore plead for his life? This from the man who said that “to the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure?” (p. 297 SS)

Artist: LoonyL
Dumbledore would, however, plead for Harry’s life, even if it meant sacrificing his own. Thus the cunningly planted clues tell the alert reader that Snape acted in response to Dumbledore’s open plea (and possible silent Legilimency demand) to get the Death Eaters away before Harry could be discovered. To sacrifice Dumbledore's life for Harry’s.

Later, fans went crazy debating the Good Snape/Bad Snape, Murderer/They-Had-a-Plan. And yet, what avid fan is going to pick up on these subtle details in a first read-through when all their attention is focused on the “revulsion and hatred etched in the harsh lines” of Snape’s face?  Their attention was drawn bewitchingly to where the author wanted it -- on Snape murdering Dumbledore in front of Harry’s...our...eyes.
Artist: Bluestraggler

For Harry or the reader, there could be no higher emotional scene in the book thus far. JKR expertly used intense emotion and shocking action to distract her reader from the finely worded clues.

Thus, in this one passage, writers can discover a technique which helped aide JK Rowling on her meteoric rise from simple bestselling author to publishing phenomenon. And the technique is very much a magical craft: sleight of hand. Here, she gives the reader a very strong clue about the true nature of Snape, but a clue wrapped carefully in disguise. She then immediately points the reader in another direction before the clue can sink in and the reader can work-out her mysteries.

Sleight of hand is the magician's indispensable trick to make the audience believe the impossible -- make your audience, your reader, look in the direction you wish and away from where the trick is taking place. In writing, as in JKR's example above, you do this through subtle word-play. Don't bash your reader over the head with obvious clues, such as showing Snape seeing the second broom. Instead, weave your clues and red herrings more cleverly throughout your text. Work at your craft, and gingerly draw your reader along in your game. After all, readers feel cheated when they work-out your twists from early on. But they also feel cheated if true clues are not planted properly.

Plant your clues, but plant them well. Craft your words like a true magician. Learn from JK Rowling how to use sleight of hand and distraction to greatly enhance your reader's enjoyment of your story.

Have you used these techniques in your story to steer your reader away from a crucial information relating to a mystery that you don't won't resolved too easily or quickly?

A Word of Thanks:
To the wonderfully talented and generous fanartists who let me use their depictions of this scene to make my plain words come vibrantly and colorfully alive:

The Last Person Dumbledore Saw by Neysha-Sheyla of Germany
Old Red by HaveYouSeenMyGenius of North Carolina, USA
Severus, Please... by LoonyL of Italy
The Lightning Struck Tower by Bluestraggler of California, USA


  1. I love the idea of the writer as a magician, the sleight of hand trick crafted in words. I want to comment more, but you're making me want to go and write! Thanks!

  2. Huh, I definitely missed that in my read-through of Harry Potter but wow. That's definitely impressive.

    Nice breakdown! It's amazing how one word can change everything. :)

  3. Thanks Tina. I tell you honestly, I never thought of the writer as a magician using sleight-of-hand until I studied JKR. But when you really look at how she plants clues and then distracts you from them, it's obvious that's exactly what she's doing! It's like...magic. :-)