Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Never Trust a Character! (If You Want to Find a Clue)

This post is part of the Mystery Plotting series, in which we are examining, one by one, techniques JK Rowling used to hide clues and plot her mysteries.

As a writer, how do you feed misinformation to your reader?  Not everyone or everything in life is straightforward and honest, nor should it be in our stories.  We need those red-herrings and those twists and turns of a surprising plot to keep our audience on edge and reading at a fast pace.  But readers also feel cheated if an author deliberately misleads them without properly motivating the "lie" or providing clues that they have done so.

Enter the voice of your characters.  Characters can lie any time for various reasons -- but they MUST be well motivated.  Whether through an outright lie, sly misdirection, or inherent misunderstanding -- adversaries, friends, and even the main characters themselves can misrepresent the truth through what they say or what they think.  As writers, it is our job to ensure that their reason for lying or misleading the reader is a good one.  As always, JK Rowling provides wonderful examples of all these.

Perhaps the easiest, and therefore most obvious method of character lies is through the mouth of the villain.  However, if the villain is clearly marked as such and his antagonistic position against the hero clearly defined, any words he utters will always be suspect.

No, it's much more subtle to have well-intentioned characters feed misinformation due to their own lack of knowledge or false perceptions. How often did Ron and especially Hermione poo-pooh Harry's growing belief that Draco had become a Death Eater in Half-Blood Prince.  Draco was too young, they said.  Harry was just letting his own hatred of his nemesis persuade him to see something that was not there.  And, yet, Harry was right.  But if the reader had listened to the logical but wrong perceptions of Hermione and Ron, they were in for a surprise.

We also saw in an earlier example how Percy fed the reader the clue that Ginny was very upset about Harry being accused of opening the Chamber of Secrets.  At the same time, Percy distracted us as to why his sister was truly upset through his own wrong understanding of the situation.  Of course, how in the world would sixth-year Prefect Percy understand first-year shy Ginny's inner turmoil?  Who would have suspected that she was upset about setting the Basilisk loose herself?

Mad-Eye Moody, as impersonated by Barty Crouch, is the chief antagonist throughout Goblet of Fire.  However, this semi-mythical retired Auror is brought onto the scene through other characters' POVs, which while they may not be false, are definitely leading the reader away from the truth in this situation.

First, Cedric Diggory's dad, who works at the ministry, informs Mr. Weasley, and the reader, that the day before Mad-Eye is to take up his new position (at Hogwarts), that an intruder tried to get into his house and was attacked by his charmed dust-bins.  But, notice Mr. Diggory's influential POV regarding Mad-Eye:

"Arthur, you know Mad-Eye," said Mr. Diggory's head, rolling its eyes again.  "Someone creeping into his yard in the dead of the night?  More likely there's a very shell-shocked cat wandering around somewhere, covered in potato peelings...I'll bet he leapt out of bed and started jinxing everything he could reach through the window."

Mr. Diggory definitely doesn't believe that Mad-Eye might have truly been attacked, does he? So, neither does the reader.

A few minutes later, around the breakfast table, the rest of the Weasley clan's POVs add to our perception of Mad-Eye:

From George -- "Isn't he that nutter--"

An while Charlie asserts that "Half the cells in Azkaban are full because of him," he also states that "I heard he's been getting really paranoid in his old age.  Doesn't trust anyone anymore.  Sees Dark wizards everywhere."

Moody becomes the coolest Defense Against the Dark Arts professor ever.  Students line up outside his door to ensure they get a good seat in his class.  Thus, because we've been told he's paranoid for good reason, and in the students' POV he's the coolest thing to hit Hogwarts this year, when in the Three Broomsticks Harry notices Moody drinking from his flask yet again, the reader is properly prepared to believe along with Harry the falsely planted reason:
Moody had told them all during their last Defense Against the Dark Arts lesson that he preferred to prepare his own food and drink at all times, as it was so easy for Dark wizards to poison an unattended cup.
Who would such a man of the ultimate deception?  Through all this build up and then the final revelation, JKR has masterfully manipulated her characters' POV in the direction she wants to influence our own perception of her prime, hidden antagonist.  And notice, the characters' all believe what they say because these perceptions are true for the real Mad-Eye!  Because they are convinced, we are as well.

Throughout Goblet of Fire, JKR continues to utilize false perceptions from the characters to both reveal and conceal clues.  In an example pointed out to me by a participant in one of my workshops (thanks Suzanne!), we're going to look at a more subtle example from Chapter 27, after the second challenge of the Tri-Wizard Tournament.  Snape confronts Harry during Potions class about stealing ingredients from his cupboard, which Harry angrily denies.

    "Don't lie to me," Snape hissed, his fathomless black eyes boring into Harry's.  "Boomslang skin.  Gillyweed.  Both come from my private stores, and I know who stole them."
    Harry stared back at Snape, determined not to blink or to look guilty.  In truth, he hadn't stolen either of these things from Snape.  Hermione had taken the boomslang skin back in their second year -- they had needed it for the Polyjuice Potion -- and while Snape had suspected Harry at the time, he had never been able to prove it.  Dobby, of course, had stolen the gillyweed.
    "I don't know what you're talking about," Harry lied coldly.
    "You were out of bed on the night my office was broken into!" Snape hissed.  "I know it, Potter!  Now, Mad-Eye Moody might have joined your fan club, but I will not tolerate your behavior!..."

Then Snape threatens Harry with the truth potion, Veritaserum, to which Harry "wondered whether he ought to take a leaf out of Moody's book and start drinking only from a private hip flask."

Look at all the clues JK Rowling works into this short passage.  Snape is missing ingredients in his private stores for Polyjuice Potion.  We know, because the Trio brewed it up two years ago, that Polyjuice Potion allows one wizard to impersonate another.  Snape's office was broken into on the night some of these ingredients were stolen.  And who else was up that night, as JKR so slyly has Snape remind us? Mad-Eye Moody, who also just happens to drink solely from that private hip flask already mentioned and seen repeatedly.

An overwhelming amount of clues, is it not? And yet, how many of us slipped blithely by this because of the false perceptions from both Snape and Harry that fed us these clues?  Snape believes the culprit to be Harry, which Harry confirms by remembering that Hermione did steal the boomslang skin two years ago.  But notice that a time-frame is not specified by Snape.  Why would he be talking about boonslang from two years ago right next to the gillyweed that Harry acknowledges is recent?

Or, in the words of Suzanne who pointed this out to me, the reader "naturally skipped  right over all the Polyjuice ingredients -- BECAUSE HERMIONE DID STEAL THEM TWO YEARS AGO!!! -- and it never dawned on me that Snape undoubtedly meant THIS YEAR, when of course fake-Moody was having to replenish his supplies. It wasn't until just today that I realized this was a huge clue I had always overlooked because I always focused on the Gillyweed being stolen by Dobby for the second task. Brilliant!"

Indeed. That's quality sleight-of-hand!

Also, Snape's assumption that Mad-Eye was up and about to help cover Potter's tracks and Harry's earlier revealed perception about why Moody drinks from his hip flask persuade the reader to believe the same.  Still, Mad-Eye is juxtaposed into this scene twice, and we know how JKR uses juxtaposition to place clues.  So, in this example, JKR uses juxtaposition to hint at the person who is stealing ingredients and brewing Polyjuice, but uses false perception to distract from these same clues.

In the words of Mad-Eye -- Constant Vigilance!

As writers, we need to always remember that our characters do not always need to tell the truth, whether from telling an outright lie to believing untruths.  But there's a very fine line between an unfair lie and a well-played twist.  The "lie" or false information must be both well-motivated and a clue, subtle thought it may be, must be left toward the truth. These are tools we can use to not only create character conflict and deepen character development, but also to help reveal and conceal any mysteries we have within our text.

Have you used a character's false POV to hide a clue for your reader?  How did you motivate your reader to either lie or misunderstand the truth?

Mad-Eye Kitty photo credit.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Organizing the Disorganized (including a few Tips for Bloggers)

First off, an apology to those of you receiving this blog through subscription as you probably got a post from me this morning that looked suspiciously like spam.  I was breaking up one of my pages into three, and accidentally posted my new page for A Writer's Guide to Harry Potter as a post rather than a page.  Sorry!

Now, on to today's news! Changes, they are a'brewing.

This has been A Very Pottermore Summer for me!  Due to the excitement generated at the beginning of the summer from JKR's wonderful announcement of her upcoming Pottermore website, and the subsequent traffic tsunami that resulted from it, I've made numerous changes to the blog, which you may have noticed.

Though this post does not fit within my general craft analysis, I thought some of you, especially fellow/sister bloggers, might enjoy knowing about a few changes I made and why.  Some changes were made to increase the ease and functionality of my blog, others to unite my various sites in some resemblance of order, some to increase my outreach to other blogs and services, and still some to attempt to make all this time I spend obsessively blogging to actually contribute to the family financial coffers (ha!).  Thus, today, I'm blogging about blogging:

Organizing My Disorganization:

1) Linking to my "Other" Sites: You'll see across the top half of my navigation bar above that I've added links to my other sites online.  Eventually, I hope to have them all together under one roof, but for now, at least it's easy to get from one to another with a simple click.

2) Pottermore Wiki & Forum (for Writers & Fans): With the explosion this summer of interest in JK Rowling's newest project, I felt that Pottermore fans needed a site completely dedicated to Pottermore where they can share, discuss, and analyze all the new information which is currently being revealed.  At my unofficial Pottermore Wiki and Forums, you can talks with other fans in the Forums, add and read articles posted in the Wiki, and analyze what's newly revealed in Editorials (still in development).

Writers! I'd love to have your input.  If you'd like to add an editorial or write a post for the Wiki, please contact me at SPSipal AT gmail DOT com.  You'll get to place an ad on your bio page on the Wiki and links within your posts.

3) My Kindle Store: Here is where you'll find all that I have offered on Kindle, including A Writer's Guide to Harry Potter and my shorter Boy Who Lived Guides (for Writers & Fans).  As always, if you've read any of my books and liked them, I'd love it if you could post a review online.  Likewise, I'm always trying to improve my work, and if you have suggestions, I'd love to hear from you!

4) Editorial Services: Yes, I offer editorial services in critiquing query letters, synopses, first chapters, and even beyond.  As the page was a bit buried under my Kindle books, it's now got its own home.

5) CommentLuv: I'm SOO glad I installed the CommentLuv system before Pottermore hit.  Some of my posts received hundreds of comments.  Under Blogger's built-in comment system, that level of response would have been so hard to follow.

One neat feature I love best about CommentLuv is that as a visitor, you can insert your blog's URL and it will automatically link to your last blog post beneath your comment.  So, by commenting here, you can also provide a link to your latest post! Nifty, huh?  Check it out at IntenseDebate.


1) Upcoming Workshop:  Starting Sept. 3, I will be giving a new workshop called "Conflicts of Myth: Using Mythic Conflicts to Deepen Your Contemporary Novel." This workshop, hosted through SavvyAuthors, will examine reasons for using mythic conflicts and will study various myths throughout centuries, cultures, and continents. Then we'll see how many have been used in movies and stories as we discuss how to best incorporate them within our own.  Sign-up hereSoon!

2) Guest Blogging -- I LOVE hosting guest bloggers here, and I love to visit other blogs of similar minds and share my posts.  If you'd like to be a guest blogger at Harry Potter for Writers, or host me at yours, drop me a note at SPSipal AT gmail DOT com.  Likewise, remind me if we've already set one up and need to work out the details.

3) #PotterChat - After the wonderful week of PotterChat blogfest earlier in the summer, I started hosting a frequent #PotterChat on Twitter for all those interested in discussing the latest news in Harry Potter or Pottermore.  Recently, I also added a #PotterChat Daily paper.li to my Twitter feed.  It's a simple tool, that once set-up, automatically takes Tweets from your stream and puts them together in a newspaper-like post that others can subscribe to.  I find it interesting myself for checking out news and links I might have missed that day.  Your readers can likewise explore more posts on topics in their field of interest and find new people to follow.

Making Blogging Pay (or at least leave a tidy tip):
Blogging takes a lot of time.  Blogging the way I have done it this summer takes a humongous amount of time.  For the last three months, I was blessed that I had it.  But now, with school and work starting back, the only way I can justify continuing this level of time commitment is if my work online can help pay the bills.  Thus, I've added a couple of features:

1) Google AdSense: Most of you are probably familiar with this most popular method for adding ads and earning revenue from your blog traffic.  On Blogger, it's as easy as clicking on your "Monetize" tab and following the instruction.  You choose where to place your ads, but you really won't make any money unless your daily traffic is in the thousands.

To be honest, I'm not sure I'm going to keep it on this blog. I'm taking it out for a test drive. Would love to know from anyone else using it on their writing blog if you feel like it has been of any benefit.

2) VigLink: VigLink is an affiliate program which allows website owner and bloggers to, with the incredible ease of adding one simple code to their site, automatically monetize their links.  Any links you already have on your site, or those added in the future that link to any merchants within the VigLink system, will automatically count as a sales-link without having to insert a special affiliate code.

One such merchant is Amazon.  And if you, like me, live in a state where you cannot be an Amazon affiliate directly (Arkansas, California, Colorado, Illinois, North Carolina, Rhode Island, or Connecticut), then you may want to consider trying out VigLink yourself.

Feedback Requested:
Have you found any of these changes to be a distraction rather than enhancement?  Do you visit more than one of my "sites" online?

How about you?  I'd love to hear from other bloggers, and am planning an upcoming post to share your best advice:
  • What are your best tips for improving the effectiveness of your blog?
  • What are your best tips for increasing quality traffic to your blog, your Twitter, or wherever else you hang out online?
  • And if you've monetized your blog in any manner, what programs did you find the least offensive and most effective?
Photo credit.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Guest Post at Muse, Rant, Rave

Today I am guest posting at Melinda Collins' fabulous Muse, Rant, Rave blog!  My topic is The Top 10 Tips of Writing that I Learned from Studying JK Rowling.

Here's the #10 tip to get you started.

10) Plot like you're Hermione about to face her boggart:

Hermione's biggest fear was for McGonagall to tell her she'd failed all her exams. And so she always over-studied, ensuring that she was prepared and would never have to face this horror. J.K. Rowling, Hermione's real-life doppelganger, has stated that she is a heavy plotter, working out the details of each book before she writes, and having plotted out all seven when she was writing the first.
Now, I'm not saying that pansters are wrong. Lots of good stuff comes out of free-flowing writing and it can be a great way to get ideas flowing or even write a first draft. But before you even consider hitting send on a manuscript, at some point along the way you had better let your inner Hermione get hold of your work!
Certain types of books call for more plotting beforehand than others. Works like Rowling's with their multiple subplots and intricate trail-of-clues mysteries would be very difficult to write by the seat of your pants.

So, know your story and play to your skills. But keep Hermione close at hand when you need to be sure it all makes sense.

Now, head on over to Melinda's blog and read the other 9 tips!

And while you're there, be sure to check out the rest of this week's posts from other writers as Melinda has been hosting The Week of the Writer.

Be sure to leave a comment and follow Melinda's great blog. She usually does a wonderful wrap up on Friday's that points out great articles and entertainment for the whole week.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

A Juxtaposition of Clues

This post is part of the Mystery Plotting series, in which we are examining, one by one, techniques JK Rowling used to hide clues and plot her mysteries.

One nifty trick for sneaking a clue past your reader is to juxtapose your villain with the scene of the crime.  Or, even more simply, you can place two apparently separate thoughts or actions next to each other that by their mere proximity hint at a relationship.  I gave you an example of how this simple form of juxtaposition can be used in Drifting Off to ClueLand.  There, Harry's dream of doors is juxtaposed with his next thought of his scar, as if unrelated, but the reader is supposed to catch the connection between his dreams and Voldy.

For another simple example of how to juxtapose two supposedly unrelated ideas to hint at a relationship, let's look at Goblet of Fire.  Early on, JKR tells the reader, straight-up, what to look-out for in this book.  In Chapter 9, The Dark Mark, after the Quidditch World Cup, when some unseen person near the Trio has cast the Dark Mark into the air, and wizards pop in all around shooting stunning spells at Harry, Hermione, and Ron:

"Do not lie, sir!" shouted Mr. Crouch.  His wand was still pointing directly at Ron, and his eyes were popping -- he  looked slightly mad.  "You have been discovered at the scene of the crime!"
Discovered at the scene of the crime!  Get that?  We're supposed to watch out for it.

Then Bagman pops onto the scene:

"Where have you been, Barty?" said Bagman.  "Why weren't you at the match?  Your elf was saving you a seat too --"

Take note!  Although "Barty" was at the World Cup, he had his elf saving him an empty seat that he never used.

Bagman's comment reminds us of what Winky had told Harry, and the readers, back in the stands.  She was a good house-elf, not a shameful one like Dobby.  Winky always obeyed her master...even to the point of saving a seat for him in the highest box when she was deathly afraid of heights.

So when Mr. Diggory asks her impatiently, "Elf? Did you see anyone?"
Winky began to tremble worse than ever.  Her giant eyes flickered from Mr. Diggorty, to Ludo Bagman, and onto Mr. Crouch.  Then she gulped and said, "I is seeing no one, sir...no one..."
Ludo Bagman is placed in that sentence for a purpose.  He is a reminder, though his comment above, that Winky's belief above all is to obey her master, who her eyes flicker to next before she gulps and fudges the truth.  The juxtaposition of Bagman to Crouch in this sentence is supposed to remind the reader as to where Winky's loyalties lie...and how committed she is to carrying his orders out.

JK Rowling uses the second, more complex juxtaposition technique quite wonderfully throughout Goblet of Fire with Pseudo Mad-Eye Moody.  He's always Johnny-on-the-Spot when something goes wrong with Harry.  But do most readers suspect him because of that? No, because JKR offers as diversion the fact that Moody is the coolest teacher of the year and Harry's secret ally in winning the Tri-Wizard Tournament.  Of course, we all know now WHY pseudo-Moody wanted Harry to get that cup, but at the time -- who would have suspected the most celebrated dark-wizard catcher of all times to be in league with the most feared dark wizard in recent memory?

Here's a couple of scenes where JKR hinted, through juxtaposition, of Mad-Eye's involvement in the crime.

First, from Chapter 25, The Egg and the Eye, Harry has just finished his dip in the Prefect's bath, and is returning, after hours, to his dorm with his golden egg when he checks his map:
Peeves was not the only thing that was moving.  A single dot was flitting around a room in the bottom left-hand corner--Snape's office.  But the dot wasn't labeled "Severus Snape"...it was Bartemius Crouch.
Earlier, Harry had heard through Percy that Mr. Crouch (who of course he assumes this is) has been ill and not able to even go to work.  So why was Crouch at Hogwarts sneaking around Snape's office?

Deciding to find out for himself, Harry sets off down the stair and his leg plunges through the trick step.  The egg wails, Filch bounds into the scene determined to catch Peeves, who he is sure is to blame, and then Snape shows up.  Harry is all a quiver under his invisibility cloak while Filch and Snape argue as to what's going on:
   "--Peeves threw it, Professor--"
   "--and when I passed my office, I saw that the torches were lit and a cupboard door was ajar! Somebody has been searching it!"
   "But Peeves couldn't--"
   "I know he couldn't, Filch!" Snape snapped again.  "I seal my office with a spell none but a wizard could break!"
As Filch and Snape continue to argue about Peeves and the intruder, with Harry sending silent and inept Legilimency demands for them to leave, a "Clunk. Clunk. Clunk" approaches.  Mad-Eye!

Filch explains to Mad-Eye about Peeves and that someone has broken into Snape's office.  Snape hisses at him to "Shut up!"

Moody sizes up the scene, including Harry trapped in the stairs beneath his invisibility cloak, and then rounds on Snape and confronts:
   "Did I hear that correctly, Snape? he asked slowly.  "Someone broke into your office?"
   "It is unimportant," said Snape coldly.
   "On the contrary," growled Moody, "it is very important. Who'd want to break into your office?"
Can't  hear that emphasis on the word "your?"

Snape suggests students, because, "It has happened before.  Potion ingredients have gone missing from my private store cupboard...students attempting illicit mixtures, no doubt...."

As the reader should very well be aware!  Just two books ago we watched the Trio do this exact same thing as they stole ingredients to make the Polyjuice Potion....Wait....Are we supposed to be thinking of how Polyjuice allows one wizard to become another right now?? :-)

But no, we wouldn't suspect Polyjuice, at least not of Moody, because JKR, I mean, Snape, expertly distracts any suspicion of covert actions from Moody when he says, "You know I'm hiding nothing, Moody," he said in a soft and dangerous voice, "as you've searched my office pretty thoroughly yourself."

Moody's face twisted into a smile.  "Auror's privelege, Snape, Dumbledore told me to keep an eye--"

And then we get into the whole bit of Dumbledore being a trusting man and spots that don't come off and Snape grabbing his "left forearm" where his Dark Mark is burned into his flesh.  Snape is quite neatly thrown into the red herring soup!

Yet...clues abound in this scene!  And one of the prime techniques is juxtaposition.  JK Rowling juxtaposed Mad-Eye to the scene of the crime by bringing him onstage after the precise moment that someone had been searching Snape's cabinets.  She even gave us the further clue to remind us of the Polyjuice pretenders of years' past.

BUT, Jo almost never gives a clue without providing more compelling sleight-of-hand distraction.  Here, she provides several.  First, Moody is on the offensive -- forcing Snape to talk about the break-in against his will rather than having Snape accuse Moody and confront him of snooping -- which would have been too easy and way beneath JKR.  Second, Snape acknowledges that Moody already searched his office, which, when Moody parries as an Auror's privilege reminds us not only what a totally cool guy he is, but on which side his loyalties lie.  A distinction which is totally brought home by Moody's distrust of Snape, his intimating that Dumbledore told him to watch out for Snape, and the hint of Snape's dark and murky past.

Finally, we're getting all this from Harry's POV, and we know which of these two men Harry trusts and respects the most. Moody, to seal his image as good-guy-protector-of-Harry, even helps Harry escape Snape's notice as the oily Potions Master seeks his least favorite student out on the stairs.

Still...Moody was there...next to the scene of the crime.  And Harry had just seen in his Marauder's Map, which never lies (remember Pettigrew) -- that Bartemius Crouch was searching Snape's office.

Lastly, I want to point out what JKR has Filch call the golden egg in this scene -- not a  golden egg, not a dragon's egg, but a Triwizard CLUE! Filch is seeing clues in this scene, and we're supposed to as well!

Three chapters later, in chapter 28, The Madness of Mr. Crouch, just to make sure we take notice of who is nearby when something goes wrong, JK Rowling repeats her juxtaposition technique.  The senior Bartemius Crouch stumbles onto the Hogwarts grounds, semi-crazed and insisting upon talking to Dumbledore.  Harry leaves Krum with Crouch as he goes to collect Dumbledore, and when they return, they find Krum stunned and Mr. Crouch vanished.

Just as Dumbledore is sending Hagrid (brought by a Patronus) to go fetch Mad-Eye Moody...who should stumble up, "limping toward them, leaning on his staff, his wand lit" but Mad-Eye Moody himself.
"Damn leg," he said furiously.  "Would've been here quicker...what's happened? Snape said something about Crouch--"
Instantly, he provides an alibi for his presence.  But, once again, he's Barty-on-the-Spot when that Spot has involved a crime.

Sill, JK Rowling provides distraction.  Harry mentions to Dumbledore how he had just been talking to Mr. Bagman right before Crouch appeared.  We know that Bagman is a slimy character.  Plus, Kakaroff is also hinted at, and Krum himself believes that Crouch attacked him from behind.  Well....Crouch did.  Just not Senior.

For readers, unanswered questions and hidden secrets keep them glued to the page.  As long as they are actively involved in their quest to know more, wondering and worried about what's to come, we have their page-turning interest.  Therefore, as writers, we should be careful to employ a  variety of techniques to hide clues to our ongoing mysteries.  Juxtaposition is one such technique which JK Rowling showed us delightfully how to employ.

Have you ever used juxtaposition in either its more simple or complex form to hide clues or tease with red herrings?  Do you think this technique could be used outside a mystery to hide secrets your characters keep from each other?

(Check Out JK Rowling's Newest Release -- Harry Potter and the Cursed Child here!) 

Monday, August 22, 2011

Drifting Off to ClueLand

This post is part of the Mystery Plotting series, in which we are examining, one by one, techniques JK Rowling used to hide clues and plot her mysteries.

Dreams play a prominent role in the Harry Potter series, illuminating both Harry’s fears and dropping clues for things to come. Many dream scenarios revealed vital information. Because dreams can take on an abstract, disjointed quality, they’re an excellent tool for hiding images and hints of what is yet to come.

It was obvious to most readers from the start that the dream of Wormtail and Voldemort in “The Riddle House” in GoF was a vision of a scene actually taking place, and thus it was riddled with clues. Others were not quite as obvious. Harry dreamt about doors upon doors before he and the reader understood that there was a particular door in the bowels of the Department of Ministries that Voldemort desperately wanted access to--and why.

Indeed, it is within the pages of Order of the Phoenix where dreams take on a starring role. By way of dreams, Harry experiences scenes happening through Voldemort's eyes, as well as Nagini's, and even one false scene planted deliberately for Harry as a lure to trap him deep within the Hall of Prophecy.

In his dreams, Harry repeatedly experiences a door at the end of a deep long corridor, one he is compelled to open. Of course, readers of the series know how all these dream scenarios ended -- with Harry and friends speeding off to the Department of Mysteries within the Ministry of Magic to save the life of Sirius Black who was never threatened to begin with…but ended up dying as he fought to save his godson's life.

To learn how JK Rowling set up her dreams to both hide and reveal clues, I'd like to look at a few specific examples and how they were framed within the story.

Because JKR uses limited 3rd person POV throughout most of the series, she utilized dreams to help enlarge the reader's view of Harry's world. But it's not just a simple matter of having Harry dream something he cannot see. He experiences these dreams because of a central plot device for the story -- Harry has part of Voldemort's soul lodged inside him, which provides the powerful connection between his mind and the Dark Lord's.

Note: Not all of Harry's trips into Voldemort's mind are presented as dreams. Some happen quite violently when he's wide awake. But they all have a similar dream-like quality.

In the meantime, he had nothing to look forward to but another restless, disturbed night, because even when he escaped the nightmares about Cedric he had unsettling dreams about long dark corridors, all finishing in dead ends and locked doors, which he supposed had something to do with the trapped feeling he had when he was awake. Often the old scar on his forehead prickled uncomfortably, but he did not fool himself that Ron or Hermione or Sirius would find that very interesting any more. (p. 14, Bloomsbury)

From the very start, JKR alerts her reader, rather subtly though it may be, that dreams are going to play a part of this story.  Even though the next thought concerning the prickling of his scar is presented as unconnected to his dream, the juxtaposition of it directly after the dream tells the reader that Voldemort may be involved.

Harry's dreams are spaced far apart early in the story, but continue steadily, especially after emotional scenes, such as when Harry witnessed Mrs. Weasley unable to expel the Boggart which had taken the shape of her dead children, husband, and Harry.

Harry had a troubled night's sleep. His parents wove in and out of his dreams, never speaking; Mrs Weasley sobbed over Kreacher's dead body, watched by Ron and Hermione who were wearing crowns, and yet again Harry found himself walking down a corridor ending in a locked door. He awoke abruptly with his scar prickling to find Ron already dressed and talking to him. (p. 163)
This dream reference above I find interesting because not only does it once again juxtapose Voldemort to the dream through the prickling of Harry's scar, but with Ron and Hermione wearing their "Prefect" crowns, Jo also hints toward the Red King and White Queen of Alchemy (Alchemy being a strong theme running through the series).  It is in Order of the Phoenix, after all, when the feelings between Ron and Hermione become quite strong, and Ron as keeper is finally declared, "Weasley is our king!"

One last note: I don't think it coincidental that Kreacher replaces the Weasley children as the dead body in Harry's dream. JKR provides a subtle link at this point to Kreacher and a death.

Back at Hogwarts, the dreams, and clues, continue.
'You know what?' Harry said to Ron and Hermione as they entered the Great Hall. I think we'd better check with Puddlemere United whether Oliver Wood's been killed during a training session, because Angelina seems to be channelling his spirit.' (p. 238)
Yes, this quote above is a bit out of place as it is not a dream.  However, the notion that one person can channel someone else's spirit with them not being present is quite important to this story.  Reader -- constant vigilance!

   He was walking once more along a windowless corridor, his footsteps echoing in the silence. As the door at the end of the passage loomed larger, his heart beat fast with excitement ... if he could only open it ... enter beyond ...
   He strettched out his hand ... his fingertips were inches from it ...
   'Harry Potter, sir!' (p. 341)
Until Dobby's interruption, Dream Harry is drawing closer to the door, his excitement increasing, and it is becoming clear to the reader that the need to enter this door is imperative, which sets up the later vision Harry has of Nagini attacking Mr. Weasley.  Harry-Nagini is enraged to find Mr. Weasley guarding the door he most wants to enter and attacks to kill.

Now that Dumbledore has been alerted to Harry's dreams, he assigns him to Occlumency lessons with Snape.  During one lesson Snape brings forth a memory of Harry's trial at the beginning of the story, and Harry realizes that the long corridor and hall he has been repeatedly dreaming about are within the lower levels of the Ministry of Magic.

From this point on Harry, as well as the reader, becomes actively engaged in examining these dreams for clues.  Dream after dream, what Harry sees at the end of that corridor progresses, from standing in front of the plain black door, to entering it and finding "himself in a circular room lit by blue-flamed candles and having multiple doors," until he finally enters a "dimly lit room full of shelves, each shelf laden with dusty, spun-glass spheres."  At last, he even approaches and identifies row 97.

Harry, and the reader have all the information they need now as JK Rowling prepares to drop her biggest dream yet. While taking his OWLS, Harry drifts into a daydream. This time he is walking with "a firm and purposeful tread...determined to reach his destination at last."

He enters the DoM, passes through the Time Room, and enters the cathedral like Hall of Prophecy. Except this time, he finds someone else there:

   But there was a shape on the floor at the very end, a black shape moving on the floor like a wounded animal...Harry's stomach contracted with fear...with excitement...
   A voice issued from his own mouth, a high, cold voice empty of any human kindness...
   'Take it for me...life it down, now...I cannot touch it...but you can...'
   The black shape on the floor shifted a little. Harry saw a long-fingered white hand clutching a wand rise at the end of his own arm...heard the high, cold voice say 'Crucio!'
   The man on the floor let out a scream of pain, attempted to stand but fell back, writhing. Harry was laughing. He raised his wand, the curse lifted and the figure groaned and became motionless.
   'Lord Voldemort is waiting...'
   Very slowly, his arms trembling, the man on the ground raised his shoulders a few inches and lifted his head. His face was blood-stained and gaunt, twisted in pain yet rigid with defiance...
   'You'll have to kill me," whispered Sirius. (p. 641)

It it real? Or is it just a dream?

This is a question Hermione asks along with the reader. JK Rowling has so expertly played with the reader all along until we ourselves are unsure.  But Harry, who has experienced all these dreams himself, is not willing to risk his beloved godfather's life to wait for long to find out. They do try, but Umbridge interferes until a desperate escape from Hogwarts is the only means by which to ensure that Sirius is not at that moment being attacked as Mr. Weasley had been earlier.

What is Harry to believe? The plot has put Umbridge in charge at Hogwarts and taken Dumbledore away. Snape is the only person available to help, and Harry doesn't trust him one bit.

He is left on his own to find out the truth, and that is what brings him neatly into Voldemort's trap deep inside the Ministry.

Notice how JKR skillfully plotted the increase in her dreams.   They went from simple mentions that the reader was easily distracted from, to increasing in intensity and importance where we, along with Harry, were sure we needed to examine each one in detail, to culminating in a dream that forced the devastating climax.

By having Harry experience a dream in which he saw Mr. Weasley attacked and nearly killed, she set it up that he must take the false attack on Sirius siriusly! :-) But, with numerous mentions and reminders made by Hermione, Dumbledore, and Snape that Voldemort would attempt to use this mental connection to his own advantage, JKR also cast serious doubt into the reader's mind. Finally, by using a technique which emphasized the connection between Harry and Voldemort's minds, she prepared the reader for one of the greatest revelations to come in Deathly Hallows -- Harry as Horcrux.

As writers, we can challenge ourselves when working with dreams, especially when used to hide and reveal clues, to make sure the dreams we create are woven deeply into the structure and fabric of our story, and not merely a quick and easy technique to hide and reveal clues.  Too many writers misuse dreams in this manner -- as a quick and easy method for revealing hard to plot information.

When evaluating for yourself as to whether a dream is your best method, ask yourselves these questions:

  • Is there a reason innate to the story as to why your character would be experiencing this type of dream?
  • Did you plot the dreams and their consequences from the beginning to the end with ever increasing complexity and meaning?
  • Can you throw red herrings as well as clues into and outside your dream world?
  • And when your dream clues are brought to real-life fulfillment, will it all make sense to the reader in the end, or leave them with a disjointed sense of a tool tacked on which did not really fit the story?

Dreams, like names, have long been a popular tool of writers for weaving secrets and deeper meaning into stories. Done in a subtle manner, they can foretell action to come without sacrificing your surprise ending. Keep in mind that dreams highlight emotions and patterns, but don’t always need to make sense superficially. They are best kept short and mysterious and not used to drop heaps of angst and introspection.

Have you used dreams in your story? Have you used them to hide or reveal clues? Why were dreams your best choice of technique for that particular

Friday, August 19, 2011

Tease Your Reader With Joking Clues

Today we'll continue with our Mystery Plotting series. As we discussed in JK Rowling's Sleight of Hand, while laying her most important clues, JKR diverts the readers’ attention elsewhere. There are various methods she employs for this diversion. The one we'll examine now is to distract the reader's attention with humor.

Jokes Hiding Clues:
One of JKR's simplest techniques is to place the clue in a line of dialogue that seems to be nonsensical or a joke, which focuses the reader on the humor rather than the clue, and to make whatever that character says seem unimportant. Ron is especially good for the joking bit.

[Harry]  “I wouldn’t mind knowing how Riddle got an award for special services to Hogwarts either.”

   “Could’ve been anything,” said Ron. “Maybe he got thirty O.W.L.s or saved a teacher from the giant squid. Maybe he murdered Myrtle; that would’ve done everyone a favor...” (p. 232, CoS)

Ron is joking, but hits the truth dead-on. However, there are two sly Rowling tricks sidetracking the reader from taking note of the clue--not only is it an obvious joke, but it’s also third in a list of increasingly absurd jokes, and therefore the most ridiculous, in Ron’s point of view.

George and Fred are always good for a joke...and thus are prime candidates for hiding a few crucial clues.  Through the twins' clowning, JK Rowling hit the reader over the head early on with a direct clue as to what lay within the Chamber of Secrets:

"Oh, get out of the way, Percy," said Fred. "Harry's in a hurry."

"Yeah, he's off to the Chamber of Secrets for a cup of tea with his fanged servant," said George, chortling.

Ginny didn't find it amusing either.

"Oh, don't," she wailed every time Fred asked Harry loudly who he was planning to attack next, or when George pretended to ward Harry off with a large clove of garlic when they met.
Fred and George jokingly hit the reader with not one, but two clues.  Not only does JKR hint at the basilisk through them, she also shows Ginny with a stronger than normal emotional reaction -- clearly because of her guilty conscience!

Jokes Hiding Crucial Upcoming Information:
Jo is even good at using the twins' comic antics to hint at important clues a whole book (or four) in advance:

   "Yeah, Montague tried to do us during break," said George.
   "What do you mean, 'tried'?" said Ron quickly.
   "He never managed to get all the words out," said Fred, "due to the fact that we forced him head-first into that Vanishing Cabinet on the first floor."
   Hermione looked very shocked.
   "But you'll get into terrible trouble!"
   "Not until Montague reappears, and that could take weeks, I dunno where we sent him," said Fred coolly.
LOL! Those crazy twins!

But...wait...You mean there's a Vanishing Cabinet inside Hogwarts?! And the twins don't know where it leads?  And...didn't Harry hide in a mysterious large, black cabinet in Borgin and Burkes way back in Chamber of Secrets? (In case you didn't catch it -- those Vanishing Cabinets are the means by which Draco lets the Death Eaters into Hogwarts in Half-Blood Prince).

Yes, here, through jokes, JKR teases her reader to pay attention to these cabinets. They just might be important in a story to come!

Truthful Statements Uttered as if Ridiculous:
Another type of teasing clue comes from Dumbledore, who showed a different version of how to spin this technique at the end of Prisoner of Azkaban.  JKR uses this wisest of mentors to state the truth in a matter-of-fact manner that makes it seem ridiculous.

In the face of Snape’s rage over the escape of Sirius Black, Dumbledore calmly, and without lying states, “Unless you are suggesting that Harry and Hermione are able to be in two places at once, I’m afraid I don’t see any point in troubling them further” (p. 420).

Dumbledore makes the reality of Harry and Hermione truly having been in two places at the same time seem impossible, and even though the reader is “in” on this clue, it’s a blatant sign-post to pay attention to other such well-laid lines where the reader may not be as “in the know.”

While these jokes and ridiculous statements are not the slyest of JK Rowling's clues, they are effective.  Many readers skimmed right by the jokes of Ron and the twins.  While they had an idea that some of the things they clowned around about might be clues, because there were so many ridiculous things they said, it was hard to know WHICH.

What Can You Do?:
As a writer, use every possible technique and character quirk available to you to tease your reader with information you've withheld.  Got a funny character? (And I hope you do!) Why not put them to good use to once or twice casually drop an important clue?  Got a wise mentor who other characters will believe implicitly? Why not have them state the truth as if it were ridiculous?

But be careful! The reader will quickly catch on to this relatively easy technique, and then it will become less effective.

Have you used jokes or ridiculous statements in your writing to hide crucial information?

For those of you curious about what's going on inside Pottermore, don't forget to check out my Pottermore Forums!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Pottermore IS for Writers (but mostly in the subtext): Part 2

(May contain minor spoilers!)

Yesterday I posted the first half of a breakdown on how I see Pottermore benefitting writers.  Pottermore IS for Writers (but mostly in the subtext) Part 1 focused on the craft we can learn from new information revealed inside Pottermore.  Today's second half will focus on the business insight we can gain.

As I mentioned in yesterday's post, I approached Pottermore with a bit of fan interest, but mostly with a writer's desire to gain greater insight into JK Rowling's thoughts and process in creating Harry Potter.  I also hoped for new understanding regarding how she managed the business aspects that helped to make HP the pheonomenal success it became.

In turning Pottermore's pages toward a business discussion, I have two main areas I'll cover: 1) engaging our reader electronically, and 2) who are we focused on serving?

Engaging our Reader Electronically:
Unless you've been hiding out in the Chamber of Secrets, you know that change is afoot in today's publishing world.  You can't be on Twitter more than 5 minutes without a Tweet foretelling the end of traditional publishing and the rise of the e-book.  It's a tidal wave of change, they all say, and those on the crest are shouting back at the rest of us to grab a boogie board and hop on.

It seems JK Rowling has caught the surge as well, but is riding the e-book challenge, as always, in her own very unique style.  Not only is she self-publishing her electronic editions of the Harry Potter series, but she's developed this fully functioning, visually enchanting online universe to encase her stories and entice her readers.

Although use of the Pottermore site is and always be completely free, it will also be the ONLY portal to buying the electronic Potter books.  And she controls it completely.  SHE pays her prior publishers royalties rather than the other way around.  Genius, right?

Inside the Pottermore pages, the eager reader can once again follow the course of each of Harry's years as they are released, but with a whole electronic world of game and gadgets and social connections to enjoy along the journey (and keep them riveted within those e-pages).  For now, Philosopher's/Sorcerer's Stone is the only one available.  Readers follow the story chapter by chapter, participating in what Harry does along the way.  Shop in Diagon Alley at Flourish and Blotts.  Let your wand choose you at Ollivanders.  Then on to Hogwarts where through a series of questions and answers, the Sorting Hat decides your new home at Hogwarts -- a quiz that JK Rowling created herself.

Here and there are hidden items to discover, points to be earned for your house, duels to be challenged and won with other wizards, and best of all, new material to be read from JK Rowling.

As a fan, what's not to love?

And yet, most authors are thinking right now--such a website comes at a tremendous price!  There is absolutely no way 99% of us could afford such an investment.

I know I couldn't.

And yet, being inspired by what JKR has done will once again force me to challenge my boundaries.  Even though I cannot incorporate a Flash-driven, professionally designed website for my fiction universe, perhaps I CAN do something more creative than a simple webpage with book cover and story blurb.  Perhaps, if I really put my imagination into overdrive, I can devise a way to engage my reader in my electronic  world beyond the mere paper experience.

Could I create simple games for them to play that work within my universe?  Maybe I can share images of my magical elements and include further information on backstory not revealed in the text.  How about a scavenger hunt for continuing mysteries of the series?  And what can I do to make the site more interactive between me and my readers? Could I incorporate chatting, forums, and other social media so that my readers can talk together and with me?

Like it or not, the reading experience is continuing to race faster toward the electronic. Even now, for those readers who still cling to their paper and ink, once they close the covers of a favorite story, the first thing they will do is hop online to stalk the author, share with other fans, and delve further into that story's world.  Will you be there to meet them? And can you use engaging, interactive media to keep their interest ensnared in your world as thoroughly as JK Rowling has done?

These are the questions today's author is challenged to face.  And seeing how well Jo fares with her new magical experiment may inspire us along the way!

Who are We Focused on Serving:
Of course, all these questions above are based on one primary assumption: our work online will be focused on our reader.

The one thing that most struck me when I started writing this post happened when I tried to fit a title to it before I'd even started writing.  I wanted to say "Pottermore IS for Writers," and leave it at that.  The article would point out all the great insight I'd learned in the Pottermore pages to help me with my writing techniques.

But as I drew near the end of Philosopher's Stone, I knew such a title would be misleading.  Pottermore is 99% geared to fans! And, as writers, we need to learn from this!

Maybe the hoards of extra words JK Rowling has written for Pottermore are only half revealed at the moment.  Maybe more thoughts behind the writing process will come as the beta session nears its completion.  But at this stage, Pottermore is obviously a gift designed for fans...not a lesson for writers.  And I daresay that's how it's going to stand.

While frustrating as it may be as a writer that Jo rarely speaks directly to us to answer our specific questions about her processes and styles, perhaps that's one of the things which have made her such a success.  Her websites, her interviews, her outreach is always focused on her fans. She seeks in every way to give the reader what will keep them hooked on her world.  And thus it is true with Pottermore.

You wouldn't see Jo running a blog focused on writing.

So, where does that leave us as writers? How much attention are we paying to the audience of readers we are either currently serving or hope to have gained one day?  I know this question has been asked recently among many blogs, including Jami Gold's and Kristen Lamb's and Laura Pauling's.  But, as writers, if we utilize only the relative comfort and safety of a writing blog, are we really doing what we need to build our audience?

(P.S.) I know it's truly not fair to compare the resources and abilities of a mega-selling author to a beginner or even mid-list author, but I do hope you'll catch my point -- we need to seriously consider our audience.

Analyzing Me:
For myself, I have two audiences because I write both writing guides and fiction (coming soon!).  So, for me, this writing blog definitely fits one of my reading groups.  For the fiction, well that's part of the reason I've expanded recently into other worlds, which I hope to eventually enlarge to cover my own fiction as well.

What do you think about writing and blogging? And, even if you're still locked outside Pottermore's gates, how do you think you can learn from Pottermore to better suit your readers' needs?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Pottermore IS for Writers (but mostly in the subtext)!

As you know if you've been reading this forum, I've been fascinated with Pottermore and have tried to stay on top and cover this story as it has developed.  However, what might not have been as obvious is WHY I've been so fascinated.  I'll admit, though I'm very much a Harry Potter fan, I've approached Pottermore with more of a writer's interest.  I've been curious to see what JK Rowling would do with this new digital medium.  At heart, though, I'm mostly dying to take a dip into her brain waves and learn from her writing choices.

Would Pottermore deliver, however?  Or would it be a site for pure fan-indulgence?

The released hints, up until this point, were inconclusive.  It seemed that Pottermore would deliver SOME new insight useful to a writer, but I just wasn't sure how much.

Now that I am inside (YAY!!), I can take a deep breath of relief and assure all of you other writers out there -- Pottermore IS for you...but, as with all things Rowling, you have to look below the surface!

Let's look at what we as writers can learn from Pottermore in two parts, the craft and the business.  Because I have quite a bit to say about each, we'll cover the craft today and business tomorrow.

First the craft:
I've long lamented how little information JK Rowling had put out regarding her own writing process.  While we all know she loved to write in cafes and that she plotted her world and all seven stories in the first five years of writing, we didn't know many specifics.  In fact, I put together a letter several months ago asking just the sort of question I'd love to know from JKR.

But beyond writing techniques and processes, I personally had certain questions perhaps only I wanted answered--mostly things to do with the source material behind some of her magical elements.  Was the mid-east evil eye bead (or the Eye of Horus) really the inspiration behind Mad-Eye's magical eye?  Was the word Horcrux truly devised from the Cross of Horus?  Did she consciously think of the Seth protecting Ra myth when in Deathly Hallows she described the Room of Requirement "like a gigantic ship's cabin"?

Plus, there's the whole world of clue hunting, where fans spotted millions of clues they were never sure JK Rowling intended or not.  Did she use "spots" to point out certain suspicious figures?  Did she give her villains cameo roles in each chapter 13?  Did she deliberately use the word "swept" to hint at Snape's true allegiance in the infamous scene atop the Lightning-Struck Tower?

I'm happy to say, upon viewing Pottermore from the inside, that JK Rowling is definitely revealing more information regarding her writing techniques and choices.  As for her mythical allusions and mystery clues...well, we may have to read beneath the lines on that one.

Spoiler Alert Below this Point:
For the writing thoughts and processes, let me give you a (SPOILER) example from inside Pottermore where Jo reveals her thoughts in choosing the Sorting Hat as the medium for sorting first years into their houses.  She discusses how she'd always planned to divide students into the four different houses, but had played with various other methods of the sorting, from the use of a "Heath Robinson-ish machine" to talking statues of the four Founders.  Finally, with an intimate look into how she brainstormed out from eenymeenymineymoe to names out of a hat, she hit upon the Sorting Hat.

Now, this example alone is not that enlightening or inspiring.  But Pottermore has just opened.  Only Philosopher's Stone is available for navigation, and it has a decidedly beta-testing, unfinished feel to it.  I have no idea if more material will be added before the final version or just more gadgets, but if there are several revelations like this in each book, with six more books to come, then the writer can indeed gain greater insight into how the bestselling author of our time chose the craft decisions which turned her book into a publishing phenomenon.

As for my personal desire to know more about her hidden clues and mythical allusions...I may well have to continue hunting out JKR's subtext through Pottermore as well.  The evidence as to whether she will bring any of this above text at this point is, unfortunately, inconclusive.

Alchemy as an Example:
At the end of the first book on Pottermore, where Harry approaches his final challenge in the underground room below Hogwarts, when he comes face to face with Voldy-Quirrell, Jo's thoughts about the Philosopher's Stone are revealed.  Together with earlier revelations about alchemy from Nicholas Flamel, these insights show how she deliberately wove alchemical symbolism into the story.

But, that much was obvious to any serious student of her work. Jo had talked about alchemy in open interviews before.  And the information released in Pottermore only pointed out alchemy as an strong influence and plot point.  She did not go into the type of symbolic detail as to say, Sirius represents the Black phase, Dumbledore the White, Rubeus the Red... etc.

I still have hope! (Because I'm in Gryffindor now and I must! :-)  I'm hoping that through the direct feedback JKR is getting by way of the comments on Pottermore (which is consistently saying more...More...MORE!) that she will, as each book is released, include more of this below-the-scene analysis of her decisions and sources.

Once again, we wait...:
As with all things related to JK Rowling and Pottermore, however, we will have to wait.  Pottermore's release of Chamber of Secrets is not scheduled until early 2012.  And they haven't even said when the other books will follow.

I imagine that if JKR is truly wanting to get on with releasing completely new stories aside from Harry's world, as she hinted at in this Deathly Hallows Premiere interview, then she'll push to have all the HP stories released on Pottermore as soon as her computer geeks can handle it.

Go Jo!

In the end, where I think we as writers can learn more right now from Pottermore is regarding the business end, where I think JK Rowling once more has a lot to teach us.  But, like Pottermore, you'll have to wait for it.  Just until tomorrow.  Y'all come back now, ya hear! :-)

If you're eager to explore Pottermore, are you interested as a writer, a fan, or both?

And if you don't mind spoilers, or if you're already in Pottermore, be sure to check out my unofficial PottermoreWiki & Forums where loads of us are chatting about what we're finding inside those Hogwarty gates!

(Check Out JK Rowling's Newest Release -- Harry Potter and the Cursed Child here!) 

Monday, August 15, 2011

Pottermore is Open for Beta-Testing!

UPDATE! I'm IN!! But as soon as I had started in on Pottermore, the site went down for maintenance. When it goes back up, I'll start a new post with my impressions!

Meanwhile -- YAY!!! :-)

The Pottermore Insider has revealed that the REAL welcome e-owls are now going out! Some people have already received theirs and are inside Pottermore. Some of them are currently chatting on the Unofficial Pottermore Forums.

Let me know here or there when you get in and how you're sorted.  Will be updating both sites as soon as possible with new goodies now that it's working!

Have fun!

Will be updating info here and on the forum as it comes available.

  1. Here's a view of the Pottermore welcome page for those who don't mind spoilers!
  2. The poll on the side of this blog has been updated. Now, for those who are inside Pottermore, you can vote for which house the Sorting Hat placed you.
  3. There's a poll inside the forums for people who are inside to vote on which day they registered in the 7 days of clues. May give us an idea as to when ours are coming.
  4. Here's a pic of someone's welcome e-owl.
  5. Inside the forums, those who are in are talking about what they can buy in Diagon Alley. Don't want to give too much away here for the casual reader who doesn't want spoilers, but check out the forums for more details.
  6. There's a new article posted in the Guardian on Pottermore's opening which includes some interesting details on Privet Drive. 
  7. According to the Guardian article above, Pottermore received more than 50,000 hits per SECOND on Aug. 3.  That's actually not the first day of clues, but the Wednesday of that week.
  8. More SPOILERS: Awesome images of House Common Rooms and new info in the Forums.
Remember to keep checking back here as I will continue to update with new information received.

JK Rowling's Sleight of Hand

With this post, I'm backtracking a bit from last week.  Seems to me I should have started the Mystery Plotting series off with more of an introduction, rather than just diving right into running bits with Tossing Snowballs at Your Clues and Dogging JK Rowling's Deathly Clues.

However, unlike the First and Final Chapter series, I've been covering mystery plotting on this blog for quite a while and already had an introduction and posts up.  I'd just not followed it from beginning to end in complete (or semi-complete) detail, which is what my aim is through the next few weeks.

Therefore, I'm re-starting at the beginning by re-posting the introduction to mystery plotting with links to a couple of posts that are already on the blog, so you can catch up.  Then, we'll proceed onto new posts for the rest of this mysterious journey!

Intro to JK Rowling's Mystery Plotting:

Over the course of seven books, JK Rowling plotted a complex mystery embedded in the frame of a fantasy adventure. Ms. Rowling expected a lot from her readers, and she got it. She expected an active participant to pick up on her clues and to follow their trail. What she got was a world full of Harry Potter readers who not only jumped in enthusiastically to sleuth out the clues, but also delighted in stringing them together to plaster the Internet with theories of what was yet to come.

There are three central questions to the Harry Potter mania which drove the search for clues:

1) What exactly happened in Godric’s Hollow?
2) Where did Snape’s loyalty lay? and
3) How would Harry defeat Voldemort?

Although the three questions are simple, the answers are quite complex. JKR built an elaborate world, richly detailed, that is full and complete. What is amazing about her construction is that every aspect of the world, each character, has something to contribute to these three simple mysteries. The clues could be, and indeed are, hidden everywhere.

While JKR used multiple techniques for hiding her clues, overall they can be categorized under that old reliable magician’s trick: sleight of hand.

Misdirection is perhaps the most important component of the art of sleight of hand. Using misdirection, the skillful magician choreographs every movement in a routine so even the most critical and observant spectators are compelled to look where the magician wants them to. (source)

JK Rowling is the indeed the master magician!  While planting her most important clues, she diverts the readers’ attention away from it and to her carefully plotted distraction. Aside from a few obvious hints meant to knock the reader on the head to hunt for more, Jo almost never plants a clue without also providing the words to distract the reader from it.

I'll give you one quick example here, but the rest of this series will give many more:

In Chamber of Secrets, in Chapter 9, The Writing on the Wall, the Trio enter Myrtle's bathroom for the first time to hunt for clues as to what petrified Mrs. Norris.  Once they leave, Percy confronts them, chiding them for returning to the scene of the crime.

"Why shouldn't we be here?" said Ron hotly, stopping short and glaring at Percy. "Listen, we never laid a finger on that cat!"

"That's what I told Ginny," said Percy fiercely, "but she still seems to think you're going to be expelled; I've never seen her so upset, crying her eyes out. You might think of her, all the first years are thoroughly over-excited by this business--"

"You don't care about Ginny," said Ron, whose ears were reddening now. "You're just worried I'm going to mess up your chances of being Head Boy."

"Five points from Gryffindor!" Percey said tersely, fingering his prefect badge. "And I hope it teaches you a lesson! No more detective work, or I'll write to Mum!"

I imagine Jo chortling to herself as she wrote that sentence about "no more detective work." The italics there are hers, not mine. Of course she's wanting her reader to do exactly what she's having Percy forbid the Trio from!

As for the sleight-of-hand in this example, I see two types.  First, the clue is, of course, Ginny's extreme reaction to what happened to Mrs. Norris.  However, JKR distracts the reader from Ginny's emotional reaction with a fight between Ron and Percy.  She also uses a characters' own false perceptions to distract us from the real reason why Ginny may be upset.  According to Percy, who is a Prefect and talked with Ginny so should be trusted to know, his sister is upset because all first years are and she's afraid Ron will get expelled.

There are various methods Jo employs for creating these types of diversion. Here are some I've uncovered that we'll study to help improve our own writing. Those that are hyperlinked have already been covered on this blog, though I may revisit some of the older ones with some fresh examples.

A Dozen+ Golden Eggs for Tricking Your Reader:

1) give meaningful names
2) use of "running bits" here and here
3) divert with action or a joke
4) distract with high emotions
5) camouflage by use of myths and folklore
6) hide in a list
7) discredit the witness
8) drop in dreams
9) mark with colors and themes
10) mirror parallels
11) reverse expectations
12) juxtapose the villain with the scene of the crime
13) character lies or misperceptions

We'll break apart each of these steps in separate posts over the next few weeks. I may not do them back-to-back, but should eventually cover them all with examples. Just keep following the Mystery Plotting label.

As a writer, you must play fair with your reader. You must leave clues.  But the sly author will do it in such a way so as to make it difficult for the reader to see them clearly on a first read.

Plotting a mystery is a very fine balancing act. If the author leaves insufficient clues to give the reader a shot at solving the puzzle, the reader feels cheated. However if the author makes the clues too obvious, the reader also feels cheated out of the pleasant surprised “gotcha” at the end. The evidence is overwhelming that JKR has walked that tightrope gracefully and masterfully and has not cheated her readers, but left them with many hours of happy sleuthing, and definite pleasant surprises.  Through it all, sleight-of-hand was her technique of choice.

Have you considered your own sleight-of-hand in plotting your stories? Have you tried to provide distraction to whatever clue you've inserted in your text?

Friday, August 12, 2011

Dogging JK Rowling's Deathly Clues

Yesterday, I posted an article analyzing one technique JK Rowling used to hide clues to her mysteries in an innocent manner that would not draw the initial attention of the reader.  This technique was coined by Galadriel Waters of the Ultimate Unofficial Guide to the Mysteries of Harry Potter series as "running bits."  I suggest that if you didn't read Tossing Snowballs at Your Clues, that you skim over it before going on, because here I will pick up where I left off to provide further examples.

As many of you seemed somewhat doubtful that JK Rowling had deliberately used a trail of words to point to a trail of clues, I decided to dig a bit deeper and show you a more complex example from Order of the Phoenix. We all know what one of the greatest surprises in store for fans of this book was the death of Sirius Black (aka Padfoot) at the end. However, fans were anticipating a death ever since Voldemort AK'd Cedric (and turned him into a sparkly vampire :-) at the end of Goblet of Fire.

Because JKR knew by now that her fans were on to her tricks, she plotted the clues to this mystery even more intricately. She had to give hints toward who would die in book 5, without ruining the dreadful surprise at the end. For these running bits, she clumped them together, using images related to death and associated with Sirius Black or his animagus form of Padfoot

The words we'll be following are bark, howl, dog, grim, and black. The first three are associated, of course, with a dog and point the reader to notice that there's a very important dog in this story and something black and grim is looming for him. JKR uses grim and black in association with death, and in Order of the Phoenix, they are also closely linked, used quite frequently with Sirius (aside from his last name, of course).

Let's look at some quotes in detail.  Once again, I'm only using the first half of the book because to cite from the whole thing would fill a very long parchment.  Also, I'm only picking up important instances or an example of ones that are oft-repeated.  If I showed every time a character "barked" or "said grimly" in Order of the Phoenix, we'd be here until the Thestrals came home!

Here's some instances of JKR using bark early on to draw our attention to it:
Dudley gave a harsh bark of laughter then adopted a high-pitched, whimpering voice. “ ‘Don’t kill Cedric! Don’t kill Cedric!’ Who’s Cedric — your boyfriend?”

“I want the truth about what happened tonight!” barked Uncle Vernon. “If it was demenders who hurt Dudley, how come you’ve been expelled? You did you-know-what, you’ve admitted it!”

And just to make sure we remember who the main barking character in this story is:

Dumbledore’s Secret-Keeper for the Order, you know — nobody can find headquar­ters unless he tells them personally where it is — that note Moody showed you last night, that was from Dumbledore. …” Sirius gave a short, barklike laugh. “If my parents could see the use it was being put to now … well, my mother’s portrait should give you some idea..”

JKR continues to toss in "barks" wherever she finds, or creates, the opportunity:

“Oh, most think he’s barking, the Potty wee lad,
But some are more kindly and think he’s just sad,
But Peevesy knows better and says that he’s mad —

Pansy Parkinson gave a shriek of laughter that turned almost at once into a scream, as the twigs on the table leapt into the air and revealed themselves to be what looked like tiny pixieish creatures made of wood, each with knobbly brown arms and legs, two twiglike fingers at the end of each hand, and a funny, flat, barklike face in which a pair of beetle-brown eyes glittered.

“Well said!” barked Ernie Macmillan, whom Harry had been ex­pecting to speak long before this.

But an animal that barks may also:

JK Rowling uses howl almost always in an ominous manner in this book, associating this dog-like word with stormy weather or Voldemort's supporters.

“Does it work?” inquired Ron hopefully, as the hammering of rain on the roof intensified and wind howled around the building.

   Harry sat quite still, staring at his feet, allowing his mind and his memory to relax in the aftermath of the pain. …
   A confused tangle of shapes, a howling rush of voices …
   “He wants something done, and it’s not happening fast enough,” he said.

October extinguished itself in a rush of howling winds and driving rain and November arrived, cold as frozen iron, with hard frosts every morning and icy drafts that bit at exposed hands and faces.

Mrs. Black’s portrait was howling with rage but nobody was both­ering to close the curtains over her; all the noise in the hall was bound to rouse her again anyway.

All these howling winds and Death Eaters make me feel rather:

In OotP, JKR uses grim A LOT. Grimmauld Place is a right grim place with its grimy windows in a row of houses, all with grimy fronts.  But people are constantly talking grimly.

“Hello, Harry,” [Sirius] said grimly, “I see you’ve met my mother.”

Again, I will not repeat the number of times someone speaks grimly in OothP, there's just too many.  However, not only do they talk grimly, they also look rather grim as well.

Sirius scratched him absentmindedly behind the ears as he turned, still grim-faced, to Harry.

Mrs. Weasley followed them upstairs looking grim.

Mr. Weasley stumbled to a halt outside a grimy dark door with an immense iron lock and slumped against the wall, clutching at a stitch in his chest.

Professor Umbridge, however, did not flinch. She was staring at Harry with a grimly satisfied expression on her face.

His eyes rested on Harry and his lip curled. Harry glared back, feel­ing a grim pleasure at the idea that he would be able to give up Potions after fifth year.

Here's a cool snippet which uses several running bits all together:

Mundungus fumbled nervously in his pockets, still staring at Harry, and pulled out a grimy black pipe. He stuck it in his mouth, ignited the end of it with his wand, and took a deep pull on it. Great billowing clouds of greenish smoke obscured him in seconds.

Notice how it has three death images/words: grim, black, and the green of Avada Kedavra!

Throughout OotP, JKR also shows people or things being obscured, hidden by smoke, or disappearing from sight.  These images foreshadow how Sirius disappears behind the Veil.

And Sirius is quite the...

Lots of dog words, besides just Sirius, gambol about in OotP:

“Ministry of Magic?” bellowed Uncle Vernon. “People like you in government? Oh this explains everything, everything, no wonder the country’s going to the dogs. …”

The elf took absolutely no notice of Harry and the rest. Acting as though it could not see them, it shuffled hunchbacked, slowly and doggedly, toward the far end of the room, muttering under its breath all the while in a hoarse, deep voice like a bullfrog’s

Here's the actual black dog of death in action:
The figures of Tonks, Lupin, Moody, and Mr. and Mrs. Weasley shrank rapidly but the black dog was bounding alongside the window, wag­ging its tail; blurred people on the platform were laughing to see it chasing the train, and then they turned the corner, and Sirius was gone.

Yes, "Sirius was gone" is intended foreshadowing!

“I seem to have touched a nerve,” said Malfoy, smirking. “Well, just watch yourself, Potter, because I’ll be dogging your footsteps in case you step out of line.”

JKR even plays with her clue hunters with this next one. Are we searching too hard, seeing clues where they are not intended, IS it coincidental?:

...what if he had deduced that the Weasleys, Lupin, Tonks, and Moody knew where Sirius was hiding? Or had Malfoy’s use of the word “dogging” been a coincidence?
Some of you, I'm sure, will answer yes.  I, of course, think not! :-)

One last dog clue:

“Come back, you scurvy dog, stand fast and fight!” yelled Sir Cado­gan in a muffled voice from behind his visor

On a side note, it might be worth mentioning that two new names to this book both have a dog in them, Doge hides a dog in it as well as Cadogan. Sir Cadogan is always going on about scurvy dogs and Doge is called "Dogbreath" by Rita Skeeter, though that's not until a later book.

Of course, the main dog we know about in OotP is:


Everything about the Black family home is grimy and black, all hinting at death and decay, and Sirius is trapped inside, unable to break free of it's deathly hold.

Harry walked up the worn stone steps, staring at the newly materi­alized door. Its black paint was shabby and scratched.

He heard a soft hissing noise and then old-fashioned gas lamps sputtered into life all along the walls, casting a flickering insub­stantial light over the peeling wallpaper and threadbare carpet of a long, gloomy hallway, where a cobwebby chandelier glimmered over­head and age-blackened portraits hung crooked on the walls. 

Notice in the quote below that it is black liquid used to kill the doxies:

“Cover your faces and take a spray,” Mrs. Weasley said to Harry and Ron the moment she saw them, pointing to two more bottles of black liquid standing on a spindle-legged table. “It’s Doxycide

Yet, despite their cleaning, the house is getting blacker every day as death looms for its last inhabitant.

   “Kreacher is cleaning,” the elf repeated. “Kreacher lives to serve the noble house of Black —”
   “— and it’s getting blacker every day, it’s filthy,” said Sirius.

Then black becomes associated with a very important door:

“Quick, Harry,” said Mr. Weasley as the lift doors rattled open, and they sped up a corridor that was quite different from those above. The walls were bare; there were no windows and no doors apart from a plain black one set at the very end of the corridor.

Guess which door this one is mentioned above.  The door that keeps appearing in Harry's tormented dreams.  The door into the Department of Ministries.  The black door beyond which Sirius meets his death.

In the Ministry of Magic, Harry meets a nasty piece of work who is mostly associated with the color pink, except for a curious bow that she wears.  Enter Umbridge:

He thought she looked just like a large, pale toad. She was rather squat with a broad, flabby face, as little neck as Uncle Vernon, and a very wide, slack mouth. Her eyes were large, round, and slightly bulging. Even the little black velvet bow perched on top of her short curly hair put him in mind of a large fly she was about to catch on a long sticky tongue.

That poor black fly, I mean bow, meeting its fate on top of Umbridge's head.

Of course, the twins have their own agenda going on, as always.  But in OotP, even their tricks hint at a black death:

Look what Dung’s gotten us,” said George, holding out his hand to Harry. It was full of what looked like shriveled black pods. A faint rattling noise was coming from them, even though they were com­pletely stationary.

“Venomous Tentacula seeds,” said George. “We need them for the Skiving Snackboxes but they’re a Class C Non-Tradeable Substance so we’ve been having a bit of trouble getting hold of them.”

The Venomout Tentacula is highly poisonous and in fact is used as a weapon in Deathly Hallows.

Perhaps one of the darkest and most sublime deadly images associated with black comes from Dolores Umbridge:

She handed him a long, thin black quill with an unusually sharp point.
 “I want you to write ‘I must not tell lies,’ ” she told him softly.

This black quill draws blood and leaves a permanent scar, as the death of Sirius will do for Harry.

Perhaps one of the most haunting uses of these running bits is not only a mirror image to how Sirius disappeared at Platform 9 3/4 and to how he will vanish behind the veil, but also a foreshadow to the death of Hedwig herself.

“Safe flight, then,” said Harry and he carried her to one of the win­dows; with a moment’s pressure on his arm Hedwig took off into the blindingly bright sky. He watched her until she became a tiny black speck and vanished,
Finally, the great thestrals with their black wings are visible only by those who have seen death, as Harry has already experienced, and will experience again even more painfully by the end of this book.

A great, reptilian winged horse, just like the ones pulling the Hogwarts carriages, with leathery black wings spread wide like a pterodactyl’s, rose up out of the trees like a grotesque, giant bird.

I think that's enough examples for now.  Each of these quotes taken alone mean nothing. All these words -- bark, howl, dog, grim, black -- are common and of course would be used in many stories.  What is notable with JK Rowling is the frequency of use and the associations that go with each one.  When you put them all together, they are used to draw the reader's attention to one particular large black dog in this book who will meet his grim fate at its end!

Have I convinced more of you yet?  Or are you still doubtful? Regardless, have you got a desire to play with clues like this in your own work?

The bottom line is, if you think this works whether or not JKR intended it or not, you can incorporate clues like this yourself simply by asking yourself the kinds of questions I mentioned at the end of Tossing Snowballs at Your Clues.  Think of major clues you want to hint at, then choose words related to it that can be tossed in subtly but frequently to attract your reader's notice.

And let me know how it works for you!

P.S. - Need a professional edit on your manuscript before you submit or publish direct? Be sure to check out my services!