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 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