Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Building Mystery

Since this is my first week of Nano and I must conserve precious words for my driveling novel, I wrote this blog entry a while ago and saved it. Enjoy! It's time for me to get back to my friendly chickens, flash flooding and spontaneous combustion. Oh my!

Building Mystery

I've been reading through Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone for the fifth time, trying to pick up cues for how to write a great children's fantasy novel. The craft skill I admire most in the Potter books is J.K. Rowling's ability to build a mystery that I cannot figure out that (usually) feels completely right at the end of the novel. This is the desire of all mystery writers, and Rowling has a gift for it. I would like to be able to set up a story just as effectively, so I decided to reread the book with an eye for technique and craft (I just enjoyed the ride the first four times I read it). Here are some observations I have made so far during this critical reading:

POV: With a few minor exceptions (such as the first chapter and Harry's first Quidditch match), Rowling uses an effective close third. We stick with Harry throughout the book. We watch events unfold as Harry does, and his reactions filter our understandings of them. His vision is the lense through which we see the world. This would also be possible with a first person POV, but I think third gives Rowling a little more flexibility for laying the groundwork of the plot. She has greater ability to misdirect, and drop hints that Harry may not notice. This has the added benefit of giving the reader a "special knowledge" Harry doesn't have but never the full picture that a Omniscient view would provide. It also gives the reader the opportunity to side against Harry if we chose to agree with other characters who think Harry is being an idiot about something (this was especially helpful in Order of the Phoenix).

Red Herrings: Red Herrings (or white if you prefer, I hear they have a different flavor) are the diversionary tactics that writers insert into their novels to distract the readers from what is actually going on. Severus Snape was a brilliant red herring for Rowling. That boy put red herrings on top of red herrings as the series progressed. In the first book, Snape was Rowling's diversion from Quirrell. As Quirrell said at the black moment scene, "He looks the type, doesn't he?" Harry assumes Snape is bad because Snape looks bad, and that clouds his vision regarding everything Snape does. Because readers are travelling this road through Harry's POV, we assume that Harry must be right, so we look for hints that prove Smape's guilt. And Rowling obliges us liberally. The three major ways Rowling weaves red herrings into her story are through rumors that Harry hears from other people (i.e. "everyone said that about him"), through emphasizing Harry's own suspicions (i.e. "Harry was sure he didn't look him in the eye"), and through including the herring in the midst of a list of real information, thereby giving it equal weight as the actual facts.

The facts of the story cannot come to light until the very end, but a writer must hint at them before then. Readers need to have seen the truth long before they realize it. It's a satisfying feeling for a reader to say at the end of a book, "I knew it! I just didn't know I knew it." Rowling drops hints throughout Sorcerer's Stone but she uses several techniques to shroud them from view. First, she hides them in the midst of action. If a lot of crazy stuff is going on all around Harry, then the reader will gloss over a strategically placed mention of, say, Professor Quirrell. Second, as mentioned, she uses red herrings to divert attention. If she gives a red herring the same emotional and story weight as a fact, the reader will either not know which fact to believe, or he or she may miss the truth entirely while hunting Snape. A third way Rowling masks her facts is through hiding them, dare we say it, in plain view. If she treats the information that Quirrell has been seen at the entrance to the third floor corridor like he is haunting the halls, but no one knows why, then the reader is primed to think this is important. However, when she mentions off hand that Quirrell rescued Ron and Harry from an angry Filch outside the entrance to the corridor, then the reader skims right over the information without paying it much attention.

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