Chocolate Frogs and Misdirection: J.K. Rowling on Hiding Your Plot Plumbing

It’s the holidays, and with that comes a time-honored tradition: watching movies on TV because you’ve sunk too deep into the couch to get up and find the remote. Which is how I ended up watching Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for about the eleventh time last week. There’s a lot I could say about everything that J.K. Rowling does right in this novel, but I want to focus on one part in particular. These guys:

tumblr_nx9dk215oC1r2iq6uo1_500

Chocolate Frogs. Specifically, how they’re a great example of plot plumbing done gracefully and seamlessly. Now when I say “plumbing,” I mean all those hidden threads of plot that are buried in the walls of scenes, running along silently until they are needed, at which point they spring up and the reader says “Oh, that must have been there all along! I just never noticed it!”

So first, let’s establish what the purpose of Chocolate Frogs are.  And I’m italicizing purpose here, because there’s a very specific meaning that I want to pin down. What do Chocolate Frogs do to keep the novel moving? What do they bring to the table, as it were? First, and obviously, there’s the worldbuilding purpose. Along with the rest of the wizarding candies, Chocolate Frogs add to the sense of the whimsical world that Harry finds himself in. But there’s a greater purpose that Chocolate Frogs serve, and it’s that which moves them from mere set dressing to a real plot device.

It’s about two-thirds of the way through the book and Harry, Ron, and Hermoine have made a discovery in their search for what is hiding beneath the trapdoor on the third-floor corridor. Hagrid has made a bumbling mistake and let slip, “You forget that dog, an’ you forget what it’s guardin’, that’s between Professor Dumbledore an’ Nicholas Flamel.” The next logical step for our heroes is to go searching the library for this Nicholas Flamel. He is nowhere to be found, not even in the Restricted Section, and so we seem to be at a dead end. Our trio gets a break, however, when Neville offhandedly gives Harry his Dumbledore Chocolate Frog card, which serves as the catalyst to the discovery that Nicholas Flamel was Dumbledore’s alchemical partner.

So the purpose of the Chocolate Frogs is this: to be there when Harry, Ron, and Hermoine were at a dead end and continue the plot forward to the discovery that Flamel made the Sorcerer’s Stone. After that, it’s a small jump to figure out that Voldemort is after the Stone for its elixir of immortality, and thus the stage is set for the climax.

Why is this important? Well, imagine that the scene had played out like this: Harry, Ron, and Hermoine are having no lucky figuring out who Nicholas Flamel is. Neville chucks him a piece of wizard bubblegum and suddenly Harry sits up. “Hey, this bubblegum has collectible information about wizards on the wrapper! And this one is about Dumbledore! And it mentions Nicholas Flamel!”

tumblr_inline_mmshntUpPY1qz4rgp

It feels like a cheap cop out. And it is, because there’s no substance to it. We need to have the Chocolate Frogs and their collectible cards introduced earlier, or else it feels like (and is) a solution of convenience that Rowling made up on the spot because she didn’t know how to get herself out of a corner.

So, with all of that in mind, let’s go back to the scene on the Hogwarts Express where the Chocolate Frogs are introduced. Harry is on the train to Hogwarts and has just met Ron. Ron, who comes from a wizarding family, is only too happy to explain all the quirks of this new world to Harry  (and thus also explain it to the reader). The cart lady comes by and Harry, being eleven and hungry and bursting with wizard money, buys a load of candy. Enter the Chocolate Frogs.

This is all a pretty natural progression of events, but we are rapidly approaching a pitfall: Having brought the element I want to use later into the story, how do I make it stick in the reader’s mind without giving everything away? Readers are an exceptionally canny bunch, and they’ve got a good ear for when you’re setting something up. Imagine the first time Harry opens a Chocolate Frog, Ron says, “See? They all come with a card for a famous wizard. You got Nicholas Flamel!” Readers will wonder why you’re making a point about this, when we don’t know who this Flamel guy is yet. The plumbing has become exposed. Instead of slipping by silently, it will linger in the reader’s mind as they wait for the inevitable payoff, like a surprise birthday party that got spoiled by some loose-lipped friend. You can try to be surprised, but your heart’s not really going to be in it.

So to make sure that doesn’t happen, Rowling throws in a wonderful bit of misdirection. And herein lies the key to hiding your plumbing properly: She gives the Chocolate Frogs an immediate and perfectly reasonable purpose to be introduced. The card that Harry pulls isn’t Nicholas Flamel but Dumbledore. See, at this point in the book we don’t know that much about Dumbledore. We’ve met him for a little bit, at the beginning, and Hagrid seems to trust him. But that’s not a whole lot to go on. So this introductory scene with the Chocolate Frogs also serves to give us background on the headmaster of Hogwarts. Our brain nods along, accepting the purpose that we are immediately given. We do not realize that Rowling has slipped in a mention of Nicholas Flamel until much, much later, when Harry makes the connection himself.

See, telling a story in a book isn’t like telling a story to your friends. Readers know that you have chosen these words particularly and carefully, and they’ll be watching. They know that you’ve got a plot that you’re trying to develop and will try (mostly subconsciously, sometimes consciously) to fit different elements into what they know of storytelling and general plot structure. Dwell on something for longer than normal, and it’ll raise questions. “Why’d she write that scene? Oh well, it’ll probably be important later.” So instead, try a bit of misdirection. Give everything an immediate purpose, to ground them organically in every scene, and wait.

chocolate-frog

Posted: January 6th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Every Word Chosen | No Comments »

Ha Ha! Business!

You might have noticed that my site’s gone through a bit of a redesign.  Mostly this dusty old blog’s been swept under the rug and something New and Shiny is front and center.

I’m going into freelance editorial work.

In actuality, it’s not that big a leap for me.  I’ve been fixing up various novels my friends write for years now.  I’ve been fixing up my own writing since third grade.  I’ve been editing tax law for five years now.  What was missing was the bridge to connect all those separate parts together.

Am I going to keep my day job?  Of course.

Am I going to keep writing?  You couldn’t stop me.

Am I going to be very, very busy?  Yeah, probably.

So take a look around, check out my Rates and FAQs, read some Testimonials, and drop me a line.  Because it’s business time.

Posted: June 1st, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: News | No Comments »

Queries!

I think if I ever need to write another horror story it’s going to be the five minutes when you sit there in front of your computer with the very first query all typed up and preened and your finger is hovering over the send button.  And all you can think is, oh god, oh god, I’ve totally misspelled something stupid even though I’ve reread this nine million times.

Which is to say that NINECROSS is now officially out in the world.  And pretty much right on schedule, which is amazing given that Guild Wars 2 came out in August and I’ve been playing that more than I probably should.

Here’s some stats for you folks:

103,511 words

177 pages in Word

3 entirely rewritten chapters, 1 brand new one

4 names changed, 2 genders swapped

About 9 months since finishing the rough, including the 4 months or so I let it sit

Posted: September 30th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: News | 2 Comments »

Six Days at the Bottom of the Power Grid

In case you too get stuck in the onslaught of a derecho that kills your power for six days, here’s a handy twenty-step process to coping with it.

1.  Hide at your parent’s house for the first two days.  Tell them that it was quite the storm but hopefully your power will be back up by Monday before you go to work.  Take their cooler and a few groceries just in case it takes a bit longer.

2.   See that it’s still out when you come back.  Go to work early and stay there long after everyone has gone to take advantage of the AC and internet.  Buy beer on the way home.

3.  Borrow a tent from your landlady because it’s cooler outside than in your little house.  Set it up in the dark and get commended on your Boy Scout skills.

4.  Have a beer.

5.  Have another one.

6.  Go to work the next day.  Hear from your coworkers that their power is already back.  Commiserate with the few others who are still without power.  Rationalize in your mind that if everyone else’s power is back your should be returning soon.  Perhaps even when you get home today.

7.  Get home and see it’s still out.

8.  Have a beer.

9.  Have another.

10.  Get ice the next day for the cooler.  Meet some utility workers as you’re coming back.  Be reassured that they’re bringing in crews from neighboring states and hope to have the power back by later today.

11.  Have a beer.

12.  Hear crews working outside.  Get your hopes up.

13.  Find out hours later that that crew was just clearing the brush for the next crew that would actually fix it.

14.  Realize when it starts getting dark that you’re not getting power back today.

15.  Run an extension cord from the people across the street (who got their power back today) and plug three fans, your coffee maker, and your laptop into it.  Nestle among the wires Lain-style and watch MST3K until you feel better.

16.  Have your last beer.

17.  Go to work and have no one to commiserate with because you’re the last one without power.  Curse the fact that you didn’t start a betting pool on Monday.  It probably would have paid for all the food you had to throw out of the fridge.

18. Get a one-word email from your landlady: “Hallelujah!”

19.  Come home and find the AC blasting.

20.  Have a scotch.

(title with apologies to EITS)

Posted: July 7th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Daniel's Terribly Exciting Diary | 2 Comments »

Goodbye, Ray Bradbury

I can’t recall a moment of my life when I didn’t know who Ray Bradbury was.  I can’t remember which of his stories I read first (probably something from The Martian Chronicles) but even if I didn’t understand most of the words I heard the music and the rhythm and said man, how’d I wish to be able to do that.  If I ever had to narrow down my influences onto why I wanted to become a writer to just one, he would be it.  Ray Bradbury.

No other writer that I’ve found ever so perfectly captured that breathless wonder of being a child, that sweet fear of darkness and joy of open sky.  Each of his characters ran and laughed and made me run along with them, whether through the wondrous cities of Mars or streets of a near-future Earth.  Even in some of his darkest tales there was magnificence, illumination, phantasmagoria.  Perhaps that’s what drew little me into his stories, one after another.  The immediacy, the worlds just a little way down the road, the astonishing beauty of every dust mote and grass blade.  The way even the tiniest beings breathed and lived and laughed.  And when you’re shown that, what else can you do but fall in love?

“It sounds as if the Martians were quite naive.”  “Only when it paid to be naive.  They quit trying too hard to destroy everything, to humble everything.  They blended religion and art and science because, at base, science is no more than an investigation of a miracle we can never explain, and art is an interpretation of that miracle.  They never let science crush the aethetic and the beautiful.  It’s all simply a matter of degree.  An Earth Man thinks: ‘In that picture, color does not exist, really.  A scientist can prove that color is only the way the cells are placed in a certain material to reflect light.  Therefore, color is not really an actual part of things I happen to see.”  A Martian, far clever, would say: ‘This is a fine picture.  It came from the hand and the mind of a man inspired.  Its idea and color are from life.  This thing is good.”

–And the Moon be Still as Bright, The Martian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury

Posted: June 6th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: I Got Opinions | 1 Comment »