Harry Potter: How J.K. Rowling Writes Mystery


The Harry Potter books are extremely effective mysteries. They’re fantasy books too. But underneath the fantastical setting is a story about deduction, interrogations and clue gathering. And they are effective mysteries because they are fair. Rowling doesn’t cheat. All the clues are there for the reader to put together if they pay close enough attention. And I’ve seen a lot of recent mystery stories stray away from that approach. You see mysteries are all about asking questions and then giving answers. And you run into trouble if you focus too much on one or the other. J.J. Abrams is famous for the term “The Mystery Box,” a style of storytelling that emphasizes the ethos of mystery, of making viewers ask questions while delaying payoffs almost indefinitely. In The Force Awakens for instance, he makes us wonder who Ray’s parents are even though, at the time, no one making the movie knew the answer. That’s probably the biggest reason some fans felt cheated by The Last Jedi, it wasn’t a fair game. On the other side of the spectrum, you have scenes like this: “Yes, where should we start? How about them? He’s treating her to a meal but his own portion is small. That means he wants to impress her and he’s trying to economise on his own food.”
“Maybe he’s just not hungry.”
“No, small plate — starter. He’s practically licked it clean. She’s nearly finished her pavlova. If she treated him, he’d have as much as he wanted. He’s hungry all right. Not well off. You can tell that mistake with his cuffs and shoes.”
Now, Sherlock is a show. I enjoy it, but rarely as a mystery. There are so many scenes in the series that tell us how intelligent Sherlock is, but we don’t get the chance to deduce anything for ourselves. It’s just: here’s the answers — see, I’m smart!
Harry Potter is much more like the classic Sherlock Holmes stories. It balances it perfectly, telling mysteries that are solvable without being obvious. But that’s just the approach. What we really want to find out is how does Rowling do this? How do you hide clues in a book when your readers are going to see every single word you write? Occasionally Vague My inclination when starting this was that films had a huge advantage over the written word when it comes to hiding clues. In The Sixth Sense, (spoiler warning), the fact that Bruce Willis’ character is dead is foreshadowed in a number of ways and often by the absence of something happening. Like the fact that no one speaks to him or acknowledges him. These clues all work well visually but would be harder to hide in prose But what I found is that the opposite is also sometimes true. Nothing exists in fiction without the author putting it there. And with just a few vague phrases, Rowling can conceal information from the reader in places that movies can’t. For instance, in book 3, one of the mysteries is that Professor Lupin is a werewolf and one of the clues is that when Lupin faces a Boggart, a creature that turns into whatever you fear most, it turns into a silvery white orb hanging in the air. Now, here’s what that looks like on film It takes more effort from the reader to figure out that Lupin is afraid of the moon in the books than it does in the film. Mute Culprits Rowling will also regularly downplay a key character in a mystery by excluding them from the dialogue. In book 2, Ginny turns out to be the one who opened the Chamber of Secrets while under the control of Voldemort. We never really suspect her because she never really talks. The book will frequently tell us how she’s doing — never good, but it’s always in the context of listing how everyone is handling the recent traumatic events. It doesn’t work as well in the movie since the film can’t really tell us her inner thoughts without her emoting in a way that gives up the game. So, instead, we only get like one cutaway to her with a blank expression and then one shot of her looking guilty that is a dead giveaway. Buried Clues Speaking of Ginny, another great way of hiding clues is by burying them in a list and then misdirecting away from them. Rowling does this constantly. A key clue in the second book is that Ginny brings a diary to school. The first mention of this comes in a comedic list of all the Weasley kids forgetting stuff at home. So, we assume it’s here because of the joke. Similar instances of burying clues in a bunch of other information happens here, in book 3, when the twins tell Harry about all the passages out of Hogwart’s. Here, when the team accidentally comes across a Horcrux while cleaning Sirius’ house in book 5. And here, in book 6, when Harry finds another Horcrux without knowing it. In book 5, Broderick Bode is assassinated by a sentient plant while in the hospital. We actually see the plant arrive, but there’s also a distinctive calendar that comes with it, so we don’t focus too much on the plant. And then Rowling immediately directs our attention away to something that we care intensely about, Neville’s parents who we’ve heard a lot about but haven’t seen yet. That way our attention doesn’t linger too long here. The great advantage of this series being a fantasy mystery series is that the fantasy element provides a ton of miscellaneous scene decorations that can cloak the mystery elements. Most of these things are useless in the context of the mystery, even though they are extremely useful in other parts of the plot. Signature Descriptions But, while the world of Harry Potter is remarkably varied in all of the stuff that flushes out the world, something that remains consistent and keeps us grounded is the physical descriptions of the characters. Here’s a test… I’m going to give you three descriptions of the three different characters, and I’ll give you a second to guess who they are. “greasy black hair.”
“a pale, pointed face.”
“glasses that magnified her eyes.” Okay, so the answers are Snape, Draco and Trelawney. If you got any of those right, that’s amazing! I mean, think about this it’s probably been years since you’ve read the books and with just a few words of description, a fictional character out of a universe of literally thousands pops right into your head and it’s all because of repetition, plain and simple. Rowling never misses a chance to mention a characte r’s signature physical description. So, if character with bushy brown hair runs out of the room, we know it’s Hermione. If someone is wearing half-moon spectacles, it’s always Dumbledore. A woman with a toadlike face is always Umbridge. The reason this is useful when crafting a mystery story is that Rowling can conceal a character whenever she wants, while still making it a fair game for the reader to figure out who they are. In book 5, Harry accidentally smashes a crystal ball with a prophecy inside. A ghostly form of a woman with eyes magnified by her glasses emerges. Harry thinks he recognizes her, but it’s not confirmed until his talk with Dumbledore 30 pages later. But an attentive reader will already know it’s Trelawney and enjoy being proved right later on. So, with clever descriptions, muted culprits, buried clues and signature descriptions, Rowling tells mystery stories that are solvable and incredibly satisfying to read from beginning to end. And if you’re looking for reasons why these novels engaged so many millions of young readers, I’d put that somewhere near the top of the list. Hey guys, so if you’re trying to write more or read more or build some other healthy routine into your life, then I highly recommend reading the power of habit And you can get a free audiobook copy of that book when you use my link to sign up for Audible, the sponsor of this episode. That book will give you the most effective way to hack your brain into actually doing the stuff you want to do more of and less of the stuff you want to do less of. So, if you’ve got some New Year’s resolutions that you’re behind on keeping, the strategies and science in this book will help you get back on track. I use the lessons in this book to form a meditation habit, to exercise more, and to make these videos more consistently. It really is the starting point for just about every kind of success I’ve had in life, so I can’t recommend it enough. All you have to do is click on this link in the description that’s audible.com/justwrite or you can text justwrite to 500-500 and you’ll get a free audiobook in a 30-day free trial. It’s a fantastic platform that I use daily to fill in all the gaps between tasks. It’s also a risk-free service, as well, because if you don’t like the book you picked, you can swap it for a different one. But I’m willing to bet you won’t want to do that with
The Power of Habit. So, let me know in the comments what audiobook you’re listening to, if you pick up The Power of Habit let me know what habits you’re trying to change, and if you manage to do it. Also, this video was made possible by my fantastic supporters on Patreon. We recently passed our first crowdfunding milestone by raising $250 per video. Which is why I got to make this video about Harry Potter. It also meant that I got to read Harry Potter all over again, which was a delight. So, thank you all so much for that! If we pass the $500 milestone, I’ll be making a video about The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. So, if you want to see that happen or just want to help support these in-depth videos on writing techniques in general, you can do so for as little as $1 a video at Patrion.com/justwrite and really every little bit counts. Thanks again everyone keep writing, and I’ll see you soon!

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