Six impossible things

Narrative drive and Harry Potter


Narrative drive is the thing about a story that makes it a compulsive read. It what creates the just-one-more-page/scene/chapter syndrome, the I-stayed-up-til-three-a.m.-to-finish condition, the thing that makes certain series like eating potato chips. And it has absolutely nothing to do with action, and very little to do with plot or originality.

The best definition of narrative drive that I’ve run across is “the overwhelming sense that Something Important is about to happen.” It doesn’t actually matter, in the moment, whether the Important Thing actually does happen, as long as it feels as if it could happen any second.

Consider the old-fashioned daily soap opera, in which very little plot progress happened on any given day, yet people tuned in day after day in spite of knowing that things were, more than likely, only going to advance a millimeter (if that) compared to the previous day. The key phrase in that sentence is “more than likely” – every scene was always poised on the edge of Something Important, some decision the characters had to make, some obvious (to the viewer) mistake that they might still avoid, some horrible revelation that was just around the corner. And they could drag a two-minute conversation out for weeks with significant looks and ominous music while the viewer waited for the payoff.

People today don’t have the time or patience for that kind of dragged-out suspense, but the principle is still sound: what keeps people reading compulsively is that feeling of Something Important just around the corner. And the main way you do that is by setting things up and then paying off the setup, over and over, in large ways and small ones, until the reader is galloping along to get to the next payoff. If you’re good at it, you can pay off the same setup several times.

(Do I really have to warn people about upcoming spoilers for the Harry Potter books? Didn’t think so.)

J. K. Rowling is a genius at this kind of multiple-payoff setup, which is part of what makes the Harry Potter books so compulsive and so relentlessly paced. Some of it is based on things that are instantly obvious to the reader; for instance, first we hear that the Dursleys are “normal, thank you very much,” and then a wizard shows up and leaves a baby on their doorstep. It is obvious to anyone that there is a problem here just waiting to happen…and that subplot carries through all seven books.

Other things are more deliberately built-in setups. For instance, in the first book, Harry has a conversation with a boa constrictor at the zoo, during which he vanishes the glass enclosure and sets the snake free. The incident establishes Harry’s magic and “difference,” as well as his relatives’ poor treatment of him and dislike of magic. It’s a minor event, almost a throwaway scene (there are plenty of other things that could have happened to show off Harry’s magic and his relatives’ dislike of it). It doesn’t look like a setup or the start of a subplot at all.

Then in Book 2, Harry starts hearing snakey voices in the walls, and we find out that speaking to snakes is considered Dark Magic. His talent turns much of the school against him, but it also proves to be the only way to get into the Chamber of Secrets and stop the monster that’s petrifying students. The fact that Harry can speak Snake is a vital plot point that was set up a whole book previously…and set up in a way memorable enough that it doesn’t feel like cheating when we’re finally reminded of it around mid-book-two. And again, it looks as if we’re done with the Parseltongue. It’s been a minor incident and a major plot point; storywise, it doesn’t need to do anything else in the rest of the series.

Nevertheless, later, in Book 4, Harry has visions of Voldemort talking to his snake, which establishes that Voldie is also a Parseltongue (i.e., speaks Snake) and also gives Harry some useful plot information. Later still, we find out that Harry probably has this ability because of his link to Voldemort, and, if I recall correctly, he has to use it again to open the locket that is one of the horcruxes that’s keeping Voldemort alive.

One apparent throwaway scene in Book 1 ends up running through all seven books, paying off over and over in major and minor ways. You can follow similar threads through the books – things that initially look like isolated one-shot incidents that crop up again later, eventually developing into major plot points. It’s instructive to pick an element from the last book and trace back through the earlier books to the place where it’s first mentioned…which is quite often somewhere in the first two or three books.

One of the reasons this works so well is that the first appearance of something in these books doesn’t ever read as if it’s setting something up for later. Whether it’s the first time Harry uses Parseltongue or the first time we see Ron’s rat Scabbers, the scene or incident has a (often minor) function in the book that seems to do all it really needs to do. The first payoff comes as a bit of a surprise…but after it happens a couple of times, with a couple of different things, you subconsciously start expecting it to happen with anything.

And that makes you feel as if something important or interesting or unexpected could happen any minute, which keeps you reading. I saw one analysis that claimed every scene in the Harry Potter books has at least ten of these plot points, setups, or payoffs, compared to two per scene in most other books. One of these days I’m going to go through and check the count for myself, but I won’t be surprised if it’s actually underestimated.

  1. I’ve never thought about that – now I’ll read Harry Potter in a whole new way!

  2. Now I’m almost tempted to reread Potter (although lots of it drives me up The WALL). What I really want to know, though, is how to tell if you’re doing it, or add it if you’re not. It sounds more like the serendipitous backbrain stuff, like Sayers’ writing somewhere that in one of the Peter & Harriet stories she needed something important to be destroyed and realized she could use the … chess set? .. she’d already had Peter give Harriet.

  3. Yes, the chessmen … and later a friend said to her, “The moment I saw them, I knew those chessmen were doomed.” (The story was _Gaudy Night.)

  4. This is definitely one of the things I really loved about Harry Potter. And it made the anticipation for the next book so exciting – analyzing the scenes, looking for clues to the next big Something Important. And we still couldn’t guess – because it always turned out in some unexpected way!

  5. It’s amazing, rereading the HP books with this in mind. For instance, in book 2 we see the vanishing cabinets that will eventually be so crucial to book 6 (one of which is dropped and broken by Peeves, causing Malfoy to need to fix it before he can use it). In the dozens of times I’ve read the books, I never noticed the connection before. Now I’m much more aware of what Rowling was doing (and blown away that she tied in all those seemingly minuscule threads). I’m also much more aware of (and much less satisfied by) books that don’t have any of those ties.

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