Harry Potter and the Nice Big Knot
By Susan Faust
As we approach the seventh book of the Harry Potter series, one thing that has become clearer is the magnitude of J.K. Rowling’s undertaking. Readers have always recognized that there was a “series plot” in addition to the seven separate “book plots,” but most of our attention went to the individual books, which are satisfyingly rich and complex in their own right, as well as having the advantage of being complete. But after the publication of the sixth book, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the situation changed. Suddenly the end was in sight, and the overall series plot seemed to snap into focus and take precedence over the individual book plots. What we look forward to in reading the seventh book in the series is not just another exciting Harry Potter plot but the resolution of the plot, a satisfying conclusion to an enormously long, hugely complex story that will have taken ten years to tell.
When we try to anticipate how the overall series plot will be resolved, we have a big advantage: we can use the shorter, already-resolved book plots as a guide. The same person is writing both, and she is very likely to use the same techniques in wrapping up her overall plot as she used for the individual books. That is an exciting prospect for most readers, because one of the things that we like best about the series is the surprising and satisfying conclusions Rowling gives to her mystery plots. Those moments toward the end of each book when all is explained and everything falls into place with a click—Scabbers is Pettigrew?! Mad-Eye Moody was really Barty Crouch Jr.? So that’s why Harry’s scar hurt when Snape looked past Quirrell at him during the Welcoming Feast!—are consistently mentioned by Harry Potter fans as highlights of their reading experiences.
So what kind of satisfying resolution can we expect for the series as a whole? To answer that question, we must look at the plot structure of the individual books, and the plot structure of the series so far.
A Tapestry of Open Threads
I have 127 characters. That's a lot of characters to keep in play.1
There are two basic techniques for handling sub-plots in a long work of fiction. One is to treat them sequentially—a sub-plot is introduced and resolved, then another sub-plot is introduced and resolved, and so on. The other is to treat them concurrently—a sub-plot is introduced and kept open, and then another sub-plot is introduced and kept open, and all the sub-plots are resolved more or less simultaneously at the end of the story.
An example of the first method is Homer’s Odyssey: there is a single overarching plot of Odysseus struggling against the gods to return to his home and family, but sub-plots such as the sirens, the Cyclops, etc. are resolved when they happen as complete adventures. Odysseus might learn something from each adventure, but we don’t see characters like Circe or Polyphemus showing up to contribute to the final climax. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books are excellent examples of the second type. While occasional sub-plots may be resolved early—like the individual tasks of the Triwizard Tournament in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire or the hearing in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix to resolve the threat of Harry being expelled from school—most of the time Rowling carefully nurtures along her sub-plots, keeping them alive (or “in play” as she phrases it in the quote above) until the climactic scene or scenes at the end of the book, where they can all be resolved at once.
Consider, for instance, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, a book whose plot is widely recognized as one of Rowling’s best. A large number of sub-plots are introduced in that book—Sirius trying to kill Harry, the Dementors and Harry's attempt to learn the Patronus charm, Buckbeak's trial and threatened execution, Ron and Hermione fighting about Scabbers and Crookshanks, Hermione's workload and Time Turner secret, Remus's werewolf secret, conflict between Snape and Lupin, Harry’s problems with Quidditch and his new Firebolt, Divination class and the ominous Grim, Harry’s desire to go to Hogsmeade and the mysterious map that helps him to do so. As we enter the climactic chapters at the end of the book, only one of these sub-plots has been resolved: Harry’s team has won the Quidditch Cup.
All of the other sub-plots have elements that have been kept open until the end and then… these elements turn out to be unexpectedly interrelated, in complicated and surprising ways. If we imagine diagramming the sub-plots of Prisoner of Azkaban, we would see a bunch of threads running parallel throughout most of the book, until—in the last few chapters—the lines start tying themselves together in an increasingly complex knot. Complex, and yet simple, because as the threads tie themselves together everything falls into place and what we previously saw as a bunch of unrelated lines is revealed as a single pattern dominating the entire book. This process of discovering order in seeming chaos is deeply satisfying to the reader and is one of the biggest pleasures to be found in the Harry Potter books.
Experiencing this effect requires some patience from the reader. Harry first sees a mysterious black dog at the very beginning of Prisoner of Azkaban, but we must wait until the final climax to find out what that dog really was. In the meantime, except for a few mentions and glimpses here and there, the subject is dropped and the narrative concerns itself with other matters. This method of writing demands a certain level of attention and effort from the reader, who must hold many unresolved elements simultaneously in mind, suspending judgment and trusting that eventually every tension will be released, every problem solved, and every mystery explained. If this is true in a single book like Prisoner of Azkaban, it is even truer in a series of seven books spanning ten years in the writing. Someone who read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in 1997 and noticed a possible clue would have had to hold on to that memory for ten years to see if the clue will turn out to be important. Even in the future, when we will be able to read all seven books one after another, that is asking a lot of a reader!
This kind of plotting is not easy for the author either, as the quote above implies. Rowling is like a cook who is keeping dozens of dishes simmering on the stove, planning for them all to reach a perfect state of readiness at the exact same moment and combine to form a delicious meal. In the meantime, the reader is going hungry! The basic process of fiction is tension and release: the author creates a tension in the reader—a desire, a conflict, a mystery—and then releases it satisfyingly. Every sub-plot that Rowling keeps open in the series is a desire unfulfilled, a conflict unresolved, a mystery unsolved. And readers do suffer when their favorite sub-plots are put onto the back burner while the master chef busies herself with other dishes. “Are Ron and Hermione ever going to get together?” they wail. “Where has Wormtail been in the last two books?” “But why did Dumbledore have a triumphant gleam in his eye?”
Sometimes readers despair, fearing that their favorite sub-plot has been dropped forever, or that we’ll never get an answer to the mystery that puzzles them most. But the lesson of the previous books is that the sub-plot probably hasn’t been dropped, only put on a back burner, and we probably will find out the answer to that nagging question. For instance, house-elves and their problems were introduced in the second book and then they disappeared completely from the third book. But house-elf enthusiasts had only to hold on for one more book to see house-elves roar back into prominence with Hermione’s S.P.E.W. campaign. The same kind of off-again/on-again pattern can be seen for almost every open thread in these books.
In a televised interview with Jeremy Paxman, Rowling talked about using the same method in writing a single book, referring to it as a “grid” of sub-plots:
This is the plan for Order of the Phoenix. I have these grid things for every book—well I have about twelve grid things for every book. It’s just a way of reminding myself what has to happen in each chapter to advance us in the plot. And then you have all your sub-plots. It’s just a way of keeping track of what going on.2
Later, lucky readers who solved puzzles on Rowling’s website were given a sight of this same grid as a prize3, and a copy of it is available on the invaluable Harry Potter Lexicon website (http://www.hp-lexicon.org/images/jkr/op-notebook-jkr.gif). You can see that not every sub-plot in that book is mentioned in every chapter—there are many blank spaces where a sub-plot is left in the background while other sub-plots take center stage. But no sub-plot in the grid is dropped or forgotten. Each is faithfully followed through to the end and contributes its part to the climax of the book.