Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Mighty Detail

Last month, I decided to read all seven of the Harry Potter books in a row. Partly because I'd run out of reading material, and partly because the first time I read them, it was spaced out over years. I wanted to see how they hung together end-to-end.

Right now, I'm about halfway through Deathly Hallows, so I'll probably be done with the whole thing soon enough. And I'm still picking myself up off the floor every so often because I'm just ridiculously impressed with her plotting and the characterization of Harry himself. It's just amazing ... 4,000 pages, and it's all so tight.

But last night I noticed something that surprised me a great deal. The first time I read them, a particular image stuck in my head. [SPOILER ALERT!]

After Voldemort takes over the Ministry of Magic, he installs a new statue in the atrium. It depicts a witch and wizard sitting on a throne made of naked human bodies and reads "Magic is Might." I can't tell you how that image stuck with me. I mean, it really cleaved to my head, and every so often I thought about its sheer horror. It struck me as a deliberately symbolic image ... the piled naked bodies, the simple declaration. It brought to mind the horrors of Auschwitz and the old photographs I had seen of Nazi concentration camps. (My theories on Nazi imagery in Harry Potter are another post ...)

Anyway, imagine my surprise last night when I came across this passage for the second time and I realized it's literally TWO SENTENCES.

That's it. Two sentences.

Boy. I stopped reading and I thought for a few minutes. This is how you give good setting, I thought. In a few resonant sentences, a setting is established forevermore. Just one symbolic piece that represents everything we need to know about the place and its inhabitants.

So when I was writing this morning, I caught myself thinking: Am I picking the right detail? Because it turns out, you can cut almost everything else and just leave those few telling details, and if you're lucky, your reader will still be thinking about it years later.


Mark Terry said...

Interestingly enough, I decided to re-read all 7 Potter books in a row, although I started last summer--and finished Deathly Hallows last week. I was struck by a lot of things as well, like by how many things I had forgotten since I first read it; by how many characters are killed off. I mean, Jeez, there's a murder in the first chapter!

I was struck by that image, but I'd forgotten it. I also thought her pacing was better than I remember it to be. The first time around I was really tired and depressed by how much time they spent wandering around in the woods, especially after Ron does a flit, but in re-reading it I realized it's like 2 chapters. Granted, they're long chapters, but it didn't bother me so much this time around (although one suspects she was forcing the plot to fit the school year a bit).

Another thing I noticed was how everything tied together like a clockworks. So many of these things really WERE planted in the first book or in the first three books.

Now, after first reading it, my brother and I were discussing how they were going to break up the book into 2 movies. I predicted that the first movie would end after they break into Gringotts. After re-reading it I'm not sure sure. I think it's possible it'll be after the close call with Voldermort in Godric's Hollow, although that would be a pretty downer point to end it, with Harry's wand getting broken. Another high point would be the escape from the Malfoy's, but that ends with the dead of a major character, which I think would also be a rather grim way to end the film (unless that character gets a reprieve in the film.)

spyscribbler said...

After I read 7, I immediately started to read 1 again, hoping to read the whole series. Reading 7 and then 1 was cool, because I was amazed at how much of 7 was alluded to in 1. It was a big wow for me!

You know (maybe?) how obsessed I am with beginnings and endings being almost mirrors. Mirror isn't exactly it. But all that is in the end should be rooted in the beginning, and she does that. I blew my mind, because, wow, I mean... SEVEN BOOKS LATER!

Erica Orloff said...

I blogged a while back on Margaret Atwood's Handmaid's Tale having a single detail about the handmaid keeping little bits of butter in her spare shoes in her room (the bit of butter is on her dinner tray, and she must eat alone) and using it to moisturize her hands because makeup and moisturizer and so on were banned. All these years later, I remember that ONE detail. It's so vivid, so precise . . . .


Jude Hardin said...

I believe in working with minimal "telling" details as well. The details stand out more when they don't have to compete with a bunch of descriptive clutter.

LurkerMonkey said...


It's a good question ... They might take more liberties with the plot, but I'm guessing they'll end the movie after Ron returns in the woods and they go a-hunting. Sort of like breaking Lord of the Rings at the point when Frodo and Sam slip away for Mordor and Aragorn and the others go hunting the orcs in Rohan. It's an uplifting moment and it's got nice forward momentum.

But we'll see.

LurkerMonkey said...


I read an interview once in which she said she rewrote that first chapter over and over and over and over through the course of years ... and it shows.

LurkerMonkey said...


It's funny. I never read that book, but I actually remember your telling of that detail because it was so perfect.

LurkerMonkey said...


I ran into this problem with a previous book. I loved the setting with the white hot passion of ten thousand suns. I could picture it exactly, in every detail. Sweet Zephyr Manor. But over the course of many rewrites, it kept getting sliced away and sliced away, and I whined every time. Eventually, it was down to just a handful of details -- my whole beautiful manor house had been reduced to a cluster of sentences. But when I reread the book, I saw the wisdom of what I'd been forced to do. The manor hadn't really lost anything, but as I was forced to push the BUILDING into the background, I brought the PEOPLE into the foreground. Much stronger story ...

Melanie Avila said...

I think I'm the only person on the face of the planet who hasn't read any of the HP books. I think I read the first page and set it down. Someday...

Regardless, you make an excellent point here. I tend to keep descriptions light so I want the details I do include to be the most important. Like when describing a person, I only point out the things that I would either notice first about this person, or the thing the character least wants people to see.