Bestsellers, Broomsticks and Backpacks

Bestsellers, Broomsticks and Backpacks

Right up until the last chapter of the last book, I wanted to see Petunia Dursley come out of the closet — the Nimbus 2000 broom closet, that is.  I have this sneaking suspicion that she’s a witch, albeit a weak one.  There are numerous teasers in the life and times of Harry Potter that give me glimpses of the real Petunia:  she fears dementors, she wrote letters to Dumbledore, she knows about Hogwarts.  In a number of places, Petunia says things and reacts to events in a way that hints to me of suppressed memories and concealed actions.  She shows such terrible disdain and personal loathing for her sister’s (and Harry’s) magical abilities, that it makes me believe she’s hiding something.

Certainly, there are plenty of references in the books that point to Mrs. Dursley being a muggle, but that makes the ultimate answer to the question “Was Petunia Dursley a witch?” that much more interesting.  She’s a minor character and doesn’t appear anywhere in the heart of the novels, but still, I have a nagging desire to know what she’s capable of, and I’m a bit disappointed that J.K. Rowling didn’t pull all those hints and teasers together and find a way to toss a wand into Petunia’s trembling hand when a Death Eater threatens Dudley.

As writers, we try to weave a multitude of diverse elements into our plots.  We give hints of looming disasters, glimpses of objects that may bend the story on its side, let slip a few words that turn out to be crucial.  I had a professor at Stanford University, Malena Watrous, use a backpack as a metaphor to describe the process our readers go through as they dive into our work.  Each hint, glimpse, or slip of the tongue is an object they are obliged to place in their backpack.  Each sentence they read takes them a step closer to the summit of the story, and for the story to feel satisfying at its conclusion, all (or nearly all) the items placed in their backpack must have had a purpose.  No one wants to carry a bag full of heavy items to the top of a mountain, only to find out they weren’t needed or are useless.

If you’ve ever read a story and felt cheated at the end, think for a few moments about why.  What did the author do (or not do) that annoyed you?  It’s likely that you carried around items in your backpack that were never used.  (Or an equally upsetting and opposite problem: the author tossed out a turn of events (or even an ending) that had no fore-shadowing: they didn’t give you anything to put in the backpack and then tried to pull something out of it later.)  Michael Crichton’s novel Sphere feels that way to me: Mr. Crichton made me put a lot of stuff in my backpack and then tried to pull out something that wasn’t in there.  I felt cheated!  He flaked out and wrote an ending that doesn’t fit, wasn’t fore-shadowed, and left me with an annoyingly full backpack!

If your novel opens with a homicide, and you spend a few lines describing the murder weapon and the shoes the poor sod was wearing when he met his untimely death, then later in the story, that rusty steak knife and those pink high-tops had better be tied back in.  The fact that you told the reader about them needs to have some purpose.  Otherwise, you’ve asked the reader to put items in their backpack, carry them up the steep slope of the story, and then failed to give them any reason for the effort.  If the reader arrives at the end of the story — the top of the mountain — and you’ve left unused items in their backpack, you haven’t done as good a job as you could have, and your reader will know it.

One of the self-editing tasks you might consider adding to your writer’s “To Do List” is this: write down all the objects, people, ideas, etc., that you’re asking a user to put into their backpack, and then make sure that the effort is not in vain. At the end, take a look at any forgotten items and then find a way to tie them back into the story.  If that isn’t possible, or you find too many items left-over, then go back and delete the initial references: lighten the backpack.

I had to work hard to find an unused item in the Harry Potter series.  Ms. Rowling does a most amazing job of giving the reader creative, interesting, and powerful items to put in the pack, knowing they will prove revealing later.  Even through seven books, more than 4000 pages, she ties up nearly all the loose ends.  There are items that I placed in my pack and found useful a thousand pages later: The basilisk tooth,  Neville Longbottom’s inept but powerful magic, Wormtail’s missing finger.  Hundreds of these items are woven into the story with a skill that I can only envy.  But still, I have this lingering suspicion that there was more to Petunia Dursley than we were shown (perhaps an editor made her cut that scene?), and I harbor a deep-seated hope that someday, Ms. Rowling will return to the Harry Potter World and give us one more glimpse of Petunia.

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