I recently finished reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone to my son, smiling as he discovered all those moments that delighted me on my first visit to Hogwarts. (My favorite part was shortly after the Sorting, when he asked me, "Mama, is Snape a bad guy?" Ahh, my child, so much virtual ink has been spilled over this question . . .) We're reading them about every six months so he doesn't have to take in the heavier Order of the Phoenix stuff until he's a bit older, but I didn't want to wait for three years to finish the series, so I promptly launched into my umpteenth reading.
And as always, J.K, you offer a master class in storytelling with these books. There's a simple reason why it's nigh impossible to start a Harry Potter book without inhaling it in one sitting: they're good. Ridiculously, unbelievably good. I've mentally cited Harry Potter as the absolute best example of "yes, but/no, and" ever since I first heard the term, and I'm only now getting a full grasp of how well Rowling juggles subplots to keep the pages turning. Just when I start getting a bit fatigued with one storyline and am thinking about quitting for the night, a subplot that really, really interests me will swoop into the foreground and glue me to the pages again. I clearly remember being all ready to put down Chamber of Secrets at midnight when I turned the page and saw that I was finally going to see what happened when they tried Polyjuice Potion this chapter . . . but I digress.
It wasn't until this reading, though, that I noticed how well Rowling handles emotional scenes. No, I'm not talking about Harry's chest monster or the CAPS LOCK OF RAGE; I'm talking about the moments where we make discoveries that cause our stomachs to drop somewhere to the region of our feet, whether it's the scene in Prisoner of Azkaban where Harry overhears Sirius' back story or the scene in Goblet of Fire where we find out that "Mad-Eye Moody" is a Death Eater. Rowling writes those scenes beautifully--and she does it by holding back on the description.
I've run into the phrase "If your characters cry and laugh, your readers won't." It always seemed a bit counter-intuitive to me, because while I understand that you don't want to be melodramatic, you also don't want your characters to be robots that never react realistically to the situations around them. To further muddy the waters, I've found that TV and movies actually work in the opposite way; I might sit in numb shock after a favorite character dies or a beloved ship gets torpedoed, but I rarely burst into big, cathartic sobs until someone onscreen does it first (I'm looking so hard at Anya's speech in "The Body" right now). How are characters and readers supposed to cry together?
Prisoner of Azkaban might not let us cry together, but it certainly lets us stare together in numb horror. If you have a few minutes and a copy of the book, go back and reread chapter 10, "The Marauder's Map," when Harry learns that his parents chose Sirius to be their Secret-Keeper. I remember reading that chapter for the first time and feeling my heart pound faster and faster as we learned the "real" back story behind Sirius Black. Harry's heart must have been going at triple the speed of mine--but we never hear about it. All we get is this:
"Naturally," said Madam Rosmerta, with a small laugh. "Never saw one without the other, did you? The number of times I had them in here--ooh, they used to make me laugh. Quite the double act, Sirius Black and James Potter!"
Harry dropped his tankard with a loud clunk. Ron kicked him.
The same goes for chapter 33 of Deathly Hallows, "The Prince's Tale"--Harry undoubtedly had many, many thoughts on what he was seeing in the Pensieve, but all we get is a single paragraph when he learns that he's destined to die at Voldemort's hand:
Harry seemed to be watching the two men from one end of a long tunnel, they were so far away from him, their voices echoing strangely in his ears.
If you're a Potterphile and you're trying to keep your emotional scenes from getting melodramatic, don't let those chest monsters stop you from rereading Harry Potter as a source of how to do it right. There's a reason you're emotionally invested in these books--it's because Rowling knows how to make you feel emotion. And that's a darned useful skill for any writer to learn.