First Paragraph: Harry got up on Sunday morning and dressed so inattentively that it was a while before he realized he was trying to pull his hat onto his foot instead of his sock. When he’d finally got all his clothes on the right parts of his body, he hurried off to find Hermione, locating her at the Gryffindor table in the Great Hall, where she was eating breakfast with Ginny. Feeling too queasy to eat, Harry waited until Hermione had swallowed her last spoonful of porridge, then dragged her out onto the grounds. There, he told her all about the dragons, and about everything Sirius had said, while they took another long walk around the lake.
Sorry to have missed you last week, Esteemed Reader. I found myself jolted with a story inspiration and decided to pursue it rather than write for this blog. Not to worry. I promise every Esteemed Reader here a full refund on their subscription fee:)
I love blogging, but I consider myself a fiction writer who happens to blog, rather than a blogger who happens to write fiction. Which is to say, from time to time, my fiction will come first, and since we had Hugh Howey here last week, I figured we could take a little break from Harry Potter. But I'm back this week and ready for more if you are, Esteemed Reader.
As you know, we've been looking at some indie authors just recently and I plan to keep it up intermittently. We're still going to talk with traditionally published authors, of course, but I find the indie author revolution fascinating. I can't help speculating how Harry Potter might do if it were self-published now. At the time the first book came out, ebooks were not as viable an option as they are currently, so it would have to be now, or better yet, a few years from now once more first generation ereaders have been handed down to kids.
Some might argue that Robert Galbraith didn't do as well without the Rowling name, but I don't think that's a fair basis for comparison. I'm very much enjoying The Cuckoo's Calling and I found The Casual Vacancy to be dry and preachy, but still worth reading. However, neither of those books are Harry Potter. As there's no way to ever prove an argument one way or another, I don't suppose it much matters, but I think Harry Potter would have still found readers, whatever manner it was published.
Maybe I'm naive, but I believe nothing succeeds like a great story, well told. Indie publishing likely would've taken Rowling longer to find readers and no doubt the book would've suffered without the insights of editor Cheryl Klein, but Howey's Wool was edited by his mother and it's an unqualified success on it's way to the science fiction hall of fame. Granted, that book has a major publishing house behind it now, which I'm sure is helping, but that's not why that book's a tremendous success. The movies and theme park attractions came after Rowlling crafted a great story, well told that found readers, not before.
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is also a great story, well told, and Chapter 20 is one of the high points of the series. Harry does battle with a dragon at long last, wins the first task in the Triwizard Tournament, and makes friends with Ron again. I'm not going to reproduce those passages, as wonderful as they are. I'm assuming, since you're here, you've read the book, and you know how awesome those moments are. But those are the firework explosions in the sky meant to dazzle readers and we're viewing this book on the ground as writers watching how Rowling lights the fuses.
And Chapter 20 is all about lighting a long fuse. From the start of the chapter, Harry and Hermione are preparing for the dragon battle:
They walked three times around the lake, trying all the way to think of a simple spell that would subdue a dragon. Nothing whatsoever occurred to them, so they retired to the library instead. Here, Harry pulled down every book he could find on dragons, and both of them set to work searching through the large pile.
“‘Talon-clipping by charms . . . treating scale-rot . . .’ This is no good, this is for nutters like Hagrid who want to keep them healthy. . . .”
No matter what else happens this chapter, the anticipation of Harry's battle royal looms large in every scene:
He therefore had to endure over an hour of Professor Trelawney, who spent half the lesson telling everyone that the position of Mars with relation to Saturn at that moment meant that people born in July were in great danger of sudden, violent deaths.
“Well, that’s good,” said Harry loudly, his temper getting the better of him, “just as long as it’s not drawn-out. I don’t want to suffer.”
Ron looked for a moment as though he was going to laugh; he certainly caught Harry’s eye for the first time in days, but Harry was still feeling too resentful toward Ron to care
I especially like that passage as it not only builds anticipation for Harry's impending doom, but re-establishes Harry's need for Ron and Ron's love for Harry. When Harry and Ron are finally reunited at the end of this chapter, the happiness we'll feel then is in direct correlation to the sense of loss we feel here and in other passages from previous chapters. Such moments are never won in the moment, they're earned in all the scenes leading up to them.
And so it is with this dragon fight. We talked on this in Chapter 19 and I don't want to belabor the point, but the reason Rowling's action sequence is so exciting is not the sequence itself. Granted, after so much build up, the scene has to deliver and it does. Harry zooms about on his broomstick and out flies the dragon. But without the anticipation built before the scene, it would be just another quidditch match.
Here's a passage everyone who's ever had to face something unpleasant, which is to say, everyone, will be able to relate to:
Harry felt oddly separate from everyone around him, whether they were wishing him good luck or hissing “We’ll have a box of tissues ready, Potter” as he passed. It was a state of nervousness so advanced that he wondered whether he mightn’t just lose his head when they tried to lead him out to his dragon, and start trying to curse everyone in sight. Time was behaving in a more peculiar fashion than ever, rushing past in great dollops, so that one moment he seemed to be sitting down in his first lesson, History of Magic, and the next, walking into lunch . . . and then (where had the morning gone? the last of the dragon-free hours?), Professor McGonagall was hurrying over to him in the Great Hall. Lots of people were watching.
The best scene for me in this chapter is not Harry actually fighting the dragon, although, again, it is very cool. I prefer the scene before the big fight in which Harry waits his turn while listening to the other champions battle their dragons. I think it may be the best scene in the whole book:
It was worse than Harry could ever have imagined, sitting there and listening. The crowd screamed . . . yelled . . . gasped like a single many-headed entity, as Cedric did whatever he was doing to get past the Swedish Short-Snout. Krum was still staring at the ground. Fleur had now taken to retracing Cedric’s steps, around and around the tent. And Bagman’s commentary made everything much, much worse. . . . Horrible pictures formed in Harry’s mind as he heard: “Oooh, narrow miss there, very narrow” . . . “He’s taking risks, this one!” . . . “Clever move — pity it didn’t work!”
When Harry's turn comes and he exits the tent to face the dragon, the reader is so pumped full of anticipation, Rowling's work is done for her. She has to deliver an exciting battle, but the hard part is done. The reader is primed to respond to whatever action she decides to write. She has to deliver on our expectations, but that's the easy part. Getting the reader to cry when a character dies is not a matter of writing a sad death, but of building a character worth crying for in all the scenes that lead up to his demise. And so it is with suspense.
I've got two more thoughts for you and then we'll have to call it a day. First, note that just because this chapter is all about the dragon battle, Rowling still makes time to drop in clues for readers trying to solve the overarching mystery surrounding Mad-Eye Moody:
“What’s that?” Harry asked, pointing at the squiggly golden aerial.
“Secrecy Sensor. Vibrates when it detects concealment and lies . . . no use here, of course, too much interference — students in every direction lying about why they haven’t done their homework. Been humming ever since I got here. I had to disable my Sneakoscope because it wouldn’t stop whistling. It’s extra-sensitive, picks up stuff about a mile around. Of course, it could be picking up more than kid stuff,” he added in a growl.
Second, Rowling shows us in Chapter 20 how to impart morality to young readers without preaching. In later scenes and books, she's not always so subtle, but in Chapter 20 she shows us Harry doing a moral act:
“Hi,” said Cedric, picking up a copy of A Guide to Advanced Transfiguration that was now splattered with ink. “My bag just split . . . brand-new and all . . .”
“Cedric,” said Harry, “the first task is dragons.”
“What?” said Cedric, looking up.
“Dragons,” said Harry, speaking quickly, in case Professor Flitwick came out to see where Cedric had got to. “They’ve got four, one for each of us, and we’ve got to get past them.”
Cedric stared at him. Harry saw some of the panic he’d been feeling since Saturday night flickering in Cedric’s gray eyes.
From a plot perspective, it's important Cedric be aligned with Harry because later he'll help him solve the mystery of the golden egg and later still he'll help Harry "win" the tournament. Also, remember that thing I said about building a character worth crying for when he dies?
But one of the reasons we read stories at all is to learn how to live. In telling a story, the writer inevitably reveals her morality, and the right way to do this is through the actions of the protagonist. Harry tells Cedric about the dragons because it's the right thing to do, not because he knows he'll later need Cedric's help. Harry does the right thing because that's who he is as a character. More, because Harry does the right thing, he's later rewarded for it.
Rowling doesn't slow the story down to explain this or preach and she doesn't have to. The reader picks it up automatically: Harry Potter = good guy. Harry Potter is fair and does the right thing = that is what a good guy does. Helping Cedric helps Harry = being fair and doing the right thing comes with rewards.
And that's going to do it for week 20 of our never-ending discussion of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. See you next week for chapter 21 and every week until this post series is done, and then I'm not going to look at another Harry Potter book for a long time--unless Robert Galbraith writes a new one:)
Last Paragraph(s): It was Rita Skeeter. She was wearing acid-green robes today; the Quick-Quotes Quill in her hand blended perfectly against them.
“Congratulations, Harry!” she said, beaming at him. “I wonder if you could give me a quick word? How you felt facing that dragon? How you feel now, about the fairness of the scoring?”
“Yeah, you can have a word,” said Harry savagely. “Good-bye.”
And he set off back to the castle with Ron.