(And other drafts…)
My favorite thing about J.K. Rowling’s seven Harry Potter books has to be her tight and intricate plotting. I love a good set-up with a satisfying pay-off, and Rowling’s books are rich with these. In particular, I always loved what I like to call “the double-surprise pay-off.” Many times (well, six times, as seen below), Rowling gives us a great set-up and then a satisfying pay-off only to reveal a bigger and more important pay-off for the original set-up.
The ultimate example of the double surprise pay-off is the main story arc within Chamber of Secrets. Let’s begin there. Five more examples will follow.
The set-up: The introduction of Tom Riddle’s diary.
The pay-off: Tom Riddle is actually Voldemort and he’s been using the diary to control Ginny and open the Chamber of Secrets. And that’s it, right? Well…
The double surprise pay-off: The diary is more than just an ultra-sophisticated piece of dark magic, it’s also Dumbledore’s first clue to understanding why Voldemort did not die when the Avada Kadvra rebounded from Harry’s forehead. The diary, it turns out, is a horcrux. And because Harry destroyed it with a basilisk fang, he has already taken a major step in ultimately defeating Voldemort. That’s the actual pay-off to the mystery of the diary. The double-surprise pay-off.
I’d like to note that Chamber of Secrets was always my least favorite of the Harry Potter books. It seemed like a bottle episode; it never had any real connection to the overall story arc, which was always Harry vs (modern-day) Voldemort. For me, the discovery that the diary was a horcrux was all the more satisfying because it meant that Chamber of Secrets was not just a side note to the rest of the story. It was integral.
The set-up: The introduction of dementors and their weapon: a kiss that will suck out your soul.
The pay-off: At the end of The Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry produces an epic potronus and saves his own (past) life by driving off the dementors who are moments away from applying the kiss.
The double surprise pay-off: This entire sequence serves as an introduction to an interesting idea: the physical manifestation of a soul. In the wizarding world, the soul is not an abstract concept, but something very tangible that can be removed and altered. This is a fun way to prime the reader for the existence of horcruxes.
The set-up: Marvolo Gaunt shows Ogden a ring engraved with the Peverell crest.
The pay-off: The ring turns out to be a horcrux and the cause of Dumbledore’s blackened hand.
The double surprise pay-off: It’s actually the second Deathly Hallow!
The set-up: Harry gets a mysterious present for Christmas: a cloak of invisibility
The pay-off: It turns out the cloak was given to Harry by Dumbledore, who is passing it on from it’s original owner, Harry’s father.
The set-up: Persuaded by Nearly Headless Nick, Peeves drops a cabinet over Filch’s office to get Harry out of trouble. Some time after that, Fred and George shoved a Slytherin, Graham Montague, into the same cabinet when he tries to dock points from Gryffindor as part of Umbridge’s reign of terror.
The pay-off: Montague goes missing for several days(?), but eventually apparates himself out of it and into a toilet.
The double surprise pay-off: Montague ends up telling Draco that he could hear voices inside the cabinet, sometimes at Hogwarts and sometimes at Borgin and Burkes, the store for dark artifacts. Draco realizes that he could possibly use this cabinet as a method for sneaking Death Eaters into Hogwarts. Of course, the cabinet is broken thanks to Peeves, and Malfoy spends most of his sixth year trying to mend it, and this compromises a major plot thread in Half-Blood Prince.
The set-up: Harry talks to a snake at the zoo!
The pay-off: it’s because he is a friggin wizard!
The double surprise pay-off: it’s not until book 2 we learn that the ability to speak to snakes (parstletongue, as it’s called) is a very rare wizarding gift, and in fact it serves as the main story arc of the entire book. It’s the reason people suspect Harry of opening the Chamber of Secrets and it’s the reason he is hearing voices in the walls. This, in turn, sets up the pay-off that there is a snake (or basilisk, more accurately) slithering through the castle pipes and eventually leads Harry to Myrtle’s bathroom and the chamber itself. In the end, we learn he shares this special connection with Voldemort because Voldy transferred some of his power to Harry during their first ever meeting, when he got the famous lightning bolt scar.
The triple surprise pay-off: And by “transferred some of his power” we mean “ripped off a piece of his soul and freaking injected into Harry’s body!!!” This little bit of info, that Harry can talk to snakes, is set up in the first chapter of Harry’s childhood in the very first book. And it doesn’t get completely paid off until the penultimate chapter of the final book!
Other favorite cleverness from the books:
-Rowling gets meta: “Of course this is happening in your head, Harry, but why would you think it isn’t real?” Which speaks perfectly to the love of so many fans for the books themselves. When we read, it’s all just happening in our heads. But that doesn’t mean the emotion or the joy or the shared experience isn’t real.
– The Deathly Hallows actually has two moments where she’s saying “These books are fiction, but the magic is real.” How many kids have written to her saying they were devastated when they didn’t get their owl on their 11th birthday? She’s saying “No, don’t be devastated. There is real magic in the emotions and the shared experience of books! Especially Harry Potter.”
She takes a fictional story from the world of Harry Potter and reveals that it was actually true! The Tale of the Three Brothers was true! Or, at least, some elements were! The wand, stone, and cloak really existed.
Those elements are metaphors for the emotions we get when we read. Those are real too!
And just to tie a bow on it, Dumbledore literally says “Of course this is happening in your head, Harry, but why would you think it isn’t real?”
– Other set ups and (sing) pay offs: (aka the “all along” payoffs):
wormtail was scabbers all along
it was future harry’s patronus all along
the elder wand was Harry’s all along