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Of Sitcom Plots and Pocket Framistans: The Trouble with Rowling's Plotting

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  • WendellWag@aol.com
    I m 63 pages into the fifth Harry Potter book, and I m annoyed once again by J. K. Rowling s reliance on the same flimsy plotting tricks that bothered me in
    Message 1 of 10 , Nov 8, 2003
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      I'm 63 pages into the fifth Harry Potter book, and I'm annoyed once again by
      J. K. Rowling's reliance on the same flimsy plotting tricks that bothered me
      in the first four books. One of them is similar to a cliche of bad sitcoms.
      Something will happen to Harry and some adult will blame him for what happened
      without making the least attempt to find out what really happened. Nothing
      Harry says will change this person's opinion of him (even though Harry had shown
      himself to be trustworthy in all previous situations). This is why it seemed
      to me that all the adults in the books were idiots. I couldn't figure out
      why Harry would want to join either wizard or muggle society, since they both
      seemed to be filled with corrupt, stupid people. You would think that
      eventually people would learn to listen to Harry, if only to keep themselves from
      looking like such idiots when he turns out to be right about things. (The similar
      sort of sitcom plot is the one where one character starts talking about
      something, and another character will misinterpret everything the first person is
      saying as being about something else, usually something with a sexual meaning.
      It never once occurs to the second person to interrupt and say, "Wait, just
      what are you talking about?". This makes the second person look like an idiot.)

      The second problem is similar to what Isaac Asimov called in an essay the use
      of pocket framistan. He was talking about the difficulty of writing a
      science fiction story that's also a good mystery story. It's tempting for a bad
      writer of such a story to have the main character at the climax of the story
      whip out his pocket framistan and announce, "Luckily I've brought along my pocket
      framistan. Using it, I can tell that the murderer was . . ." It's cheating
      to introduce hitherto unmentioned contrivances to solve plot points. There
      doesn't seem to be any bounds to the magic that can be performed in Rowling's
      universe. There doesn't even seem to be any coherence to the sorts of magic
      that exist there. In each novel she's introducing new aspects of the wizard
      world that ought properly have been introduced much earlier, but she seems to be
      saying to her readers, "Oh, I've got to tell you about this completely new
      aspect of the magical world, which I need to make the present novel possible."

      In many ways Rowling is a good writer, which makes it all the more irritating
      that she never learned basic lessons in writing which would have prevented
      her from relying on such absurd plot cliches. I wish that when she had
      submitted the first novel to the publisher, some editor had told her, "O.K., we're
      going to accept this book, but you've got to write the rest of the series before
      we publish it. Then I'm going to sit down with you and we'll straighten up
      the plot. And we'll keep the later novels to a reasonable size."

      Wendell Wagner


      [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
    • darancgrissom@sbcglobal.net
      You are aware these books are intended for children...right? If adults had started listening to Harry after the first book the intended audience would no
      Message 2 of 10 , Nov 9, 2003
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        You are aware these books are intended for children...right? If adults
        had started listening to Harry after the first book the intended audience
        would no longer have the main connection to the main character. Adults don't
        listen to children. This may be children's number one complaint about the
        world up until adolescence. Thus the child identifies with Harry, Hermione,
        and Ron (Also finishing the book might help). It may very well be a
        contrived plotline, but it has sold countless books. "Matilda" by Dhal
        comes to mind but I know of better example which I can't think of at the
        moment. Also children are not so picky about repeated plots as adults are.
        Lastly I would just like to point out that the comic misunderstanding is a
        very old and time honored (some might say worn) tradition in writing, one
        example that springs to mind is "The Comedy of Errors," nobody said "wait a
        minute" in that play.

        As to the second argument, I have the same complaint. They are always
        taught the spell they need the year they need it. I whish my Middle and
        High school educations had gone that well.
        -----Original Message-----
        From: WendellWag@... [mailto:WendellWag@...]
        Sent: Saturday, November 08, 2003 7:23 PM
        To: mythsoc@yahoogroups.com
        Subject: [mythsoc] Of Sitcom Plots and Pocket Framistans: The Trouble with
        Rowling's Plotting


        I'm 63 pages into the fifth Harry Potter book, and I'm annoyed once again
        by
        J. K. Rowling's reliance on the same flimsy plotting tricks that bothered
        me
        in the first four books. One of them is similar to a cliche of bad
        sitcoms.
        Something will happen to Harry and some adult will blame him for what
        happened
        without making the least attempt to find out what really happened.
        Nothing
        Harry says will change this person's opinion of him (even though Harry had
        shown
        himself to be trustworthy in all previous situations). This is why it
        seemed
        to me that all the adults in the books were idiots. I couldn't figure out
        why Harry would want to join either wizard or muggle society, since they
        both
        seemed to be filled with corrupt, stupid people. You would think that
        eventually people would learn to listen to Harry, if only to keep
        themselves from
        looking like such idiots when he turns out to be right about things. (The
        similar
        sort of sitcom plot is the one where one character starts talking about
        something, and another character will misinterpret everything the first
        person is
        saying as being about something else, usually something with a sexual
        meaning.
        It never once occurs to the second person to interrupt and say, "Wait,
        just
        what are you talking about?". This makes the second person look like an
        idiot.)

        The second problem is similar to what Isaac Asimov called in an essay the
        use
        of pocket framistan. He was talking about the difficulty of writing a
        science fiction story that's also a good mystery story. It's tempting for
        a bad
        writer of such a story to have the main character at the climax of the
        story
        whip out his pocket framistan and announce, "Luckily I've brought along my
        pocket
        framistan. Using it, I can tell that the murderer was . . ." It's
        cheating
        to introduce hitherto unmentioned contrivances to solve plot points.
        There
        doesn't seem to be any bounds to the magic that can be performed in
        Rowling's
        universe. There doesn't even seem to be any coherence to the sorts of
        magic
        that exist there. In each novel she's introducing new aspects of the
        wizard
        world that ought properly have been introduced much earlier, but she seems
        to be
        saying to her readers, "Oh, I've got to tell you about this completely new
        aspect of the magical world, which I need to make the present novel
        possible."

        In many ways Rowling is a good writer, which makes it all the more
        irritating
        that she never learned basic lessons in writing which would have prevented
        her from relying on such absurd plot cliches. I wish that when she had
        submitted the first novel to the publisher, some editor had told her,
        "O.K., we're
        going to accept this book, but you've got to write the rest of the series
        before
        we publish it. Then I'm going to sit down with you and we'll straighten
        up
        the plot. And we'll keep the later novels to a reasonable size."

        Wendell Wagner


        [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]


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      • juliet@firinn.org
        ... I perhaps shouldn t butt into this conversation, but it bothers me when people think that books intended for children need not adhere to the same standards
        Message 3 of 10 , Nov 9, 2003
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          On Sun, Nov 09, 2003 at 01:14:09AM -0800, darancgrissom@... wrote:
          > You are aware these books are intended for children...right?
          >
          I perhaps shouldn't butt into this conversation, but it bothers me when
          people think that books intended for children need not adhere to the same
          standards of quality as those intended for adults. I agree that young
          children like more repetition than adults do in general (my one- and three-
          year-old children are evidence of that), but if we as adults provide them
          with good quality literature from a young age, they will, like Wendell,
          be bothered by the shortcomings of literature containing glaring oversights.
          If they're not bothered, we can blame ourselves as adults for not exposing
          them to enough higher quality literature.

          That's my $.02 as a parent.

          Julie
        • David S. Bratman
          ... happened ... I agree that this can be rather annoying, and that it works only in an outright farce like Comedy of Errors - and even then for only a
          Message 4 of 10 , Nov 9, 2003
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            At 07:23 PM 11/8/2003 , WendellWag@... wrote:

            >Something will happen to Harry and some adult will blame him for what
            happened
            >without making the least attempt to find out what really happened. Nothing
            >Harry says will change this person's opinion of him (even though Harry had
            >shown
            >himself to be trustworthy in all previous situations). This is why it seemed
            >to me that all the adults in the books were idiots.

            I agree that this can be rather annoying, and that it works only in an
            outright farce like "Comedy of Errors" - and even then for only a limited
            period of time.

            But it's not unrealistic. I am very VERY used to people disbelieving or
            ignoring everything I say, and portraying themselves as idiots as,
            frequently eschewing actual arguments, they insult and abuse me in absurd
            terms very similar to those that Prof. Umbridge uses on Harry in "Order of
            the Phoenix." I wonder how she gets away with it, and I wonder how they
            get away with it too.


            >There doesn't even seem to be any coherence to the sorts of magic
            >that exist there. In each novel she's introducing new aspects of the wizard
            >world that ought properly have been introduced much earlier, but she seems
            >to be
            >saying to her readers, "Oh, I've got to tell you about this completely new
            >aspect of the magical world, which I need to make the present novel possible."

            Here also I agree. The example that bothered me most was ... now I've
            forgotten exactly what it was. (Another problem with these books: I don't
            find them very memorable.) But it was the teleportation system, or magical
            flying bus, or something, that showed up in book ... two? three? At any
            rate, it could get you to Hogwarts with no fuss nor muss, and completely
            obviated the need for the famous school train.


            >In many ways Rowling is a good writer, which makes it all the more irritating
            >that she never learned basic lessons in writing which would have prevented
            >her from relying on such absurd plot cliches.

            Yes, she is good at what she does, but could be much better without losing
            her good qualities. Sort of like Peter Jackson.


            >I wish that when she had
            >submitted the first novel to the publisher, some editor had told her, "O.K.,
            >we're
            >going to accept this book, but you've got to write the rest of the series
            >before we publish it.

            Ah, now that might indeed have made a difference. The Lord of the Rings
            drafts suggest very strongly that if Tolkien had written and published it
            one volume at a time, he would have dug himself into some very deep holes
            indeed. Even as it is, the stylistic and subcreational clashes between
            LOTR and "The Hobbit" have often been noted, and that even after Tolkien
            substantially rewrote portions of "The Hobbit" to make it fit better.

            On the other hand - Ransom is hardly the same character throughout the
            three books of Lewis's trilogy, and not just because of the experiences
            he's undergone, monumentally life-changing as those were. But I can't
            imagine that OSP would be improved had Lewis re-written the character in
            the mold of how he appears in THS.


            >And we'll keep the later novels to a reasonable size."

            I, however, consider books 4-5 to be superior to books 2-3 because they
            have room to breathe. I prefer my school stories to be about school and
            not just about the plot. But this seems to be a minority taste: I
            considered that feature to be the prime virtue of Pamela Dean's "Tam Lin"
            while others considered it the book's principal flaw. Rowling's amazingly
            zippy writing style keeps them from bogging down, though the
            repetitiousness is beginning to get to me.

            - David Bratman
          • Berni Phillips
            From: ... Butting in further, I don t think darancegrissom was implying that children s books have lower standards of quality but that the
            Message 5 of 10 , Nov 9, 2003
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              From: <juliet@...>

              > On Sun, Nov 09, 2003 at 01:14:09AM -0800, darancgrissom@...
              wrote:
              > > You are aware these books are intended for children...right?
              > >
              > I perhaps shouldn't butt into this conversation, but it bothers me when
              > people think that books intended for children need not adhere to the same
              > standards of quality as those intended for adults.

              Butting in further, I don't think darancegrissom was implying that
              children's books have lower standards of quality but that the point of view
              is that of the kid's. A child may feel he is not being listened to when an
              adult feels he has listened to the child -- it's all in the point of view.

              In the Peanuts comic strip, Schultz chose not to have adults in it because
              it was all from the kids' point of view. In Calvin and Hobbes, you have
              both, and some of the best humor was showing the same scene from Calvin's
              point of view and also from his dad's, getting two radically different
              interpretations.

              In Potterworld, we have adults and kids (although they are rapidly
              transitioning into young adults) but the point of view is always Harry's and
              his friends'. Right through book 5, we have a very puzzling portrayal of
              Dumbledore who is acting totally different from how he was in earlier books.
              He's cold and unresponsive and doesn't seem to care about Harry. This is
              all from Harry's point of view. It's not until the end of the book that we
              find out why Dumbledore has behaved like this.

              Berni
            • Elizabeth Apgar Triano
              Well, okay. Some of these complaints are pretty legit, but as has been pointed out, it s actually a familiar experience to be in the right and have nobody
              Message 6 of 10 , Nov 9, 2003
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                Well, okay. Some of these complaints are pretty legit, but as has been
                pointed out, it's actually a familiar experience to be in the right and
                have nobody believe you. And as a kid, or, worse, an adolescent, life is
                very much like that. I haven't picked up book #5 yet, but I'm only human,
                and I'm awfully adolescent, so the POV of the beleaguered adolescent would
                seem to make sense, at least sometimes.

                I do agree with wanting to keep juvenile fiction to some kind of standards.
                Just sorting through the stuff offered by the primary school libraries, and
                the Scholastic take-home papers, can be enough to make one pretty upset.

                And pick as we want, Ms Rowling is a successful gal. Remind me if I ever
                get published to turn off my list mail.

                Lizzie Triano
                lizziewriter@...
                amor vincit omnia
              • Elizabeth Apgar Triano
                Right through book 5, we have a very puzzling portrayal of Dumbledore who is acting totally different from how he was in earlier books. He s cold and
                Message 7 of 10 , Nov 9, 2003
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                  Right through book 5, we have a very puzzling portrayal of
                  Dumbledore who is acting totally different from how he was in earlier books.
                  He's cold and unresponsive and doesn't seem to care about Harry. This is
                  all from Harry's point of view. It's not until the end of the book that we
                  find out why Dumbledore has behaved like this. >>

                  PLEASE tell me that we find out the scoop about Snape. I will read that
                  book sooner rather than later if I have some sort of carrot reward to look
                  forward to.

                  Lizzie Triano
                  lizziewriter@...
                  amor vincit omnia
                • Carl F. Hostetter
                  ... Yeah, the Internet is quite frustrating that way, ennit? ;)
                  Message 8 of 10 , Nov 9, 2003
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                    On Nov 9, 2003, at 11:31 AM, David S. Bratman wrote:

                    > But it's not unrealistic. I am very VERY used to people disbelieving
                    > or
                    > ignoring everything I say, and portraying themselves as idiots as,
                    > frequently eschewing actual arguments, they insult and abuse me in
                    > absurd
                    > terms

                    Yeah, the Internet is quite frustrating that way, ennit? ;)
                  • alexeik@aol.com
                    In a message dated 11/9/3 3:30:40 AM, Wendell Wagner wrote:
                    Message 9 of 10 , Nov 10, 2003
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                      In a message dated 11/9/3 3:30:40 AM, Wendell Wagner wrote:

                      <<There
                      doesn't seem to be any bounds to the magic that can be performed in Rowling's
                      universe. >>

                      You may change your mind about this particular point once you actually finish
                      the book. One of the main things Harry learns in this volume is that there
                      *are* rigorous bounds to what magic can do.
                      Alexei
                    • Berni Phillips
                      From: Elizabeth Apgar Triano ... Well, in a way. Harry sees Snape as a student and gets an understanding of why Snape is so
                      Message 10 of 10 , Nov 10, 2003
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                        From: "Elizabeth Apgar Triano" <lizziewriter@...>
                        >
                        > PLEASE tell me that we find out the scoop about Snape. I will read that
                        > book sooner rather than later if I have some sort of carrot reward to look
                        > forward to.


                        Well, in a way. Harry sees Snape as a student and gets an understanding of
                        why Snape is so distrustful of him.

                        Berni
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