If every story had perfect communication between characters, Romeo and Juliet would have lived happily ever after.
Alas, the messenger never reached Romeo and he famously misinterprets the situation when he sees Juliet lying in the church.
Today let’s look at a scene in Harry Potter & The Sorcerer’s Stone and The Hunger Games where the hero also misinterprets a situation. However, instead of a failed messenger, this scene begins with some good ol’ fashioned eavesdropping.
Harry Potter eavesdrops on Professor Snape, while Katniss Everdeen eavesdrops on Peeta Mellark. Both heroes misinterpret the situation by assuming that Snape and Peeta are “bad guys.” Here are the four elements of this building-block scene.
1. The hero has a secret vantage point.
The hero’s eavesdropping begins innocently enough– he just happens to be in a spot that he is not expected to be in. Notice the use of the word “horror” here, which emphasizes the hero’s surprise at what he sees.
- When no one answers Harry Potter’s knock on the door of the staff room, he decides to enter anyway and try to find his book. “He pushed the door ajar and peered inside — and a horrible scene met his eyes.” (HP Ch.11).
- When Katniss is hiding in a tree to sleep for the night, she hears voices approaching her tree on the ground below. “…to my horror, I hear the pack heading toward me. They do not know I’m here. How could they? And I’m well concealed in the clump of trees.” (HG Ch.11).
2. The hero sees a group of adversaries.
While the hero is in his hiding spot, he sees not one, but a whole group of “bad guys” who are working together.
- Harry Potter observes Filch helping Snape with his injuries in the staffroom. “Snape was holding his robes above his knees. One of his legs was bloody and mangled. Filch was handing Snape bandages.” (HP Ch.11).
- Katniss observes a group of tributes who have formed up as allies to take out weaker tributes. “Someone cries out, ‘Twelve down and eleven to go!’ which gets a round of appreciate hoots.’ So they’re fighting in a pack.” (HG Ch.11).
3. The hero overhears an incriminating conversation.
Next the hero hears something that could be interpreted in more than one way.
- Harry Potter learns that Snape has had an encounter with the dog guarding the sorcerer’s stone. “‘Blasted thing,’ Snape was saying. ‘How are you supposed to keep your eyes on all three heads at once?’ Harry tried to shut the door quietly . . . ” (HP Ch.11).
- Katniss learns that Peeta is working with the Career tributes. “‘We’re wasting time! I’ll go finish her and let’s move on!’ I almost fall out of the tree. The voice belongs to Peeta.” (HG Ch.11).
4. The hero draws incorrect conclusions.
Naturally, the hero interprets what he hears the wrong way! This sets him off on a series of actions, all based on this incorrect assumption.
- Harry Potter assumes that Snape is after the sorcerer’s stone, and guesses that he let the troll in too. “You know what this means?” he finished breathlessly. “He tried to get past that three-headed dog at Halloween! . . . — he’s after whatever it’s guarding!” (HP Ch.11).
- Katniss assumes that because Peeta is with the Career pack that he must be working against her. She tries to guess why Peeta has not told the Careers about her bow and arrow skills yet. “Obviously, the noble boy on the rooftop was playing just one more game with me. . . Not only is Peeta with the Careers, he’s helping them find me.” (HG Ch.12).
Why it Works
We’ve talked before about the importance of bungling up communications– like when the hero makes the difficult choice to withhold information.
This misunderstanding is just another way to stir up some conflict. There’s nothing worse than trying to root for a hero who is making irrationally dumb decisions. Here, the hero can head off into danger based on his rational (albeit incorrect) assumption on who his enemy is.
This misunderstanding is a step in the series or question arc of our heroes, and will be reinforced in other scenes. Before this misunderstanding, the hero was already predisposed to believing that the adversary was against him– remember when we documented the hero’s first clue in the pre-middle of the story?
Let’s put this index card in Chapter 11 of our master outline (since it coincidentally appears in Chapter 11 in each of these novels).
To continue this series / question arc, I’d like to compare the Hunger Games scene where Katniss is up the tree while Peeta and the Careers surround her with the Harry Potter scene where Harry is up in the air playing quidditch and Snape and Quirrell are on the ground below.
Maybe we can even throw Twilight back in. So stay tuned for that. 🙂 Update: here’s the next post in the series.