I’m reading the Harry Potter books again. What really strikes me, even more so than the last time I read them, is just how well planned the whole series is. I don’t just mean the incredibly well-developed characters here, I’m talking about how J.K. Rowling clearly had the whole story prepared before she began writing.
Sirius Black gets mentioned in the first chapter of The Philosopher’s Stone, but doesn’t come into play until The Prisoner of Azkaban. Grindewald is also mentioned in Stone and only becomes important in The Deathly Hallows. Even the location of the seventh Horcrux (a major plot point in Hallows) is foreshadowed/basically revealed during a short conversation between Dumbledore and Harry in The Chamber of Secrets. Tiny details that seem to just give the world some color end up affecting the story in a big way. In other words: Chekhov’s gun.
Now, Chekhov’s gun is not foreshadowing. When Nick Fury tells Tony about the Avengers initiative in Iron Man, it’s hinting about the plans they have for the story. Chekhov’s gun, as described by Anton Chekhov himself, is that if there’s a gun hanging on the wall, the gun will be fired. If Tony encounters an icing problem when testing the Mk. II it will come back in some way.
Rowling unquestionably excels at this. There’s a great economy to her exposition. She’ll describe a pretty looking diadem in one book only for it to gain significance in the next. A ghost will be covered in blood for seemingly no apparent reason, only there is a reason that comes in to play later. Here’s the thing: not only do these details serve the story, they add detail to the world. The motorcycle Hagrid rides in the beginning of Philosopher’s Stone could have belonged to anyone, even himself, but by mentioning a Sirius Black this world we’re stepping in to suddenly seems so much bigger. There’s more to this world than what we see. Sometimes these details don’t need to serve the plot (though they usually do), sometimes it just makes everything that much more real.
Consider Roy Batty’s Tears in Rain speech in Blade Runner. He mentions things like c-beams and the Tannhäuser Gate. What are c-beams and the Tannhäuser Gate? We’re never told. We don’t need to be, but the mention of it implies so much more than what we see. In a more contemporary example, when we’re introduced to Cherno Alpha in Pacific Rim we’re told the pilots and their jaeger have defended the Siberian Wall for six years. Again, we don’t know that means, just that it’s important and adds texture to the world. Sure, they could have just said that Cherno Alpha’s one of the best or that Cherno Apha’s defeated four kaiju; but by adding a detail like ‘perimeter patrol, Siberian Wall’ gives the world that much more. Maybe the writers do (Travis Beacham has a horde of story information on the world of Pacific Rim), maybe they don’t (the Tears in Rain speech was ad libbed), but it adds to the world all the same.
These details play an essential role in world building, they make it feel alive. In the case of Pacific Rim or Blade Runner they add details, with J.K. Rowling they set up the plot. Timothy Zahn, of Heir to the Empire and other books, also does this. You can bet that just about everything he describes will play a role later, no matter how small. It’s what I referred to earlier as the economy of exposition. Writers like Beachman and Rowling use these details to not just further the plot or establish characters but make it all seem so real. It’s an enviable reality, really.
Anyway, I’m gonna go back to reading The Goblet of Fire now.