Story Lessons from THE LORD OF THE RINGS, part 1

Creativity Sessions writing process. Evening Satellite Publishing.

After some lackluster reading the last month or so, I am embarking on an epic quest: to reread The Lord of the Rings! I will not be reviewing these stories in a critical sense, because how could I? Instead, I will share some storytelling insights I pick up as I go along.

This will be primarily focused on the books, but I will also reference the films by Peter Jackson to compare the stories as they are told between these two media.

Spoilers ahoy.

I’m currently about four or five chapters through The Fellowship of the Ring, and I basically can’t put the thing down. It’s been several years at least since I last read the trilogy, although I’ve read The Silmarillion once and The Hobbit four or five times in that span. Thus, there is a lot in the first novel that I had forgotten.

Characters

The Fellowship of the Ring, The Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien, book cover, fantasy novels

Chapters 1-4 focus on Frodo as he takes over Bag End after Bilbo’s departure and eventually needs to leave in order to take the Ring out of the Shire. What’s really fascinating is that for the first 2-3 chapters, the only significant characters we really meet are Bilbo, Frodo, and Gandalf. Sam appears sometime in this span, as well as some less important characters like Lobelia, but that’s about it.

While there is certainly a lot of exposition on some of the other figures in Hobbiton and the Shire during these sections, Tolkien focuses on the immediate characters to build his scenes. The long conversations between Bilbo and Gandalf, Gandalf and Frodo, and Frodo and Sam set the stage for what is to come in this story, including the entire history of the Ring, Gollum, and Sauron.

Merry and Pippin are mentioned throughout these sections, since they are each members of the two most significant hobbit families, but we don’t actually meet them until later. Along Frodo’s journey across the Shire, Pippin is a loyal companion who appears to just go with the flow, even when things start to take a dark turn with the appearance of the Black Riders.

When we finally meet Merry at Bucklebury Ferry, he is quick and savvy. When he reveals that Frodo’s friends have long know much more information about Frodo’s intentions to leave, and even the Ring, than Frodo could have guessed, Merry becomes much more. It’s clear that he is a leader, someone that the other hobbits respect and trust, and he quickly provides advice about Frodo’s next move without undermining him. This is Frodo’s quest, after all, but Merry immediately establishes himself as someone who can help Frodo rally the others to follow Frodo’s lead.

This is a pretty stark contrast from the film, where Merry and Pippin are primarily used as comic relief, stumbling into a dangerous quest that they hardly seem to comprehend even as their lives are put directly at risk. This is not a criticism, and I fully understand why Jackson and the film writers did this. There simply wasn’t enough time to build up the secondary characters within a standard feature film length. All the same, Frodo’s companions in the film are stout-hearted and keep Frodo grounded.

Story Lessons

  1. Introduce characters when they will have an impact on the story, and not before. Tolkien could have given us scenes with Merry and Pippin much earlier in the novel, perhaps to fill in some of the world-building, but he chose to hold these two crucial figures back until their appearance directly impacts and helps move the story forward. Pippin helps Frodo trek across the Shire, and Merry reveals that he has already prepared for their journey ahead, putting Frodo’s mind at ease and setting his own determination to leave.
  2. Use characters to drive the narrative. The scene between Gandalf and Frodo where Gandalf reveals all he knows about the Ring and its history lasts about five pages. This is still mostly expository, with Gandalf talking at Frodo and Frodo adding in exclamations or questions at intervals. However, because the information is coming from Gandalf, it comes in his voice (Sir Ian McKellen’s, obviously) and with his own interpretation of events, his own emphasis of the details. If you have to have an expository scene, use dialogue to keep it grounded in the characters and in the scene.

Building Suspense

From the moment that Frodo decides to leave the Shire at last, the suspense begins to build. He overhears someone with a strange voice asking after him, and Sam later reveals that a rider in all black questioned the Gaffer and quite disturbed him.

As the hobbits travel from Hobbiton to Crickhollow, they have closer and closer encounters with at least two Black Riders. We see these figures directly, through the characters, but we only have a few, vital details about them:

  • They are after Frodo, and likely the Ring, as Frodo suspects.
  • They are servants of the Enemy.
  • They have supernatural abilities, with their hunting Frodo’s scent.
  • They are dangerous.

Tolkien doesn’t need to explain to us who the Ringwraiths are or what purpose they really serve in his larger story. All we need to know is the danger they pose to Frodo and company. For this reason, they are still an unknown enemy to the reader, something to fear each time the hobbits hear hooves on the road or see shadowy figures through the gloom.

Story Lessons

  1. Don’t be afraid to show the reader the enemy. Suspense can still be built even if we know what the enemy looks like. There can still be many details unknown to the characters and thus the reader, and that’s what builds suspense.
  2. Suspense is built through close encounters. Telling the reader that someone is pursuing the protagonist does not build suspense. It just invites questions. To keep the reader focused on the immediate scene, the imminent threat of danger, show them that the enemy is close. Show the characters that their enemy is close, and let them feel fear, or uncertainty, or doubt about what they’re doing. The reader will feel that, too.

In Short

I’m really enjoying my reread of this trilogy, and I hope to share more thoughts like this as I go along. There is just so much to unpack with these stories, without even getting into the incredible lore.

Leave a comment with some of your favorite insights, scenes, or characters from The Lord of the Rings!

Steve D

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