Story Lessons from THE LORD OF THE RINGS, part 3

Creativity Sessions writing process. Evening Satellite Publishing.

After some lackluster reading recently, 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. See part 1 and part 2.

It’s been nearly two months since my last entry in this mini-series, so I thought I’d provide some additional thoughts. I am almost halfway through The Return of the King and only just now realizing that I read through all of The Two Towers without a single post like this. Oh well. I’ll try to highlight some story lessons from the last book-and-a-half and then perhaps wrap up this mini-series once I’ve completed book three.

Like last time, I’m just going to jump in. I’ll try to keep these in chronological order relative to the sections/chapters that inspired them.

Glimpses of the Wider World

Tolkien is obviously known for his world-building prowess, but I think there are several examples of this that are not talked about often, and which particularly intrigued me.

The first is several references between books 2 and 3 to the “war in the north”, a large assault that Sauron sent from the Black Gate to the kingdoms of Dale and Erebor, where the descendants of Dane and Bard had to hold their own against virtual annihilation. I haven’t yet read the appendices at the end of The Return of the King, but I know this is referenced somewhere in there.

Still, it’s astonishing to me that a massive part of the War of the Ring is mentioned only in passing. I want to read about the war in the north! Can you imagine how long this series would have been if Tolkien had actually included the different battlefronts? That would have been at least two additional books.

Anyway, I think this point is lost on movie viewers. Peter Jackson’s films, by necessity, focus on the immediate battles shown in the books, but to casual viewers, it makes it seem like the war was fought and won in exactly two battles — four if you count the skirmishes between Faramir’s forces and the Haradrim, and the last defense of Osgiliath.

The second time I really felt the wider world was in the third book when the Rohirrim are marching to Gondor. They apss through the woods, where Wild Men guide them in secret past additional forces Sauron had sent into Rohan, thus allowing them to reach Minas Tirith in the midst of its siege.

Story Lessons

  1. Demonstrate scale of events, not just place. In a previous post I mentioned the sense of scale of the world itself, such as a 10-day journey to pass over/under one mountain. The first example I mentioned above, the “war in the north”, lends scale of a different sort to the story. This is a scale of events. This massive war, the one that would define the end of the Third Age of Middle Earth and set the stage for the Fourth, had to have more than just a few battles or a few primary actors. Even though we don’t get much detail about the defense of Dale and Erebor against Sauron, the fact that we hear about it tells us that this is not just a war for Gondor. It truly is a war for all of Middle Earth, and the Free Peoples are too scattered to fight side-by-side. This is a war of immense proportions, and Tolkien allows the reader to imagine what that looked like.
  2. Diversity within smaller geographic regions. I think this is a point that a lot of fantasy misses. Most peoples in a given region or “nation” are shown as monolithic cultures with little internal diversity, unless the story is specifically detailing internal political strife between different groups. “The Ride of the Rohirrim” shows us that although Rohan is a powerful kingdom, they are not the only cultural group within their own borders. The Wild Men have a history of conflict with both Rohan and Gondor, but they find common cause against the orcs that are rampaging across Rohan.

Characters Who Feel Too Small for the Moment

In the chapters leading up to the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, both Merry and Pippin express to various characters that this coming war feels too big for them to have any real part. This is exemplified in Pippin’s offer of service to Denethor, where he admits that his service may be of little use to the Steward of Gondor, and when Merry pleads with Theoden to allow him to ride with the Rohirrim to battle and is subsequently denied.

Not only did these characters feel the dread leading up to the battle, but they also could not believe their experiences after the fact. Pippin sits with Merry in “The Houses of Healing”, where Merry expresses his own insignificance in this war:

Still there are things deeper and higher; and not a gaffer could tend his garden in peace but for them, whether he knows about them or not.”

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Return of the King, Ballantine Books, 1965, pp. 179.

Story Lessons

  1. Allow your characters to feel emotional distress in the moment. Even in the lead-up to the war and the immediate aftermath, when there is still much for the characters to accomplish, these moments of both vulnerability and uncertainty of their own place in the story makes them feel relatable. How could we expect a hobbit from the cozy, protected country of the Shire to fully grasp a conflict of this scale, even as they are witnessing an event as momentous as the return of the King to Gondor. I think this is what endears the hobbits to readers so much. They are the most human of all the characters because of these vulnerabilities.
  2. Allow your characters to feel the weight of their actions after the fact. I always enjoy retrospective moments from characters in stories, a chance for both the character and the reader to process what has happened. These scenes often reveal much more about the characters than the more action-packed scenes that usually precede them. I think they also help maintain the emotional tone of the story. After several chapters of speeches and foreboding and war songs, a simple conversation between two friends helps the reader marvel at the previous 100+ pages of politicking and battle.

I intended for this post to be shorter than previous installments and it somehow ended up longer. I’m cutting myself off.

Steve D

May Write Day: Is it Summer Yet?

April went by pretty quickly, but there has been movement in various streams of my life. I’ve gotten both doses of my COVID-19 vaccine, and we’ve started making real preparations for the new baby. I don’t think I’ve mentioned that yet. Baby #2 is due in late July, and we now have two cribs in one room. Sure hope the toddler doesn’t mind sharing!

I’m also quickly getting into my summer groove of not wearing socks and actively trying to get out of my house more. This will be an exciting summer.

Anyway, onto the goals.

Last Month’s Goals

  1. Write 6,000 words.
  2. Finish 3 books.
  3. Relax more, preferably outside.

Write 6,000 words?

I wrote 4,500 words in April, which is better than in March, but still not good enough. Towards the end of the month I started taking 20-30 minutes after I logged out of work to write a few hundred words, the idea being that I could probably be more productive by writing while my brain is still in work mode. It largely worked. This strategy helped me write about 2,000 words in the last week of April, but I started doing it too late in the month to catch up.

The first chapter of The Herb Witch Tales #1 is already several hundred words longer than in my previous draft. I’m also brainstorming a pretty big change to the middle of the story, diverting the characters from a particular locale and plot thread that was problematic to begin with. It could help me streamline the narrative a bit, but it also means writing more from scratch than I had originally planned on for part 1.

In any case, I want to accelerate my writing. The goal is to have these two stories complete by the time I go to my next convention. That may still be 12 months away (at least), but that’s not a whole lot of time in the publishing realm.

Finish 3 books?

Yes! I finished The Fellowship of the Ring, read a comic volume, and listened to Super Black on Audible, which I recommend to anyone interested in comics, history, or American culture.

I’m a quarter of the way through The Two Towers and nearly finished with another Audible short fiction. I’m already eyeing my next audiobook, but May is looking like a strong month for reading.

Relax more?

I think so. We had a couple weekends hanging with family, which is always nice. The toddler has a push bicycle — one without training wheels or pedals that he just pushes with his feet — but he discovered wheelbarrow rides at his grandparents’ house last weekend. Guess which one he preferred?

The last couple weeks have been more relaxing, mostly because I completed a big work project that was taking up a ton of my headspace. But like I said at the top, I’m quickly settling into summer, which means a lot of lounging, walking, or wandering outside.

Goals for May

  1. Write 7,500 words. 6,000 plus the 1,500 I missed in April. I really want to make some better progress on these stories.
  2. Work out at least every other day again. I’ve fallen off this a bit, so I want to do more yoga and resistance training together. I feel like I need more aerobic exercise, too. I could always go running, but I find that very boring. I’m open to ideas.
  3. Read 3 books. I’m well on my way already, but I’m also not trying to rush through Tolkien.

Steve D

Story Lessons from THE LORD OF THE RINGS, part 2

Creativity Sessions writing process. Evening Satellite Publishing.

After some lackluster reading recently, 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. See part 1 here.

I finished reading The Fellowship of the Ring over the weekend, and I was eager to jump right into The Two Towers. Instead, I decided to take a couple days and absorb The Fellowship in its own right. So this post is just a collection of thoughts through the rest of that novel.

Description

This one may seem kind of obvious to anyone who has read or heard anything about Tolkien’s world. If nothing else, he is known for world-building. His intricate description of the land through which his characters travel provides a vivid image in the reader’s mind and sets the scene for every interaction with the characters.

Has this imagery been informed in my mind by the stunning New Zealand landscapes used in the filming of The Lord of the Rings? Definitely. But Tolkien’s descriptions also serve the story.

In Book II, Chapters 3 and 6 — “The Ring Goes South” and “Lothlorien”, respectively — the Company first try to pass over the mountain of Caradhras, and then manage to pass under it. As they approach the mountain from the west, hope to traverse its high pass, the peak glares at them red-stained in the morning sunlight, a warning of the peril they are about to face. The mountain defeats them with a mighty snowstorm and rockslide that only seems to occur on the narrowest spot of the pass as they try to cross.

Three chapters later the Company emerges from Moria on the east side of the mountain. As they continue southward towards Lothlorien, they give one last look to the mountain that caused them so much suffering, both at its height and in its very depths. Now, Caradhras glows with golden sunlight, as if mocking them with its serenity.

I don’t need an illustration to picture the foreboding peak of Caradhras in my mind, and the colors that evoke so much emotion to the characters in a single glance.

Story Lessons

  1. Description of the environment can evoke scale. Although only a matter of days passes between the two images of Caradhras, that book-end demonstrates how much the Company has been through in that time. It also shows how far the Company has to travel just to get to the other side of the mountain, thus scaling out the world and making the journey ahead seem all the more arduous.
  2. Description of the environment can reflect the characters’ emotions. As in the example above, the mirrored descriptions of Caradhras also mirror how the Company feels about it: first as a symbol of foreboding, and then as a symbol of mockery, even shame for what they lost by passing under the mountain, rather than over it.

Presence

I think it can be too easy sometimes to get caught up in the action or the drama of a story and keep the plot surging forward. This up-tempo pace can be enthralling for a reader, but sometimes it’s just as important to let the characters, and the reader, breathe.

One of the most effecting sections of The Fellowship for me came during such a moment, when Aragorn speaks to Frodo about Lothlorien:

‘Here is the heart of Elvendom on earth,’ he said, ‘and here my heart dwells ever, unless there be a light beyond the dark roads that we still must tread, you and I. Come with me!’ And taking Frodo’s hand in his, he left the hill of Cerin Amroth and came there never again as living man.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Fellowship of the Ring, Ballantine Books, 1965, pp. 456.

This quote does two things. First, it gives both Aragorn and Frodo a sense of presence within the story. After several chapters of danger and suspense, they come at last to place where they can rest. It’s thus natural that the characters would want to pause and marvel at their ethereal surroundings. Secondly, the end of this section implies a dark road for Aragorn and forces the reader to ask: why does he never return? Where does his journey take him that he can never see Cerin Amroth again?

Story Lesson

  1. Use a characters’ present moments to punctuate their arc. To put the above another way, I think it’s often in quiet moments that a character feels their sense of place within a story, within their world. It also allows the reader to step back, briefly, from the immediate plot and see their characters as more than just actors in a particular scene; here especially, Aragorn feels like a living soul whose present and future are wrapped into this singular moment of wonder and awe. He has a life to lead, and we are catching only a glimpse of his journey.

This post is (slightly) shorter than part 1, and this definitely does not represent everything I am taking from The Fellowship of the Ring. I just wanted to share some things that really jumped out to me.

Onto The Two Towers!

Steve D

April Write Day: Many Paths, One Set of Feet

Scatter-brained is how I would describe my March. Not necessarily from me. It just felt like a chaotic month for a variety of reasons, so I feel like I need to re-center.

Last Month’s Goals

  1. Write 6,000 words.
  2. Work out at least every other day.
  3. Finish 4 books.

Write 6,000 words?

Nope. A bit over 4,000 was the final count for March. I ended up putting quite a bit of time into a family tree for my story, both to enrich the character building and to make sure I could keep track of all the kinship ties for this one family. Did I use this as a form of procrastination from actually writing? Yes I did. Will it help me write a better story later? I think so.

I also focused almost entirely on revising/rewriting part 1. Part 2 has not been left in the dust entirely, but implementing my newer ideas in part 1 is keeping me motivated. Honestly, living in the two stories simultaneously — even knowing part 2 will have to change — has not been as distracting as I expected. Even though I know changes to part 1 will mean heavier revisions to part 2 later on, it’s still good for me to work through the plot issues of part 2 as it currently stands. I will likely have to face these plot issues anyway in some form, so it never hurts to noddle a problem for a bit.

Work out every other day?

I think so…? I’m going to say yes! I don’t track my workout progress in this way, but I know I did my resistance exercises nearly every day. I fell off on my yoga routine a bit, but I’m satisfied to have done something at least every other day.

Finish 4 books?

Just 3. I finished one Audible listen, one graphic novel, and one full-length novel, all of which I reviewed in the last few weeks.

I am more than halfway through reading The Fellowship of the Ring, but that’s my only current read. I really didn’t listen to Audible much at all in March. I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts recently, and there are only so many listening hours in the day.

I have plenty of things to listen, but most of them are super-long 15+ hour books, and I’m more in the mood for shorter listens at the moment. Anyway, this is the main reason I didn’t finish four books. I’m really enjoying my re-read of The Fellowship, though, so I’m not currently interested in reading anything else. The power of Tolkien, I suppose.

Goals for April

  1. Write 6,000 words. This is definitely achievable, I just need to put the time in. I think I really need to get back to writing in small chunks when I can, plus a few longer writing sessions. Small writing sessions of a couple hundred words each day can build up quickly.
  2. Finish 3 books. I plan to jump straight into The Two Towers upon finishing The Fellowship. I’d also like to find something to listen to on Audible, but it will likely be a shorter something.
  3. Relax more, preferably outside. I’ve had a lot going on recently, mentally, and it’s been hard not allowing it to bleed into interpersonal relationships. I really just want to prioritize my own relaxation more, even if that’s just wandering around the yard with the toddler. One of his favorite things currently is to walk circles around our garage/sitting room. He just… walks… around the outside of this building. I don’t know what he gets out of it, but I find it quite cathartic. I need more moments like that week-to-week or even day-to-day. I’ve also started using our time outside together to do little things around the yard, like weeding the patio, which helps with the stress.

Steve D

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.

Continue reading “Story Lessons from THE LORD OF THE RINGS, part 1”