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

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

NaNoWriMo 2020 Update!

If there is one thing I have learned from NaNoWriMo this year, it is that I do not have time to write 50,000 words in one month. And that’s not a complaint or an act of self-deprecation, for which I’m definitely not known.

It’s just an acknowledgment that my life and my priorities have changed since the first few years I participated in NaNo with great success. I’m still happy to be participating, and I’ve made some real progress.

Follow me on NaNo!

Continue reading “NaNoWriMo 2020 Update!”

Back to Basics: World-Building in an Established Universe

Creativity Sessions writing process. Evening Satellite Publishing.

I’m late! I intended to finish this post on Tuesday night, but that obviously didn’t work out. I’ve gotten away with writing entire posts the night before for a while, but it finally caught up to me. Anyway…

As you all may know, I’ve been working on two short stories this year together called “The Herb Witch Tales”. While these take place in the same fantasy universe as my first novel, I’m working with completely new characters, in a different time, and in a different region. I’m in new world-building territory for the first time in years.

This has raised some intriguing questions as I try to develop a story with the same richness of setting as the first. Continue reading “Back to Basics: World-Building in an Established Universe”

How Do You Organize Your World-Building Canon?

As I write “Survivor”, my not-officially-titled duology, I keep thinking about how I might be able to organize my world-building canon better.

Most of what I’ve written in my fantasy universe has been in The Warden of Everfeld stories, of which I have one novel published and one in draft. “Survivor” is the first story that does not overlap WoEM, but shares some of its history and geography with those novels. And I want to make sure that what I write in one doesn’t contradict the other.

So, how do you organize your world-building canon? Continue reading “How Do You Organize Your World-Building Canon?”

Writing a Novel vs. Writing a Short Story

For the first time in my authorly endeavors, I have two major works in progress… in progress.

I’m 60k words into The Warden of Everfeld: Legacy, a sequel-ish novel of 180-200k words that I know I’m not finishing this year.

Simultaneously, I’m 6k words into a duology/novella of about 60k words that I damn well better finish this year.

And after much deliberation and introspection, I can confirm: writing a short story is different from writing a novel. Continue reading “Writing a Novel vs. Writing a Short Story”

#Review: THE ENCIRCLING SEA Continues to Intrigue in Roman Britannia

36350564. sy475 The Encircling Sea is the second book in Adrian Goldsworthy’s historical fiction epic about the Roman presence in Northern Britannia.

I listened to the first book in the seriesVindolanda, on Audible last month, and it was not a difficult decision for me to jump right into the second.

The Encircling Sea is an excellent sequel that establishes its own narrative while clearly connecting its characters and its plot lines to the first story. Continue reading “#Review: THE ENCIRCLING SEA Continues to Intrigue in Roman Britannia”

The Finale: “The Grand Mythos” Chapter 12

I’m really stoked to finally release the final chapter of “The Grand Mythos of Úr’Dan, Volume One”. Somehow it doesn’t feel like that long ago that I started publishing this story on Wattpad, but it’s been almost a year.

I intend to write a full retrospective post both on this story and my Wattpad experience this year, but just know that I’m really proud of this story, and I want you to read it.

Wattpad is free, which means you can read my story and a ton of other great stories just by creating an account and downloading the app (or just reading on your computer).

There is no Volume Two yet, but I’m already forming ideas around what that might entail. For now, I have other things to work on.

Genre: fantasy, high fantasy, mythic fantasy

Chapter Blurb: The First Life fulfill its true purpose, but to what end?

Series Blurb:

Every world has its origin story.

The vibrant world of Úr’Dan and the powerful beings who created it are eager to find life in the cosmos. But their untested powers will clash as they each strive to bring their vision of the universe to fruition–and control the wondrous creatures who live there. Witness the creation of a vibrant new world.

Based on the unique fantasy universe of the novel, The Warden of Everfeld: Memento.

As always, this story is free to read on Wattpad:

https://www.wattpad.com/story/163684352-the-grand-mythos-of-%C3%BAr%27dan-volume-one

Thank you for reading if you have been, and even if you haven’t, thanks for following my progress.

Steve D

The Penultimate Chapter! “The Grand Mythos” part 11 has Arrived

I’m really excited to post this chapter. It leads really well into the final chapter of this volume of my mythology, but I promise it’s not a ridiculous cliffhanger.

Genre: fantasy, high fantasy, mythic fantasy

Chapter Blurb: The First Life must understand and fulfill its true purpose

Series Blurb:

Every world has its origin story.

The vibrant world of Úr’Dan and the powerful beings who created it are eager to find life in the cosmos. But their untested powers will clash as they each strive to bring their vision of the universe to fruition–and control the wondrous creatures who live there. Witness the creation of a vibrant new world.

Based on the unique fantasy universe of the novel, The Warden of Everfeld: Memento.

As always, this story is free to read on Wattpad:

https://www.wattpad.com/story/163684352-the-grand-mythos-of-%C3%BAr%27dan-volume-one

Steve D

“The Grand Mythos of Úr’Dan” Chapter 10 is Up… and other things I forgot to post

I definitely neglected to schedule anything to post this morning, so to make up for it, I’ve posted the next chapter in my mythic fantasy series, “The Grand Mythos of Úr’Dan”!

This chapter presents a more understated but poignant side of this fantasy universe.

Genre: fantasy, high fantasy, mythic fantasy

Chapter Blurb: The First Life learns what it means to create a life of its own.

Series Blurb:

Every world has its origin story.

The vibrant world of Úr’Dan and the powerful beings who created it are eager to find life in the cosmos. But their untested powers will clash as they each strive to bring their vision of the universe to fruition–and control the wondrous creatures who live there. Witness the creation of a vibrant new world.

Based on the unique fantasy universe of the novel, The Warden of Everfeld: Memento.

As always, this story is free to read on Wattpad:

https://www.wattpad.com/story/163684352-the-grand-mythos-of-%C3%BAr%27dan-volume-one

Steve D