Thursday, December 6, 2012

Ten Tips from Tolkien

Need to enchant your fiction skills? Step into Middle-earth to find out how. In recognition of this month's movie release of The Hobbit, I'm reprinting here an article I wrote for Writer's Journal. I hope these principles will Ring true for your work as well.

          You’re creeping through a dank cave. You’re lost in blackness and wondering which way you should crawl. Unexpectedly, your fingers brush a small ring. Curious, you slip it onto a finger. Instantly, your eyes pierce the darkness and you discern the best slant to take. What fortune! You’ve stumbled across the Ring of Writing, transforming you from a struggling writer into a Best-Selling Author!
          Ah, if only success were so simple. Mystic shortcuts to publication don’t exist. You, the writer, must forge your writing skills in the fires of perseverance. However, help is at hand. Following are ten tips gleaned from J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy, The Lord of the Rings (LOTR). Even if fantasy isn’t your style, these principles will breathe life into other forms of fiction as well.

1. Give characters personal opinions.  In Chapter 2 of The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo grumbles that trouble-making Gollum deserves death. However, Gandalf rebuts:

“Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement.”

This exchange propels the narrative while showing contrasting viewpoints.

2. Give heroes weaknesses. If your protagonists are too fearless, too perfect, then your story is shot. Good heroes can be wounded—even destroyed—by the challenges facing them. For instance, when Gandalf tumbles into an abyss while resisting the Balrog in Moria, the reader bolts upright in shock. Gandalf was powerful, but still limited.
Notice, too, the frailties of other characters: Frodo has little confidence in his own strength and feels dragged toward doom. Weary Aragorn and Gimli can’t catch the Orcs that capture Merry and Pippin. Limitations don’t turn heroes into wimps. Rather, they build suspense and enable imperfect readers to identify with the characters.

3. Provide some background. Tolkien excelled at fabricating historical backdrops for his Elves, Dwarves, men, and hobbits. Fleeting references to Eärendil, Gilthoniel, and the perished realms of Gondolin and Númenor infuse this fiction with the feel of reality.

4. Maintain mystery.  Recall the night at Bree when a stranger named Strider invites Frodo to his table? The hobbit needs guidance but isn’t positive he trusts this fellow. Of course, the author could have made Strider flash a copy of his family tree and a photo I.D. But by doling out information about the Ranger in bits and pieces, the author intrigues the reader. Mystery sparks curiosity and keeps pages turning.

5. Breathe life into objects. The fact that you’re depicting a lifeless thing doesn’t force you to nail dead adjectives to it. Note how Tolkien portrays the trail at Cirith Ungol:

At length they were once more aware of a wall looming up, and once more a stairway opened before them. Again they halted, and again they began to climb. It was a long and weary ascent; but this stairway did not delve into the mountain-side. Here the huge cliff-face sloped backwards, and the path like a snake wound to and fro across it. (Italics added for emphasis. Chapter 8, Book IV, The Two Towers)

Motion verbs like looming, opened, delve, sloped, and wound imply action. They enliven a ho-hum pathway.

6. Create individuals. How boring Tolkien’s characters would be if everyone spoke alike. But they don’t. Sam Gamgee talks in the rustic style of a country gardener. And Frodo’s education affects his speech, even enables him to speak some Elvish.
          Remember which characters spoke these lines?

“Fear not! … Long have I desired to look upon the likenesses of Isildur and Anárion, my sires of old!” (Chapter 9, Book II, The Fellowship of the Ring)

“Hoom, hmm! Come now! Not so hasty!” (Chapter 2, Book III, The Two Towers)

“Don’t let them hurt us, precious! They won’t hurt us will they, nice little hobbitses?” (Chapter 1, Book IV, The Two Towers)

Of course, the speakers are Aragorn, Treebeard, and Gollum. Not all characters need an accent or verbal tic, but characters’ words should be consistent with  their personalities.

7. Cut out clutter. Some writers describe every freckle and hair. Not Tolkien. If any of his characters had committed a crime, no police artist could sketch an exact likeness based on the author’s scanty clues. And what exactly did the company eat between Rivendell and Lothlórien? Who cares? The reader’s imagination can bridge such gaps.

8. Paint pictures. When Tolkien introduces Éowyn of Rohan, he could have described her as “a tall, beautiful, blonde.” Instead, he wrote

Very fair was her face, and her long hair was like a river of gold. Slender and tall she was in her white robe girt with silver…. (Chapter 6, Book III, The Two Towers)

The simile “river of gold,” paints a striking image. Later, in Mordor, Frodo and Sam tumble into a tangle of bushes:

The thorns and briars were as tough as wire and as clinging as claws. (Chapter 1, Book VI, The Return of the King.)

These wonderful similes surpass imagery and suggest tactile sensations.

9. Be subtle. Don’t spell out everything. Hint. Let readers piece together part of the puzzle. For instance, when Gandalf accuses Wormtongue of treachery, he adds:

          “…were you to pick your share of the treasure, and take the woman you desire? Too long have you watched her under your eyelids and haunted her steps.”
          Éomer grasped his sword. “That I knew already,” he muttered. (Chapter 6, Book III, The Two Towers)

By not immediately naming Éomer’s sister, Tolkien permits readers to grasp Gandalf’s meaning on their own.
          Likewise, in the final chapter, the author could have bluntly stated, “Later Sam realized it was the anniversary of the day Frodo got stabbed with a Morgul knife.” But Tolkien’s subtlety is more satisfying:

It was not until afterwards that Sam recalled that the date was October the sixth. Two years before on that day it was dark in the dell under Weathertop. (Chapter 9, Book VI, The Return of the King)

10. Learn to plod. J.R.R. Tolkien wasn’t a full-time writer. The Foreword to his trilogy reveals his technique: “I plodded on, mostly by night….” If you can’t dedicate huge chunks of time to writing, just plod, line upon line, redeeming whatever minutes you can. Who knows what wonderful works you might pen, if only you’ll keep plodding?

Rick Barry has published over 200 short stories and articles, plus two novels. One of his novels is a fantasy, Kiriath's Quest. 


  1. Great article, Rick. I'll admit -- I haven't read the books, though I did watch the movies.

    Your description of Tolkien's giving life to items reminded me of an item on the list of bad comparisons from high school students. One of my favorites was: "The lamp just stood there, like an inanimate object."


  2. Rick, this is a great post. I'm looking forward to the new movie. Yes, Tolkien is a role model when it comes to good story telling.

  3. Another interesting fact about Tolkien: He showed extreme patience in his writing. He plodded on bit by bit for over a decade to write Lord of the Rings. When the rough draft was finished, he went back and reworked the whole thing. He once said there was hardly a sentence he had not niggled over.

  4. This is an awesome post. We don't have too many plodders these days. People are far too busy to niggle over each sentence but I long for that luxury!

    1. Karla, I agree. I always felt that I must rush because the publishing world will leave me behind if I don't finish my current stories. Now I try to be satisfied if I can write 1000 words in a day. Sometimes I do more, sometimes less, but if I can get in about 1000 words, I rest more peacefully at night.

    2. P.S. I should have qualified that I agree with your observation about plodders. Wasn't referring to your awesome compliment!