Tag Archives: J. R. R. Tolkien

Developing Your Novel’s Story World

J. R. R. Tolkien referred to the world of the faery-tale as the author’s sub-creation. The truth is, all fiction has a sub-created world, or ought to. Tolkien’s point is key, but before taking a closer look at the principle, we need to be clear about the term “story world.”

Writing instructor John Truby explains it this way:

Story world is one of the main structural elements in a good story, consisting of the society, the minor characters, the natural settings, the social settings and the technology of the time. (from “Downton Abbey: John Truby Analyzes the Writing Behind the TV Hit”)

Clearly, every story has a story world to one extent or another. Then are we simply talking about “setting,” the place and time during which the story occurs? Tolkien had something more in mind, and I think Truby would agree.

First, story world is more than lots of period furniture and clothing or time-appropriate architecture. Telling details are certainly important, but not in and of themselves. Rather, they are like dabs of paint on a canvas that eventually forms a picture. The dabs themselves are meaningless apart from how they interact with the other dabs and strokes. The absence or addition of a dab here or a dab there ought to change the picture.

For Tolkien the necessary element was “the inner consistency of reality.” Anyone could conceive of a green sun, for example, but to do so and to do nothing else with it was gimmicky. A world with strangeness and no inner consistency was underdeveloped. Instead, the writer as sub-creator needed to draw upon the ramifications of a green sun to the fiction world he was creating. The same is true for an engagement party, though, or missing car keys.

That inner consistency is evident in the story world of Downton Abbey. This British TV hit takes place in early twentieth century England, before, during, and after World War I.

The war itself is a perfect example of the show’s inner consistency of reality. Rather than existing as a surface element to move characters in and out of the main action (I read one book that used war in just that way), the war, as depicted by the writers in this show, changed relationships and affected society. Loved ones died or came back changed; some stepped up to meet the challenges and others exploited them. In other words, the war was an integral part of the story because it shaped the characters and influenced the action.

The Civil War serves the exact same purpose in Gone With The Wind. But not every story needs a war. The same kind of inner consistency of reality is evident in the Harry Potter stories. Myrtle the ghost was not mere window-dressing, for instance, but a key player in several of the books. So too the house elves, the portkey, the quiddich championship, and Hermione’s ability to go back in time. Each of those elements added texture to the world, but in turn they affected the way the story unfolded. In other words, they didn’t exist in a vacuum. Their existence affected the characters and the action.

Besides this inner consistency of reality, there are two other story world techniques available to authors. First, setting a story during a time of great social change naturally brings conflict to the story. These changes must naturally (if the story has consistency) affect the characters, thus creating an additional level of tension.

A good example of a story set in changing times is The Hope of Shridula by Kay Marshall Strom. The story takes place before, during, and after India’s struggle for independence from the British empire. The forces of change add another dimension to the struggles the characters already experience with economic hardship, caste struggles, religious struggles, and relational issues.

Another story world technique is to position the story in a closed system. Examples of such systems include the English class system of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (when Downton Abbey took place), the pre-Civil War South, a military base during any time period, a boarding school, the Mafia, a religious convent. The system itself affords levels of conflict, whether individuals are fighting to maintain the system, to break free from it, or to bring it down. The Hope of Shridula also employs this advanced story world technique.

In summary, consistency is a must regardless of genre, if the story is to be a good one. In addition, an author may choose to situate the story during a time of social upheaval or to place it in a closed system. Both these techniques will add layers of conflict, provided the story has the inner consistency of reality.

Reblogged from an article first posted here in March 2012.

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Killing Off Characters

cemetery-755456-mIn real life, people die–friends, family, strangers we hear about on the news. Consequently, stories, if they are to reflect reality, should include characters who die. Great writers don’t back away from killing off characters.

Mystery writers, of course, don’t seem to hesitate to kill off characters. Readers expect it. These may be characters that are incidental to the reader, however. They are victims and give a reason for the crime solvers to do their work, but their deaths don’t generate an emotional impact on the reader.

But harder, and more shocking, is the death of a character when the readers were not expecting it. And harder still is the death of a character readers care about deeply. Margaret Mitchell heartlessly killed off Melanie Wilkes in Gone with the Wind, then trumped that move by having Rhett and Scarlett’s little girl, Bonnie, die as well.

Perhaps no one killed off her characters more aggressively than J. K. Rowling in the Harry Potter series. From Cedric to Sirius, Dobby, Dumbledore, and Fred, Rowling didn’t hesitate to bring an end to beloved characters.

Some writers have ventured to bring their characters back after they died. J. R. R. Tolkien successfully did so in The Lord of the Rings trilogy by bringing Gandalf back in The Two Towers after he felt to his death in the Mines of Moria during The Fellowship of the Ring. C. S. Lewis also meaningfully killed a character–Aslan–and brought him back in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, first in The Chronicles of Narnia.

There are dangers for writers, however, in killing off characters. For example, I read a book years ago in which the main character died at the end, and I have not since picked up another book by that author. More recently [spoiler alert] Veronica Roth, author of the popular Divergent series, has been in the eye of the storm of unhappy readers because she killed off her heroine.

I think there are some things writers can learn about killing off characters.

First, killing off characters creates realism. Regardless of the genre, dying ought to be a part of the world the author creates. Therefore he should at least consider adding this element to his story. Not all stories need to show the death of a character, but a good many could benefit from the report of one dying.

The_Paradise_(TV_series)_titlesIn a romance, for example, the death of a beloved grandparent might be an obstacle in the path of the heroine and her love interest. Contemporary or historical stories can use the death of a character and the resulting squabbles over the estate to divide a family or create heartbreak that needs to be overcome. A widower can pine for his dead spouse for years, as did the main character in Emile Zola’s Au Bonheur des Dames (Masterpiece Classic’s The Paradise).

Killing off characters, however, needs to be properly motivated. There needs to be a story reason for ending the life of a character. Doing so for shock value is not sufficient. Rather, a noble sacrifice, a diabolical plot, a horrible accident, an incurable disease can take a character’s life and move the plot forward.

In addition, when a character is taken from the story, relationships change. A child is orphaned, a friend is alone, a spouse is a widow, an employee becomes the boss, a neighbor becomes a suspect.

Therefore, when a character dies, the other characters need to have an emotional response, but also a re-examination of values, a reshuffling of rank, an alteration of position. In short, the death should matter.

Finally, killing characters needs to be properly set up so that it is believable (and so that readers won’t want to throw your book across the room). The death may come as a surprise, but it should not be implausible.

tombstone-844609-mPeople who are young and healthy do die suddenly of some undiagnosed condition, however rarely, but in fiction such an event would read as author manipulation. Rather, a young person who was diagnosed with leukemia might experience a return of cancer, however unexpected. The fact of the earlier condition prepares readers for the eventuality of the character’s death. A character might be engaging in a dangerous hobby like rock climbing or bungee jumping. She might work with toxic material or high voltage electricity. These elements can add tension to a story but also prepare the reader for the possibility of that character dying.

One last point. Characters can be taken from a story without dying. A teen might run away. A parent might walk away from his family. An employee might get fired. A best friend might move across country. These losses can have the same impact as a death and can change the dynamics of a story. They are also part of the real world which needs to be reflected in the story world.

Have you considered killing off one of your characters? What effect would that death have on the other characters? On the direction of your plot?

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Keep ‘Em On The Line

Fishermans_with_fish_silver_salmonSo readers are hooked with a great beginning. How does the novelist keep them engaged from that point on? Perhaps the best way to look at this subject is to start with what does not keep readers turning pages.

One way is to employ “FALSE STARTS.” If the opening scene does it’s job and intrigues, readers should be asking, what happens next?

If, instead, the writer delivers glumps of backstory, excessive description, or the “flash forward,” readers may be tempted to put the book down.

Backstory tells readers about things in which they aren’t yet interested. Excessive description requires a story to grind to a halt as the writer paints a picture (always a fun thing to watch 😉 ).

It’s so easy for a writer to think the reader will “get” that the backstory and the character or setting descriptions are vital for their understanding of what’s about to take place, and that they will surely stick around to see just how great the story really is. Sadly, I’ve learned the hard way, this just isn’t so.

What about the flash forward?

In a writing instruction article in The Writer, Hallie Ephron says the flash forward is a device writers are tempted to use in order to begin with an exciting scene when the actual beginning seems to lack pizazz.

Prologues sometimes (often?) employ this device. The technique is designed to show a tense and intriguing scene, then stop at a cliff hanger, and go back to the beginning to show readers “how we got here.”

The story question, then, is something like, what brought this smart, capable woman to the point where her boss was so mad he fired her, forcing her to sell her home and move in with her crotchety maiden aunt? Unfortunately, the “how we got here,” which makes up the bulk of the story, by definition lacks the tension of the beginning forward action. There is no rising action because the novel started with the greatest point of tension.

If writers should avoid backstory, excessive description, and flash forwards, then what should come next? What ought to follow an opening so that it won’t come off like a false start? Is there a trick writers can use to pull this off?

Yes. First we must create characters readers care about. They must be interesting and believable, but they must also be people with whom readers can empathize.

One of the best writers I know creates quirky characters that are hard to connect with. Few people know such people in real life and fewer understand what makes them tick. Characters that are don’t connect with readers create an automatic strike against the story.

But there’s more. Other books I’ve read have bland characters that are floating through their story with no intention. These have a strike against them too.

Well-drawn characters must not only be interesting and believable, people with whom readers can empathize, they must do something interesting and believable.

In my adventures through fiction, I’ve found stories with truly wonderful characters. They are fun—even funny—and realistic, with age spots and crows feet as well as knight-in-shining-armor charisma and undeniable moral fiber.

And yet, at times, something so integral has been missing that I could easily close the book and not finish reading. I just didn’t care.

Yikes! 😮 What would cause such a thing?

In a nutshell, objectives. Actually, the lack thereof. In order for me to cheer for a character, which means I’ve arrived at the caring level, I have to see the character striving to accomplish something. The story can’t stall on bad things happening to a good character, over and over again. Instead, the character must take on a central problem and work to win out.

Somehow, a character striving, especially against great odds, resonates. It is in the effort to overcome that a character’s mettle shines.

An engaging character is only one element. Another is to put tension on every page, as Donald Maass, author of Writing the Breakout Novel, says.

One way to create tension is to create the legitimate possibility of failure. J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings was a story that kept readers wondering if the protagonists would succeed or fail. Frodo’s ability to pull off a victory was in doubt until the last sentence of the climax. For much of the last book of The Lord of the Rings, his spirit was willing, but his flesh was weak. In the end, even his spirit gave out.

Along the way, he’d experienced a good number of successes, so how did Tolkien make readers feel as if Frodo might not make it in the end?

I think the main way was by not protecting his characters from hurt. The four hobbits were captured, Frodo was wounded, Gandolf was killed, Peregrin looked into the crystal where Sauron could see him, the fellowship broke apart, King Theoden came under Worm Tongue’s spell, Boromir succumbed to his desire for the ring and died. At every turn, the end seemed in doubt and victories weren’t had without paying a price.

Finally, there needs to be the credible possibility that winning won’t look like the kind of winning the reader was hoping for.

In summary, if writers are to keep readers turning pages after they’ve hooked them with a great opening, they need to avoid false starts. Openings should not fall victim to chunks of backstory, excessive description, or fast forward gimmicks.

Writers also need to create characters with whom readers can relate and for whom they can cheer.

Finally, writers must put tension on every page. Winning can’t come easily or quickly, and not necessarily in the expected manner.

With these elements in place, readers are bound to be scrambling for more time with the book so they can keep the pages turning.

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Developing The Story World

J. R. R. Tolkien referred to the world of the faery-tale as the author’s sub-creation. The truth is, all fiction has a sub-created world, or ought to. Tolkien’s point is key, but before taking a closer look at the principle, we need to be clear about the term “story world.”

Writing instructor John Truby explains it this way:

Story world is one of the main structural elements in a good story, consisting of the society, the minor characters, the natural settings, the social settings and the technology of the time. (from “Downton Abbey: John Truby Analyzes the Writing Behind the TV Hit”)

Clearly, every story has a story world to one extent or another. Then are we simply talking about “setting,” the place and time during which the story occurs? Tolkien had something more in mind, and I think Truby would agree.

First, story world is more than lots of period furniture and clothing or time-appropriate architecture. Telling details are certainly important, but not in and of themselves. Rather, they are like dabs of paint on a canvas that eventually forms a picture. The dabs themselves are meaningless apart from how they interact with the other dabs and strokes. The absence or addition of a dab here or a dab there ought to change the picture.

For Tolkien the necessary element was “the inner consistency of reality.” Anyone could conceive of a green sun, for example, but to do so and to do nothing else with it was gimmicky. A world with strangeness and no inner consistency was underdeveloped. Instead, the writer as sub-creator needed to draw upon the ramifications of a green sun to the fiction world he was creating. The same is true for an engagement party, though, or missing car keys.

That inner consistency is evident in the story world of Downton Abbey. This British TV hit takes place in early twentieth century England, before, during, and after World War I.

The war itself is a perfect example of the show’s inner consistency of reality. Rather than existing as a surface element to move characters in and out of the main action (I read one book that used war in just that way), the war, as depicted by the writers in this show, changed relationships and affected society. Loved ones died or came back changed; some stepped up to meet the challenges and others exploited them. In other words, the war was an integral part of the story because it shaped the characters and influenced the action.

The Civil War serves the exact same purpose in Gone With The Wind. But not every story needs a war. The same kind of inner consistency of reality is evident in the Harry Potter stories. Myrtle the ghost was not mere window-dressing, for instance, but a key player in several of the books. So too the house elves, the portkey, the quiddich championship, and Hermione’s ability to go back in time. Each of those elements added texture to the world, but in turn they affected the way the story unfolded. In other words, they didn’t exist in a vacuum. Their existence affected the characters and the action.

Besides this inner consistency of reality, there are two other story world techniques available to authors. First, setting a story during a time of great social change naturally brings conflict to the story. These changes must naturally (if the story has consistency) affect the characters, thus creating an additional level of tension.

A good example of a story set in changing times is The Hope of Shridula by Kay Marshall Strom. The story takes place before, during, and after India’s struggle for independence from the British empire. The forces of change add another dimension to the struggles the characters already experience with economic hardship, caste struggles, religious struggles, and relational issues.

Another story world technique is to position the story in a closed system. Examples of such systems include the English class system of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (when Downton Abbey took place), the pre-Civil War South, a military base during any time period, a boarding school, the Mafia, a religious convent. The system itself affords levels of conflict, whether individuals are fighting to maintain the system, to break free from it, or to bring it down. The Hope of Shridula also employs this advanced story world technique.

In summary, consistency is a must regardless of genre, if the story is to be a good one. In addition, an author may choose to situate the story during a time of social upheaval or to place it in a closed system. Both these techniques will add layers of conflict, provided the story has the inner consistency of reality.

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Trusting Readers To Figure It Out

Once again a novelist, a person I respect, said in essence that intentionally incorporating a theme in fiction makes the story preachy. This position, while widely held by Christian authors, is far from the truth. Anyone who can remember back to high school or college literature classes knows this. The classics we studied in those days, and that many students still study, are far from preachy, yet one of the points of analysis teachers emphasized was what the author was saying in the story — his theme.

In truth, theme does not equal preachy. It never has. However, a poorly crafted theme might indeed come across as preachy. The way to eliminate a poorly crafted theme, of course, is not to eliminate theme, yet that’s what many writers seem to advocate.

Some, of course, suggest that the theme will naturally form itself because the author has deeply held beliefs. By that reasoning, then, there is no need to carefully craft our characters since the author himself is a person, and there is no need to craft the plot since the author himself lives life.

Perhaps most inconsistent in this movement to downplay theme is the idea that it is right, even necessary, to carefully craft each sentence so that the prose sparkles, but not necessary to craft the ultimate meaning behind each sentence that gives the story significance.

In the opposite camp from those advocating theme-less fiction, however, are those who believe in their theme more than they believe in their reader’s ability to understand the theme. These writers, in fact, do turn their theme into an essay or a sermon, largely because they want to be sure the readers “get it.”

Photograph by Andrew Dunn

I remember struggling with this in my writing. Shortly after one of the Lord of the Rings movies released, a group of self-proclaimed pagans gathered in England for the celebration of a pagan rite, and they referenced J. R. R. Tolkien as their hero and Middle Earth as their hope. Since I write epic fantasy, I tried to imagine what it would feel like to have my writing so thoroughly misunderstood and misused as these people were doing to Tolkien’s work. Wouldn’t it be better to spell things out and to eliminate any doubt about what the author means?

Actually not. Fiction isn’t about the author. It’s about the characters. As soon as the author intrudes, he pulls down the curtain, and the reader is no longer lost in the pretend of the play. Instead, he might well feel as if he’s been manipulated into listening to the equivalent of a commercial, when he thought he was getting an ad-free story. Consequently, the author, rather than making his point and having his reader think deeply, has lost the reader who may also vehemently reject the point out of hand.

In short, a writer committed to saying something important in her fiction must do so with intention, weaving the meaning into the fabric of the story. What happens to the characters and how they grow or change ought to tell the reader far more than what the author states plainly. Symbols sprinkled throughout can reinforce the main point, and will add artistic flare that make the story far deeper. But just as a magician doesn’t reveal how he performed his tricks at the end of his show, an author shouldn’t tip his hand at any time and explain what the story was all about.

Will some readers misunderstand? Possibly so, but even if this is the case, they will think a great deal more about the theme than if the author intercedes to tell them what they should think. After all, no author can force a reader to believe as she believes. It’s really up to the author to paint the picture with words, then trust the reader to get it.

To come full circle, no reader will get a theme that’s not there, so an author first needs to give attention to what precisely he wants to say through the vehicle of story. He needs to weave it well into the story, then trust the reader to make sense of what he has read.

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