How to Write Like J.R.R. Tolkien in Three Easy Steps
Why do We Tell Stories?
Watching an ant hill, it’s hard not to marvel at the way in which they work together. The magic, according to entomologists, is a matter of chemistry. Ants exchange signal chemicals when they meet, enabling them to recognize members of their colony and coordinate activities.
Storytelling is our version of chemical signaling. Long before we worked out conventions for courses, text books, encyclopedias, etc., we told stories to convey information and coordinate activities. Stories are the original, “how-to.” They say, in essence, “If you find yourself in a situation like this, here’s how to deal with it.”
Stories are about Cause and Effect
Ernest Hemingway once won a bar bet that he could write a story in only six words. His words were:
“For sale: baby shoes. Never used.”
Like other bar bets, it’s impressive, but not quite what it appears to be. In particular, Hemingway’s, “story,” isn’t a story, it’s a story prompt.
In arguing that Hemmingway did indeed have a story, you might point out how each two-word phrase is like one of three acts, taking us in a different and more dramatic direction at each turn.
That’s true, but I have yet to meet anyone who isn’t intrigued by those six words: they can’t help speculating and filling in details to create a story in their own mind. And the story is always about what caused the effect of someone possessing unused baby shoes.
J. Michael Straczynski explains story this way:
- The king died and then the queen died. (Not a story)
- The queen died because the king died. (A story)
In the first case, we simply have two events—two royal deaths listed in the chronicles. In the second, the story organizes the two events into a cause/effect relationship.
Naturally, there’s a great deal more to a satisfying story—a novel, for example, will describe many causes and effects on different levels and in different dimensions.
Must all stories show cause and effect? What about literary fiction?
Don’t be misled by the siren song of the literati and their conceit that a nuanced character study is superior to plot-driven commercial offerings. Even a character study is about the causes and effects of the character’s beliefs and behaviors.
Stories Attribute Significance
There is a Native American tale which explains how the mountains surrounding the tribal homeland were created when the trickster trapped giants and turned them to stone as punishment for their wickedness.
One of the remarkable things about The Lord of the Rings is the way in which Tolkien produced a fictional landscape full of the significance accumulated over the course of three ages: there were stories, often only hinted at in the text, behind so much of the landscape that it became a character in its own right.
In both cases, it is the stories that give the landscape significance.
Stories work their magic on people and events as well as physical features. They tell, and more importantly show, why we should care about someone or something. By rehearsing the cause of a particular effect, they teach us why the subject is important and stands out from others like it.
Wits have wryly observed that we can’t collectively understand a tragedy until we’ve watched the made-for-television movie about it. If we peel away the cynicism, the remaining kernel of truth is that by defining meaning and attributing significance, stories are how we make sense of the confusing world in which we live.
Story Problems are Non-trivial
There is an eternal law, inscribed into the very foundation of the universe before even gods appeared, that any home improvement project will require at least three trips to the store.
Don’t believe me?
Consider the archetypical home improvement project:
- Having decided to undertake some repair or improvement, you go to the store and get what you need.
- After working on the project for a while, you make another trip to the store to get all the things you didn’t know you needed.
- Finally, a few injuries and explicatives later, you make a final trip to the store to get what you really need (as well as to replace the pieces you broke).
Of course, there are many times when you make one trip because you know what you’re doing and what you need. But you don’t tell a story about those episodes because a this-was-the-problem-so-I-got-the-part-I-needed-and-fixed-it story is boring—in fact, it’s not a story, it’s a recipe.
For a story to be interesting, it must show how the protagonist triangulated on a solution to a difficult problem. Each try is a possible solution and each fail shows why the solution falls short, as well as ratcheting up the scope of the problem. In the realm of DIY, for example, you may fail to reattach the loose tile in the bathroom because the wallboard behind has water damage, but you can’t just replace the wallboard because the pipe inside is leaking.
And suddenly, without trying, we’ve stumbled upon the three-act story structure:
- Act 1 is an attempt to solve the story problem that fails
- Act 2 is another attempt to solve the story problem that also fails
- Act 3 is the attempt to solve the story problem that finally succeeds.
If you scrape away all the formal baggage around, “The Three Act Structure,” it really is that simple.
The Best Stories are Edgy
We often hear agents and editors want stories that are, “edgy,” “push the envelope,” and talk about how things, “really,” are.
The edge in question is usually the edge of social acceptability, where the scent of the forbidden entices our voyeuristic impulses. From a business perspective (and without trying to sound too cynical), it’s also much easier to sell something offering readers a chance to step vicariously outside common social constraints.
The topic can easily become contentious. There are readers who feel life is too short to waste on vanilla when there are more exotic flavors to be had on the edge. Others hear, “edgy,” and immediately think, “uncomfortable,” “gratuitous,” or even, “marketing gimmick.”
It’s unfortunate that there’s a fair amount of ammunition for readers who associate, “edgy,” with, “gimmicky,” because there’s an important place in the grand conversation for stories about the edges—not of acceptability but of society.
Stories from the social periphery give voice to people and experiences that are minimized or ignored. Going to the edge is certainly important for social justice, but it’s even more important as a source of variability and vitality. Chaos theory, for example, shows that the dynamic equilibrium between order and chaos is the region where the most interesting and complex things happen. Another way to think of it is that the tendency of society to move toward monoculture is offset by the variations and novelties that arise on its periphery.
But there’s an even deeper point: at a structural level, the best stories are always edgy in the particular sense that they take the protagonist out to the edge of their known world and then beyond. Whether the journey is actual or emotional, it’s only in the unmediated wild, beyond the edge of the safe and comfortable, where character is revealed and proven.
* * *
This book focuses on the structural underpinnings of a sustained narrative. In an effort to express ideas clearly and succinctly, some of what follows may seem a bit academic.
Don’t be put off by the tone.
The concepts we’ll explore are simple, but have profound implications for stories and storytelling. If you can master the patterns, you’ll open up rich new dimensions in your writing
We begin, in chapter 2, with a look at the way in which stories are models—like maps, they emphasize some details and suppress others. Many of the, “rules,” about which writers agonize are heuristics for creating satisfying narrative models.
But models are patterns, not recipes—something we make clear in chapter 3.
Chapter 4 explores the recurring pattern of threes in many kinds of cultural expressions, including storytelling, and argues three acts, parts, or beats in a story correspond to the minimum container of significance.
How do you go from the simplicity of a beginning, middle, and end to the narrative complexity of a satisfying novel? Chapter 5 provides the fractal answer in three easy steps.
In chapter 6, we turn from structure to dynamics with a look at story drivers.
The discussion continues in chapter 7, where we focus on the kind of conflict that advances a story.
Drawing upon all we’ve covered, in chapter 8 we explore the art of the long form: what, beyond the principles of good storytelling we’ve covered in the earlier part of the book, do you need to keep readers engaged for hundreds of pages.
Finally, in chapter 9, we close with a look at the practical skills of editing and revising that you’ll need to transform your application of story theory into something someone else will actually want to read.