Monday, August 24, 2015

The Lord of the Rings and Plot Structure, Part 1

It's time for another writing update! So, I've dropped hints about being in the planning stage for a new full-length novel...which is going to be a Doorstopper, a Tome, an Epic. I've been feeling absolutely dwarfed by the challenge of plotting the thing. So of course, I did what I do best.

I decided to shamelessly pirate someone else's work.

I took Tolkien's Lord of the Rings as my model, of course, as being the closest plot structure to what I had in mind. I crunched it through the three-act plot structure KM Weiland uses and teaches...and what I discovered blew my mind.

It also solved all my plotting woes.

The Doorstopper project is something I've been working on fairly intensely since the beginning of July. It's an ambitious project, I know:

- It's going to cover a 200-year timespan.
- It's going to feature three plots woven together.
- It's going to be heavily woven into real-world history which must all be researched and evaluated.
- I anticipate it running to around 300,000-400,000 words.

Part of the problem with working with something of this scope is the sheer amount of choices that must be made. I like having my options limited; now suddenly I could go in any one of a thousand directions. How to use this wealth of raw material to structure three compelling plots, then weave them into one overarching plot?

I began researching plot structure, desperate for ideas. Though I commonly try to avoid writing advice, I read KM Weiland's Plot Structure blog series, in which she sets up story structure like this:
Hook----------------0%  
    First Act
------First Plot Point----------------25%
            Second Act A
-----------------Midpoint-----------------50%
            Second Act B
------Third Plot Point----------------75%          
    Climax
Resolution----------------100%  
According to this, a plot is structured in three acts, of which the first lasts for approximately 25% of the wordcount. A plot point, defined as an irrevocable turning-point, then leads into the second act, which runs for approximately 50% of the book and features another plot point midway through. After this, a final plot point leads into a climactic third act, finishing with a resolution.

At first, this scheme only confused me. If a Midpoint is supposed to happen in each of my three plotlines, how do I deliver three Midpoints in the middle of my novel? One right after another? Wouldn't that upset the pacing of the novel? Or do I space them out? Is it OK if a midpoint occurs significantly earlier or significantly later than the 50% mark?

Finally I read a blog post from a different author suggesting that novelists wanting to tackle complex plots should start out by analysing the plot of a book which does something similar to their own project. Unfortunately, I haven't read a lot of multi-stranded megabooks. So I decided to analyse The Lord of the Rings, as being the closest thing to what I had in mind. Today I'm going to focus on the overall plot of the book.


Spoilers ahead! If you haven't already read the book, what are you waiting for?

(Note: I'm doing all this from memory, and I haven't read the book for about 9 years. So I might have broken this down wrong. Would love to hear other plotters' thoughts on this!)

Hook: The Shadow of the Past: Bilbo's Ring is the Dark Lord's. And he wants it back.
    First Act: Book 1: The journey to Rivendell.
        First Plot Point: "I will take the Ring to Mordor, though I do not know the way."
            Second Act A: Book 2: The journey down the Anduin.
                   Midpoint: The Breaking of the Fellowship
            Second Act B: Book 3: War against Isengard/Book 4: Journey to Cirith Ungol.  
        Third Plot Point: Sauron besieges Minas Tirith/Frodo and Sam enter Mordor
    Climax: The Black Gate Opens/Mount Doom
Resolution: The Field of Cormallen ff.

The first thing that blew me away about LOTR's plot structure was the fact that the midpoint of the plot actually occurs not in the middle of The Two Towers, where we'd expect it, but at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring, just over a third of the way into the wordcount. Now Tolkien does give us a major plot point at the midway point: Sauron marches on Gondor, as revealed when Pippin looks into the palantir after the fall of Isengard. However, though the invasion has a huge impact on the plot, it primarily affects the Gandalf/Aragorn plotline in Rohan and Gondor. While it makes Frodo and Sam's mission more urgent, it doesn't complicate that mission. The true Midpoint, the big game-changer, the irrevocable moment, happens when the Fellowship breaks. Even Gandalf comes back from the dead, but the Fellowship never gets unbroken.

So why does the Midpoint occur so early on? Well, after the Midpoint, we have two plotlines to follow. When taken in isolation, each plotline balances out the first "half" of the book. Naturally, it takes twice as long to follow both plots. And Tolkien feels no obligation to condense the parallel second halves of his plot to match the first half.

Nor does he feel the obligation to switch back and forth between viewpoints with every chapter, or even every other chapter. Instead, Tolkien alternates between plotlines in much bigger chunks, spending a Book on one, then a Book on the other. In addition, he makes sure to give each of his Books a plot structure of its own. Telling the story in alternating Books rather than alternating chapters allows those plot structures to emerge, and provides a very natural rising and falling rhythm throughout the book. Most writers today, even of very big books, try to eliminate quiet spots in the narrative by switching viewpoints every chapter or so. However, a big part of LOTR's epic scope and feel is that Tolkien isn't scared to slow his rhythm down a bit to match the scope of the book.

One side effect of this is that Tolkien's big plot points, especially in the second half of the plot, are given plenty of room to breathe. The Third Plot Point in the Gandalf/Aragorn plot occurs long before the Third Plot Point in the Frodo/Sam plot; the catastrophe at the climax of the Gandalf/Aragorn plot in "The Black Gate Opens" is left hanging several chapters until "Mount Doom" partway through the next Book. Tolkien isn't afraid to back off a bit, to release tension, to let the high points in the plot make more of a statement. And because this is a hefty epic and not light airport reading, the long staggers work.

By the same token, Tolkien's slower rhythm means that he builds tension as slowly as he releases it. He spends plenty of time on thrilling battles like Helm's Deep and the Pelennor Fields. And it's this masterful balance between recovery time and tension-building that gives the book its truly epic feel. I've often noted that the legendarily lengthy resolution, which takes up a good half of the last book, is one we deeply need. We need to be returned gently from the staggering grandeur of this story, not shot out of it all in a heap. We need to wind down.

But Tolkien is just as careful in winding us up to and down from smaller climaxes throughout the book. We move slowly before the Pelennor Fields, riding through Rohan to the Paths of the Dead. Then we stop after the Pelennor Fields to recuperate in the Houses of Healing. Tolkien doesn't rush us. But he never, not once, not ever, lowers the stakes--and that's how he keeps us reading.

Next week, I'm going to go on and analyse the plot structures of the six smaller books into which The Lord of the Rings is divided. It was this analysis that really blew my mind and helped resolve a ton of my plotting woes. Stay tuned!

11 comments:

Samwise said...

My favourite post of yours that I've read so far. Very informative and interesting.

Suzannah said...

Glad you enjoyed it! Make sure to check back next week for part 2 -where I share some of the most fascinating stuff I learned doing this analysis!

Joy said...

This is a great post, Suzannah! I've just finished rereading "The Fellowship of the Ring", and YES! Once the Fellowship leaves Rivendell (Frodo's choice to take the ring), everything builds up with so much suspense and depth - the breaking of the fellowship was such a midpoint climax! I agree with you - I love how Tolkien is not scared to build his plot in his own measured way, telling the story with its rising and falling moments, and not forcing his story into an established mode of story-telling.

All the best with your EPIC!

Anna Ilona Mussmann said...

Interesting point about the breaking of the fellowship. You inspire me to try the exercise of plotting a book more deliberately and according to a pre-planned structure.

I do have to say that I'm not entirely a fan of Tolkien's long breaks between the different plot lines. The disadvantage of the way he does it, for me, is that I become so emotionally invested in whomever I am currently following that it is annoying when the narrative finally switches to someone else. By the time this other person's story resumes, I don't care that much about him anymore. I'm tempted to put down the book or even skip ahead and read the plot lines individually and out of order. Perhaps there would be a way for an author to use large plot chunks as Tolkien does while also keeping the reader more connected to the "other chunks."

Jamie W. said...

This has left me incredibly excited for the Tome! I know it'll be a long wait, but whenever it comes out, know that you have at least one reader already signed up.

Suzannah said...

Joy, glad you enjoyed the post!

I have to say, with Anna, that the long breaks between Tolkien's different plotlines aren't exactly to my taste either :D. I've long wondered why Tolkien chose to tell his story in such big chunks, rather than alternating chapters, but I think I see the reason for it now. It really opens up the plotlines to let them breathe.

The danger is, of course, disappointing or alienating readers. Tolkien handles this in part by keeping his characters all together for the first half of the plot, splitting them up only once we've come to know and care for all of them.

But all the same, readers just have to deal with the way Tolkien chooses to tell his story. Personally I think despite it being more challenging, the book is stronger for it. Epics aren't always as accessible as we'd like (heavy-duty theology in terza rima, really, Dante?) but a good one is always able to reward investment.

Anyway, Anna, if you try some deliberate plotting, let us know how it goes! My one caveat would be don't get all your information from writing-advice coaches. Do a bit of study on how the greats played around with structure first. That will help you work through what's really necessary and what's just convention.

Jamie, bless you :D. The enthusiasm of readers is such a powerful motivation!

Hannah Krynicki said...

I've been reading your blog for some time now, and I really enjoyed this particular article. As a Ringer myself I love reading posts on anything Tolkien. Thank you for posting your thoughts, especially that bit on the breakdown of LotR's plot structure. I'll certainly be coming back to this article in the future!

Suzannah said...

Thanks for commenting, Hannah! Tolkien is my favourite author ever, and I had huge fun analysing the plot. Next week, I'm also planning to post a further explanation of the LOTR story structure, so do check back for that!

Joseph J said...

Interesting analysis. The one thing that you didn't really touch on that interests me the most is whether Tolkien was even really aware of the plot structure of his books. Did he plan it out ahead? Having read many of his letters, it seems to me that he did surprisingly little planning ahead, at least insofar as the psychological effect of plot structure is concerned. I know he spent a lot of time working out the intricate details of the timeline of events, the lunar cycle, the landscape etc. with an eye to making it as realistic as possible (although even then, he was doing so as the story progressed). Which is not to say that the plot structure as you are breaking it down is not important, but that if his structure was psychologically effective it was not due to his careful preparation beforehand, but rather to his instinctive skill as a storyteller.

I have a theory that Tolkien's skill as an author is due largely to his having immersed himself so deeply in his created world, and, most importantly of all, having spent hours (from what I gather) TELLING his story ORALLY to his children, especially his son Christopher. If you consider that the most elemental form of storytelling is oral, and that Tolkien spent much more time reading primitive traditional literature than novels, I think you have grasped the key to his power as a storyteller. Not only did he have natural talent, but he was deeply familiar with the bones and heart of Story. His knowledge, it seems to me, was more instinctive than conscious. I think he was a more natural storyteller than Lewis, because he had that artistic instinctual right brain genius, whereas Lewis was too much of a left-brain analytical thinker when it came to stories (as he himself would admit).

There is no single way to write a good book, but I would be interested to find out how many of the best authors plotted out their stories ahead of time in the way that you are doing here. I have a fear (feel free to prove me wrong!) that this kind of analytical approach to storytelling has the inherent danger of turning storytelling into a science rather than an art. It may be effective and reliable in delivering a certain level of pleasure to the reader, but will it also choke the influence of the author's subconscious on the story, which is so crucial to enriching and deepening it? Will it restrict the passion, naturalness, and integrity of the story? These are some of my concerns.

I am not excusing sloppy, lazy writing by any means. No one can accuse the painstaking perfectionist Tolkien, or most successful writers for that matter, of being lazy, and I certainly don't believe in that kind of genius that supposedly produces great art with perfect ease, in sudden spontaneous emotion. I think that true genius is both sides of the brain working deeply and in concert, and working hard!

Joseph J said...

I should clarify that Tolkien spent hours telling his children unstructured tales from his fictional world, stories that make up the Silmarillion, but by the time he was writing The Lord of the Rings his children were grown up, and so he never told it in an oral fashion. It was certainly written with an eye to publication as a novel, not a loose collection of tales. I don't know about The Hobbit, how much of it may have been told orally to his children.

Suzannah said...

Joseph, that's a good question, actually! One of the surprising things I stumbled across while researching 5-act plot structure was actually a piece of evidence that Tolkien knew all about it. Remember that word he coined, "eucatastrophe", to refer to the sudden joyful turn at the end of a fairytale? Well, the word "catastrophe" was actually originally a technical plotting term which referred to the resolution of a story, good or bad. For example, the deaths at the end of a Shakespeare tragedy, or even the happy twist, like Kate winning Petruchio's bet for him, at the end of The Taming of the Shrew. Presumably, Tolkien coined "eucatastrophe" because "catastrophe" was losing its positive connotations.

Ie, Tolkien not only knew about classic five-act plotting, he quite likely also employed it in his works. Whether he made it up as he went along, or edited it into place after, or had a vague idea of where he was going roughed out ahead of time, I haven't studied his process enough to know for sure. Quite likely a bit of all three.

Personally, I don't see that there is any meaningful difference between art and science :). Allow me to toss out a few GK Chesterton quotes. "Morality, like art, consists in drawing a line somewhere." "Free verse? You might as well call sleeping in a ditch 'free architecture'!" Art has rules, and you really have to learn them before you can start being creative. Why am I scrambling around so desperately for some rules and formulas at this point in my planning for this book? Why, simply that I have a truly mind-boggling array of potential characters, themes, settings, and time periods to choose from. My difficulty is not amassing the raw materials for an epic story--my difficulty is deciding what, among the dizzying grandeur of the possibilities before me, it's necessary to use.

As I actually sit down to write this thing, never fear, all sorts of things will change. Characters will pull the plot in different directions. Inspiration will strike at the oddest moments. But at least I'll have some kind of structure by which to evaluate my creative ideas :).

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