Monday, April 17, 2006

Lessons from Lord of the Rings, Part 1

Therese and Kathleen readily embrace their "inner nerd" when it comes to The Lord of the Rings. They, along with fellow nerd and writer buddy Elena Greene, even wrote an article about Peter Jackson's movie version of the story, focusing on choices he made that all writers can learn from. The following is the first part of that article, published last November in an industry magazine, Romance Writer's Report.

Lessons from Lord of the Rings

Even if you’ve never read the books or seen the films, you’ve undoubtedly heard of The Lord of the Rings. The 1,000 page story is so complex and broad in scope that even the author of the books, J.R.R. Tolkien, said they could never be translated to film; word is he sold rights to MGM for a mere $10,000. There are many people, including the three of us, who are elated he was proven wrong.

As a writer, it’s practically impossible to read or see interviews with Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, the triumphant triumvirate who adapted the book for the big screen, and not take notes. Copious notes. (Henceforth, we’ll refer to Jackson, et al., as ‘filmmakers,’ though we feel it’s about as adequate as labeling Viggo Mortensen, Orlando Bloom and Sean Bean as ‘passably handsome,’ not to mention Elijah Wood, Karl Urban and David Wenham…not that they have anything to do with our love for the movie. Ahem.) So much of what the filmmakers did in creating and then editing their work is what we writers strive for when polishing a manuscript: pinpoint the heart of the story and stay true to it, cut what can be lost, and always direct conflict and pacing.

Okay, how did they do it? Though the lessons we’ve learned from the filmmakers could probably fill a book of their own, we’ve chosen ten tips to help a writer revise her WIP. Use our handy character guide if you’re unfamiliar with the story or need a refresher course in who’s who, then set free your inner geek and prepare to traverse the world of Middle Earth.

First, the character guide:

Who are these characters?

GOOD GUYS:
Hobbits: race of little hairy men who live in the lush and beloved Shire of Middle Earth
Frodo: young Hobbit whose goal is to destroy an evil ring in the hellish fires of Mordor
Sam, Merry and Pippin: Frodo’s fellow-Hobbits and closest friends
Gandalf: wizard and friend to Frodo
Aragorn: human ranger and warrior; soul mate to Arwen
Arwen: elf maiden; torn between world of elves and men
Eowyn: niece to the King of Rohan; soul mate to Faramir
Faramir: second son of Denethor

BAD GUYS:
The One Ring: possessed of a force intent on the domination and destruction of men
Sauron: dark lord of Mordor; looks like a big eye in the movie but was once a warrior
Gollum: shrewd creature deranged by the Ring; was once a hobbit
Denethor: steward of Gondor, a kingless country

And now for the first two of ten tips!

1. Begin the story in the right place

Every storyteller agonizes over how to pull the reader into their tale, and the same was true with the filmmakers. They grappled with a prologue overstuffed with backstory and proper names, and ditched it. Then they decided not to do a prologue at all, beginning the story with the hobbits in the Shire, but found themselves with slowed narrative. Eventually they returned to the idea of a prologue and had an inspiration: what if they told the opening from the Ring’s point of view? They could begin with its “birth”—the first true point of change—then show who wore it, how it was lost and who finds it again. It was with that concept that everything fell into place. The final seven-and-a-half-minute progression provided just enough backstory to get the viewer up to speed on this world and its people, and the threat to both.

The filmmakers also chose to insert a battle sequence to suck the viewer in. This bold choice achieved a threefold storyteller’s goal: it showed the stakes, defined the good and bad guys, and moved the story forward with cinema-chair gripping conflict.

If you’re not sure your story begins in the right place or has the right tone, do some brainstorming alone and/or with your critique group. Perseverance pays off.

2. Explore universal themes in identifiable ways

Though Lord of the Rings is a fantasy, what makes the world and the characters seem real is the use of themes connecting their experiences to ours. Though the trilogies’ overarching theme is the simplest—good verses evil—each film also had its own theme. For example, in the first, the theme is friendship and sacrifice. In the second, it is that goodness is worth fighting for, despite the odds. In the final film, it is to hold on to hope when no hope is left at all. When the theme is invoked in each of these movies, the viewer responds emotionally to the struggles and the successes of the characters, and thinks: “that could be me.” And when each of the themes is tested with its own “dark moment,” we hold our breath and become even more invested in the story.

In the end, the strongest way to unpack the theme is to let your characters do it for you. The filmmakers spent little time on the big archetypes, such as showing Sauron as the ultimate in evil. Instead they concentrated on the characters and the choices they were forced to make. Viewers could hardly be expected to care whether a fictitious world succumbs to ultimate evil. They care desperately, however, whether or not each character will survive the tests placed upon them. Each choice the characters make reinforces the theme while driving the story forward.

Make your readers care about your story by choosing themes that connect with the human experience.

Check back tomorrow for more Lessons from The Lord of the Rings!

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