Lessons from Lord of the Rings, Part 2
Yesterday we posted Part One of our published article LESSONS FROM LORD OF THE RINGS (co-written with author Elena Greene). Today we post the second part of our article. Warning: though hard-cord nerdiness is helpful when reading the following, it is not essential. Good writing transcendes the genres.
3. Tap into sources of inner conflict to create character arcs
The filmmakers made controversial changes regarding the character of Faramir. Denethor does not appreciate this second son, a less outwardly bold man than his brother. While guarding the eastern border, Faramir waylays and questions Frodo and Sam, who are on their way to Mordor to destroy the Ring. Taking this powerful object seems to offer Faramir not only a chance to save his beleaguered country, but also to win his father’s respect. In Tolkien’s version, Faramir allows the hobbits to continue their mission, saying he is “wise enough to know that there are some perils from which a man must flee.”
The filmmakers made a different choice: Faramir feels sympathy for the hobbits but plans to bring them and the Ring back to his father. Only after an enemy attack, during which he sees the Ring’s treacherous effects firsthand, does he make the right decision. The internal conflict latent in the story is externalized for dramatic effect, increasing suspense and substituting action for dialogue. This also underscores the insidious power of the Ring and gives Faramir a character arc, though some fans of the book complained that it cheapened him. One is left with the question: is a character nobler for struggling with temptation or soaring above it? As writers we must decide for ourselves when it’s appropriate to draw out conflict in this way. Whether one agrees with the filmmakers’ decision in this case, the approach can be used to create dramatic character arcs.
Have you made things too easy for your characters or provided them with sufficient struggles? Throw in an extra hurdle and see what happens.
4. Raise the stakes. Big build-up=big payoff
In Tolkien’s story, when the country of Rohan is threatened with invasion, the women and children are sent into the mountains for safety while the men prepare what seems a hopeless defense of the stronghold. Readers know that if the battle is lost, the enemy will pursue the people of Rohan into the mountains. However, the risk is not immediate; the situation offers a measure of hope.
The filmmakers opted to heighten the drama. With no time to escape into the mountains, the women and children huddle together in caves directly behind—but well within earshot of—the stronghold. Juxtaposed images of frightened (and adorable) children with those of the hideous army outside adds immediacy and poignancy to the stakes, and makes the scene far more gripping than it would’ve been if it had been solely about our heroes defending a castle.
Another place the filmmakers raised the stakes was in the romance between Aragorn and Arwen. In the book version, Aragorn must win his kingdom in order to receive Arwen’s father’s blessing on their marriage; if he fails, she will join her father and the other elves in their exodus out of Middle Earth. High stakes already, but the filmmakers take it up a notch. Arwen herself makes the decision to remain in Middle Earth (which makes her a less passive character than in the book), and the consequence of giving up her birthright is that she will die if Aragorn and his allies do not save their world from Sauron’s rule. Now, the stakes for both Aragorn and Arwen are both public and intensely personal.
Is tension lacking in your story? Consider not only what could go wrong, but how it could go wrong in the worst possible way, at the worst possible time.
We'll post the next two tips next Monday, so be sure to check back!