Monday, May 01, 2006

Lessons from Lord of the Rings, Part 5

All good things come to an end. As it was with Peter Jackson's gripping interpretation of JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, so too with the lessons we pulled out for writers of genre fiction. Jackson and crew are the ultimate unboxed thinkers, and we are but his humble admirers.

We hoped you enjoyed our series of lessons and will find them useful for your own wips! Here are the final two tips.

9. Try a story scramble

Die-hard fans of Tolkien know that the fearsome scene between Frodo and Shelob, an enormous spider, happens in the second book. When appraising the films for pacing, however, it was decided the second film had enough tension without the arachnophobic scene, while the final film needed an extra dollop of Frodo. Easy as a slash mark, Shelob was cut from film two and spun into the movie’s final installment.

Other bits of dramatic story the filmmakers loved that didn’t fit in with their final chronology made it into Lord of the Rings in flashbacks (Aragorn and Arwen’s love story) or flash forwards (the prophetic burning of the Shire). A poignant description of Tolkien’s “heaven” from the end of his trilogy found its way into a scene during which Gandalf and Pippin face probable death. The vision of “white shores…a far green country…a swift sunrise,” provides comfort to Pippin—and to us— when all hope seems lost, while jacking up the dramatic quotient in the scene.

Don’t be afraid to move pieces of your story around, or even scour the cutting-room floor. The result may end up stronger than the original concept.

10. Balance payoff and tension in the ending

The filmmakers faced a daunting task in ending a story with such a multiplicity of characters and plot threads: how to provide closure and emotional payoff, and do it all within reasonable time constraints. They focused on key components of the resolution: 1) the destruction of the Ring and Sauron’s power, 2) Aragorn’s reunion with Arwen and his coronation, and 3) Frodo leaving Middle Earth. Resolutions for less-critical plot threads are merely hinted at; for example, the romance between Faramir and Eowyn is resolved by showing them together at Aragorn’s coronation.

Nevertheless, having these three endings, especially the first one, released enough tension so that some viewers left the movie prematurely (including, apparently, actor Jack Nicholson!). This might have been prevented had the writers injected more doubt into the first two endings, and yet that might have diminished the much-needed joy (the third ending is bittersweet). On the other extreme, many avid Tolkien fans were upset over sequences left out of the denouement.

Have you tied up all the loose ends with your major characters, and have you given the reader ample time to bask in the glow of a well-deserved happy ending? Be aware that you may not please everyone.

Cue the lights…

Says Peter Jackson of the film and the process that won his team eleven Academy Awards, “You never just say ‘this is perfect.’ You’re always fighting and grappling with yourself to try to push it further and further and take every opportunity that you can.”

If you’d like to learn more about how Lord of the Rings was crafted into film and pick up new tips to employ in your own writing, check out the bevy of gems in the extended DVD editions, paying particular attention to any director’s notes.

We too left plenty on the cutting room floor. Look for more nuggets of gold we mined in future posts.

We also thank co-author Elena Greene for permission to publish on the blog. She's a very cool lady with a blog of her own that's well worth the visit.

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