Monday, September 3, 2007

Tolkien, writing, and raising the stakes

I had the toughest week getting the chapter I was working on right. Writing is a funny business: you get one chapter spot on, and then you try to do the same again, and suddenly you find yourself overwhelmed with the fear that the novel is becoming too generic: that the plot is repeating itself: in my case, the main character returns home, finds something from his father, someone arrives, and that arrival forces the main character to act.

I remember reading somewhere that the stakes should keep increasing for the main character, till the crescendo of the story is reached. If you think of Lord of the Rings, this process follows nicely for Frodo. He gets a ring. The ring must be hidden, then it must be taken to Rivendel, then it must be destroyed: and at each point the task becomes more and more difficult and the ring goes from a clever ring to a symbol of terrible power, then to a source of corrupting power in itself. In this way the stakes are ratcheted up. Imagine if Frodo had got to Rivendel and someone took the ring off him, or if someone said, oh - this ring is not so dangerous - then the story would have ended there. What could have happened next? Where could the story have gone?

Think of the Hobbit, for example: the majority of the book is about a journey ('There' in which the plot structure repeats itself even more obviously) where there is danger. The same journey is taken at the end of the book ('...and back again') but there is little danger after the defeat of Smaug and the goblins, and so this journey is dealt with in a much more succinct manner.

The Lord of the Rings, especially The Fellowship of the Ring is surprisingly generic: the plot repeats itself almost chapter by chapter. The hobbits face a challenge (black riders, the Old Forest, more black riders [who get increasingly close to the hobbits - till they break into their bedroom], the barrow downs, black riders again - and then the black riders stab Frodo with a magical knife that starts to burrow through his flesh to his heart.

If you go through this chapter by chapter, Tolkien was re-using a similar chapter structure of increasingly difficult challenges. And I think that it's important to realise as a writer that the reader will accept a certain amount of repetition, as long as that is interesting and exciting and informative. And repetition in that manner will not seem so apparent. The key is to getting the events that happen to the characters interesting and exciting.

Sometime on Friday afternoon I created a new character, who seemed to solve my problems. Not because he did anything particularly special, just that he allowed me to take some of the pressure off the main character by switching between their view-points and story lines, and I altered the timing of some of the scenes, and a chapter that had me tense and cranky suddenly seemed to work.

There's a lesson in here for me: that a problem that appears as difficult and impossible to cross as a brick wall can actually have an easy solution. I spent the week getting scratched knees and sore fingers, only to find a secret doorway that allowed me through to the other side.

When I finish a chapter I set myself a signpost to head to for the next chapter. It's like looking at a sea of mist, and seeing a tree in the distance, and walking towards it. These signposts often come to me just after I finish my writing on Friday, and I scribble them down and come back to them on Monday morning, and set off towards them. I'm reminding myself that I have to raise the stakes for my character: so that the forces against him grow in strength and threat. It's a hard balance to strike.


Beren said...

I can follow you on the repetition of the growing challenges for both Bilbo in the Hobbit and Frodo in Lord of the Rings... yet I do not thing it is just because of the challenges getting bigger and more terrible that the story keeps the reader going on enjoying the books. I think it is mainly the impact of these challenges on Bilbo and Frodo and the evolution of the character through the story which makes the tales so attractive. We clearly see in both tales an anti-hero growing into a leading figure... Tolkien takes us on a trip where we learn and grow together with the two small hobbits; the character gets richer, bigger, better and more mature as the story progresses. It is the key I think to keep the attention of the reader. It is the same evolution, or better growing up, that Harry Potter successes can be connected to... you don't just need bigger stakes every chapter, you especially need a richer character!

Justin Hill said...

Hi Beren: thanks so much for your comment. I think it's because the challenges facing Bilbo and Frodo get increasingly difficult that causes them to dig deeper and deeper into themselves. This is part of the journey that both charcters undertake, which is both personal and geographical. The bravest thing Bilbo ever does is go into the tunnel to see Smaug. A number of events have led to this: and the bravery he has found he has [alone in the tunnels under the Misty Mountains, killing spiders etc] Going into the tunnel to see Smaug comes, naturally, towards the end of the story, which is right. If the bravest thing he did was at the beginning of the novel, then a lot of what would follow would feel like an anti-climax and it would be hard to stretch and develop their personalities.

I think its because of growing stakes that cause the development of richer characters.

I'm afraid I've not had time to read the last four Potters, so will have to accept your assurances on that!