Are you a fan of The Hobbit? A Lord of the Rings geek?
Perhaps you just enjoy a good story, well told.
If you’re a writer, here are some tips drawn from Tolkien’s work. Even if they don’t magically transform you overnight into a writer with a worldwide cult-like following like Professor Tolkien’s . . . attention to these principles will improve your writing.
1. Keep those scraps of ideas.
A familiar story to those who follow Tolkien’s biography is that The Hobbit “began” many years before its publication in 1937 when, in a moment of odd inspiration, Tolkien jotted down an strange phrase that popped into his mind. It would become the opening line of The Hobbit:
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”
He scribbled it on the back of a page from a student’s exam booklet (a free source of scratch paper that Tolkien like to use). Of course, he had no idea of what a hobbit was. Nobody did. But Tolkien realized that the curious phrase held some form of delight for him.
The key: Be observant. When you encounter an intriguing item, save it. Record those snippets. Cut out those tales of the weird and stick them in a file.
And keep them.
Snippets are lovely phrases. Curious thoughts. Interesting observations. Overhead bits of memorable conversation. Strange sightings.
Anne Rice admitted she has awakened at night to scribble half-dreamt ideas on her room’s wallpaper to make sure she recalled them in the morning. Others keep a small notebook with them to jot down daily thoughts and random phrases.
Novelist Susan Henderson, in a post on her website LitPark, once wrote:
Write down every idea before it’s gone. Use the backs of envelopes and gas receipts if you’re driving. On one of those slips is your breakout story:
. . .
“Mother dances salsa in front of the mirror in a stolen dress.”
. . .
If you don’t write it down, you’ll waste [that] gift.
I drive with a pen between my teeth, holding the paper against the steering wheel when I write. Never mind the honking. I roll the windows up or the hundreds of story ideas littering the passenger seat will blow onto the highway, and then someone else might write my breakout story.
2. Master the trick of particularity.
In talks for writers, I’ve often praised the beginning paragraphs of The Hobbit. They reveal two aspects of brilliant technique. First, although the hobbit is one of Tolkien’s great artistic inventions, he chose to start by describing not a hobbit but a hobbit’s dwelling. We quickly come to know a lot about hobbits as we go in the front door, down the hall, and into the hobbit’s cozy den of comfort.
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.
It had a perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle. The door opened on to a tube-shaped hall like a tunnel: a very comfortable tunnel without smoke, with panelled walls, and floors tiled and carpeted, provided with polished chairs, and lots and lots of pegs for hats and coats – the hobbit was fond of visitors.
Besides the choice of what to describe, notice the specificity of the small number of details. We see the round door “like a porthole, painted green,” the yellow knob in the “exact middle.”We go down the hall with its inviting pegs on the wall. These are the tricks of fiction. The author chooses a small number of details, and somehow, this convinces us that there is a “real” place (albeit in a fictional world of a book) with believable characters doing things of importance. The odder or more precise the detail, the more convincing.
Dorothy Sayers, scholar and mystery writer, in discussing Dante’s The Inferno, calls this “the trick of particularity.” Dante mastered it, she says, as did other great writers. Why is there a lamppost in the woods in C.S. Lewis’s Narnia when the Penvensie children arrive for the first time? And why do we soon spy a faun carrying an umbrella? Something about it offers a concreteness to the scene. And we start to see it in our mind’s eye.
Fantasy writers are by no means the only ones to use the trick of particularity. It’s just that in fantasy it’s so noticeable because so much of it is implausible, like the glow of a dragon’s fiery breath in a deep cave, as a small hobbit creeps forward, closer and closer to the sound of its breath:
“a sort of bubbling like the noise of a large pot galloping in the fire, mixed with a rumble as of a gigantic tom-cat purring.”
. . .
There he lay, a vast red-golden dragon, fast asleep; a thrumming came from his jaws and nostrils, and wisps of smoke, but his fires were low in slumber. Beneath him, under all his limbs and his huge coiled tail, and about him on all sides stretching away across the unseen floors, lay countless piles of precious things, gold wrought and unwrought, gems and jewels, and silver red-stained in the ruddy light.
Smaug lay, with wings folded like an immeasurable bat, turned partly on one side, so that the hobbit could see his underparts and his long pale belly crusted with gems and fragments of gold from his long lying on his costly bed.
3. A Journey is a Marvelous Device.
“To a story-teller a journey is a marvelous device. It provides a strong thread on which a multitude of things that he has in mind may be strung . . . .”
So wrote Tolkien in a letter (included in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. by Humphrey Carpenter).
Both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings make full use of The Journey as a central device, as have countless other novels, from Don Quixote and Gulliver’s Travels to C.S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader to more recent works like Life of Pi.
Other novels use the journey metaphorically as a trip through a distinct segment of time. For instance, Dickens used the device in A Christmas Carol, as we “travel” through Scrooge’s past. It is the core scheme of coming-of-age novels like David Copperfield and of the Harry Potter novels, following students of magic through their years at Hogwarts.
The Hero’s Journey is the mythical form of this. Christopher Vogler and others have written of the fictional applications to popular books and movies.
The structure allows both writer and reader to stay on course, following a natural thread that becomes more familiar and emotionally rich for readers, as we travel along, following the steps of the journey being taken.
The inevitable structure of a journey (beginning, middle, and end) becomes departure, travel, and arrival. This plot aid can help a writer think more about the other elements of story: the character of those on the journey, the purpose of it, the revelations & surprises encountered on the way, and the transformation gained by journey’s end.
Tolkien’s subtitle of The Hobbit – There and Back Again – is not as mundane as it might seen. It is a four-word summary of a grand adventure.
4. How does the story sound?
Many great writers, from Roald Dahl to Richard Adams (author of Watership Down), honed their storytelling skills and developed ideas by first telling versions of their stories out loud. In addition to telling bedtime stories to his four kids, in 1920, Tolkien began his wonderful Father Christmas Letters, annual illustrated missives delivered, complete with hand-drawn postage stamps, and read aloud to them when they were young, telling of recent escapades at the North Pole. Likewise, Lewis Carroll (Charles Hodgson) first spun Alice’s trip into Wonderland to entertain kids on a boating excursion.
In such tellings, ideas are field-tested, ideas played out, and writing cadences are refined.
Master writing instructor Peter Elbow has suggested that reading one’s work aloud is one of the most powerful tools to improve a work. The spurious word, the awkward phrase, cannot be hidden in a reading, even if you read aloud and alone in a room. It “gives you the vicarious experience of being someone else” hearing the words for the first time; it “brings the sense of audience back into your act of writing.” This, Elbow says, “is a great source of power.”
Susan Orlean agreed, saying that reading your work out loud is “the single best tool for self-editing.”
Try reading Tolkien’s description of Smaug the dragon out loud. You’ll hear what a gift it is for the mouth and ear.
Naturally, learning to tell stories first orally is a great way to start a writing career. But if you didn’t start that way, you can catch up now. Pick a page from your draft and read it out loud. And be sure to have your red pen of revision handy.
5. Take your time.
In today’s world, we often feel a rush to write, submit, get published, or self-publish if no agent or editor steps forward quickly enough. But Tolkien’s experience suggests that truly great works benefit from time.
Tolkien took much time. He returned years later to that scrap of paper to wonder what a hobbit might look like, what it might do, and why. He wrote and revised. He considered the back-story. He wrote background myths, and language, and poems and songs that the characters might sing. He drew maps. He drew illustrations. And he fussed over everything. In The Lord of the Rings, he charted the separate travels of groups of characters, and wondered if he had gotten it all right, so that the phase of the moon that one party was looking at on a given night was the same as that which another party saw elsewhere on the same night.
And, as Tolkien scholar Dr. John D. Rateliff noted, after long study of Tolkien’s manuscript drafts: Tolkien revised. And revised. And each time he did, the work got better.
Success lies in the skill of those revisions. Writing is rewriting. A manuscript can get better, with sufficient time to set it aside, rethink key passages, connect more dots, build the back-story, and deepen the thematic elements. One of the best things you can do is to set a piece aside to let it cool, before returning to revise with a fresher eye and ear.
6. Assemble a great writers group.
Tolkien was not a solitary genius. He spent much time in the company of fellow writers. At Oxford, he assembled frequently with an informal group called The Inklings, which included C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, Owen Barfield, and others of notable scholarship and creative ability. They read from their works in progress and talked and smoked and drank in sessions in Lewis’s chic-shabby rooms at Magdalen College at Oxford. They discussed literature over pints at the favorite pub.
A great book on The Inklings is The Company They Keep: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien as Writers in Community. In it, author Diana Pavlac Glyer shows how the Inklings worked and how much they influenced each other’s prose.
You may not easily assemble so lofty a group. But the better the writers you can associate with, and the deeper that literary friendship can become, the more chance you have to challenge yourself to produce better drafts, to read in public, to listen to yourself and others, to revise, and to help and encourage your friends. You can lift each other to higher achievements. The key is to find the best. Keep the groups small and informal. Better to find a good friend or two than to go to large gatherings of people you don’t really know or trust for their literary vision. There is no advantage to numbers. Quality rules, in friends and colleagues.
Write like Tolkien.
These six points of advice are not random ideas. They are key approaches to improving your writing – tips I have often offered to emerging writers looking for advice.
I could simplify those points and say, “Just write like Tolkien.”
[This article is by Philip Martin, author of several books about fantasy lit, including A Guide to Fantasy Literature and The Purpose of Fantasy (both available in softcover or Kindle), along with books for writers, most recently How To Write Your Best Story. He is director of Great Lakes Literary .]