The Tolkien Writing Guide Part V:

So You Want to Write a Tolkien Plot?

Or: "Pardon, your archetype is showing."

Note to Nienor Niniel and others: I have long had a love/mock relationship with the Professor and the Books. Otherwise, I wouldn't spend enough time reading them to mock them correctly. This is why, though I passionately loathe the writings of S.L. Viehl, I do not post parodies of her works. This would require me to read more of them than I already have.

And I'd just like to note that I'm sure Lexin is right, and Aragorn is going to be REALLY annoyed when he finds out Arwen has gotten him pregnant. "I thought you chose a MORTAL life!" "Yes, but that doesn't mean I want to have CONTRACTIONS."

I. The History Plot: You've Lost that Loving Feeling, and Possibly Your Soul

This is a good place for the beginner to start his/her imitation of Tolkien's style. You can make a good beginning with just a few magic artifacts, a couple of dozen supernatural beings plus your standard Tolkien races, and an entire English alphabet in capital letters.

Because mark my words, you will be using a LOT of capital letters. A typical Silmarillion excerpt goes something like, "And then the Host of the Gagnar were wroth at the Deeds of Balihuin Son of Munshuin, for he stole away Forcu the Sword of the North By Southwest and rode with it into the Shadows of the Mountain of Migrainor." If every second or third word is not capitalized, you have not yet achieved the true epic style.

Now choose an artifact and decide who made it. It doesn't really matter what it is, since you'll probably be using several different rings, swords, jewels, sets of car keys, and so on. It is most important that they be small and portable so that people can steal them. The Silmarillion would be a very short book if each of the Silmarils had been thirty feet long.

Now refer to Shakespeare or another great writer and steal whatever subplots you find lying around. Popular ones include the rise and fall of nations, betrayal of family, star-crossed lovers, attack by tentacled aliens, and dying nobly in battle against a mighty foe. You might think any one of these is enough for a plot, but this is only true when you develop the characters beyond giving them names and one or two physical characteristics. This will not be necessary for you, which is the beauty of the History Plot.

Cram in all these subplots helter-skelter. Some of them can relate to each other linearly, but this is really optional. It's best to use only one or two family lines to connect everything, and do it loosely. This will not avoid any confusion, since you will still be using many similar names and plots, but it will be easier for you as a writer. Feel free to repeat yourself. After the second or third time a hero dies fighting Lord Cthulhu (wait, that's Lovecraft) with Ouich the Spear of the North, most people will lose track.

End obscurely. This should be easy to do. Just write until you get tired of it (notice I do not say "until the reader gets tired," because there is no point in even starting if you are going to have this kind of attitude). Now toss off a couple of paragraphs chalking up the score of each race, who has made it into the end zone, who got sacked by the Orcs, and so on. Call it a day. You can always write more of these later. In fact, it's practically certain.

II. The Quest Plot: My Hobbit Went to Mount Doom and all I Got Was This Shirt

Here we move into that permanent staple of fantasy writing, the Quest. You won't be doing so many of these, because they are more difficult. The Quest requires you to have at least one character possess that trait most dreaded of epic writers: a personality.

If you can manage to endow two or three with this mystic attribute, good job, but it's safer to start with one and take the History Plot Approach to the others. Throw in a few descriptions of their eyes, weapons, ancestors, et cetera (see previous entries for details) and let these substitute for individual mannerisms.

Don't be daunted by this whole personality issue. Your hero will no doubt be Unlikely, and this means he can be more or less a transplant of your own personality. You are not a likely hero, or you would not be reading this. You would be out slaughtering members of another species with Foschizel, the Bow of the West Side. So take a rough simalcrum of yourself, minus your less interesting flaws and plus the ability to resist torture for long periods, and insert into some race or other. Tolkien liked to use Hobbits, possibly because they were the only race which did not produce heroes with depressing regularity.

Now send your Hobbit, Dwarf, Man, or Barrow-wight Who Got Bored off to find some companions. I do not say Elf, you will note. Elves are mysterious, ethereal, and (supposedly) wise. All of these characteristics are antithetical to having a personality, or at least one that can be identified with by the average reader. Besides, an Elven hero would spend three weeks writing a poem or song about his plans and by then it would be all over.

Make sure all these potential companions are male. Having women around will just prove inconvenient, as they will be too busy wasting away from unrequited love, dying in childbirth, or singing pretty songs to be any use. (Yes, the Elf companion will be singing too, but at least he will be doing it in a manly way. No, wait. We said he was an ELF, right?)

Once you've assembled a suitably diverse group of companions, you have a couple of options. You can split them up, so as to show off your command of multiple storylines, or you can keep them together, and keep THREATENING to split them up. If the group is large enough, kill off one or two. This adds dramatic tension. What with the singing everyone is going to do whenever they stop to rest, you will need it.

How to go on from this point should be obvious. You can come up with any number of dangers in the form of threatening magical geography, dragons, orcs, wolves, turnpikes, or whatever, for your hero to face until he reaches the Big Ending and faces the Enemy and any personal demons he may be toting along. If you run into any insurmountable plot problems, you can always use:

III. Tolkien's Big Plot Solver: Deus Ex Machinae and You

Once in a while, it inevitably happens that you dig yourself into a hole. Actually, the opposite is more often the case in Tolkien. You have a character chained to a big rock, on the side of a mountain surrounded by lava, and so on. How are you going to get him down? You didn't plan for this eventuality, it just sort of happened, and now you are wondering if you're really going to have to scrap your entire party and start from scratch back at Level, we mean, Chapter One.

And Tolkien discovered an easy solution to this problem.


Yes. There are enormous eagles in Middle Earth, and they like nothing better than to spend their time flapping back and forth between characters who have gotten themselves inexplicably marooned on top of high things.

Your hero is sitting there hopelessly, wondering if he really is going to get out of this one, and all of a sudden here comes the cavalry. Figuratively speaking. Who needs cavalry when you can use birds the size of luxury sedans? One minute your protagonist and his friends are facing imminent doom atop an evil wizard's tower or in the limbs of burning trees surrounded by wolves, and the next they are being bourne through the air by Convenientor and his mighty brood.

With a little effort, you can use eagles to resolve other plot difficulties as well. See how many you can come up with!