When The Fellowship of the Ring came out in theaters in December 2001, I was 12 years old and on the verge of developing a serious obsession with all things Tolkien. Exhibit A: that winter, I saw the movie 12 times in theaters. And I read (then immediately reread five or six times) the books for the first time. Now, The Lord of the Rings is as crucial a part of my winters as snowstorms, fuzzy socks, and peppermint mochas.
One doesn’t read and watch the entire series dozens of times without learning something about writing. If you’re already a Tolkien fan, you’ve probably noticed some of the traits that make his writing so memorable. However, if the thought of reading high fantasy makes you shudder, don’t worry—you can learn the same lessons too. Just keep reading for the shorthand guide to what Tolkien can teach all creatively minded sorts about writing.
1. Get Fully Immersed in Your World
The Elvish spoken by actors in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings isn’t gibberish. They’re speaking one of the many languages Tolkien created for each race in his fantasy world. But his world-building didn’t end with languages. Tolkien also wrote The Silmarillion—the comprehensive mythology of Middle-Earth published posthumously by Tolkien’s son—along with other stories collected in The Unfinished Tales. But even though Tolkien knew everything there was to know about his world, the history, mythology, and language of Middle-Earth inform the story of The Lord of the Rings without overwhelming it.
For instance, knowing that siblings Isildur and Anárion founded Gondor after Númenór’s tragic downfall adds poignancy to the siege of Gondor by the forces of Mordor. At the same time, not knowing the mythology doesn’t detract from your investment in the battle. What matters is that Tolkien knew so much about his world that the story and setting feel completely authentic.
While you don’t need to go quite as in-depth as Tolkien, follow his lead. Whether you’re writing a short story, novel, memoir, or poem, fully immerse yourself in the world you create. For example, decide on your main character’s background story, preferences, hobbies, and more—not necessarily to include the details in the novel, but to understand your character, story, and setting perfectly before you even start writing. You can always offer additional details to fans who are desperate to know more. Keeping the details to yourself is a fine choice, too.
With the right background knowledge and story development, you make your characters and the spaces they inhabit feel real..
2. Prolong Suspense
The first time I read The Lord of the Rings, I couldn’t set the book down for a second. The first half of The Fellowship of the Ring ends with Frodo’s harrowing flight from the nine nefarious Ringwraiths. The final paragraph reads:
The black horses were filled with madness, and leaping forward in terror they bore their riders into the rushing flood. Their piercing cries were drowned in the roaring of the river as it carried them away. Then Frodo felt himself falling, and the roaring and confusion seemed to rise and engulf him together with his enemies. He heard and saw no more.
And The Two Towers, the series’ middle novel, ends:
The great doors slammed to. Boom. The bars of iron fell into place inside. Clang. The gate was shut. Sam hurled himself against the bolted brazen plates and fell senseless to the ground. He was out in the darkness. Frodo was alive but taken by the Enemy.
The first movie’s ending compelled me to keep reading, too—I came home from The Fellowship of the Ring and immediately dug out my dad’s tattered ‘70s copies of the books so I could find out what happened next.
Try to create the same sense of suspense in your readers. For instance, hook them with an interesting introduction. Then keep them reading with descriptive details, intriguing characters, and situations they’re desperate to discover the resolution to. (Did Frodo make it to the other side of the river? How in Middle-Earth is Sam going to get out of this mess and help Frodo save the world?)
You don’t have to write a trilogy to create a compelling cliffhanger, either. Keep readers moving by ending one chapter with new or startling information. Then start the next chapter with the characters’ reactions.
3. Use Precise Language
Tolkien is a master of descriptions. Savor the sensory imagery in these sentences:
- “As he fell slowly into sleep, Pippin had a strange feeling: he and Gandalf were still as stone, seated upon the statue of a running horse, while the world rolled away beneath his feet with a great noise of wind” (The Two Towers).
- “. . . the green and tangled valley ran up into the long ravine between the dark arms of the mountains” (The Two Towers).
- “A black darkness loomed beyond, and in it glinted, here and there, cold, sharp, remote, white as the teeth of ghosts, the . . . White Mountains of the realm of Gondor, tipped with everlasting snow” (The Two Towers).
- “But who knows what she spoke to the darkness, alone, in the bitter watches of the night, when all her life seemed shrinking, and the walls of her bower closing in about her, a hutch to trammel some wild thing in?” (The Return of the King)
Tolkien’s images are often jarring and engage all senses: snowy mountains like the teeth of ghosts, a horse standing still while the dark world spins. The world turning with the sound of wind has stuck with me since I first read it. His descriptions go beyond just painting a picture in the reader’s mind.
Mimic the high-fantasy master by creating your own unique images for your readers. Combine solid verbs (“loomed” and “trammeled”) with vivid nouns and adjectives (“tangled,” “hutch,” “bitter”) to craft descriptions readers not only see but hear, smell, taste, and touch as well.
4. Set Goals for Your Writing, Ownership, and Authorship
Amazon recently purchased the global television rights to The Lord of the Rings. Many die-hard fans were more than a little worried about what Amazon would do to the beloved series, but knowing Tolkien’s son and head of his estate, Christopher Tolkien, approved the sale reassured them—until fans learned that Christopher Tolkien had actually resigned prior to the sale.
Christopher’s goal was always preserving his father’s legacy. Some fans fear Amazon’s goal for The Lord of the Rings will, for better or worse, have a great deal more to do with profit (and one-upping Game of Thrones) than with legacy preservation.
Amazon’s intentions remain to be seen, but you can still find a lesson within the debate. Decide what your publishing goals are and who you want to share in ownership of your work. Before you publish, complete your market research, select an agent and editor you truly feel comfortable with, and think carefully about the repercussions of, say, signing away the film rights to your new novel.
I’ll always be grateful to Tolkien for taking my tween self on endless fantastical adventures and inspiring my adult self with his masterful writing. If you don’t want to reread The Lord of the Rings this winter, that’s okay—but whatever creative project you’re working on, use the writing tips above to make your own writing soar.