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The Lord of the Rings: Why it Works

lord of the rings

A series in which I oversimplify one concept from a work of literature to make you a better writer.


The ring corrupts everyone.

Quite early on, we learn that Frodo, our hero, is not immune to the corrupting effects. This becomes one of the greatest sources of tension. Will Frodo be able to destroy the ring when the time comes?

A common misconception about the hero’s journey fantasy writers make early in their career is that they set up an impossible task, and then through the course of the novel, the hero grows and can suddenly overcome the task. This will leave the reader feeling cheated.

The impossible task can’t do the work of creating tension and then turn out not to be impossible at the end of the novel. Imagine if, after all the buildup of The Lord of the RingsFrodo stands at the Cracks of Doom and tosses the ring in like Rose at the end of Titanic.

We might not be talking about the books today.

What makes the climax of The Lord of the Rings so good is that Frodo is corrupted. He doesn’t magically succeed over the impossible. He doesn’t throw the ring in. He puts it on his finger with the intention of not destroying it.

Frodo succumbs to the corruption because it’s impossible for him not to.

Insurmountable Evil

The first time you read or see that, your reaction should be, “No. What? That’s not how this is supposed to go.”

But it’s the only way it could go. We know that at some deep level. The only way the ring gets destroyed is through its absolute corrupting effects. The ring gets destroyed by accident.

If any living being managed to do it through sheer willpower, we’d have to rethink the entire plot. We’d be forced to think: well, I guess the ring wasn’t that powerful after all.

Keep this in mind the next time you’re plotting a book. If something has an absolute attached to it, then it must be an absolute.

The hero can’t magically rise above it. Use the absolute to your advantage. What happens if your hero actually succumbs to it? This could be an opportunity for a dramatic and harrowing plot twist right at the climax.

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3 thoughts on “The Lord of the Rings: Why it Works”

  1. You nailed it, precisely. So many novels, even good novels, make the mistake of starting with a brilliant bold concept and failing to follow through to its logical consequences. Harry Potter starts with a mis-step. If Harry Potter couldn’t be killed by Voldemort, even as a baby, it makes zero sense to make any attempt at protecting and hiding him. The logical thing to do would be for wizards to test his powers carefully, especially if they are fearful that Voldemort might come back. The series would have been more interesting if it told of Harry undergoing a series of tests that wizards hope and expect him to pass, but Harry himself is far more doubtful of his own abilities… and even cheats here and there. It could have been the story of Harry discovering that he is as powerful as everybody thinks, but not quite in the way that everybody thinks.

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