Have you ever read or watched The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings and thought, “Wow, the man who penned this was a true master at his craft”?
Maybe you’ve wondered how you can write like J.R.R. Tolkien: make scenes memorable, characters engaging, and weave themes naturally through your stories.
If you’ve asked these questions, you may have asked another: can we apply principles from Tolkien’s books to genres other than fantasy? What if you’re writing a contemporary novel, a sci-fi novel, or a historical fiction novel?
The answer is a resounding yes! Tolkien writes with principles that can be applied to any genre of fiction writing. Today we’re going to dive into three lessons we can learn from J.R.R. Tolkien and his writing style and how those can be implemented into your stories.
Writing Scenes With Purpose
The first lesson we can learn from Tolkien is that he wrote every scene with purpose.
As we read Tolkien’s works, we can learn that there are two different ways he makes scenes matter.
1. Scenes advance the plot
2. OR Scenes advance the characters
As you read, you can also see that there are various kinds of scenes. There are
1. Battle scenes
2. Travel scenes
3. Quiet, contemplative scenes
4. Conversational and decision-making scenes
Let me provide you with some examples of these scenes and how Tolkien writes them with purpose.
In The Two Towers, the chapter titled Helm’s Deep is an excellent battle scene. Not only this, it’s a precursor to the company’s encounter with Saruman.
But there’s more that’s going on here than just fighting. Tolkien uses this chapter and scene to move the plot forward and the characters forward.
The plot has a main goal, and for the Lord of the Rings, that is Middle Earth being restored. For Frodo throughout the books, that means taking the ring to Mordor to be restored.
In the chapter titled Helm’s Deep, the goal for the men of Rohan is to destroy the forces of Saruman, the evil Wizard, to take Isengard, so that they complete one of the many pieces that need to fall into place for Middle Earth to be restored.
And so, the men of Rohan destroy many of the orcs that are employed by Saruman to block their way to Isengard. This finally gives them passage to Isengard where Saruman dwells, which leads them one step closer to their plot objectives.
The characters are also advanced during Helm’s Deep. Aragorn is one of these characters.
Throughout this chapter, as the men of Rohan are fighting the evil forces of Saruman, Aragorn seems to grow in one major way, and that is he grows in leadership.
Aragorn seems to take the lead in battle and defense of the deeping wall. King Theoden was present, yet Aragorn was leading his (Theoden’s) men. He grows in a certain kingliness, and this is only shown as he stands before the Uruk-hai.
Tolkien writes, “So great a power and royalty was revealed in Aragorn, as he stood there alone above the ruined gates before the host of his enemies that many of the wild men paused, and looked back over their shoulders to the valley, and some looked up doubtfully at the sky.” Aragorn caused his enemies pause, that’s how kingly he looked!
Compare this to the first time we saw Aragorn in The Prancing Pony in Book I:
“Suddenly Frodo noticed that a strange-looking weather-beaten man, sitting in the shadows near the wall, was also listening intently to the hobbit-talk.”
Frodo also comments on his appearance in a later chapter. “. . .You have frightened me several times tonight, but never in the way that servants of the Enemy would, or so I imagine. I think one of his spies would–well, seem fairer and feel fouler, if you understand.”
“ ‘I see,’ laughed Strider. ‘I look foul and feel fair. Is that it? All that is gold does not glitter, not all those who wander are lost.’ “
So Aragorn (referred to as Strider in the quote above), grows quite a bit in the time between when the company first starts off to when the Battle of Helm’s Deep ensues. Aragorn goes from being a rough-looking traveler to a warrior leading a King’s men into battle.
And so, as we can see from Chapter seven of The Two Towers, battle scenes can and will show both plot advancement and character development.
Travel scenes may seem boring to write–characters are just moving from Point A to Point B. But in the hands of a skilled author, they too can have purpose.
In chapter 12 (chapter 1, book IV) The Taming of Smeagol, Tolkien advances the plot by giving us a good transition into the news of Sam and Frodo (after not hearing about them since the last chapter of The Fellowship of the Ring) and advances the characters by giving us insight more deeply into the character of Frodo.
We see Frodo’s kindness and how trusting he is in this chapter and reinforces the nature and personality we see in him throughout the rest of the books.
In this chapter, Frodo trusts Gollum (while still being discerning) to take him and Sam to Mordor. He reminds Gollum of his past self, and even gets Gollum to say his old name, “taming” him. There’s a lot more going on than just traveling!
The kind nature of Frodo we see in the chapter above is only reinforced when he returns home and finds trouble in the Shire. Saruman is there, causing such trouble, and Frodo–even after all the things he went through in Mordor–desires to wait to kill Saruman.
Decision-making scenes can also advance the plot and give insight into the characters. They can reveal important details and create suspense if done correctly as well.
One way you can do this is by including many stakes that have to be considered. Put your characters in a dilemma where they have to make a potentially harmful decision.
The Council of Elrond (chapter 2, book II) is one such chapter and scene. It has been decided that the Ring needs to be destroyed. This means taking the Ring to Mordor, the land of the dark lord Sauron.
Frodo makes the decision to carry the ring. He knows the potential consequences, he knows that it will be a while before he will get any good rest, and he knows that it’s a heavy task. He knows that he could die.
Yet, he chooses to do so.
Not only that, in this chapter, Sam makes the decision to go with Frodo, again, placing himself in danger, but setting up the scene for Sam and Frodo’s relationship that will last through the trials ahead.
These four different types of scenes are not a catchall for all the scenes in The Lord of the Rings nor are they a rubric for scenes in any given book. They are an example of how Tolkien uses scenes for a specific purpose, and the variety he gives in his scenes.
Applying Great Scenes To Your Novel
When writing your novel, give variety to your scenes. Make them full of action, then make them silent and contemplative, and then maybe add some scenes that include important decisions.
Make sure that your scenes both keep the plot moving and give glimpses into how your characters are growing and changing.
One way to practically do this is by giving your scenes structure. K.M. Weiland has excellent articles on scene structure. She says that there are two types of scenes. Action scenes are scenes where the plot is moving.
Reaction scenes are where we see the aftermath of the action scenes. These scenes are typically scenes in which we see what characters are thinking, and that’s where we can see how the characters are growing and changing.
But there’s more to scene structure than just action and reaction type scenes. That’s why I’d recommend reading her series on scene structure here.
Focus On A Few Characters
If you’ve read Tolkien’s writing, I’m sure you’ve thought, “There’s a ton of characters here, how do I keep them all straight?”
And I’d argue that many readers can’t keep them all straight: Tolkien’s world is so deep and rich that there are just too many characters and details to keep straight.
Despite this, Tolkien teaches us that we need to focus on a few characters and make them relatable to the readers.
Think about it. Who are the main characters Tolkien focuses on? I would say, in The Hobbit, that’s obviously Bilbo. But we also have the characters of the dwarves and Gandalf that he narrows onto as well.
Yet, in The Hobbit, we have the characters of the people in Rivendell, we have all the people in Hobbiton (and they’re not just background characters, they have names and places in the story!)We have Beorn, and many others.
However, Tolkien focuses on Bilbo, his thoughts, desires, fears, and personalities. While other characters have their place in the story, Bilbo is the main focus.
Applying This Concept To Your Story
So when writing your story, keep in mind that even if you have a lot of characters, it’s important to focus on a few characters and make them relatable to your readers. Focus on their desires, personalities, fears, and weaknesses. Sarah Baran from Story Embers recently wrote a post on this topic, you can read it here.
An additional thought is, if you do have a lot of characters in your story, make sure that their names aren’t too similar. Tolkien, while not to be critical, seemed to have a slight habit of making his characters have names that have the same first letter or similar sounds.
While this, I think, shows his skill in language and world building, it does make it slightly confusing. I was especially confused between the relationship of Theoden, Theowyn, and their father, Thengel, who was the heir of King Fengel.
How To Include Biblical Themes, NOT Allegories
It has been said that Tolkien stated, “I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations. . .”
If Tolkien truly said this and felt this way, how did he include the Gospel in his books?
After all, Tolkien was a Christian, and he actually helped a friend and colleague, C.S. Lewis come to faith in Christ.
But where Lewis included allegory in his books, Tolkien included biblical themes. But what is the difference between allegory and themes anyways?
Allegory basically means to represent an object, person, theme, ect. as another object, person, or theme. I will show more examples of this below.
What about theme? What is the difference between theme and allegory?
One way to define theme is: an idea that is repeated and dominant within a story.
So, theme is a dominant idea and allegory is an idea being represented as another object or idea.
How Did Tolkien Apply Biblical Themes?
So how did Tolkien apply Biblical themes without using allegory? Not only that, but how did he do this in a way that wasn’t preachy?
I would say he used his characters to show us what Christian virtues look like.
Think of Gollum and Frodo. Frodo showed grace towards Gollum–a wretched, evil creature–in ways that others could not understand. Is that not what Christ did for us when He died on the cross? Did He not show grace to wretched, vile creatures who did not seek Him?
Of course, this is not to say that Frodo represented Christ. Because that would be the use of allegory.
But Frodo did show the biblical theme of grace, one that is not often shown through books today.
Another would be Gimli and Legolas. Gimli, a dwarf, and Legolas, an elf, despite the rivalry between the two races, became good friends.
How does this show us biblical themes? I would say that it is a biblical theme to seek reconciliation with others.
Legolas didn’t have to be friends with Gimli, and vice-versa. But they eventually sought reconciliation, and became good friends. Reconciliation is, again, not often a theme in this world. Instead, we are tempted to be unkind towards others, cut off friendships, and not seek restoration.
But Legolas and Gimli chose to reconcile and unite in a common cause.
Another example would be Gandalf. This is a gray area, but I would say that Gandalf is NOT an allegory for Christ.
While the events that surround Gandalf are slightly allegorical (i.e. him rising from the dead), I would say that because Gandalf is clearly not perfect, nor the main savior of the series (though he does play a ginormous part) Gandalf isn’t to represent Christ.
I want to use C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia to further illustrate this. Aslan clearly represents Christ in Narnia. He is the Savior. He chooses to lay down his life. He doesn’t make wrong choices. He is gracious and kind, yet just.
Gandalf pales in comparison to the majesty of Aslan that C.S. Lewis clearly illustrates through Chronicles, but he does show some biblical themes and truths that can’t be missed.
Throughout Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings there are many other biblical themes that you can pick out, if you pay close attention.
But don’t read into anything too much. Themes are supposed to be shown. They’re not supposed to be presupposed.
Applying Biblical Themes To Your Novel
So how do you apply biblical themes to your novel?
Well first, let me suggest that you use characters to apply biblical themes. Use characters to show grace towards other characters. Bring characters into reconciliation with one another.
When characters sin against one another, allow those character relationships to grow apart when forgiveness is not sought, but then brought back when forgiveness is given. Allow a character’s speech to be kind, or, rough, then changed over a period of time.
Study God’s Word and look for ways you can implement biblical themes in a character’s speech, thoughts, growth, and relationships.
You can implement biblical themes using the steps given in these articles, without using direct allegory.
Your Next Steps
So after learning these lessons from J.R.R. Tolkien, master of words, you may be wondering, what do I do next?
First, apply the three lessons above to your novel! Work out your scenes to where they have purpose, write biblical themes into your novel, and flesh out the characters that truly matter.
Then look at all of the amazing articles linked throughout this post and learn about the different aspects of theme building and writing scenes with structure.
And if you haven’t already, go read Lord of the Rings.
And finally, check out the worksheet I have below to further dive into Tolkien’s writing style and his works.
Go forth and ride like the Rohirrim, young writer!