Tag Archives: tolkien

Causal Chains: Defining the Beginning & the End


Caroline-Made-This-1More from Orson Scott Card this week, again looking at something which could be considered fairly basic but actually deserves quite a lot of thought. Where do you begin and end your story? Just saying ‘start at the beginning’ doesn’t work because, in OSC’s terms, the myth of a story is far longer than the text. Do you start with your detective protagonist finding the body? His argument with his boss that morning? His divorce the year before? Do you start with his childhood, which made him the man he is today? His birth? His parents meeting?

The myth of the story is actually a long network of cause and effect which begins long before the story and continues long afterwards. You, however, must choose a point where the text begins and a point where it ends.   ~ OSC, How to write Science Fiction & Fantasy

The Beginning of the End

The two are, of course, intrinsically linked and not just because they are both key events within the same story. The way you structure the beginning dictates to a greater extent what ending your audience are geared to anticipate. It also dictates what the focus of the story is. If you start with the detective protagonist’s parents getting married, for example, then the murder case which is the main text of your book is going to seem out of place and will take a while to get to.

The beginning must make the audience ask questions that are answered by the story’s ending so that, when they reach that ending, they recognize that the story is over.   ~OSC, HtwSF&F

It comes back, really, to starting your story as close to the immediate action as possible but not so close that we don’t care about the people when bullet start flying towards them. If background from earlier in the myth is relevant to the text, you can bring it in gradually as flashbacks, explanations, insights, and so on. You don’t have to tell the entire story in a linear fashion. Writers have the power of time travel. We’re awesome, that way.

The MICE Quotient

Okay, so beginnings set up the expectations of endings. But that still doesn’t help decide what the right beginning is, or where it is. OSC has a system for defining this – something he calls the MICE Quotient. MICE stands for the four elements that define structure in a story: Milieu, Idea, Character, Event. Depending on the kind of story you’re telling, a different one of these will be the dominant factor.

  • MILIEU: the planet / society / family. The world setting, in essence. Milieu stories almost always follow the same structure: an observer, who sees things as his audience would see them, goes to strange places, is transformed by them, and comes home. The story starts when he reaches the strange lands and ends when he leaves (or decides not to).
  • IDEA: essentially, this is a story about characters finding out new information. It starts by raising a question (e.g. who killed Jimmy? Why did this civilisation decline? Is there life on Mars?), and finishes when the question is answered.
  • CHARACTER: the transformation of a character, where that transformation is the primary thread of the story rather than a consequence or subplot. (OSC says that good characterization is essential for Character stories but not for the others – I disagree with him there.) The story begins when the main character begins the process of change, either because they’re forced to or because they are unhappy with their current role, and ends when they settle into a new role or become resigned to the old one. In a Character story, according to OSC, a lot of the plot will come from people resisting that attempt to change.
  • EVENT: something is wrong and must be dealt with. The story ends when it’s been fixed / gone catastrophically badly and all hope of fixing it is lost. It does not, however, start when the thing goes wrong in the first place. The starting point is when ‘the character whose actions are most crucial to establishing the new order becomes involved in the struggle’. As an example, Lord of the Rings doesn’t start when Sauron comes to power, or even when the ring is found by Bilbo. It starts when Frodo gets involved. Most fantasy uses this structure.

This is not the mouse you’re looking for

It’s important to repeat that a story isn’t just one of these – there’s plenty of scope for using all four types of plot, but one will dominate and that should help you structure accordingly. In particular, it should give you an identification for the start and end points, to set up the right expectations in your readers. Make sure you identify which that primary thread is. And if your story isn’t working? OSC suggests that you try rewriting it with one of the other MICE options as the primary focus. It will probably change the entire structure.

For more on using the MICE Quotient throughout the story, click here for an entertaining and enlightening explanation by Writing Excuses podcast, or here for a written review.

I Got That Loving Feeling… But Which One?


All you need is love, or, failing that, alcohol.   ~ Wendy Cope

As I mentioned briefly in the blog hop last week, I like to play with the different kinds of love in my writing. Love is one of the most powerful character drivers but it’s easy to get caught in the very common trap of portraying only one form of it. So I was delighted to see there was a Festival of Love, looking at the various types, going on in the Southbank Centre in London. I pottered along with a friend yesterday to see what they made of it. To be honest, it was rather disappointing on the whole but it did make me realise that generally people aren’t really aware of the variations. So, as a kind of research aid, I thought I’d briefly go into some of them here.

The Greeks…

Not how I'd originally envisioned Percy Blakeney

Percy Blakeney

AGAPE (a-gah-pay)

Selfless love. Most commonly described as ‘Christian love for all men’, but the term was around long before Christianity. In the original sense, it was less a love of people in general and more about spiritual or unconditional love that had nothing to do with anything physical. More modern usages liken it to great empathy for others. One of the best examples is the 1986 film The Mission with Jeremy Irons and Robert De Niro. This is probably the hardest type of love to use in storytelling, as it tends to be less immediately passionate, but it can work fantastically. After all, who doesn’t love Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel?

EROS (eh-ross)

Passionate, physical love. This is the big one, the type of love that gets all the press. The type that 95% of stories are about, from Paris and Helen onwards. Contrary to popular opinion, it doesn’t have to be about sex, although that’s very frequently a feature. It includes romance, ‘love at first sight’, and – in the original meaning – the appreciation of beauty, both within and without. Platonic eros is totally possible, although I can’t think of a literary example right now. A rare gap in the eros market!

LUDUS (loo-dus)

Flirting, playful affection. This is generally the pre-cursor to eros, before it becomes something deeper and more passionate. This is the fun, light-hearted stage. This does get played with in plenty of stories but it generally turns into eros pretty quickly. Off the top of my head, the 1989 film When Harry Met Sally is probably the best extended example of ludus.

PHILAUTIA (fill-out-ee-a)

Self respect, self love. Not vanity but the ability to be happy with oneself. Getting this one licked in real life is a hell of a challenge for most people so it makes a great internal character arc. There was a quote in the Southbank Centre, which I can’t remember now, about how love offered from someone who doesn’t love themselves can’t be trusted. My favourite literary example of a character who has achieved philautia is Lord Arthur Goring from Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband, but he starts the play with it:

To love oneself is the beginning of a life-long romance.

PHILIA (fill-ee-a)

Love between friends. Affection, regard and loyalty with an element of give and take. This is quite similar to agape, except that it refers to a specific and defined community. Next to eros, this is probably the type of love that gets the most coverage (although that isn’t saying much). The bond between a group of friends is a strong theme to play with. The Fellowship from Lord of the Rings, Harry and Hermione from Harry Potter, the 1985 film The Breakfast Club – these are all good examples and there are plenty more. band of brothers PRAGMA (prag-mah)

Enduring, settled love. Another tough one to have as a character drive, as it is less passionate and more about commitment. It can be a development from eros or from philia. The relationship between Holmes and Watson towards the end of Conan Doyle’s books is a great example, as is Michael and Charity Carpenter in Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden Files. A challenging build for a writer, but very powerful if done right. Consider that a gauntlet thrown down.

STORGE (stor-gay)

Familial love. The bond between parent and child, or between siblings. Also, and far less commonly, used in the original meaning to represent acceptance – ‘loving the tyrant’. There’s a reasonable number of stories that deal with familial love, such as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, or Shelby and M’Lynn in Steel Magnolias. Plenty of room for more, though. It’s an emotion almost every reader can empathise with on a pretty fundamental level, which is great for immersion.

… And The Rest

DILIGERE (dill-id-jair-ay)

Love of one’s ruler/commander. This is a Roman word which literally translates as ‘to esteem’. Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda, and its sequel Rupert of Hentzau, are fantastic examples. Almost all the characters are motivated by a devoted love of the king (or, because things get complicated, the man they consider to be king). Bernard Cornwall’s Richard Sharpe series also frequently alludes to it, particularly Harper’s devotion to Sharpe himself (especially in Sharpe’s Sword).

FAITHspaghetti monster

Love of one’s deity/ancestor/spaghetti monster of choice. Think about all the things that people have done for faith – building huge structures, undertaking incredible pilgrimages, moving mountains (metaphorical or otherwise). It’s impacted so much of our history, and it can completely define a person. Fantastic character trait material. Guy Gavriel Kaye’s Lions of Al-Rassan is a great example, as I might have mentioned before.


Love for one’s country. Patriotism seems to go in and out of fashion within cultures, I think, and at the moment it’s out. You can see it clearly in a lot of war poetry, though, as well as books like John Buchan’s Richard Hannay series. This is a very abstract love, focusing on an idea or ideal rather than a particular person or object, but it’s no less powerful for that. In fact, I’d say that patriotism has been the driver for many of the most heroic real-life stories. Given that it’s best showcased in conflict, this makes it a great character trait for a story.

The Dark Side

Of course there’s a dark side to love. There’s a dark side to any strong emotion, particularly when taken to extremes. I’m not even talking about the true but clichéd ‘love turns to hate’ thing. Just as love is far more nuanced than that, so are its corruptions. Eros turns to obsession, stalking or rape; philautia turns to narcissism; pragma turns to dependency; faith and patriotism turn to fanaticism. Greed is a kind of love – excessive love of a thing – and of course you’ve got the whole green world of jealousy to play with. ‘Hell hath no fury’ and all that. In the real world these are all bad, m’kay? In stories, they make for fantastic character arcs. Remember that the dark side is not the sole remit of your antagonist. Why shouldn’t your ‘good’ guys experience these? They are just as powerful motivators as any of the more positive variations listed above.

So, there’s 10 types of love (not including negative aspects) that you can use to motivate your characters, and I doubt this is an exhaustive list. What have I missed? And how many have you used, or even read about?

(And, just because I love the scene, an example of frustrated eros:)

From JRR to LOTRO: the Descent of Creative Ownership


I’ve talked plenty in the past about writing being a collaborative effort – how I wake the raptor at 1am to check a story idea with him, borrow character traits from my friends, use roleplay for inspiration, etc. All well and good on the amateur scene (although I obviously try and get permission from the people I’m borrowing from), but when it comes to publication there are these things called ‘copyrights’ that come into play.

Which Middle Earth?

Peter Jackson’s films of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit necessarily required copyright permission to retell those stories on the silver screen. Unfortunately the Tolkien Estate had already sold the copyrights to some of the lesser known works, so anything that was covered in those works could not be referenced in the films. Rumour has it that’s why, in the film of The Hobbit, the Necromancer is never referred to by his original name. Now, I’m a huge fan of what Jackson has done with those stories and, for the most part, he’s stayed fairly faithful to the original plot. Changes, however, have been made. It’s an interpretation rather than a pure retelling.

Then it starts getting really interesting. Off the back of the films came Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO) – an online multi-player game. The Tolkien Estate promptly sued Jackson and New Line Cinema for copyright infringement in 2012. The response? That the content of the games was based purely on Jackson’s films, which were themselves covered by copyright. In effect, the Middle Earth of LOTRO was no longer Tolkien’s Middle Earth.

Cover Versions

There’s a strong argument for saying that reinterpretation gives the audience a chance to learn something different about the story, and that that development creatively belongs to the cover artist rather than the original. That a radical repackaging essentially creates something new – or at least as new as we get in a world where, according to Andre Gide, ‘everything that needs to be said has already been said’. As an example, I’d like to share one of my favourite covers ever which – despite keeping the same words and essentially the same tune – is nonetheless a very different song to the original:

When Fanfic Goes Bad

Fanfic,  for the uninitiated, is ‘original’ fiction based on published settings and characters as written by the fans. Some of it’s good, some of it’s bad and some of it’s really, really ugly. Don’t google Harry Potter fanfic unless you’re absolutely sure you can take the fallout. I mean it.

Anyway, 50 Shades of Grey is famously fanfic that made it big – stories based on the world and characters of Twilight, with a few tweaks to disguise the fact. E.L. James is now as big as Stephanie Meyer, complete with upcoming films. It’s the kind of success that every budding author dreams of. To my knowledge, however, there were no copyright purchases involved. Meyer’s story was simply repapered, repackaged and retold.

Community buy-in to a story is key to its success and, as Charles Caleb Cotton said, ‘imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.’ But at what point does building on the original become a form of creative theft, in the moral sense if not the legal one?

Late Arrivals: Introducing Characters in Closing Chapters & Avoiding Deus Ex


Character introduction is always there on the challenge scale. How much/little detail do you give? How do you make it easy for the reader to connect with them? How do you make them seem like real people? And so on, and so forth. All these questions are covered often and variously, and I’m sure I’ll revisit them in more depth. But here’s one that isn’t raised so much: where in the story is the cut-off point for introducing new characters?

The thing is, sometimes your protagonist ends up in a situation that they can’t solve by themselves. That’s good and as it should be – no one wants to read about the perfect, self-sufficient character unless he’s called MacGyver and played by a young Richard Dean Anderson. But if they need outside assistance towards the end of the book (which is perfectly possible because that’s where the stakes get raised) then you risk the introduction of a new character looking like a deus ex move.

Brief précis for those who haven’t heard the term, and to flex my much-ignored classicist muscles: the term ‘deus ex machina‘ originally comes from ancient Greek theatre (despite the phrase being Latin), where an actor playing a god would literally descend from above the stage in a crane in order to solve the problems of the plot. Or lightning-bolt someone – it was a toss up. The Roman poet Horace specifically advised against using this device ‘unless a difficulty worthy of a god’s unravelling should happen’. Basically, don’t do it. It’s generally seen as a lack of creativity on the writer’s part, and leaves the audience feeling cheated. I cite the great eagles in Lord of the Rings as a prime example, although Tolkein called them a eucatastrophe rather than a deus ex. He made up that word, though, so I’m not sure I buy it.

JRR couldn't be bothered to write the walk home.

JRR couldn’t be bothered to write the walk home.

So is there a cut-off point in the story, beyond which you can’t introduce new characters? Or does it just boil down to the manner of their introduction? I’ve just finished reading Terry Pratchett’s latest, Raising Steam. On page 319 out of 370 he introduces a new character who sticks around for a couple of pages, long enough to remove an obstacle that didn’t have to be there in the first place. It felt enough like padding to jar me out of immersion – and I’m a big Pratchett fan. If he can’t do it, can anyone?

The reason I ask is because a new character turns up in Corpus about four fifths of the way through the book. She’s there to serve multiple purposes, none of which are truly world-saving but all of which are important. During beta testing, though, her appearance was picked up on as ‘cursory’. Now, it’s perfectly possible that I just need to do some work on developing the scenes, but it made me wonder whether late character arrivals were ever wholly successful.

Can anyone think of a good example?

It Was All A Dream


No. No, no, no, no, no. Put the pen down and back away from the keyboard. If this ending appeals to you then you’re a menace to society and should not be allowed out in public. Hallucinations are acceptable because they’re temporary and indicative of something actually going on. ‘Then I woke and it was all a dream’ as an ending is not. The reader shouldn’t be asked to invest time and emotion in a story, only to be told at the end that it never actually happened. They lose all sense of engagement in the characters, closure in the story and trust in the writer.

Playing with this trope in order to subvert it is fine. Nightmare on Elm Street ends with making you think it’s all a dream before the main nightmare character turns up in real life, giving the audience a final shock and question as the finale. The subversion in The Matrix works because it’s done early and is a major world-building aspect. Chronicles of Thomas Covenant have the main character believing he’s in a dream and acting accordingly, then coming to doubt it. Contrast these with things like Mirrormask and the film of Breaking Dawn – the sense of frustration and disillusion (although at least Mirrormask is pretty to watch). To quote Terry Pratchett’s Wee Free Men:

Tiffany sighed. “And then she woke up and it was all a dream.” It was the worst ending you could have to any story.

The trouble is, it’s used so extensively and in some fairly revered pieces of storytelling, The Wizard of Oz being a prime example. The point is that this doesn’t invalidate the main bulk of the story or the quality of the writing. It invalidates the story as a whole. Tolkien likened it to ‘a good picture in a disfiguring frame’. If you’ve absolutely got to use it, make sure it’s obviously a dream, brief, and not the end. Even subversion isn’t necessarily enough here, since ‘dream’ subversions have also been pretty extensively explored. There’s a nicely written article here documenting the history of film ending twists which demonstrates the dangers of trying to one-up subversions.

I’d expect some people to disagree with me, citing their favourite films/books/episodes/whatever as evidence that it can work. That’s fine – of course you’re entitled to have your own opinions. Mine is that it’s a horribly lazy ending designed to piss off your audience. There are exceptions but a) they are exceptions, and b) they almost always get by on the quality of the rest of the story. They make it despite the handicap. Once again, quality is what counts.