Editor Roundtable: The Return of the King

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This week, Leslie concludes her examination of action stories on an epic scale with the epic-est epic of of them all, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. This 2003 conclusion to The Lord of the Rings trilogy was directed by Peter Jackson from a screenplay he wrote with Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, based, of course, on the epic novel of the same name by J.R.R. Tolkien.


The Story

Genre: Action-Epic, Savior Plot – Hero versus Villain intent on social destruction 

  • Beginning Hook – Sauron attacks Pippin through the Palantir in Edoras, revealing his plot to attack Minas Tirith, but when Denethor refuses to act to defend the city and Gandalf orders Pippin to light the Beacon of Amon Din, Theoden must decide whether Rohan will answer the call. Theoden declares they will and prepares for the muster at Dunharrow, where Aragorn takes the Road to Dimholt to seek the army of the dead.

Meanwhile, the ring takes its toll on Frodo as he and Sam make their way to Mordor with Gollum, even though Sam reveals that Gollum intends to kill them, but when Sam offers to carry the ring for Frodo, he must decide whether to accept help or not. Frodo, whose mind has been poisoned by Gollum’s suggestions that Sam wants the ring for himself, sends his friend away and follows Gollum up the secret stairway. 

  • Middle Build – The Orcs of Mordor take Osgiliath, though the armies of Gondor, Rohan, and the dead defeat the armies of Mordor to preserve Minas Tirith, but when they receive no word from Frodo, Aragorn and the rest of the Fellowship must decide whether to wait or march on the Black Gate. They decide to march, and Aragorn uses the Palantir to reveal to Sauron that he is Isildur’s heir in possession of the reforged blade that cut the ring from Sauron’s hand.

Meanwhile, Sam finds the Lembas bread that Gollum threw away and goes to save Frodo who has been led to Shelob’s Lair and attacked by both the spider and Gollum, but Sam finds what he thinks is Frodo’s dead body while Orcs approach, he must decide whether to continue the mission or not. He takes the ring and hides, but soon realizes that Frodo was not dead and follows Frodo into Cirith Ungol.

  • Ending Payoff – The Orcs of Mordor move to the Black Gate to attack the armies of Gondor and Rohan, but when the Mouth of Sauron shows Frodo’s Mithril shirt to Aragorn and Gandalf and tells them the ring bearer is dead, they must decide whether to ignore the news and fight or lose all hope. Aragorn refuses to believe Frodo is lost and rouses his forces to fight. They hold Sauron’s attention long enough to buy time for the ring to be destroyed.

Meanwhile, after Sam returns the ring to Frodo, the two hobbits head for Mount Doom disguised as Orcs, but when Frodo stands poised to destroy the ring in the fire of the volcano (where it was originally forged), he must decide whether to part with the ring or not. The pull of the ring is too strong, but Gollum fights Frodo, bites the ring, and in his joy at being reunited with the precious, falls into the lava, which destroys the ring, defeating Sauron and saving the people of Middle Earth. Frodo and Sam are saved from Mount Doom’s eruption by the Great Eagles.

The Principle – Leslie – Action Stories on an Epic Scale

As you probably know, this film is an adaptation of the third book in JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. It largely mirrors the structure of the books, with the exception that in the books Tolkien split the story of Frodo and Sam and that of the remaining members of the Fellowship into separate books from the beginning of The Two Towers (Middle Build) until The Return of the King (Middle Build and Ending Payoff).

Why didn’t I choose the first film in the trilogy? One way to gain a better understanding of the global story you want to execute is to figure out, not just where it begins, but where it ends. Knowing how the story ends, lets you see what you need to set up in the beginning and middle to create a satisfying experience for the reader. It gives you a specific destination to work toward.

This is true for any story, but especially true for epic stories like The Lord of the Rings with lots of characters and locations, that all need to work together and support the main conflict. (Just because epic fantasy readers are more patient than average doesn’t mean you should waste their time with characters and storylines that aren’t really relevant.)   

Kim – I’ve been thinking about this a lot, because of this episode and because I finally watched Avengers Endgame. So many threads paid off. It’s hard to imagine any of it could have come together without meticulous foresight and intention. JK Rowling wrote the last chapter of Deathly Hallows before she started Philosopher’s Stone. It makes sense that for an epic story so rich and interwoven, to nail down the architecture of the end and so you can work toward it. I see this as something I could really benefit from in my own writing. My ideas typically originate with an opening, a BH, or Book 1. So I really like this perspective of going to the end first. I’m really glad you decided to do this, Leslie. I think it’s such a valuable lesson.

LeslieYes! Many writers start with a premise, and those who are on the “Pantser” side of the spectrum want to discover the story through their drafts or aren’t sure where the story is going. I understand this. But if you have a premise and understand the message you want to send, you can zero in on your global genre. And once you know that, you’ll know the nature of the Core Event for your story. Then you can imagine what that might look like and how the protagonist and the force of antagonism show up for a final test. 

Story Climax – Hero at the Mercy of the Villain

The Core Event in an Action Story is the Hero at the Mercy of the Villain scene. This is generally the moment when the global life value will be decided and when the basic human need reflected in that life value is most at risk. In an Epic Action story, the heroes and victims face death or damnation in the Hero at the Mercy of the Villain scene.

Because of the risk and the shift, we experience the height of the Core Emotion for the story. In an epic action story, that emotion is Excitement. 

In the case of The Lord of the Rings, for the better part of three books (or films), we’ve been waiting for this showdown between the Fellowship and Sauron. This battle determines whether the people of Middle Earth will survive, or die, or worse, live in damnation. Whatever illusions of protection have been present before, they are gone. 

Frodo’s statement that he is naked in the dark, with nothing between him and the wheel of fire is true of everyone (though he probably feels it more than anyone), and that’s an important element. In this scene, we should establish that the Villain is at the height of their power, and though the Heroes have gained some hard-earned lessons, they are the worse for wear and at their most vulnerable. Because we have an ensemble cast, everyone who remains should be at the mercy of the villain in this scene (or as it shows up in The Return of the King, sequence of scenes).

Sauron is at the height of his power. Although he lost the battle for Minas Tirith, he still possesses an army of ten thousand Orcs, which he can command effortlessly. There are still several Nazgul flying on their fell beasts, and they have the power to make people lose their minds in fear and forget to fight.

The Fellowship has one hope of defeating Sauron, and as Gandalf tells Pippen, it was only ever a fool’s hope. Although the armies of the Fellowship save Minas Tirith, they are outnumbered by fresh troops from Mordor. The longer Frodo carries the ring, the more it overcomes his will, so even as he gets closer to where he can destroy it, it becomes less likely that he’ll be able to part with it. 

To set the stage for this obligatory Core Event, I suggest focusing on how you set up the Power Divide.

Focus on the Power Divide 

Because we have an ensemble cast of heroes, the villain needs a wide range of tactics to establish a power divide large enough to threaten a group of characters with many skills and potential gifts. The Heroes should be vulnerable to the Villain from the beginning, but the Villain is immune to what the Heroes bring before their gifts are expressed.

Sauron has lots of allies and minions, including armies of Orcs, Nazgul on fell beasts, trolls, Corsairs, and Oliphants. He is able to spy via Palantirs through which he gains puppets Saruman and Denethor, but also can broadcast images that cause members of the Fellowship to lose hope. Sauron is able to sense the ring when Frodo wears it and spot him—all from the comfort of Barad Dur. He doesn’t have to leave home to wipe out the armies of Middle Earth, but the Heroes must go to Mordor to destroy him. 

Frodo is a Hobbit. In The Fellowship of the Ring, we get a long prologue on what this means. Hobbits are not known for bravery or adventures, but prefer a quiet country life. While the other members of the Fellowship are veteran warriors, they haven’t faced Sauron in his “organized” state. Gandalf is a powerful wizard, but he is only one, while Sauron has the benefit of several Nazgul. The Fellowship is outnumbered, and as Eomer tells us, they cannot defeat Sauron through strength of arms. Their only hope is to outwit Sauron.

To outwit the Villain, the Heroes must express their gifts, which usually involves a sacrifice of something important to them, especially something they really want. The Lord of the Rings focuses at length on obsessions—the things we want that get in the way of what we need. Gollum is the physical embodiment of obsession. 

Setting Up the Controlling Idea/Theme 

The Controlling Idea/Theme is a simple expression of the prescriptive or cautionary point of the story that reveals the result of the story and its cause. Other elements should align with and demonstrate this, including the structure and point of view, and the characters should exemplify it. The Lord of the Rings is a huge story (about 336,000 words in length), but I’ve boiled it down to twenty-two words: 

Life prevails when heroes are willing to sacrifice what is most dear to them to outwit the villain bent on social destruction.

If Sauron’s obsession with power is what puts Middle Earth at risk, the Heroes must give up their obsessions (or at least be willing to) to be free of him. 

  • Frodo: Must give up the ring, which has become an obsession. But he also must give up hope of returning to his life in the Shire. 
  • Sam: Must hold on to the hope of returning home and remind Frodo of their purpose, but then must give up that hope in the end or risk failure. 
  • Merry and Pippin: Must give up their innocence and playfulness. They can’t play at adventures and can’t rely on the warriors or Gandalf to save them. If they want to help their friends, they also must express their gifts.
  • Aragorn: Must give up his relative anonymity. He doesn’t want to be king, but he must lead the people and provide hope that the work they do to distract Sauron is important. 
  • Gandalf: Must risk the lives of the Hobbits repeatedly, though he loves them. A strong element of his motivation is to save the Shire and Hobbits, a microcosm within Middle Earth where life is still simple and wholesome. 
  • Legolas & Gimli: Must give up mutual enmity of each other’s people (this happened in book 1, The Fellowship of the Ring), and so for the most part, these two show up with their fighting skills. 
  • Eomer: Must give up success according to his old definitions. Sometimes when we fight, we don’t fight to win, but to hold out.
  • Theoden: Must give up his vision of dying a peaceful death by his hearth in the Golden Hall.

Knowing these facts, we can study the story to see how Tolkien set up the power divide and the sacrifices the Heroes make to overcome the Villain in the end. Then you can use what you know about your story to create a rough summary of what happens in this scene. Then you can use what you know to set up the conflict as you plan and draft the scenes that lead up to it. And if you write in a genre other than Action, you can use the same process with your genre’s Core Event and the primary force of antagonism.  

Narrative Device 

A quick word about Point of View. The narrative device in The Lord of the Rings has Frodo adding his book, also called The Lord of the Rings, to Bilbo’s book, There and Back Again. Like Bilbo, Frodo writes as historian, rather than autobiographer, and he employs third person omniscient point of view. How does Frodo know what happened in times and places where he wasn’t present? Undoubtedly his companions told him of their adventures and stories they heard secondhand, and he makes educated guesses about the rest.

Frodo compiles the stories after the adventures are over and reveals the history in chronological order, though he would hear accounts of other people’s stories out of order. (As I mentioned, the books handle this differently, and I appreciate that it would be hard to pull that off in a film). Frodo’s purpose seems to be to record a comprehensive account of what happened and infuse it with the great lesson he learned. And that purpose comes through in the Story’s Controlling Idea. 

Other Perspectives

Jarie– Building a Strong and Believable Esprit de Corps 

As Anne mentioned, for this movie, I’m going to focus on how the Fellowship builds an esprit de corps that’s strong and believable. The reason I’m going to focus on esprit de corps is because it’s driven by love of family, friends, homeland, and of your fellow comrades-in-arms.

Like Leslie did, I’ll start from the end and work my way backward by starting with two short monologues about the Fellowship by Frodo and Gandalf:

[Time Stamp — 02:58:13 – 02:58:24]

FRODO: And this it was. A Fourth Age of Middle-earth began. And the Fellowship of the Ring, though eternally bound by friendship and love, was ended.

[Time Stamp – 3:05:48 – 3:06:19]

GANDALF: Farewell … my brave Hobbits. My work is now finished. Here at last, on the shores of the sea comes the end of our Fellowship. I will not say, “Do not weep,” for not all tears are an evil. 

Shortly after Gandalf’s speech, Frodo tells the other hobbits that he has to go on another adventure. Frodo gives the book to Sam with “some pages that belong to him.” 

All great endeavors or quests come to an end. We hope as readers or viewers that the ending to the quest will see our merry band of heroes go off and lead the kinds of lives that they were defending. In terms of building esprit de corps, that’s the first requirement — a common way of life to protect. This common way of life does not mean the same life, since the Shire and the elf world are clearly different. What it does mean is that each comrade’s way of life is threatened and thus they must band together for the common good among them. This condition is necessary but not sufficient to build the kind of love between comrades required to bond them together.

Bonding between those on a common, dangerous quest, is built when trials and tribulations are overcome together. Before this trust is built, there is usually a great deal of posturing to establish who is the toughest, smartest, or bravest. This hazing is perfectly done between Legolas, the elven prince, and Gimli, the dwarf warrior, who constantly keep track of their kills and put each other down. This ritual of put downs and testing is part of the trust building that warriors will do to each other. It’s an essential part of esprit de corps because it shows how far a warrior will go to win or protect a comrade.

Protecting a comrade is another essential element of building a strong and believable esprit de corps. The stakes of such protection has to be life and limb for your friend. This protection comes in many forms and is throughout The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. The best example of this is Sam and Frodo since there is a great test of loyalty.

Sam’s loyalty is tested when Gollum deceives Frodo that Sam will steal the ring. Frodo sends Sam away and even though Sam knows it’s Gollum, he leaves because he is loyal to Frodo yet when he realizes the deception, he hurries back up the stairs to help him. It’s at this point that Frodo sees the error in his judgement but it’s too late, he’s already paralized by Shelob. When Sam saves Frodo, the bond is strengthened since Sam’s loyalty is to Frodo, even though their quest is to destroy the ring. That’s another part of building esprit de corps — duty to friends ahead of the quest.

The duty to friends or more importantly, fighting for the person on your left and right ahead of the greater goal, is what all militaries instill in their recruits. The reason being that in the heat of battle, all that matters is fighting for your brothers and sisters in the battle with you. This is done in every battle scene in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King since as a viewer, we want to feel the love between those in a battle for their lives and their way of life.

This esprit de corps building has been done throughout the entire trilogy by adhering to the following conventions:

  • Comrades face a common threat to life and their way of life
  • Tests to prove bravery, strength, or smarts via hazing.
  • Surviving trials and tribulations where respect is built
  • Protecting a comrade from peril at one’s risk of life and limb
  • Loyalty tests
  • Protecting comrades in the heat of battle above the quest

These conventions are similar to what happens in a War > Brotherhood content genre story where the goal is as Shawn puts it “the feeling larger than yourself when you are among simpatico people.” That’s the essence of building esprit de corps among a cast of characters that need to come together to fight for a common goal and their way of life.

Anne – Thank you, Jarie. I’m glad you talked about conventions, because it’s really easy to confuse them for scene types, and making the distinction is always on my mind as I watch our movies these days.

To me, the trick to discovering and identifying a scene type is to start with “Where have I seen this kind of thing happen before?” But of course, that’s also how we recognize conventions. The difference is to then step away from the meaning of the scene or beat–that is, to shift focus from what it’s doing to carry this story forward–and try to see its structure. How many characters are in it? In what type of surroundings? What sort of thing are they trying to accomplish? Do characters in other stories try to accomplish similar things in similar surroundings?

Let me give just two of straightforward examples from The Return of the King. The first is the famous scene right at the beginning where Smeagol has the argument with his other side, Gollum, looking into his reflection in the water. I think we could call this a Person Argues With Self scene.

It’s easy to get lost in the interesting motion capture, CGI, and Andy Serkis’s amazing acting, and then it’s easy to be captivated by the threatening things Gollum is revealing to us.

But I’ve read exactly the same scene type in something as far afield from epic action as possible–in a Regency romance novel by Georgette Heyer. The sensible heroine has stern a talk with her romantic self about how stupid it is to fall in love with the hero. She’s at a mirror, just like Gollum, and she even has two names for herself, Miss Trent the sensible one, and her given name, Ancilla, for the romantic one. And just like Gollum, Ancilla wins. 

The other scene type I’ll mention here is probably most at home in action, war and performance stories, and I call it the St Crispin’s Day Speech, after its prototype in Shakespeare’s Henry V. It’s where the king, the president, the general, the captain or the coach rouses the buy-in of the army, the crew, or the team with a thrilling speech. There are no fewer than four St Crispin’s Day Speech scenes in this film–one each by Gandalf and Theoden, and two by Aragorn. You’ll spot them easily.

I lost count of the melées and battles. To someone who isn’t into this kind of epic-scale fantasy story, that would be a cause of annoyance and boredom. With my new scene and beat type glasses on, it started to bug me, too.

But to the reader or viewer who is wholly on board with this type of story–as I’ve generally been in my life–the meaning of each repetition of a scene type was different enough that they don’t seem repetitive. In the film, the visual setting changes help, and in text alone, the stakes keep escalating so that repeated scene types feel different.

Valerie – Empathy, Dramatic Irony, and Satisfying Endings

Holy cow, this is a big story! I often talk to writers who have these kinds of massive stories in their heads and I usually recommend they study series like The Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones. Earlier this season, we saw examples of films that tried to pack too much story into a 2-hour format and as novelists, that’s something we often do too. Many of us think we’re writing one book when actually, we’re writing a series. Here, we see how much space (pages and screen time) are needed to do epic stories justice. 

So, my first takeaway from the film this week is for writers to give a lot of thought about the scope of the story you want to tell. If this kind of epic fantasy is the story you’re longing to tell, really take the time to study the masterworks. There are so many moving parts here that it will save you time and energy and frustration to understand how the great storytellers pulled it off. 

Also, understand that epic stories on the scale of The Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, or the Harry Potter story, take years and years to write. It took Tolkien 12 years to write The Lord of the Rings and another 6 to get published. J.K. Rowling spent 20 years on Harry Potter, and George R.R. Martin is currently at 23 years. I’m not saying you shouldn’t write an epic fantasy if that’s the story that’s in your heart. By all means, go for it! I’m simply suggesting that you understand what you’re getting yourself into. These masterworks and the people who wrote them, are your mentors. And when you set out on this artist’s journey, you’re going to need them! 

At 3.5 hours, The Return of the King the final part of The Lord of the Rings trilogy; there’s easily over 10 hours of story here to consider. Therefore, I thought the best approach for me to take here on the podcast, is to look at small, specific examples of some key storytelling principles. 

Empathy and Dramatic Irony

Let’s start with empathy and dramatic irony, specifically as it relates to Gollum, and the storyline with Frodo, Sam and Gollum. 

The Return of the King gives us insight into Gollum’s background. He was once a hobbit who became corrupted by the ring. This is a terrific set up for, and foreshadowing of, Frodo’s decision to keep the ring rather than throw it into the lava river at Mount Doom. But does it create empathy? For me, that fact alone doesn’t generate empathy, however, catching glimpses of Smeagol trying to prevail against his shadow side does certainly create a degree of empathy. Unfortunately, he’s just too far gone to really have any hope of redemption. So he’s firmly in the antagonist’s role in this scenario.

It gives Gollum dimension, but doesn’t create full-blown empathy—and that’s a good thing!

Remember, Gollum is the villain here. Our empathy needs to stay with our hero Frodo and his trusty sidekick, Sam. That’s who we need to be rooting for, not Gollum.

Anne – Valerie, can I just jump in here for a sec? I agree that neither side of Gollum is actually empathetic, but I felt real pity for him. That gave me empathy for Frodo, who also pities him, even though that pity threatens to be his death. If I didn’t feel that smidgen of pity towards Gollum myself, I’d have lost patience with Frodo. It’s nicely balanced.

Valerie – Oh, absolutely, Anne. That’s what I mean by giving Gollum dimension. He’s not simply a “black hat”. There is something of goodness in him and what’s even better, is that it helps drive the story forward. But recognizing that there’s still a sliver of goodness in him doesn’t automatically make him empathetic. These are the precision cuts of a master craftsman. Less experienced writers/filmmakers would use a hatchet to make big, rough cuts which result either in stereotypical characters or confusion. However, people who really understand how the principles of storytelling work are able to use much more precise tools to give us a multi-dimensional antagonist with his own storyline, without messing up the balance of good and evil in the global story.

Now, if we look at The Return of the King as a solo film (which is isn’t, but just for the sake of argument), Sam is more empathetic than Frodo. He’s not a very complex character but boy, he’s passionate. He’s loyal to a fault and in this part of the story he’s just doing more interesting stuff. We really get to see what he’s made of here and we’re rooting for him every step of the way.

This is another example of the kind of precision storytelling I was just talking about.  The empathy we have for Frodo has been building over the entire series, and it’s not in any jeopardy of waning here. Tolkien/Jackson are able to turn the story’s hero into the victim in this portion of the story without demoting him globally. They’re able to promote the sidekick to hero status without confusing the audience as to what role Sam is actually fulfilling.

This brings me to the narrative drive for this storyline. For the most part, it’s dramatic irony. The audience knows exactly what Gollum is up to. We know his real plan for the hobbits, that he’s tossed away the remaining Elven bread and that he’s the villain, not the trusty guide. 

So, when Frodo doesn’t believe Sam, when he accuses him of eating the bread and sends him home, not only does empathy for Sam skyrocket but the stakes rise and the tension increases. Remember, for dramatic irony to work, we have to have empathy for the protagonist, who in this moment is Sam. Over the course of the trilogy, we empathize with Frodo as the hero. But in this little slice of the story Sam is in the hero role, Frodo has become the victim (to the ring and to Gollum), and Gollum is the villain.

Ok, that’s a whistlestop tour of empathy and narrative drive in this one tiny part of the whole story. Needless to say, Tolkien, and Jackson, have ticked all the right boxes here which is no surprise at all. 

Surprising but Inevitable Endings

Now I want to move on to something that we haven’t talked a lot about here on the podcast, and that’s the notion of a surprising yet inevitable ending. We’ve all heard Shawn mention it, but where did he come up with it, what does it mean and is it really important?

Well, the concept of a surprising yet inevitable ending comes from Aristotle’s Poetics. If you’ve never read the Poetics, I strongly recommend you do; it’s the beginning of story theory and it’s as true today as it was when Aristotle wrote it 2400 years ago.

Section 2, Part 9 is where Aristotle talks about the surprising yet inevitable ending. He says that the audience’s emotional reaction to a story will “occur above all when things come about unexpectedly but at the same time consequentially. This will produce greater astonishment than if they come about spontaneously or by chance—for even chance events are found more astonishing when they seemed to have happened for a purpose”.

A quick aside here because it’s Aristotle and this is important. 

In this same section he says that the poet’s job (and by poet he means writer) “is not relating what actually happened, but rather the kind of thing that would happen”. That’s a really important point, especially for anyone writing a memoir.

He goes on to say that “poetry (which we refer to generally as literature, or stories) utters universal truths…The universal truths concern what befits a person of a certain kind to say or do in accordance with probability and necessity”. In other words, he’s saying that specificity begets universality. We’ve heard Shawn talk about that before too; he not just pulling this stuff out of a hat. Argue with it all you want, but if it’s good enough for Aristotle, it’s good enough for me.

Ok, back to the surprising yet inevitable ending.

Again, I’m going to stick with the Frodo plot line here because in The Return of the King, the ending goes on for like, an hour, and the entire film is the ending to the global story.

The question to consider here is: Why would Frodo leave The Shire again? 

He’s just gone on this great adventure and faced near death and is finally back home in the safety of The Shire. He has returned to his ordinary world. Sam went on the same adventure and has no desire to ever leave The Shire again. Merry and Pippin had an adventure and seem content to remain in their ordinary world as well. Isn’t that where the hero’s journey is supposed to end? 

Well, yes. And, it does. Frodo does return home, and the adventure with the ring is over. But the fact that he carried the burden of the ring has changed him in a way that is different from the others. We see that in the pub scene. Merry and Pippin are happy to watch the locals and have a beer. Sam wastes no time starting a relationship with Rosie. But Frodo has changed so dramatically, that he no longer fits within the confines of The Shire. He does try. He stays for 4 years and writes his story. But then he craves another adventure. 

This is surprising because the stories we’ve consumed have led us to believe that once the hero returns to the ordinary world, that’s it! The End. If the story had ended in the pub, we would have been perfectly satisfied…in the short term at least. We’re not expecting Frodo to want another adventure, or for the storytellers to let us know that he’s about to embark on something new. So the story could end here and we could all go on our way.

However, because we see Frodo setting off again, the story lingers with us even longer than it would have. We’re forced to think about it because it was unexpected. It’s a little ball of chaos that we need to make sense of. When we do think about it, we realize that it’s inevitable that Frodo sets out again because:

(1) He’s been changed by the ring in a way that makes The Shire unsatisfactory. He wants more. 

(2) He’s Bilbo’s nephew; adventure is in his blood and now that he has a taste for it he wants, and needs, more. Now that Bilbo is setting out on his final adventure, it makes perfect sense that Frodo would accompany him. And,

(3) Stories are about change. The protagonist/hero represents the reader/viewer—this is why empathy is so important. We don’t have one adventure in our lives, we have many, and each one provides us with an opportunity to learn and grow. This is why Sam isn’t the global hero. Although he has certainly changed, the shift in him isn’t as profound. He’s had his one great adventure and is now settling back into life in The Shire. However, life isn’t about one adventure. Real life is a series of adventures, so while we may return home for a period of time, if we stay in that new ordinary world we will stagnate. We’ll stop learning and growing. And so, like Frodo, it’s inevitable that we’ll eventually set out on a new hero’s journey. 

Anne – That’s a fantastic analysis! I especially appreciate your thoughts on dramatic irony in this story, because I tend to dismiss dramatic irony as something belonging to quiet internal stories and literary fiction. You’ve shown how powerful it can be in an action story of this enormous scale.

Kim– The Big Meta Why and the Power of Mentors

Like Valerie, I had a hard time pinning down exactly what I wanted to talk about today. There’s just so much goodness in this story. So I’m going to walk through a couple observations I had and just explore some concepts.

As Leslie mentioned at the outset, the goal here is to examine the ending and payoffs of an epic story, and from there we can better know how to begin and what setups needs to come before. This made me think of the Big Meta Why (aka Controlling Idea/Theme)–the meaning and greater truth that the audience takes away at the end of every story. 

Writers rarely know their controlling idea before they begin writing, rather it is discovered, a pattern of meaning lifted from the events. But if we know the genre, we know the life values at stake and the human needs tank they derive from. This is a strong step toward knowing your Big Meta Why. There’s no need to obsess over it in the first draft phase, but at some point you’re going to want to lock into a Controlling Idea/Theme and then do a round of revisions with it at the forefront of your mind. 

In the world of computational explosiveness, which is certainly what stories are, your Big Meta Why can help you make all kinds of decisions. Using it this way sharpens your story and helps you filter characters, subplots, scenes, and even words according to what is and what is not the story. Sometimes, you may even have too much good stuff, that all feels “on theme” and you need to decide what will best serve the story you want to tell. My friend describes it this way, “First we separate the wheat from the chaff, then we have to separate the wheat from the wheat.” 

Only the best fit wheat should stay. (Shout out to Leslie and Anne for answering my personal “listener question” on the Deep Impact episode. The perspective of building the case for my story and using supportive evidence is starting to take root in my brain and it’s really helping). 

So all this leads me to a Curious Meta Why observation for Return of the King. 

I’ve seen this film countless times, but this is the first time I consciously noted that evil is defeated, not so much by the legion of heroes, but by itself. Frodo withstood the One Ring long enough to get it to Mt Doom, but he didn’t actually overcome it and destroy it. He succumbed to the temptation just like Isildur did in the past. It’s destroyed because Gollum and Frodo fight over it, Gollum bites off Frodo’s finger and then falls to his death in the lava. His gleeful expression while he falls and the way he preserves his precious ring until the last possible second are shocking demonstrations of the hold it had on him. So while the forces of good definitely fought hard and held evil at bay, in the end it wasn’t good that defeated evil, it’s more like evil destroyed itself: Gollum destroyed the One Ring, the One Ring destroyed Sauron. 

Now none of this would have been possible without the sacrifices of the forces for good, but it was an interesting observation. I didn’t really know what to make of it. I still don’t entirely, but it may relate to what Leslie mentioned about the power divide: it’s so vast that the only chance was for the heroes to outwit the villain. And I suppose there is something a bit poetic about Gollum being the one to finally destroy the ring, even if by accident — this, too, feels surprising but inevitable. 

I noted a few other instances that align with the idea of “evil defeats itself”: 

The Orcs in-fighting (literal backstabbing) allows Sam and Frodo to escape with the ring into Mordor.

Denethor, the Steward of Gondor, believing his line has ended with the death of his son Faramir (who he despicably ordered to retake the river from the orcs) lights himself on fire on the funeral pyre, only to realize too late the Faramir is actually alive. He dies as a solo burning man festival off the top of Minas Tirith. Denethor seems to demonstrate a compact Morality-Punitive arc: self-obsession and selfishness that falls to the negation of the negation which leads to just deserts. We do not feel sorry for him, instead we appreciate that justice was served. 

Perhaps that is the Curious Meta Why that I’m picking up on? Sauron himself experiences a Punitive plot? I’m not sure. Maybe all villains who are defeated experience this arc and it’s a surprise to no one but me, but I was just struck by the fact that Frodo “failed” the test and the One Ring is destroyed on accident. I knew this before of course but I just didn’t acknowledge it in this way, and I certainly hadn’t asked myself what that means about the message of the story. 

One thing that is extremely clear about this story is how much we need each other, as Jarie was saying. Frodo survives the entire journey because of the Fellowship, and most specifically Sam. That final moment inside Mt Doom, when Frodo is dangling by his nine fingers, we can see in his eyes how tired he is, how much easier it would be to just let go. But Sam implores him. 

“Don’t you let go. Don’t let go. Reach!” And all this occurs before the One Ring is actually destroyed, so it still has the hold on Frodo. In that sense, Frodo does pass the test when he chooses to live. 

This brings me to the other idea I wanted to talk about: how much mentors (and allies) matter. 

In a Morality story, the protagonists are at a level of sophistication that we hold them to a hire standard–they are accountable for their actions in a way that a Status character is not (which the exception of course of the Admiration protagonist). So while we feel a sense of justice at Denethor’s death, Gollum on the other hand, has our pity. His arc is not Morality-Punitive but rather Status-Pathetic. 

At the beginning of the film, we see Gollum’s origin story–he’s Smeagol, a halfling very similar to a hobbit. When he first lays eyes on the One Ring, he becomes instantly bewitched by it. He murders his cousin Deagol and takes possession of the ring, thus beginning his descent into life as Gollum. But he isn’t being selfish as much as he is a victim of the ring. I hypothesize that Smeagol begins with a vulnerable disposition. 

I noticed that in his opening dialogue, he refers to himself in the third person once and then in first person before taking possession of the ring. 

“Give us that, Deagol, my love.”


“Because … it’s my birthday and I wants it.”

Also “my love” is what Previous would call Smeagol. So before he has even touched the ring, he’s already losing himself.

Pippin has a similar experience with the all-seeing bowling ball that he finds in the water outside Saruman’s tower. He is instantly drawn to it and tempted. Gandalf is there to take it from him, but later that night Pippin sneaks a look, allowing himself to be overtaken by Sauron. The only reason he survives is because he has mentors looking out for him. 

Gandalf says, “Of all the inquisitive hobbits, Peregrin Took, you are the worst.” 

And Merry says, “Why did you look? Why do you always have to look?”

“I don’t know. I can’t help it.”

“You never can.”

So here, too, we see that Pippin’s disposition puts him in a vulnerable position, able to be taken advantage of by more powerful forces. But unlike Smeagol, Pippin has a support system around him, able to step in and help him course correct. 

The presence of an adequate mentor is the key difference in a Status-Pathetic and Status-Sentimental story. 

The whole story has a very Status-Sentimental feel to it. The genre often referred to in shorthand as “Weak protagonist succeeds against all odds.” In this case, the Fellowship is weak compared to the might of their foe, and yet they succeed. 

Frodo makes it because he has Sam–they encourage each other throughout the whole journey. Merry and Pippin. Legolas and Gimli. Even Gandalf needs Aragorn help in the face of hopelessness. So many great sets of buddies in this story 🙂 

So while the observations about evil being its own undoing are still valid (and a legit cautionary tale), perhaps the prescriptive Meta Why here is to find your fellowship and hold tight to one another. Because whatever dark forces you find yourself facing, this too shall pass.

Final Thoughts – Leslie

This story has been with me for a long time. I first encountered it in fifth grade when my best friend recommended the books to me. Watching this again and analyzing it through various Story Grid lenses didn’t diminish my love of the story, but helped me appreciate the time and hard work and dedication to the craft that it took to create the experience this story offers. 

Plenty of epic fantasy stories have been inspired by The Lord of the Rings, including A Song of Ice and Fire. (If you want to explore a fun rabbit hole, look at the parallels between the two stories.) Tolkien’s story did for fantasy fiction what “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” did for detective fiction. It established what we think of when we think about epic fantasy stories.

Like many classics, it was a story of its time and not without its problems and cringeworthy elements. The Fellowship includes members of different races and classes from Middle Earth, but all the heroes are white and from middle or ruling class backgrounds. The only people of color in the story have sided with Sauron. Gender and sexuality differences aren’t considered at all. So The Lord of the Rings is an excellent Masterwork worthy of study, and of course, it’s important to update and innovate to tell a story for our time. 

I’m pleased to recommend The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon, an Action-Epic, Savior Plot and fantasy story, like The Lord of the Rings, that better reflects the diversity of our world. While focusing on the main conflict, the characters explore and question what it is to be different and which differences that matter. Craft tip: Shannon does an excellent job of describing people’s differences without resorting to cliched stereotypes. 

Listener Question

To wind up the episode, we take questions from our listeners. This week’s question comes to us from Karen Oleri. 

Karen questions the gender divide convention in modern love stories in which there may be a stay at home dad, or where both partners work; where there are same sex couples and nonbinary couples. In these instances, it’s difficult to assign character traits as masculine and feminine.

Anne: I’m going to take this one, since it came up in the Masterwork Experiment and has been on my mind. Karen is referring to the Love Story convention which Shawn has defined using the term “gender divide.” He then usually has to backtrack on the language and explain that he means something like the lovers must represent masculine and feminine principles. Or Yin and Yang. Or Jungian archetypes of Mars and Venus. Or something like that.

The problem is, in applying Story Grid analysis to love stories involving other than a man and a woman–or, as Karen says, in love stories involving a man and a woman who follow nontraditional roles–we start bending over backward to ferret out supposed gender traits in them, to “prove” that our love story meets the convention.

I’ve never understood it myself. To my mind, you can’t use the term “gender divide” and then pretend that it doesn’t arise from a cultural assumption that all love story lovers will be one male person and one female person. When it comes to same-sex romances or nonbinary relationships, or even love relationships involving, say, three people, you’re stuck trying to paste old binary labels onto characters that the labels don’t fit. 

On the other hand, from the perspective of a working love story, you do need the lovers to have different characteristics, sometimes opposites. The Romantic tradition has given us the notion that true love is about soulmates who have the possibility of completing each other. Therefore, they each should have traits and qualities lacking in the other.

Personally, I’d prefer to jettison Jungian notions of gender as archetypes in this analysis altogether, and say simply that a love story must have lovers who are different enough from each other both to generate some conflict on the way to true love, and to discover certain unmet needs in each other as a means of making the true love believable and dynamic. I need to come up with a shorter name than that.

My answer is by no means definitive, and it’s certainly not Story Grid “official,” so there’s work to be done in this area, and we’d welcome further thoughts.

Thank you, Karen, for a great question. 

 If you have a question about any story principle, you can ask it on Twitter @storygridRT, or better still, click here and leave a voice message.

We’re taking a little break from full-length episodes for the next three weeks, so we’ve lined up three practical Bite Size Editions for you instead. Tune in for some solid how-to advice from Jarie, Valerie and Leslie on planning and executing your novel. We’ll be back in full force on October 2nd for Valerie’s final look at stories that explore sanity and madness, with 2010’s Black Swan. Why not give it a look before we come back, and follow along with us?

Your Roundtable Story Grid Editors are Jarie Bolander, Valerie Francis, Anne Hawley, Kim Kessler, and Leslie Watts.

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Leslie Watts

Leslie Watts is a certified Story Grid editor, writer, and podcaster. She’s been writing for as long as she can remember: from her sixth-grade magazine about cats to writing practice while drafting opinions for an appellate court judge. When the dust settled after her children were born, she launched Writership.com to help writers unearth the treasure in their manuscripts. She believes writers become better storytellers through practice, and that editors owe a duty of care to help writers with specific and supportive guidance to meet reader expectations and express their unique gifts in the world.