Successful stories ask readers four key questions:
‘What will happen next?’
This question forms the basis of even the most primitive tale or piece of drama. Keeping the reader or audience in ‘suspense’ and having them surprised by unfolding action are two signs that a story is driven by this question.
‘What is really going on?’
The ‘glue’ that sticks readers to successful fiction is composed of mystery. Having something happen ‘under the surface’ of the story’s action means that readers and audiences will ‘stick’ to the tale and, if the mystery is strong enough, won’t let go until things are resolved in some way.
‘What is the right thing to do?’
Constructed figures called characters are given choices. The more ramifications their choices have, the more gripping is the moral dilemma involved. Successful fiction thus involves readers and audiences at deeper levels by engaging their sense of what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in the context of the tale.
‘What is this really all about?’
Fiction has surprisingly few central concerns. Stories are usually about pride or growing up or some aspect of what it is to be human. But master authors disguise this narrow range of concerns carefully so that the outcome or ‘message’ of their tale is not obvious and is instead ‘swallowed’ willingly and even hungrily by readers and audiences.
Running these questions repeatedly and concurrently, successful authors draw in readers’ attention and then grip it and drive it forward towards the core message, obtaining an emotional commitment so that when that message arrives, it is consumed.
Let’s see exactly how J. R. R.Tolkien does this by looking at the basic structure of his classic trilogy The Lord of the Rings.
Much of the novel’s power depends on its back story which stretches several thousand years into an invented past. This establishes the grounding for some of the mystery ‘glue’ which will stick and hold readers’ attention throughout the three books. Centuries before the story begins, the Dark Lord Sauron creates the One Ring to rule the other Rings of Power and bring under his will all those who wear them, Men, Elves and Dwarves. Though an alliance of Elves and Men brings him down, Isildur, a ruler of Men, cuts the One Ring from Sauron's finger, and claims it for himself. The Ring is later lost in the River Anduin, to be discovered two thousand years later by one of the river-folk called Déagol. Sméagol his companion immediately strangles Déagol to acquire it and is banished to a cave under the mountains, where the Ring transforms him slowly into a creature called Gollum. As a hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, finds the Ring in a tunnel bear Gollum’s cave, Sauron is re-assuming physical shape and later comes to find that Gollum has lost his Ring and that Bilbo has taken it back to the Shire, the hobbits’ home. The Dark Lord sets out to find it, and this forms the basis of the trilogy’s story.
Frodo Baggins and his hobbit friends are thus placed in peril as dark agents pursue them, and the reader is gripped by the question ‘What will happen next?’ as their quest continues, as well as by the as-yet-not-totally-explained mystery of the Ring. Each time the Ring tries to tempt Frodo to put it on, he also faces a moral struggle which he manages to overcome for most of the plot, but which is nevertheless there to engage the reader throughout. Tolkien masterfully presents his core question, ‘What is this really all about?’ by making it clear that there is a battle between absolute good and evil occurring on a grand scale, but by keeping its main proponents, Sauron in his Dark Tower and the forces of Good far off in the West, ‘off stage’. The story’s real themes are thus partially hidden and are played out by small figures, the hobbits, who have never been great heroes or makers of history and are far from being typical archetypes or embodiments of absolute qualities.
Quite apart from the characteristic features of the protagonist Frodo as an orphan, left behind even by his adoptive uncle Bilbo, features which are designed to increase reader sympathy and attract attention, we are also gripped in the first few chapters by the mystery of what the One Ring really is. Though Gandalf the Grey, a wizard and old friend of Bilbo, suspects the Ring's identity, its true nature only gradually unfolds, in the meantime sticking the reader’s attention to the tale. Gandalf advises Frodo to take the Ring away from the Shire and we are thus started on the linear quest and driven forward by the question ‘What will happen next?’ as Frodo and his companions meet a series of dangers. This gets us to the town of Bree where they meet a shadowy figure known as Strider. Apart from the air of mystery surrounding him, here again the question of what is morally right comes up: should they trust this man?
They take him on as guide and protector, narrowly escaping an assault, and are later pursued and attacked on the hill of Weathertop, in a fast-paced series of ‘What will happen next?’ scenes after which Frodo is wounded with an enchanted blade. The pace of the linear quest increases even further before they finally reach the Elven refuge of Rivendell, where Frodo recovers under the care of Elrond. The driving engine of the question ‘What will happen next?’ is replaced by the more perplexing but equally reader-gripping question to do with the Ring: ‘What is the right thing to do?’
At this point, much of the mystery about the nature of the Ring and its history is cleared up, defusing the ‘What is really going on?’ question a large extent. Tolkien, as a master author, senses that he must step on the ‘mystery pedal’ to replace this, and so we are introduced to the treachery of Saruman, formerly one of the good guys but now working for evil. ‘What is really going on?’ is thus broadened out, and then further increased in power as the Fellowship of the Ring set out on their journey to try to destroy the Ring and find that they are being tracked by an as-yet-unknown creature.
‘What will happen next?’ type events bring us through a series of adventures to another ‘rest’ point in Lothlorien. Gandalf has apparently perished and Frodo must seek advice from the Elven Queen Galadriel as to the right thing to do next. She counsels him and, with boats and gifts from Galadriel, the company travel down the River Anduin to the hill of Amon Hen, where one of their number, the man Boromir, succumbs to the lure of the Ring and attempts to take it from Frodo. Frodo’s vision from the hill of Amon Hen as he wears the Ring is the last clear point of moral choice we see directly through his eyes: he is assailed by both evil and good viewpoints and decides to remove the Ring and continue the quest.
Frodo’s struggle through the wastelands around Sauron’s realm and his growing but largely hidden moral burden of temptation by the Ring serve not only to increase our sympathy for him as the protagonist, but also almost answer explicitly the underlying question ‘What is this really all about?’ To hide the raw underlying themes under a ‘gauze’ of fiction for a little longer, Tolkien restricts our access to Frodo’s inner struggle and permits us to see Frodo’s journey mainly through the eyes of his companion Sam, and through Gollum, who joins them. This relationship between the protagonist, his comic companion and shadow protagonist is a kind of dance which plays out the novel’s themes of psychological struggle between good and evil while never getting too obvious. In this way, Tolkien holds our attention until they reach Mount Doom itself.
Of course, Tolkien further distracts and entertains us with ‘What will happen next?’ and ‘What is really going on?’ questions to do with the other characters as Frodo makes his slow and lonely journey to the Cracks of Doom: we are driven along through the many adventures and clashes of the War of the Ring, following the fortunes of the other hobbits as they are placed in danger in various ways and as other mysteries are conjured up and resolved: the hidden drama of Theoden’s Golden Hall, the dark secrets of the Paths of the Dead, the concealed link between Denethor and the Dark Tower. All of them act as further ‘glue’ to make sure that our attention doesn’t lapse.
On the edge of the Cracks of Doom, Frodo faces the ultimate ‘What is the right thing to do?’question and cannot answer it correctly. He is unable to resist the Ring any longer and claims it for himself. In the ensuing struggle with Gollum, however, the insane creature seizes the Ring and bites off the finger on which Frodo wears it before accidentally falling into the fire, taking the Ring with him. The Ring is thus destroyed and the quest complete.
By interweaving the four questions - ‘What will happen next?’ ‘What is really going on?’ ‘What is the right thing to do?’ and ‘What is this really all about?’ - Tolkien demonstrates his prowess as a master author, one who is able to control readers’ attention from chapter to chapter, leading readers on to the culmination of the tale and the acceptance of the author’s effects.