I’ve not published much here for a while. That’s not to saying that I haven’t been writing anything. I have a stack of drafts this high. No, it’s that I’m not happy with the quality or the originality of what I’ve written. There’s so much stuff being written on the Internet that it always seems the case that I stumble across a piece on a similar subject that’s much better written than mine, and so another file lands in the drafts folder, perhaps never to emerge.1 Anyway, I’ve resolved to be less hard on myself and post more stuff, even if there are holes in my arguments or my evidence is not watertight, or even if there’s already an article on more or less this subject at tvtropes.org. And in return, you should comment more. And not just to tell me how wrong I am.
Anyway, I’ve been reading Christopher Tolkien’s fascinating account of how his father wrote The Lord of the Rings, in volumes VI–IX of The History of Middle-Earth. And I just saw J. J. Abrams’ 2009 film Star Trek. What possible connection could there be between these two? Well, it’s all about the dramatic climaxes.
A common style of plotting works backwards: the dramatic climax or set-piece is imagined first, and then the necessary preconditions are deduced and inserted into earlier points in the narrative. For example, suppose you’re writing a science fiction film and you decide that it would be a good idea to have your hero and villain duelling with swords on the edge of a bottomless pit. This is sure to be exciting, but it’s fundamentally stupid, so you face a choice. You can leave it unexplained, but that way lies camp like Flash Gordon. Or you can try to justify it in some way that preserves the drama you are hoping for. But the stupider the idea, the more imaginative work you have to put in to figure out how this can happen, and the more the audience has to pay attention. The bottomless pit ought to be easy enough (though Star Trek manages, implausibly, to botch this with its mid-air drilling platform). But why fight with swords when guns are available? Well— Perhaps bullets are stopped by personal forcefields and “slow blades” are not [Dune]? Perhaps a sword is “not as clumsy or as random as a blaster; an elegant weapon for a more civilized time” [Star Wars]? Perhaps guns are too dangerous to fire because “they’ll rupture the cooling system” [Aliens] or “put a bullet through the hull” [Alien Resurrection]?
But this kind of thing isn’t costless: the need to justify your dramatic set-piece can end up distorting the whole background to the story, and unless you weave the justification into the story skilfully, its arbitrariness can deprive the viewer of the pleasure of appreciating the logic of the world and the hero’s use of skills and resources that were established earlier in the movie.
But what makes Star Trek so “painfully, spectacularly dumb”2 is not any particular one of the stupid justifications it comes up with, but the sheer relentless quantity of them. A modern action movie attempts to deliver dramatic set pieces one after the other, and depending on how you count, Star Trek has fifteen to twenty of these, which gives it six to eight minutes of screen time in which to justify, set up, and carry out any one of them. So the script follows a pattern whereby each set-piece stands more or less on its own: a problem is mentioned and then more or less immediately solved. For example, the script establishes that it is difficult to teleport onto a moving target:
Look, we're still talkin' 'bout slingshotting aboard while she's going faster than light. Without a proper receiving pad, that's like tryin'a hit a bullet with a smaller bullet, wearing a blindfold. On a horse.
But then, no more than a couple of minutes later:
Amid the ROAR of the ship's plasma drives, PARTICLES rematerialize... it's KIRK
And then the issue plays no further part in the rest of the film. This is no way to make a satisfying piece of drama, even for a throwaway vignette like this. Just telling us that the feat is difficult is not remotely convincing, especially since there is in fact no difficulty in practice. If you want us to believe something, you need to demonstrate it: at the very least, have a scene earlier in the film in which the transporter fails at some key moment for this reason. But of course in this kind of film there is simply no room to put in such a scene: the running time is already packed solid with incident, and even if it were, no audience could possibly be expected to remember so many arbitrary details.
The action-movie template can work in a contemporary setting because there’s much less need to justify what’s happening on screen: the audience can supply the necessary background details. When there’s a car chase, there’s no need to explain the capabilities of the vehicles or the consequences of crashing: the audience has a pretty good idea. But in science fiction there’s a temptation to go for the most spectacular of dramatic climaxes, but these have to be explained, and good explanations take a lot more screen time than an action movie has available.
Tolkien, by contrast, was a perfectionist when it came to working out the necessary preconditions for the dramatic moment, and weaving them into the fabric and languages of his invented world so thoroughly that it is hard to see the joins. In The History of the Lord of the Rings you can see his method at work: a dramatic event or dialogue appears in a very early draft or outline, and in successive drafts he tries out different ways to explain it, until the result is satisfactory. Christopher Tolkien comments on this in his foreword:
My object has been to give an account of the writing of The Lord of the Rings, to exhibit the subtle process of change that could transform the significance of events and the identity of persons while preserving those scenes and the words that were spoken from the earliest drafts.
For example, the Black Riders enter the story long before their identity as Ringwraiths is settled on, and yet Gildor says to Bingo (who later became Frodo) that the use of the Ring “helps them more than you.” Christopher Tolkien again:
It is deeply characteristic that these scenes emerged at once in the clear and memorable form that was never changed, but that their bearing and significance would afterwards be enormously enlarged. The ‘event’ (one might say) was fixed, but its meaning capable of indefinite extension; and this is seen, over and over again, as a prime mark of my father’s writing.
A second example: it was clearly essential to Tolkien that Gandalf should not accompany the hobbits on their journey to Rivendell, and yet should overtake them so that they come to Weathertop after he has left. In successive drafts a series of different explanations are tried out, including one in which Gandalf gives a lift to the hobbit Hamilcar Bolger, who is disguised as Frodo in order to draw off the Black Riders, and another in which Gandalf “was caught in Fangorn and spent many weary days as a prisoner of the Giant Treebeard.” The satisfactory explanation took a long time to work out.
The climax of The Lord of the Rings was perhaps the most difficult case. The crucial scene was imagined early on: in “a page of pencilled notes which bears no date” (but which is apparently from around August 1939, when the story had just got to Rivendell), Tolkien sketched “an extremely abbreviated outline of the end of the story”:
At end when Bingo [written above: Frodo] at last reaches Crack and Fiery Mountain he cannot make himself throw the Ring away. He hears Necromancer’s voice offering him great reward—to share power with him, if he will keep it. At that moment Gollum—who had seemed to reform and had guided them by secret ways through Mordor—comes up and treacherously tries to take Ring. They wrestle and Gollum takes Ring and falls into the Crack.
But making sense of this scene caused a lot of difficulties. For if Frodo “cannot make himself throw the Ring away” because of its malign influence, then how can Bilbo have given the Ring to Frodo so easily (it was Bilbo’s “parting gift” in early drafts)? And more importantly, how can Gollum possibly have been willing to give the Ring to Bilbo as a prize for winning the riddle contest, as in the first published version of The Hobbit? At first Tolkien tried to preserve the published account: in this passage from the first draft of the chapter that became ‘The Shadow of the Past’, he attempts a psychological explanation for Gollum’s giving up the Ring:
“That was the Ring,” said Gandalf. “Of course it is a poor sort of long life that the Ring gives, a kind of stretched life rather than a continued growing—a sort of thinning and thinning. Frightfully wearisome, Bingo, in fact finally tormenting. Even Gollum came at last to feel it, to feel he could not bear it, and to understand dimly the cause of the torment. He had even made up his mind to get rid of it. But he was too full of malice. If you want to know, I believe he had begun to make a plan that he had not the courage left to carry out. There was nothing new to find out; nothing left but darkness, nothing to do but cold eating, and regretful remembering. He wanted to slip out and leave the mountains, and smell the open air even if it killed him—as he thought it probably would. But that would have meant leaving the Ring. And that is not easy to do. The longer you have had one the harder it is. It was especially hard for Gollum, as he had had a Ring for ages, and it hurt him and he hated it, and he wanted, when he could no longer bear to keep it, to hand it on to someone else to whom it would become a burden—[? bind] itself as a blessing and turn to a curse. That is in fact the best way of getting rid of its power.”
But this is clearly unsatisfactory, and finally Tolkien resolved upon the desperate scheme of denying the account of events in The Hobbit, via the ingenious conceit that the published story was Bilbo’s fabrication to better establish his claim to the Ring. That’s the kind of trouble you have to go to if you want the dramatic payoff to resonate with your audience.
↩ Marco Arment calls this “the blogger trap”.
↩ Thus Abigail Nussbaum. Also Adam Roberts: “Red matter has been injected into the script, leaving vast distorting black holes of unlogic, anticontinuity, nonsense and bollocks everywhere.”