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Weaving a Complex Narrative: How to Write Like J.R.R. Tolkien in Three Easy Steps

Complexity isn't quantity: it has a structure. Learn the simple patterns that create arbitrarily complex narratives.
by

Deren Hansen

on 1 May 2015

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Transcript of Weaving a Complex Narrative: How to Write Like J.R.R. Tolkien in Three Easy Steps

This seemingly random image contains a teapot pouring tea into a cup in front of a window through which the sun shines.
The Relationships Implicit in Something
STRUCTURE
What does it mean?
Other versions assert 188 or 510 steps in the Hero’s Journey.
Archetypical Cycle of Growth
The Hero’s Journey
You'll find advice on story structure ranging from formulas to archetypes.
How do you Manage Narrative Complexity?
A Pattern, Not a Formalism
Three Acts
Koch Snowflake
ITERATIVE PROCESSES
WHY WEAVE A COMPLEX NARRATIVE?
How to Write Like J.R.R. Tolkien in Three Easy Steps
Weaving a Complex Narrative
Natural Story Structure
Three Acts/Actions = Story
Two Acts/Actions = Rule: "I was traveling, so I had to find a familiar restaurant and then I was able to get a sandwich."
One Act/Action = Procedure: "I was hungry so I made a sandwich."
Minimum Container for Significance
3. Go to get what you really need.
2. Go to get what you didn’t know you need.
1. Go to get what you need.
Home Improvement Guide to Story Structure
Take a Basic Shape, Move it, Rotate it, Scale it, and Repeat it
SELF-SIMILARITY
Problem
STORY ITERATION
Beginnings, Middles, and Ends
Lord of the Rings
CHAOS
DYNAMIC EQUILIBRIUM
ORDER
WHAT IS COMPLEXITY?
“The Formula Behind Every Successful Movie”
Climax and Solution
Problem and Stakes
Last Quarter
Middle Half
The first half is about questions.
Trying to Solve the Problem
First Quarter
Hollywood Formula
REPEAT
Distribute plot and character arcs in story time and space.
RINSE
Break plot and character arcs into Beginnings, Middles, and Ends.
LATHER
It Comes Down to Three Simple Steps:
COMPLEX NARRATIVES
Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis
Three is a Magic Number
The Goldilocks Guide to Artillery
Bump, Set, Spike (Athletic Comedy)
Straight line, Straight line, Punch line
Verse/Chorus, Verse/Chorus, Bridge/Chorus
Hero’s Fractal Journey
= 50 x 100 + 50 = 5050
50
100
90
80
70
60
40
30
20
10
0
1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 5 + 6 + 7 + 8 + 9 + 10 … + 100
As a child, Gauss and his classmates were assigned to add all the numbers from 1 to 100.
100
90
80
70
60
50
40
30
20
10
0
Mathematician Friedrich Gauss and the Number Line
UNDERLYING PATTERNS
Aragorn
M&P
Sam
Frodo
Return of the King
The Two Towers
Fellowship of the Ring
Offset Character Arcs
Lord of the Rings
And sentences.
And paragraphs.
And scenes.
And chapters.
And sections.
Beginnings, Middles, and Ends
STORY SELF-SIMILARITY
Gandalf
Sauron
1. The Ordinary World
3. Refusal of the Call
4. Meeting with the Mentor
5. Crossing the Threshold
6. Tests, Allies, and Enemies
7. Approach to the In-most Cave
8. The Ordeal
9. The Reward
11. The Resurrection
12. Return with the Elixir
www.dunlithhill.com
You don't want your story to look like this ...
If it should look like this.
Unless, of course, it should look like this.
But it will be part of the picture if you want your story to reflect the world in which we live.
FORMULAS
ARCHETYPES
There are multiple versions of the Hollywood Formula. Which one is right?
It feels like writing by numbers.
By Deren Hansen
Do you know what to write for the "Belly of the Whale" and the "Ultimate Boon?
It could mean anything.
The structure of a complex thing is encoded in the underlying pattern. When you understand the pattern, what was complex becomes simple.
While the others scribbled sums on their slates, Gauss sat back and stared at the number line.
Then he wrote, 5050, and handed his slate to the teacher.
Beginning
Middle
End
Beginning
Middle
End
Beginning
Middle
End
Beginning
Middle
End
How Did Gauss Know the Answer?
He imagined the number line folded back on itself, so that every number lined up with another and the sum of each pair was 100.
Then he counted: there were 50 pairs plus the number 50 at the pivot point.
Hegelian Dialectic:
Pop Songs:
Joke Pattern:
Volleyball:
Many Things Appear in Threes:
Why?
Consider:
Prior to the advent of GPS and laser designators, you had to find the range to your target by trial and error.
Too hot!
Too cold!
Just right!
Why three?
Because it's the
Like the legs of a stool, each act contributes something essential to the story.
The three-act pattern isn't only about plots and subplots. Characters have arcs with beginnings, middles, and ends.
Characters progress through the beginning, middle, and end of their individual story arcs at different times in the narrative.
It looks complex, but it's a nested series of beginnings, middles, and ends.
You may assume order is simple and chaos is complex, but to a mathematician they're both equally simple: each can be produced with a simple function.
Real complexity lies in the middle of the spectrum and involves elements of both order and chaos.
A Koch snowflake is created by taking each line segment, dividing it in thirds and replacing the center segment with two others that would form an equilateral triangle with the one they replace.
And then repeat the process.
Keep it up and you can create a figure with a finite area and an infinite perimeter.
That means, you can zoom in forever.
This ginger root is a collection of lumps with two off-shoots.
And a fern frond looks like a parade of little ferns.
Want More?
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Solution
Stories have a beginning, middle, and end.
So do acts.
The Fractal Key to Narrative Complexity
A story shows how to solve a problem.
To be a story, though, we need to see a try/fail, another try/fail, and finally a try/succeed.
But each of those attempts is a story in its own right, with its own set of try/fail cycles.
And so on.
Notice how complex, with just three iterations, the protagonist's problem-solving trajectory has become?
It's kind of like real life, isn't it.
COMPLEXITY
FRACTALS
STORY THEORY
TOLKIEN'S
EXAMPLE
PUTTING IT ALL
TOGETHER
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