Recently, I’ve started rereading Lord of the Rings once again. I forget exactly how many times I’ve read these books now, but it has been quite a few years since the last time. Importantly, this is the first time I’ve read them since I became a writer, so although I’ve read them many times, this is the first time I’ve studied them.
I notice a lot of interesting things by looking at Lord of the Rings through my WriterVision™ — such as how big the physical world of Middle-Earth feels compared to modern fantasy settings, likely a side effect of rapid transit effectively making the world smaller for people in the modern era.
However, what strikes me the most is what I like to call the emotional cadence of the books.
This is something I noticed even when I was much younger, but now that I’m looking at Lord of the Rings through a writer’s eyes, it’s even clearer.
If you lay out the story of Lord of the Rings, it could seem almost crushingly bleak. An almost omnipotent dark lord plans to cover the entire world in darkness. Ancient races and civilizations are mere shadows of their former selves, and there is little strength left to resist the shadow. The only hope comes in the form of a fat, spoiled rich kid with no knowledge of combat or adventure who is slowly being driven mad by the evil artifact he carries.
But it doesn’t really feel that oppressive when you’re reading it, does it? It’s a dark, intense story, but you never feel it start to weigh on your mind the way such stories can.
This is because Tolkien made sure to regularly interrupt the peril and the impending doom with moments of peace and levity: staying with Tom Bombadil, recovering in Rivendell, resting in Lorien, smoking in the ruins of Isengard, even stewing rabbit on the borders of Mordor.
It is this balance between joy and sorrow, peace and peril, that makes Lord of the Rings the brilliant story it is. The balance between the darkness and the light allows the reader to feel each more keenly. A candle shines so much more brightly in a darkened room.
This is something few other authors seem to be able to replicate — save perhaps J.K. Rowling with the Harry Potter books, and is it a coincidence those became monstrously successful instant classics? Too few seem to realize that “emotional rollercoaster” means you have ups as well as downs.
A lot of authors seem to struggle to strike this balance. They just keep ramping up the tension endlessly with no relief until the reader becomes depressed or simply desenitized, or else they offer little to no tension at all, creating a bland and flavourless story of basically nice people doing basically nice things with no excitement.
Even my literary idol, Ian Irvine, has occasionally struggled with this, notably with the Tainted Realm books, which at times delved too heavily into darkness without offering the reader a chance to catch their breath.
Now, there is room for some variety in how one interrupts the balance of light and darkness. Some stories are very dark, and will rarely offer the opportunity for peace and calm. Others are light-hearted and never let the fear or the sorrow become too intense.
But regardless, that cadence still needs to exist. You need to have some highs, and some lows, and they need to spaced out with some degree of regularity. Go too long without some positivity, and readers will become emotionally exhausted and lose interest in the story. Go too long without some intensity, and you’ll bore people to tears.
This is something I’m very conscious of in my own writing. I work very hard to keep the darkness and light balanced in my fiction. This is why Leha almost freezing to death is followed by her befriending Benefactor, and why the quiet comfort of Leha and Tyrom keeping each other sane on the streets of Tallatzan is followed by the crushing realization that humanity is in its waning hours.