The Hobbit is one of the bestselling books of all time.

 It’s also one of the best guides to writing fantasy.

 Modern fantasy writers sometimes shy away from Tolkien, seeing him as dated or over-wordy. A desperate desire to see our work as original and unique means that many writers rush to deny all knowledge of him, like an embarrassing relation.

But the old professor still has a lot to teach us – and there’s no better place to start than The Hobbit.

1. ‘In a hole in the ground, there lived a Hobbit.’

Now that’s an opening line! What’s a Hobbit? What’s he doing in the hole? This is a superb opener for the book, because it demands further investigation. We can’t resist reading onwards after that. In my view, this is right up there with ‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen’. For hooking a reader or an agent, your opening line matters.  

2. Treat readers to an unexpected party.

There is a special place in hell reserved for writers of long, tedious prologues. You know exactly the ones I mean. The ones which cover ten thousand years of history, a war among the gods, and probably a few other cataclysms thrown in.

Tolkien does it right. At the start of the chapter, he establishes the voice of the book. A kindly third-person narrator talking directly to the reader, almost like a bedtime story. (Which, in fact, this story originally was.) He talks us through what a Hobbit is and who Bilbo is, and he sets the tone for the whole novel.

However, the truly brilliant thing about the first chapter is the exposition. This is teased out slowly, starting with the mysterious arrival of a Dwarf (and then another, and another…) and revealed through legend and song. Bilbo becomes the ignorant stranger, requiring the retelling of the legend of Smaug by Thorin. 

There is no need to info-dump everything in the prologue. Let conversation, songs, and stories reveal your world – and also a lot about the storyteller in the process.  

3. This is what a character arc looks like.

You have your character. Some stuff happens. The character is different.

That’s a character arc. If your character is still the same at the end of the novel as they were on page one, what was the point in the novel in the first place?

Bilbo grows as a protagonist. ‘This is a story of how a Baggins had an adventure, and found himself doing and saying things altogether unexpected.’ The Bilbo who sneaks the Arkenstone to the Elf king to try and prevent war is a very different hobbit to the one in the first chapter. When he is left alone, Bilbo is forced to draw upon his own bravery and cunning. In his encounters with the trolls and Gollum and Smaug and as he moves through the forest of Mirkwood and the halls of the Elven king, we witness Bilbo learning to trust himself. Which brings us nicely to the next point…

4. Your protagonist needs agency! 

It is Bilbo who decides to go on the adventure. He has the option to stay at home. Gandalf gives him a poke, but the decision is his alone. He comes up with his own plans and goes against the wishes of other characters to do what he sees as right.  That’s agency.

Wizards and eagles occasionally turn up to lend a hand, admittedly. But that just adds to the fantastical, and the wizard/eagle factor decreases as the book progresses.

5. Keep your characters poor.

Figure out what your protagonist needs the most in each situation, then find a way to deny it to them. Bilbo starts the journey without even a pocket handkerchief! Throughout the adventure, he and his companions lose ponies, food, and what few luxuries they start with. A jolly walk with plenty of provisions hardly makes for an exciting story, now does it?

Keep your character’s resources low so they rely on their own cunning to solve problems, rather than just throwing cash/magic/influence at a situation. When the Dwarfs are holed up in Erebor surrounded by the Lake-men and the Elves, they are surrounded by staggering wealth – all of it useless when they have nothing to eat.  

6. Conflict happens when people want contradictory things.

The people of Lake-town want Thorin to share his gold. Thorin doesn’t want to share. His greed is understandable; it’s his gold. Lake-town’s sense of entitlement is also understandable; Bard killed the dragon, after all. Understandable motivations that are contradictory to other characters’. That’s conflict, which is at the heart of story.

The key thing here is an understandable motivation. None of the antagonists in The Hobbit are especially unreasonable (except for goblins, but they don’t really count because they are ugly and live in caves). All have clear reasons for what they do. This is why we care about what happens to them and why we root for Bilbo when he slinks off with the Arkenstone to try to prevent a pointless and bloody war.     

7. Include a clear moral.

Don’t be afraid to include a clear moral. I know that the fashion is for edgy shades of grey and moral ambiguity, but there is something to be said for having a hero with something worth fighting for. Be brave yourself, and stand up for what you believe in your writing!

Thorin’s greed is shown to corrupt him. It costs him his life, as well as the death of Kili and Fili. Bilbo’s quiet hearth and his willingness to share is the happy ending. No-one wants to read pages and pages of finger-wagging and ethical discourse, but it’s truly stirring when an author puts their heart on the page. 

‘If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world. But sad or merry, I must leave it now. Farewell!’

Jack Shannon is a guest contributor to Fabled Planet. He is the author of Brigandine – a dark, bloody fantasy where, unfortunately for Ulf (and everyone else), magic is returning to the land of Ashenfell. It has quite a few sword fights and a healthy dose of Lovecraft. He is currently seeking representation. Why not give Jack a follow on Twitter? @Jack_Shannon

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