Plot Structure, Maps, and the Chase Scene
Plot structure is always a difficult concept for writers to tackle. The best plots turn and twist, and yes, snag in unexpected places. Some authors approach them cautiously, with pages of outlines and the best laid plans.Other authors let the plot take them for the ride. These authors enjoy unraveling the mystery with each typed word, much like a reader enjoys a good page turner. I recently finished The Eye of the World, which is the first book in the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan. It is an older book, originally published in 1990, and has been reviewed many times. So why bring it up now?
Well, in past reviews it is most criticized for borrowing heavily from The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien. I don’t want to create a post that just added another direct comparison. So, I began to think about the story differently. I looked at it from the perspective of someone who is writing their own fantasy novel. For anyone else writing and struggling with plot, I hope these thoughts are helpful or at least a starting point for discussion.
Surface Level Comparisons Only Go So Far
I believe that many of the critiques of The Eye of the World that are out there are shallow. They focus too much on the shallow (and yes, obvious) comparisons between the two fantasy epics. These lazy critiques compare the black cloaked Myrddraal of Jordan to the black cloaked Nazgul of Tolkien. They compare orcs to trollocs and goblin-like monsters. They compare the idyllic pastures and Edmond’d Field’s sheep herders to the pipe-weed loving Hobbits in the Shire. In short, there are many surface-level comparisons. And of course, these critics also often fail to point out the differences in the novels too, such as their endings and how Jordan does a much better job in my opinion of developing his female characters.
Geography and Plot Structure
There is a good chance that you have read many fantasy novels that begin, like The Eye of the World and Fellowship of the Ring do, with a map at the front of the book. The greatest stories have characters with goals that are both believable and significant to the reader. In novels like The Eye of the World and The Fellowship of the Ring, the map sets the stage to convey that goal to the reader. The goal of the main character is [not so simply] to get from point A to point B for some reason–usually because of a bout with destiny.
The star of these books is the geography. The reader becomes familiar with the path that the fellowships take in each novel. Each major destination along the journey is memorable. Bree, Caemlyn, Whitebridge, Rivendell, Moria. What is more, each destination usually coincides with a memorable event, battle, or change among the characters. I absolutely love the feeling of going on the physical journey with the characters. I like flipping to the map and figuring out how far away one place is from another, and seeing how far the character’s have traveled.
So what’s my point, other than that I am a big map geek? Well, I think it’s important to think about how the geography of the heroes journey reflects the way that the author wrote the story and concocted the plot. There is a lot of discussion about what Tolkien originally intended to write in The Lord of the Rings, and how much his originally intended plot changed. I think about how much of the plot changed as the dotted-line of the character’s travels progressed. Certain author placed obstacles like rivers, mountains, and cities changed character’s decisions about which routes to go.
We can see evidence of this in Tolkien’s work at The House of Tom Bombadil. The scene in the forest is surely ethereal, but ties very, very little into the plot. And Aragorn started out as a Hobbit named named Trotter, who would meeting Bingo in Bree. Quite the revision. Of course, geography isn’t fully responsible for character developments and plot revisions. But Tolkien himself seems to acknowledge in his notes that the trilogy did not start out as a completed outlined concept.
The Chase Plot Structure
So what makes the Fellowship of the Ring work, if Tolkien was flying by the seat of his pants? And what makes Jordan’s book work, if he was copying Tolkien? First I’ll note that Tolkien had the Hobbit and the Silmarillion to build on–more than most authors who are “pantsing”. Secondly, “The Chase” isn’t inherently a “bad” plot structure. In fact, it can be pretty damn interesting when done right. And it’s featured predominantly in both The Eye of the World and The Fellowship of the Ring. The main characters of both iconic books are chased by the forces of evil. There are tense scenes where they’re almost discovered, and each succeeds in making the reader feel the fear about what happens if they get caught. The Myrddraal and Nazgul are similar. They both stress the reader out.
But if you examine beneath the surface, there isn’t much motivation there beyond “get away from the bad guy”. A lot of defenders of the books will argue that subplots, character interactions, and close brushes with death all add up to a well thought out plot. But if you examine the underlying goal of the characters, it really still just is “I want to get away from these things chasing me, and go back to my normal, pastoral life”. And that’s not inherently bad. If the writer doesn’t dive into too much world-building, and keeps the party moving it can be great. If you build in stops along the way that are scary (Logath and Moria) it can be fantastic and iconic. And if chase means more than simply arriving unscathed at destination B, I think that it can be a great beginning to an epic series.