Why Your World is Boring

— August 03, 2012 (17 comments)

I'm always surprised when someone who loves fantasy tells me they haven't read The Lord of the Rings. I mean, this book is fantasy. And it's awesome! Why have so many people not read it?

I'll give you three reasons: world-building infodumps, plot-stopping songs, and unintelligible languages.

Listen, I know these are what make LotR what it is. I KNOW. But you have to understand that for a first-time reader -- someone who is totally unfamiliar with Middle Earth -- these parts are boring.

Tolkien loved his world -- and rightfully so; it's amazing. But the truth is that if Tolkien tried to pitch it today as his debut novel, he'd be told to cut the word count in half, split the story into smaller parts (oh wait), and for Pete's sake use a 'k' instead of a hard 'c' in your fantasy names!


Many of us who write fantasy fell in love with it because of books like Tolkien's. We created our own worlds, with new races and cultures and politics and histories and languages. We wrote a story in that world.

But you know what happened? Our story became more about the world than the story. And it was boring.

Now we're full grown authors. We know about character and conflict. We're good with pacing and tension. But every once in a while, we start our story off with an infodump prologue, or we toss a 70-line poem into our story "to flesh out the world."

People don't want to read about your world. They want interesting characters to root for. They want a compelling plot. Give them these things and only then will they listen to whatever you've got to say about the history of the Sidhe (or why it's pronounced 'she').

Readers that love your characters will love your world, not the other way around.

What about you? Did you get into fantasy because of Tolkien? Where do you stand on stuff like this:

Go on, John Ronald. Tell me why this was necessary.

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  1. It was necessary because Tolkien didn't care about commercial viability. He only cared about creating art. And yes, publishers would reject it. But publishers don't know crap about what readers want. LOTR is still the most popular book in existence so publishers and anyone else who criticizes Tolkien's work can go stick their head in a bucket for all their opinions are worth.

  2. So true. Even though I enjoyed the LOTR and admire his depth and writing, I confess I skimmed through some of the songs and descriptive parts to find out what happened in the story.

  3. I hate to say this, but I tend to disagree. I think this is a problem with the current state of publishing, and the modern culture of instant gratification, short attention spans, and consumerism.

    Tolkien wrote an amazing story. Does it take time to build? Yes. Would his agent make him cut the fist 100 pages before allowing him to go on sub if he was a debut author today? Sure.

    But that wouldn't make them right. Personally, I love Middle Earth, and when I love something, the geek that lives in the center of my heart wants as much of it as he can get. Appendices, 12 volumes of legend and history published by his son based only on his father's notes, maps, films, graphic novels, read along LPs, I want it ALL.

    Now, I realize I'm not your average consumer. I realize that most people don't want all that. But that doesn't make it any less awesome, and I do think there is good reason why LOTR is one of the best selling literary franchises ever.


  4. Narnia was the first fantasy I ever remembering reading, but R.A. Salvatore is what hooked me into the genre. 11 years later and he's still writing with the same characters. It's awesome.

    You hit it on the nail, though, and what about Gone with the Wind? I can't imagine that would ever fly as a debut novel today.

  5. I have to both agree and respectfully disagree. :) I agree that most new fantasy authors need to think less about being like Tolkien and more about creating great stories...
    BUT I think Tolkien created a great story, as is--furthermore, he had the credentials to push it into publication.
    Tolkien DID begin by creating lovable characters--The Hobbit, after all, begins with Bilbo. Fellowship begins with the delightful insight into life in his hobbit hole--not with the Middle Earth History lesson we got in the movie (even though I loved that, too).
    And at risk of sounding elitist, most authors just can't hold a candle to Tolkien's world-building skills; if they did, they'd probably get away with it, too.
    So, all my respectful disagreeing aside, I think your advice for authors is spot-on. :) Create great characters. Create compelling plots. The world will fall into place.

  6. The interesting thing I see, especially in the comments, is whether "the market" is "right" about what constitutes "good reading." Do readers shape what is published or do publishers shape what is read?

    And maybe I come out somewhere on the "elitist" side of the continuum. I'm so utterly sick of big conglomerates limiting choice. That's the phenomenon no one is talking about. I think NBC's coverage of the Olympics is the perfect example of what I mean. The give us HOURS of footage on four or five athletes and completely ignore others--others who have higher medal counts, who have more compelling back stories, who have been competing longer in way less boring-to-watch sports than, say, swimming. The corporate sponsorship system wants only to keep giving us the same commodities over and over and over. We're not supposed to want to see fencing, or equestrian or weight lifting or badminton. The network decides what is "cool" by foisting it on us and cutting off access to anything else.

    I disagree that the market is giving us much higher quality stories. It's giving us formulaic stories, because books have become just another commodity. Where is there space for art when books become pork bellies?

  7. When I first read LOTR, I read Every. Single. Word. I read it like a new convert to an old religion, absorbing every nuance. That was a very long time ago. I've reread Tolkien (Silmarillion, Hobbit, LOTR, etc.) at least a dozen times since then, and I confess that I skip a lot of the poetry and songs now. I don't always read all the genealogy and other notes at the end of the books, either. But that doesn't take away from my appreciation of the world he created.

  8. FWIW, I'll admit I do skip the poems and songs, but I didn't the first time.

  9. Yes, my first fantasy was Tolkien and to this day I don't know what compelled me to finish the books. I love them now, but I had no idea what was going on till I watched the movies a few times. But, it did spark my own love of fantasy, as I know it did with others.

    I agree though. I try and read fantasy but most people try Tolkien's way and give a long history about the world, and I don't care. I want characters to love and spend time with. Then if I like them, I will see their world with them.

  10. I'm sorry, I'm not sure where I'd fit in this discussion.

    I'm the kid who's kindergarten teacher read snippets of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe to her class...and I was one of the kids mesmerized by it.

    I read Tolkien as a desire to read something, anything after enjoying my Judy Blume stage and Tolkien carried me away with his poems, his songs. These things wrapped me up within their oddball rhythms and placed me smack-dab in the moment, experiencing the world as a very citizen of Middle Earth. Tolkien's attention to detail painted the world within my mind, a mind hungry for something more than the gritty streets I was growing up on. Back then, details seemed okay. Today, they are deemed "less likely to be commercially viable" unless you've established a grand following or you happen to be lucky enough to have your work compared to Tolkien as the author of The Name of the Wind has had done with his work.

    If there is one thing I've learned on this journey, it's that commercial viability and extraordinary writing may not always go hand in hand.

  11. Tolkien is my favorite fantasy writer of all time. His passion was linguistics. Even as a boy, he was making up languages, and Middle Earth was a place where he could give languages their own histories and people (especially heroes). Even his short stories have depth and majesty. I don't feel like he gave us too much.

    I, on the other hand, put too much information into early drafts (because I'm still figuring out the world). Then I have to figure out what the reader really needs.

  12. I'll confess to never getting past when Frodo meets Bilbo. That visit with the elves seemed to stop the action, and the writing was, as you say, a bit dense and taking its time for someone who enjoyed The Hobbit.

    For those who want it all, though, in the great long trek it is, that's the peak of fantasy, for sure.

  13. So with you on this.

    I did read all of LOTR, and I really wanted to like it. I even told my geek friends I liked it, because that gets you geek cred. But I'm older now, and now I know I don't have to pretend to like what everyone else pretends to like for people to like me....

  14. In college I forced myself through the LOTR trilogy, but it must have been a horrible experience because I can barely remember anything from those books. Trying to read them was really painful for me, which made me sad because what kind of fantasy lover does that make me?! If not for the movies I would have no idea what happened in those books. Oh wait, wait -- I think I DO actually remember one thing from the books! Apparently Aragorn was, like, 80 years old or something. LOL.

    I'm glad other people like the trilogy, whether in book or movie form, but it's just not for me.

  15. The first time I read LOTR I was 9, and I skipped all the poetry and songs. Since then I've re-read the series at least a dozen times, and I love to read everything, because I understand how the songs and poems fit. But at 9 it was too much of a multimedia message.

    I think that what was brilliant about Tolkien's worldbuilding was that there was so much more than we ever saw. As you pointed out in a post, it's important that the reader feel like the world is much larger than the book(s), and Tolkien did that so very very much. (Joss Whedon does this, too, which is one of the reasons I love his stories so much).

    But of course infodumping is telling, not showing (although I'd argue that in novels it should be "experiencing"), and few of us are as masterful as Tolkien -- at least in our first novels -- so he's probably not the best model to follow for aspiting authors.

  16. This is why I love indie publishing. Not saying I would read that poem (I would not; I would skip it and maybe only come back if someone else told me it was awesome) - but someone will. And that story should be there for them.

    That being said, I will write the stories that I like to read, which have huge helpings of tension and drama to go with gobs of worldbuilding.