Book Talk, Movie Weekend, My Writing

Lord of the Music: Elements of Storytelling

For literature enthusiasts and film enthusiasts alike, there is one story with which everyone is more or less familiar: The Lord of the Rings.  It’s a tale of good versus evil that has withstood the test of time and remains one of the leading fantasy stories in fiction to date. J.R.R. Tolkien uses successful literary devices to bring his characters and story world to life, and Howard Shore utilizes musical techniques to expand on these ideas.


Three Common Elements

Some of the most commonly-used elements in literary works are:

  1. worldbuilding,
  2. suspension of disbelief, and
  3. character and plot development.

These are the backbones of a narrative. While the use of these devices does not always translate directly to the big screen, a successful film score will take these aspects of the story and apply them with well-represented musicality, relating each tool to the other in multiple ways. In order to effectively apply these devices to a film score, especially for an adaptation of a literary work, it’s important to know the literary tools that structure these stories. So, before discussing the musicality of these techniques, let’s discuss how these devices work in literature first.


Worldbuilding is a pivotal aspect of the written story, oftentimes highlighted by employing narrative voice. Readers experience the story world through the lens of how the tale is narrated or who the narrator is. Tone, theme, and even character change drastically depending on narration and voicing.

Authors describe specific tones, themes, and characters with careful word choice, which is also an important factor in planting subtext. In the same way an ominous mood signals a tragic tale—for instance, in Wagner’s four-opera epic, Der Ring des Nibelungen, which I will touch on laterword choice signals theme and subtext in literature.

Der Ring des Nibelungen

For example, the world of the Elves is seen through Sam’s eyes when he recites memorized poetry about the Elves in the original book. This shows both Sam’s whimsical view of the Elves and the otherworldly quality of their culture within Middle-earth. 

More on Elvish poetry from Middle-Earth Reflections

Suspension of Disbelief

Worldbuilding also enables suspension of disbelief. The craft of creating an entire world that exists solely within a fictitious story is essential to the believability of that story.

Suspension of disbelief occurs through immersion. In the words of Tolkien, “what really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful ‘sub-creator.’ He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, he relates what is ‘true’…with the laws of that world” (Tolkien, 132). 

…what really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful ‘sub-creator.’ He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, he relates what is ‘true’…with the laws of that world.

– J.R.R. Tolkien

In a simple sense, a work of fiction is a lie. When a reader picks up a book, they willingly cast aside their disbelief to immerse themselves fully in the experience of the story. In exchange for this willing belief in the lie, the writer’s job is to keep the immersion strong by employing consistent story logic.

A fantasy such as Tolkien’s epic, for example, may include magical objects that do not exist in real life, like a magical ring. However, the rules to which these objects adhere are believable in their consistency: if a magical ring did exist, this is what it would do. Successful and immersive literature feels believable in its small, realistic details.

Image from Taylor Lastovich, Unsplash

In Jeff VanderMeer’s Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction, he states that, “The places…in which story occurs are not inert or merely backdrops to action—they have energy, motion, and create certain effects depending on your approach” (VanderMeer, 241). One must take into account the history of the story world, the effect it has on characters, and how these characters interact with the setting in ways that make the setting come alive.

VanderMeer elaborates, “Landscape not invested with emotion or point of view is lifeless” (VanderMeer, 244). In other words, the story world cannot come alive without interaction with characters, and vice versa. Where Tolkien invests his myth with emotion, Shore strategically deploys musical cues to alert readers to life in the landscape.

Landscape not invested with emotion or point of view is lifeless.

– Jeff VanderMeer

Tolkien’s writing shows understanding of this connection between setting and characters and imbeds every setting in his story with a rich history, life, and potential future. As Frodo and the Fellowship travel across Middle-Earth, from the beauty of Lothlorien to the bowels of Moria, they are chased by the looming presence of Sauron and the truth that they might not be able to save this world before he destroys it. Even after the hopeful Council of Elrond, Frodo and his fellow travelers come upon the mines of Moria to find not a dear family member, as the dwarf Gimli expected, but a tomb. Frodo feels pressure to destroy the Ring and carries that fear even in this early stage of his journey.

There is always the possibility that places like the once-successful Moria mines will fall to ruin despite his best efforts. As the Fellowship travels to different kingdoms and cultures, slower pacing is used to convey a sense of time. This, paired with a difference in culture, widens the scope of Middle-Earth’s story world and allows the reader to explore as the characters do. In the films, Shore signifies a change in location by differing musical cues using tonal and orchestrational shifts (more on this later).

One of the most effective choices to consider when deciding on narrative voice is that of point of view. Point of view refers to the narration of the story and through which character’s eyes the story is told. These choices can range anywhere from the main character to an omnipresent narrator who is in no way impacted by the events of the story.

In the example from narrative voice, Sam’s perspective on individuals unlike him but sharing his world also speaks to how the world is perceived in that moment: through Sam’s eyes.

All narration styles have their advantages and disadvantages, depending on how they are used in a story. Because of its many characters and tone shifts, Tolkien uses third-person omniscient in The Lord of the Rings.

Narration is a subtle instance of the popular phrase “show, don’t tell.” Instead of outright telling what a character is doing, for example, narration describes how they are doing it.

For example, in the mines of Moria, Gimli is heartbroken to find that his relative has died. Instead of outright telling this, Tolkien chooses to write a description that carries enough nuance and subtext to convey the message in a way that packs a heavier emotional punch: “Gimli cast his hood over his face” (Tolkien, 312). Here, the reader is not told by the narrator that Gimli is upset, but this information is seen and conveyed through Gimli’s subtle action of casting his hood over his face.

Character and Plot Development

Worldbuilding and narration both lead into a less subtle approach to the “show, don’t tell” rule of thumb: character and plot development. In a work of fiction, character and plot are the driving forces of the story’s momentum and may also serve as facilitators for a theme or idea toward which the events of the story build.

Character and plot are closely related, as the decisions of characters will impact their choices of action and therefore the overall shape of the narrative. As characters make decisions, the momentum of the plot and actions of other characters change accordingly, which creates a figurative butterfly effect.

The loop of character and plot advancement continues until a twofold climax is reached: a character attains new growth, and the events of the plot come to a head and are resolved. For example, Frodo returns to the Shire with both the bitter-sweet wisdom gained from his experience and the victory of destroying the Ring and saving the world.


Readers who are gripped by the illusion of reality through seamless narration are compelled to care for the characters as they embark on their journey, which is often dictated by plot. Suspension of disbelief, narration, and character and plot development work with each other to create an immersive and fulfilling experience.

Previously: Introduction

Next time: A Brief History of Musical Storytelling

* All references will be provided in the last installment of this blog series. *
Photo by Matteo Maretto on Unsplash