Title: The Classic Lord of the Rings Gapfiller: How to Keep Folks Reading When They Know How the Story Turns Out
Subject: Writing gapfillers
Type: essay, writing advice
Author's Notes: Within the cut
Word Count: 1,491
The Classic Lord of the Rings Gapfiller: How to Keep Folks Reading When They Know How the Story Turns Out
There are four stories that I will be using as examples in this essay. I'm putting this note at the beginning instead of at the end, as there are some mild spoilers, so I am going to link the stories here first so that if the readers who have yet to read these marvelous stories want to do so, they can read the stories before they read the essay.
"While the Ring Went South" by Thundera Tiger
"The River" by Indigo Bunting
"Spellbound" by Shirebound
"Shadows of a Nameless Fear" by Budgielover
Have you ever been reading a gapfiller fanfic, one that you know is not AU? You already know the gap being filled, you already know how things will turn out. And yet the story keeps you reading, suspense has you in its grip. Of course the character will survive. You've read the book, you've seen the movie! Why are you worrying about what's going to happen next?
Do you feel the same way, even when you re-read the story? What is the writer's skill in keeping a reader on the edge of her seat, even when the story is no longer a surprise?
Some writers are very skilled in such things, and we can examine some of the techniques they use not only in creating the suspension of disbelief necessary for reading any fantasy, but also in creating in us a willingness to forget that we know how things are going to come out.
Most of these stories take place in the parts of the story in which there are a few days or weeks in which Tolkien does not tell us specifics of what has been happening. Sometimes the author will tell us that she has grafted an extra day or two onto Tolkien's timeline, or that she has introduced a geographical feature which does not appear on the maps. While these features may render a story "mildly AU", the goal of the author is not to deviate from the main story as we have been given it. Instead the thrust of the story is to shed light on the characters, and to perhaps also shed light on why or how certain events that happened in canon did so. In spite of such small AU elements, the story remains canon-compliant overall.
Thundera Tiger's story "While the Ring Went South" focuses on the obstacles the Company of the Nine Walkers faced during the early part of their journey. The most memorable part of the story is a sequence in which Legolas, Gimli and Pippin are separated from the rest by a ravine. Legolas and Gimli are forced to forgo their feud and work together to care for an injured Pippin and rejoin the rest of the Fellowship. There is no doubt for the reader (the characters have considerable doubt) that they will rejoin the others, yet there is a good deal of suspense and doubt as to how they will do so, and whether the fragile truce the Elf and Dwarf have built will hold. Suspense is built anew by each new obstacle the two face together, and also by the concerns of the rest of the Fellowship as they attempt to find a way to rejoin their lost companions. The reader is rewarded by new insights into the characters of Legolas and Gimli, and how difficult the ingrained prejudices of each will be to overcome. The result at the end of the story is further admiration of the characters: they are not yet the best friends we know they will become, but we are struck by their ability to hold to their honor and to examine their own hearts in the face of evidence that flies in the face of their upbringing.
"The River" by Indigo Bunting has a similar plot: two members of the Fellowship separated from the others, this time during the fording of a river. Legolas and Sam, swept away from the others by rising floodwaters find themselves on the opposite bank from the others and parted from the others by many miles. Injured and alone, they still are trying to rejoin the others when they are captured by evil men and taken prisoner.
Indigo Bunting uses a method of changing point-of-view from chapter to chapter, each chapter a deep and focused POV from a different member of the Fellowship. This method not only gives us the chance to see what each person thinks of the situation, but is also a method of increasing suspense. It is the same method Tolkien himself used in Lord of the Rings after the breaking of the Fellowship: we become completely immersed in what is happening to one set of characters when we are suddenly torn away from them and switched over to another set of characters. In "The River" each of these switches takes place at a time of climax, so that every chapter is a cliff-hanger in one way or another. It's very easy to forget that the characters are going to come out of it all right: they have no such knowledge, and as we are immersed in their minds and their worries, we forget that as well. The choices each character is forced to make at each stage of the story also increases our fears for them. When the story finally ends by "rejoining" the original story, we see that the Fellowship has forged a greater commitment to one another and to their Quest.
Shirebound's "Spellbound" is somewhat different. Her story deviates not at all from the portion of the tale she chose to expand upon. Instead she chose to shed light on why things happened as they did. Set wholly within the chapter "Fog on the Barrowdowns", it's been meticulously researched and falls completely within the events it describes. In spite of this, it is a chillingly suspenseful tale. We see some things from the barrow-wight's POV, and learn the reasons the hobbits have been captured, why he treats them as he does, and how some of the things that happened to them were accomplished. She searched through the legendarium to find out anything she could about the barrow-wights and the war with Angmar in order to come up with logical explanations. She creates a terrifying and spooky atmosphere throughout the story with her descriptions, and by showing the characters' fears. By the time the story was finished, this reader at least, was convinced that it was exactly how the events must have gone. Like all the best gapfillers, it was an "Aha!" moment: how else could all be explained?
"Shadows of a Nameless Fear" by Budgielover takes place in Minas Tirith after the Quest has been accomplished, during the time between Aragorn's wedding and the departure of the rest of the Fellowship to return to their own homes. In this story, Frodo is abducted by greedy men, and everyone is frantic to find him. There is no stinting in the departments of peril and angst, with occasional flashes of humor that briefly relieve the stress. The best thing about Budgielover's stories is that she gives each and every character a chance to shine, to be a hero. Of course the reader knows they will survive to go home--but as we see one deadly danger after another, we wonder just how that can possibly happen. And as the reader cheers on each character as he or she grabs the opportunity to do something incredibly brave, we do not mind in the least that we know how the story will end. And even the happy ending is not quite what we expect.
So it behooves the fanfic writer to keep in mind some of the best examples of others when writing her own stories.
Here are some thoughts on gapfillers that may help you create your own:
1. Create obstacles for the characters that will stretch them and cause them to grow as characters. Use what we know of them in canon and expand on that: how did they become the characters we know?
2. Use POV to draw the reader in, by making it deep enough that the reader can get immersed in the character, and by switching to another POV when suspense is at its height. Cliff-hangers are popular for a reason.
3. Use description and atmosphere skillfully to create a feeling of suspense. And search for the "Aha!" gaps that need to be filled, so that the reader really wants to know the how or why of what happened in canon. Something you find in the original story that you feel needs more explanation is probably something someone else has the same questions about.
4. Give the main characters a chance to "show their stuff", so that the reader wants to cheer him or her on. When we can get a chance to smile over their cleverness or applaud their courage, it draws us in. And surprising twists are possible, even when we are aware that the characters are going to survive--look for ways to do this.
5. Finally, one thing all these writers have is insightful characterization. None of the canon characters in these stories are "OOC", that is, "out-of-character". The reader knows these people as old friends, and it is that much easier to care about what happens to each of them.
I hope that this examination of some classic gapfiller stories may be of help to those who also want to create such stories for themselves.
Further Author's Note: There are a great many more excellent stories that fit into the category of classic gapfillers, others by these very same authors, and many more by other fine authors. These particular four stories were chosen because they best showcased the points I wished to make.