Category Archives: LOTR

Plot Threads versus Sub-Plots

Like many of my blog posts, this one comes from my Twitter feed (@stephengparks)

A question was asked about whether sub-plots were distracting, and it became obvious that we weren’t all using the same definitions of sub-plot.

Some stories, including one that I’m working on, have many threads of the same plot. This is different from sub-plots and I want to demonstrate with examples.

In my example, a team gets scattered and must work individually to re-unite. This is a multi-thread story, it’s not a sub-plot.

The Lord of the Rings includes a multi-thread story. The fellowship falls apart, gets scattered in an attack. But each member keeps doing what they can to ensure the outcome, each trusting that the others are doing the same.

For examples of sub-plots I would often picture a sitcom.

Let’s use an imaginary episode of Friends as an example. The main plot is that everyone is afraid of Ross’ pet monkey. it keeps terrorising them but only when Ross isn’t looking, so he doesn’t believe them until it turns on him too.

The sub-plot is that Phoebe’s twin sister is impersonating her and doing bad things in her name.

The two stories aren’t related (Aaron Sorkin refers to these as A Plot, B Plot and maybe even C Plot, each lower plot getting less screen time).

A well-written sub-plot can impact the main plot.

Again from TV, I’m thinking of Castle. In that show, there would often be a sub-plot involving his family. In some well-written episodes something that happens in the sub-plot triggers a realisation about the main plot, leading to the resolution (solving the crime of the week).

Often the only thing that plots and sub-plots have in common is that the resolve themselves in the same timeframe. But handled well, a sub-plot can inform the main plot, emphasising themes or revealing insights useful to the protagonist.

Thank You Christopher Tolkien

My editions

Right off the bat I want to do exactly what the title says and thank Christopher Tolkien for his decades of diligent management, guidance, and protection of the legacy of his father, J.R.R. Tolkien. As you may have heard, Christopher, now 93, resigned from managing his father’s estate this past August.

Some media companies are apparently rushing to try to acquire new rights or projects from the estate, now that the man seen as ‘the biggest hurdle’ to their progression is gone.

I’d like to think the opposite. He wasn’t a hurdle, he was a guardian. It would have been easy for Christopher Tolkien to exploit his father’s works for as much money as possible. Instead, he has steadfastly protected the integrity of those works, at the expense of multiple opportunities to cash in. This is a man of integrity.

Amazon has apparently already secured the rights to make a new TV series based in Middle Earth. Frankly I don’t need a new Lord of the Rings filtered through a Game of Thrones sensibility.

Christopher Tolkien was always suspicious of those who wished to portray his father’s universe, and given the angrier, grittier times we live in and the reflection of that in our modern fantasy, I suspect he was right to try to keep his father’s works separate from the modern interpretation.

Peter Jackson, for his part, did an admirable job of preserving J.R.R.’s sensibilities, portraying evil without resorting to gore, degradation, or any of the current oeuvres/ ideas on how to present evil. The archetypal evil of Sauron, Saruman, and Mordor is visceral, not physical. Let’s hope that whoever buys and exploits the newly available rights gets that.

– – – –

On a side note, a few years ago, I met Mahatma Gandhi’s son. Just stop for a second and visualize that. What do you think he would look like? For some reason, when I hear ‘son’ of a famous person, I think of, if not a child, then at least someone younger than me. Mr. Gandhi is a wise, gentle man, a peace activist like his father, but not young.

I had the same response when I heard that Tolkien’s son had retired –  he’s a son, he must be younger than me? Yeah, no. Christopher Tolkien is 93.

10 Novels that have stayed with me

David Gerrold*, noted science fiction writer, had an interesting article on his website, 10 Novels that have stayed with me. One thing that amazed me is how much of a crossover there was with his list and my (then hypothetical) list. One thing that saddened me was that he gave the list (2 actually, one of books and one of authors), but no rationale for how they had impacted him. I thought I’d make my own list, but giving rationales for each.

So, let?s break it down! Ten novels that have stayed with me:

by Frank Herbert

Before we even get into this, I want to state that for me Dune and Dune Messiah should be treated as one book, perhaps titled The Rise and Fall of Paul Atreides. I’ve read Dune enough times that I have favourite editions (each edition has a slightly different edit – sometimes correcting elements, occasionally deleting scenes.) I like the earlier versions that include scenes where Count Fenring is fully explored as a failed Kwisatz Haderach. He sympathetically discusses Paul’s fate with his wife, even as he plans how to kill him. As my knowledge of the Middle East has grown, I’ve re-read this story with different eyes. In some ways it seems prophetic, in others, it seemsmore like an enhanced retelling ot T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia)’s story.

Under Pressure
by Frank Herbert

Not all Frank Herbert stories were good. I’ve read a few that made me wonder how they got published (Hellstrom’s Hive anyone?). But this is one of his better. Also released as Dragon in the Sea, this is a good, suspenseful story. There are four men on a sub during wartime. One is a traitor, but who? Can the sub finish its critical mission before the traitor sabotages the sub?

(Also of note, Herbert’s ConSentience books – Whipping Star and Dosadi Experiment)

The Chrysalids
by John Wyndham

This is one of those stories that throws you in and expects you to swim. You’ll discover as you read this that there has been some kind of holocaust, probably a nuclear war, and that survivors have fallen back not only on older agrarian ways, but also on a strict set of laws and guidances to ensure that humanity remains pure (it’s not stated why, but many children are born with deformities. Such children are banished to semi-arable radioactive zones.) Against this background, a generation of telepaths is born. They try to hide and fit in, but any conspiracy is only as strong as its weakest member, and one of the telepaths is only a baby and can’t comprehend the danger.

The Lord of the Rings
by J.R.R. Tolkien

I don’t have to explain the plot, but it’s the visual imagery, so adeptly captured in the first movie, that drove me to continue reading even when it meant immersing in elvish and dwarfish lore that didn’t really interest me. The man knew how to write.

The Lord of Light
by Roger Zelazny

Another story where you need to figure it out as you go. There are gods living among a pre-industrial society. But it turns out that they are all descendants from a crashed spaceship, the ‘gods’ are from the crew, the rest from the passengers. The ‘gods’ hoard technology and suppress societal development (going so far as to blow up a house in which someone had built a toilet) but now one of the ‘gods’ wants to change all that.

by Samuel R. Delaney

Set in the far distant future, this story, partially told in flashback, deals with a feud between two very wealthy families, one of old-money and from Earth, the other nouveau riche and located in a colonized world. This is a rich story of cruelty, obsession, and wealth gone awry. It’s also a lyrical story about music, tarot cards, cyberpunk-style technology and a star about to go boom.

The Naked Sun
by Isaac Asimov

This is a sequel to Caves of Steel, and reunites the two main protagonists, an Earthling named Elijah Bailey and a robot named Daniel Olivaw. While the first story was set in the cave-like cities of a futuristic, poor, and fearful Earth, this story sees the characters solving a murder on a much richer and more sparsely populated world, one where people still go outside, much to Elijah’s horror. His agoraphobia is a constant throughout the story. This one was much more memorable than the first, and I find I come back to it. Asimov later expanded this series with a third book, Robots of Dawn, and later still even tied this series to his Foundation series.

A Deepness in the Sky
by Vernor Vinge

While this story is technically a prequel to A Fire Upon the Deep, the stories take place 20,000 years apart and have only one character in common. Simply put in the distant future two human cultures are competing to make contact with an alien species that hibernates for centuries at a time. Vinge writes aliens as common but different people better than most, and I prefer his telling here to the first book.

The Mote in God’s Eye
by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

First contact with aliens, but we’re the spacefaring ones and they’re planetbound. The story is fun enough that I’ve read it a half dozen times. Truthfully, the aliens aren’t alien enough for me, but the strength of the story is in the world-building and the human cultures – a mixture of WWII American naval and pre-Soviet Russian cultures, with a sense of British aristocracy thrown in. And Kevin Renner, can’t forget Kevin Renner.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
by Douglas Adams

There’s now five or six books in this ‘trilogy’ but really the first book is all you need. I’d like to call this post-modern absurdist science fiction, but I’m not even sure what that means. However there is something inherently Monty Python-esque about this story of the last human alive. If you don’t know the story, and don’t have time to read it, try to find the BBC TV series, not the movie.

David Gerrold also did a list of 10 authors, and like his, my list of authors does not completely match up with my list of books (Hello Terry Pratchett!). But that’s a post for another day.


*David Gerrold has written many good books, including A Matter for Men and When HARLIE Was One, but to my mind he is best known for his breakout TV script “The Trouble with Tribbles” for the original Star Trek TV series.

Here’s the original “Next Week on Star Trek” trailer. The episode is much better than the trailer:

As always, feel free to disagree below!