Never Made it Out of the Shire (Pacing in Fantasy)

by | Jul 29, 2014 | Fantasy Commentary, Prose and Cons | 7 comments

Lord of the Rings Pie Chart

The Lord of the Rings is a seminal work of fantasy, but if it suffers from a fault, that fault would be pacing. For those who have read it, how long to you think the story spends in the Shire at the very beginning? Twenty pages? Fifty? My copy has this line on page 108 (shortly into chapter VI):

‘There!’ said Merry. ‘You have left the Shire, and are now outside, and on the edge of the Old Forest.’

This same edition is 1008 pages long, including all three books. The Shire therefore takes up 10.7% of the book. It’s not as if nothing happens while the story is in the Shire. There is Bilbo’s birthday (and subsequent disappearance), the discovery of the identity of his ring, and Frodo’s journey out of the Shire, including being chased by Black Riders. But when you consider all that happens in the whole of the story, the Shire is just a toe dipped in the water. For reference, consider the following pacing elements:

  • They meet ‘Strider’ (Aragorn) on page 153
  • The Council of Elrond (where the Fellowship is formed) on page 233
  • They cross the Bridge of Khazad-Dûm on page 323 (after a 1-page encounter with a Balrog)

Things pick up after there, but the Fellowship of the Ring ends on page 398. How many writers do you think can get away with having the first 25% of a novel consist of background and travel by foot. And as for balance, consider this: the section with Tom Bombadil (as awesome as he may be) is 29 pages long; the discovery of a Balrog, the encounter on the bridge, and subsequent demise of Gandalf the Grey takes just over a page in total.

What I would caution is that you are not J.R.R. Tolkien. Don’t think for a moment that you’re going to get away with anything he does, in prose or pacing, world-building or conlangs. He is his own creature, and all who imitate him will suffer by the comparison. At worst your imitation will come across cheaply and shabbily, trying to stand on the shoulders of a giant now laid to rest. At best, your work will seem stuffy and outdated, which Tolkien’s certainly does. But while The Lord of the Rings would be edited much differently if it were new today, it holds an air of gravitas that shrugs aside modern convention.

What I would advise: Keep your pace moving, and give pages to the important parts of the story.

The Lord of the Rings was #2 on Goodreads’ list of Top Five Abandoned Classics. I can only imagine that most of those who abandoned it never made it out of the Shire.

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  1. J.R. McGinnity

    My exact thoughts on those books. The pacing doesn’t work for the modern reader.

    I think this is a post every fantasy writer should read because everyone wants to be Tolkien but if we wrote like him today no one would read it.

    • J.S. Morin

      Thanks. I think the closest anyone has come recently to pulling it off is Rothfuss. The Name of the Wind is a fairly languorous read, and it starts well afield of the main story before Kote settles in to tell his tale. I keeps the reader’s attention more because of the quality of the telling than by the story itself. I wouldn’t recommend trying to imitate Rothfuss though, either. As I read The Name of the Wind, I couldn’t help but think that no editor I’ve ever worked with would let me get away with the things he does. You can only break rules that wantonly if you make it work.

  2. J.R. McGinnity

    My thoughts exactly when I read it. The pacing does not work for the modern reader. This is a post that all fantasy authors should read because Tolkien was a master but really shows modern writers the importance of pacing rather than just reading a craft book that tells you pacing is important.

  3. Hugh McGowan

    Cogent. Tolkien is unique, not only in his procedure for building a story, but in intellect, poetry, prose, dialog, backstory provisions and more. Applies all the more to The Silmarillion–I couldn’t fathom it, and didn’t read it, although I loved his much more accessible, and shorter, Smith of Wootton Major and Farmer Giles of Ham. Thanks for the essay.

  4. AJ Zaethe

    I personally find that the closet to Tolkien’s voice has been J.K. Rowling. Both their voices make me feel like I am at a fireplace listening to someone tell me a story.

    But I would have to agree. Filling either of their shoes is a wrong choice and they are very much on their own levels. It would be great to stand like that, but realistically, we will be known for our own unique features and exist in group levels, rather than singular levels.

  5. Florian Wichers

    An insightful, inspiring reflexion on (fantasy) writing and of of its founders. I totally agree with you (now that I’ve read your blog post and connecting it with all that I have read about writing and pacing). I loved the Lord of the Rings as a youth, read it with 10 or 12 years for the first time (in German, mind – in English the language sounds even more beautiful to me) and I didn’t mind reading through the Shire. However, I know many who struggled with it (my wife, friends…) and now that I’m older and wiser I freely accept that it probably has to do with Tolkien’s writing and not my superiority to many others. 😉

    Maybe I’m old-fashioned or at least a little bit outdated (or simply have a different taste in reading), but I personally don’t like stories where hostile encounters and battles are described in great length (unless it focuses a lot on a characters emotional life and reactions) and in the minute details. One page is still (obviously) remarkable short for an encounter with the Balrog and one (as a writer) can easily imagine how much more food the scene would have given. On the other hand: Is it possible that the reader just remains stunned after reading that page and thinks: “What the f*** just happened?!” – most likely exactly like the characters in the book? It’s just a thought – I would have to re-read it to find out if it could be perceived that way.

    Thanks for your interesting articles! I read them far too seldom.

  6. Calasade

    I argue the fault of not reading LoTR and the Hobbit fall on the reader for failing to understand that these terrific stories were not written in our time; therefore, these stories do not and should not correspond to our obsession of having everything happen “quickly”. A reader should therefore be mature and intelligent enough to adjust their expectations accordingly.

    Sadly, however, many of today’s readers are neither mature nor intelligent enough to do so.


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