Friday, April 15, 2022

Expand on Your Stream Ideas

In 1937, the year The Hobbit was released, J.R.R. Tolkien began work on a sequel. This new Hobbit book was supposed to be the story of Bilbo, having used up all his treasure horde, looking for a new adventure. The publisher was happy with this pitch, as they’d have another popular children’s book to capitalize on the first one’s success. What they received, after 16 years and a huge amount of rewrites, was an entire trilogy about Bilbo’s nephew getting mixed up in a continent-wide geopolitical conflict and trying to prevent the devil from destroying the world. That’s a far cry from The Hobbit’s fumbling treasure hunter and the lessons he learns along the way. When reading these two stories it’s difficult to imagine how someone could be so creative when envisioning a way to expand on their invented universe. Tolkien was able to throw away almost everything about the original book and make its sequel completely unique. Is there a way we can harness that same creative power when improving our own content? I believe there is. 


When you re-read The Hobbit enough times, you start to realize something interesting. The DNA for The Lord of the Rings story was there all along. No, I don’t just mean the character names, locations and languages. I mean that Tolkien was able to return to his original story, which was filled with wonderful allusions to a larger universe, and extrapolate on those little sparks to ignite a much larger creative fire. 

Gollum was originally a 
nicer guy.

One excellent example of this is the “
Riddles in the Dark” chapter. Anyone who knows The Hobbit will remember this moment where Bilbo Baggins competes with Gollum in a deadly game of riddles. But did you know that this chapter was first published very differently than the version we know today? When releasing the original version of The Hobbit, Tolkien didn’t have a real idea of what the ring truly was, and as such there were many aspects of this encounter which played out differently. Gollum intended to give Bilbo the ring willingly as a prize for losing the game, and when he couldn’t find it he essentially shrugged his shoulders and led the hobbit out of his cave. It was only after The Hobbit was released, and Tolkien was thinking about a sequel, as well as the interesting ideas he might be able to extract from Bilbo’s magic ring, that he revised the scene. In the version we know today, Gollum is much more volatile and tortured by the ring’s corrupting powers, and would certainly never give up his ‘birthday present’ willingly. This updated edition was published, and that’s the version we have now. Then in another brilliant move, Tolkien actually decided to canonize the fact that his text was retconned. Since within the world of Middle-earth, the story of The Hobbit is meant to have been written by Bilbo Baggins himself, it’s revealed in The Lord of the Rings that this earlier published version of the Gollum chapter was actually a lie written by Bilbo to assuage his own conscience. What a cool way to expand on a story! 


Tolkien applied those same principles for much of the story of The Lord of the Rings. No other chapters of The Hobbit were drastically changed like that, but small little details from Bilbo’s quest were used to flesh out this new one. And not just that- Tolkien had another trick up his sleeve. Decades before even The Hobbit was published, he had been working on a much larger project. This massive history of the gods and heroes of Middle-earth would eventually be known as The Silmarillion, but at the time it was simply a scattered collection of ideas and stories. After publishing The Hobbit, Tolkien actually wanted to finish and release The Silmarillion as his next book (a pretty jarring thought to anyone out there who has read it!) but the publisher thought it would be too much for readers to handle- and they were probably right. So instead, Tolkien used much of that saga’s texture to flesh out the books he worked on in its stead. When reading The Lord of the Rings, it’s amazing to consider how many folk tales, heroic legends, songs, poems and other pieces of fictional lore exist within its pages. It’s an astoundingly complete universe. And much of that was possible because Tolkien cannibalized his scrapped project to feed this new one. 

And the games based on Jackson's
movies are still great.

Similar to how Tolkien pulled much of The Lord of the Rings’ texture from his then-abandoned Silmarillion manuscript, Peter Jackson did the same when adapting his six film adaptations. Many of those who have only read the main texts of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings might be surprised to learn that there were several other stories written by Tolkien which took place during the events of Bilbo and Frodo’s quests. Jackson and company sourced from all these side stories, in addition to the main books, to make up his films. Some things were explicitly written about elsewhere, like much of Gandalf’s relationship with Thorin Oakenshield. Others were extrapolated from small clues and allusions in the original stories, like what happened at Dol Guldur. And many of Jackson’s choices stretched the source material to fit more with the story he wanted to tell. For example, Bard the Bowman, an extremely important character in The Hobbit, as well as Arwen in The Lord of the Rings, have almost no characterization whatsoever in the books, but they add a huge amount to the film versions. Others like Azog the Defiler, the chief villain throughout the Hobbit trilogy, and an embodiment of Thorin’s ruinous vengeance, had roles in Tolkien’s expanded universe stories during other eras, and were shifted into the timeline of the films to enhance the narrative. Jackson and his writing team have consistently shown a masterful ability to look past what’s simply happening on the page in the books they adapted, and instead bring in Tolkien’s own sensibilities of universe-building and texture. 


When streaming, it’s very possible to utilize this spirit of constant idea expansion. On my own channel, I’ve done this many times to continually build my little throwaway jokes or features into full-fledged aspects of the show. After one moment where I put on a cowboy hat and created a western persona for a joke on stream, that led to my later playing the entire Red Dead series in character as a cowboy. Because of my logo design having an old-style CRT television in it, that led to many aspects of my stream’s design over the years slowly incorporating more of the classic TV aesthetic. Like with Tolkien’s Silmarillion inspiring LOTR, I’ve used scrapped graphics, ideas, music and other aspects from old versions of my streams to build out features on my new one. And in the style of Peter Jackson, I often use the power of extrapolation- even on this podcast! Instead of trying to cover every aspect of a subject out of the gate, I work from a top-down perspective. I’ll make an entry about a broad topic, and then revisit aspects of that idea later to say more specific things about the same point. I personally think it helps make things easier to understand, without getting hung up on details in the beginning. So if you think you’re out of ideas for your stream, look inward. Watch your old shows. Look at your graphics. Your next great concept might be on your streams already, without you even noticing. All you have to do is expand on that stream idea. 

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