Tolkien and Dialogue

Posted on February 28, 2011


First: a bit of explanation. Tolkien and his effect on writers of spec-fic is a topic I will circle around on the course of this blog. This is because A) I love him, B) he is the grandfather of all fantasy, and C) there are reasons we all read Tolkien instead of his thousands of imitators. Some reasons are just signs that Tolkien was good and these imitators are bad, but some are at specific to fantasy. I’ll talk about those. (Bad writing is a more general topic that doesn’t need a jumping-off point.)

Anyway, a few days ago I was looking over a short story written by one of my writer acquaintances. (As it was an early draft and he is clearly a young writer, I’m willing to give him a lot of leeway.) It reminded me of Tolkien–and not in a good way. There were various reasons, which I might go into later, but for right now I’d like to focus on the dialogue.

I suspect that the guy in question can’t write dialogue anyway, but the fantasy element was definitely the problem and resulted in a lot of wincing while I read it. Let’s just focus in on a specific aspect: attempts to sound archaic. The writer used a lot of “blank, son of blank, grandson of blank” and even the occasional “thou.”

This… is a very, very hard line to walk. And if you are a young writer, I really suggest you don’t do it.

(If you’re a more experienced writer–by whatever stick you’d like to measure that by–by all means, try it. Once you feel like you have the basics down, that’s the whole point of writing. I am currently in the “do something really difficult to figure out how not to do it” phase of my writing.)

But Tolkien did it! you might say.

A paragraph break is necessary so you can imagine my irritated sigh. Saying “Tolkien/Hemingway/Faulkner/any successful writer” did it as a justification is a crime worthy of its own blog post. Basically, unless you are the card-carrying reincarnation of Tolkien, you can safely assume that you can’t do it as well as Tolkien. I will repeat this argument again and again and again until everyone who might use it realizes it is true.

Tolkien wrote good archaic dialogue because he was a scholar of archaic documents. He spent his academic life studying ancient heroic tales, which means he had a really good feel for how those people talk. That’s why his dialogue reads well. It might not trip off your tongue, but he had the knowledge to back up his writing. This is a key, key difference.

If you don’t know what you’re doing, people can tell. Trust me. It’s like getting grammar lessons from an amateur: the moment they mess up on comma placement or misspell a word, you will instantly stop listening to anything they say because of that one mistake.

Tolkien also did this type of dialogue consistently. One of the hardest things to do in writing is make sure characters have a consistent voice. (This is something I’m still struggling with. If I figure it out, I’ll be sure to let you know.) Most readers these days are willing to give you some leeway. You can let your characters talk like twenty-first century people if you want–it’s one of the things most readers won’t even notice (unless you use a really horrible anachronism). Or, if you want, you can go the archaic route. (You can go half and half and have different characters talk different ways, but that’s an entirely different matter.)

Whichever you choose, you must stick to it. Switching halfway is like changing your origin point halfway through solving a physics problem. Whatever answer you get, it will be wrong. And in the case of switching dialogue types, you will piss people off.