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Discussing: Writing Dialogue

Writing Dialogue

"Speak the speech trippingly on the tongue"

Hamlet, III, ii.

Yeah, that's the idea! Trippingly... assuming that 'trippingly' doesn't mean falling over your words or stumbling over pronouns whose referents aren't clear.

Writing dialogue is one of those 'things'--either you like it or you hate it. If you like it, you're likely to have a lot of conversation pieces in your story; if you hate it, then you may feel that the Tolkien fandom is designed for your especial torment. What could be worse, except trying to write Shakespeare pastiche? All that archaic-sounding dialogue, the "hithers" and "yons" (and what's up with "yonder"?), the "whences" that cause winces, the "whithers" that wither on your tongue, and the stultifying formality of certain characters' speeches [coughAragorn!cough]--all of it makes your head spin when you contemplate trying to get a character to talk like that in your story. Let us not even mention the unspeakable hardship of the occasional poetical line of reference. Curse it all, why can these people not speak plain English?! (or whatever translation you read)

I wish I could tell you there was a secret to writing Tolkien-like dialogue, but I'm afraid there really isn't one. At least, not that I've discovered. However, I'll give you what I've got and hope it helps someone.

First things first, however: dialogue is no harder to write than writing good scenery is. Much of it is a matter of picking your moment and picking your mouthpiece. Dialogue is good for showing relationships between people and for making short datadumps. It is not usually half as effective when you use it to attempt to describe something--how long do we want to hear Sam go on about what a mallorn looks like? Or what Legolas's tunic looks like? Or what the Shire looks like? Not very long, and we want the most significant piece of information that we can find to be conveyed in that short space. Narrative, IMO, is a far superior vehicle for dealing with descriptions of things, both physical and psychological.

Another essential of writing good dialogue is knowing who is doing the speaking, and what is being talked about. In your daily life, there are some people for whom you will tell the dirtiest joke you know, while around your mother you probably wouldn't say "damn" but "dang." Some people you defer to in speech; others defer to you; some people you talk politics with; others you discuss religion with; and some you just want to talk about the latest movie with. And you will use a different tone and level of formality in each of these scenarios.

Applying this to Tolkien's characters, there are going to be differences in who talks to whom about what and in what manner. Some characters are going to be easier to write as having a conversation than others. Points of common reference are going to be important. Is Sam going to talk to Aragorn about gardening? Probably not. Would he talk with Legolas about it? Quite possibly. Plot your dialogue out: what is the topic, who is most likely to talk about the subject, how do these two characters relate to each other? Who is going to be dominant? Who is going to learn a lesson? Who has the information needed? How is it going to come up?

Let me just add that in my experience, such as it is, although you can write a convincingly natural dialogue, you almost never want it to evolve to imitate all the flaws of real conversations--i.e., meandering topics (topics can change seemingly at random, but you have to be in control of this), forced attempts to get the conversation going again, aimless discussions of the weather. This isn't really a real conversation, it's a written one with a definite point: to advance the story in some way, be it through information shared or relationships developed. Do not let the dialogue linger past the point of utility, nor stretch it out simply to fill space or seem natural. Even dialogue written to show awkwardness cannot in truth be awkward from your POV as the writer--you have to be in control of it.

The final element of writing Tolkienesque, 'archaic' dialogue is the one most people find daunting, and also the one that tends to define the term "Tolkienesque": vocabulary. What I've said above is just a general guide to writing good dialogue, and can be applied anywhere, in any fandom. But vocabulary and its employment are what most people seem to mean when they say "Tolkienesque" or "archaic" dialogue.

Now, I hasten to say that it could be worse: as I said above, you could be faced with Shakespeare or Chaucer, where it is essential to have a dictionary (a good dictionary) to hand, and to have a number of nicely footnoted references available to help you make sense of the story (not to mention the spelling). Tolkien is not that bad, comparatively.

Nevertheless, having a broad set of synonymns for words, and knowing which ones sound modern is something that requires reading through Tolkien's work and possibly employing a thesaurus at need. It's not just single words, either, that make a sentence feel older--phrases, ways of expressing things, are just as important. "To take a strip off him with his words" is to get a severe tongue-lashing; "to be flayed to the quick by his sharp tongue" is what Faramir is more likely to say of that same experience when he gets on Denethor's bad side (an unhappily frequent occruence).

Vocabulary is, as we all know, a matter of memorization, and also (to a certain extent) a matter of knowing what is currently in use. But even without that, there are some things that can be done to give the impression of speaking with an older voice, if you will. Refer to the "English Grammar" forum for my take on the subjunctive. And hopefully soon, I'll post a list of little things you can do that might be helpful without requiring a primer in older English words.



Writing Dialogue II: Mechanics

With the general stuff out of the way, there are a few things you can do to make your dialogue sound less like it comes from the twenty-first century and more like it's a nice translation of a more archaic language. All without necessarily acquiring a whole new vocabulary, I might add.

1. Conjunctions: put 'em back!

This is much easier than it sounds. You know all those conjunctions that we tend to leave out in casual speech? Put 'em back! So for example:

I know he'll show up--> I know that he'll show up.
She says we should come--> She says that we should come.
The girl she knows--> The girl whom she knows
The order I lost--> The order which I lost

Use those conjunctions, because once you know where they are (or should be), you can do other things with them, like invert sentence order for emphasis:

"That we have no hope, that I know," Faramir said, bitterly.
"That task which remains to the living, that is ours," said Gandalf.

See how that works? The modern equivalents would be something like:

"I know we have no hope," Faramir said.
"That task that belongs to the living is ours," said Gandalf.

Not as precise, and you don't get the same emphasis. The nice thing about inverting the clauses is that the characters need not shout to emphasize something. It's all in the way the sentence is constructed.

2. Whence/whither/where vs. Thence/thither/there vs. hence/hither/here

Short and easy, and if you've studied German at all, you'll find this to be very simple:

whence=from where
whither=to where
where=at some designated place

thence=from there
thither=to there
there=at that place over there

hence=from here
hither=to here
here=this place right here

Nice and clean, very precise and economical, and you avoid the possibility of ending with a preposition (don't ask me why this is bad; the guys who love Latin decreed it so).

Also, 'hence' has taken on the meaning of "thus": hence, so and so would only do this. It's not hard to see why: from this point of logic/motivation, we move to the next one, a conclusion. Nifty, ne?

Yon and yonder, since we're talking about locations, are a means of pointing out something away from the speaker: Yonder tree, yon bonny lass, etc. Both words mean "at a distance, but still within sight." 'Yon' is considered a bit more poetical, for what it's worth.

3. Use and abuse of the progressive tenses

English seems to be uniquely burdened with the progressive (not that I dislike it--I use it all the time). The progressive is the "to be" (in some form) + present participle (verb + -ing). It is a relatively new phenomenon, and it can be done without. Thus:

I'm going=I go or I shall go;
I'm reading=I do read or I read.

I'm not saying don't use the progressive at all, but don't use it all the time, either.

4. Will versus shall

Yet another trick is to use "shall" for "will" to express intention and futurity: I shall go tomorrow (not "I will go to morrow"); I shall do it later; we shall meet you at the Crossings.

What's the difference between "shall" and "will", you ask? Follow the link for a brief explanation.

5. Thou, thee, thine and other such beasts

Second person singular/informal. Use sparingly if you use it at all, and pick your moments. This sounds very archaic to the English ear, so don't overuse it.

"Thou" can be an expression of intimacy between two people (Aragorn uses it to Éowyn after the war is over and she is safely engaged to Faramir; one imagines he uses a similar intimate form when addressing Arwen, and vice versa); because of that, to use it with someone you're not really intimate with can be a form of abuse (or a very bold statement: see Éowyn's use of it to Aragorn in Dunharrow--meep! Down, girl!).

Contrary to some usages that I've seen in fanfic, "mine" and "thine" are not indications of plurality--they stand before nouns that start with a vowel: mine eyes, but also mine eye, and thine ear.

6. Inverting word order in questions

Rather than use a helper verb unnecessarily to ask a question, why not simply invert the word order?

Do you know whether...?--> Know you whether...?
Did he have a grey hat?--> Had he a grey hat?
Did he see anything?--> Saw he aught?

7. Subjunctive

See my post in "English Grammar" for this one.

Those are some basic ways of giving your dialogue a slightly more archaic feel. There are others, certainly. And don't think that you must have that scent of obsolescence about your dialogue--many very good writers have a thoroughly modern manner of speaking, and they write marvelous Tolkien fics. The worst thing you can do, either in your narrative or your dialogue, is to use words in such a way that it's clear you don't know quite what you're doing with them. If you're not sure how to use some grammatical device, or some particular word, don't use it without getting help. Better to be clear and modern than unclear and pseudo-Tolkienesque (and how's that for an imitation of an imitation?).

Sounding archaic is just an added bonus--it is not a requirement of the fandom by any means.



Re: Writing Dialogue

Good stuff, Dwim.

I've been told by a good number of my readers that I write very natural dialogue. So I want to share my advice. I'm sure any new writer will find it totally exasperating, but it's how I do it and how I advise to do it:

Write what the character would say.

A situation arises and a character is about to speak. What would the character say at that point? Write it. What would the character he's speaking to say in response? Write that. Would the first character have something to answer then? Write it.

And write it how they would say it. Use their voices. Listen to them. Write what they would say.

who hears a lot of her dialogue and simply writes it down.



Re: Writing Dialogue II: Mechanics

Dwim, could you post either a copy of this or an excerpt of it to the English Language Discussion? Maybe we can have a topic there on Tolkienesquity. But this also fits a lot with the whole Dialogue section in Punctuation. Maybe Dialogue should have its own section.




Re: Writing Dialogue

My sort of simple bit of advice - say it out loud, several times.

Dialogue doesn't work for me unless it sounds right *spoken*. So I wander about talking to myself, playing the voices and often including gestures and general body movements, as though I am writing a play.

If someone is whispering something, can you really make out the words at a whisper? If someone is walking around holding a crying baby, can they reasonably speak at length? Is the character conveying a key bit of information in a "natural" sounding manner?

There's also a question of making very subtle difference between similar characters. It's more than giving them quirks. It is knowing why they speak as they do - what is the difference between Bilbo, Frodo, Rory and Gilda's speech patterns, I had to ask myself, *and why*?

Bilbo uses fewer contractions and slang, and he loves speaking in long sentences. This suits him as someone who loves langauge, who engages in many sensitive business deals, and wants to be clearly understood. It also supports his bit of pride at being the most erudite Hobbit in the Shire.

Frodo lapses into contractions and monosyllables quite a bit, being a sullen adolescent who is used to being spoken to, not listened to. However, he is capable of long passages of very proper sentences as he is educated, and is (like Bilbo) a lover of language. He apes Bilbo's speech quite a bit.

And so on. Most of how I work this out is by saying the dialogue out loud and see if it sounds right to my ear.




Re: Writing Dialogue II: Mechanics

And if anyone needs help with the actual writing (syntax, punctuation) of dialogue, be sure to head over to the English Language Discussion. The Punctuation topic has posts that discuss dialogue.

If you have any questions about English Grammar (including punctuation) ask them over there. Someone will come along and help you.




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