Sunday, January 18, 2009
Look who's Tolkien
Bad puns aside, I recently came across a story a writer had put up for critiques. The story began with a long description of how a god created the world and the various races in it.
When other critiquers explained that this was likely to deter readers, the writer was surprised. Wasn't that how Tolkien's book started out? Didn't the film version of The Lord of the Rings begin with a prologue?
The thing is, though, we aren't Tolkien.
The Lord of the Rings was written before 1950, and acceptable writing styles were different then. Especially in speculative fiction, readers were more willing to plow through paragraphs of description and backstory at the start. Everything changes, though, and these days readers want to be involved with the characters right away.
Also, Tolkien was more than a storyteller - he was a poet as well, and his prose has a beautiful, lyrical feel to it. Great writing covers a multitude of sins, but most new writers aren't likely to match this level of voice.
But the most interesting thing, for me, is that Tolkien's most famous books don't begin with the history of the world and how the gods created it. The Hobbit starts with a simple and personal introduction to Bilbo (a character, not a country), and The Fellowship of the Ring starts with Bilbo's party. Frodo - and the reader - has to wait until later to learn about the Ring and about the splendid and tragic history of Middle-Earth.
The Silmarillion is the definitive example of a book with a Genesis beginning, but even that isn't an encyclopedic entry. Instead of being dry and factual, it's woven through with emotion - Melkor's jealousy, Aule's love for his creations - and lyrical descriptions of the Valar.
And the book was published after the other two, when readers wanted more of Middle-Earth. It wasn't an introduction to the epic or a prologue which explained all the worldbuilding.
When I first began writing fantasy, I used prologues to describe both the world and the (usually portentous) birth of the protagonist. After a while, I realized these were both dull and cliched, and now I just start in media res. Works a lot better.