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Thread: starting a novel with dialog

  1. #1
    New Fish; Learning About Thick Skin
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    starting a novel with dialog

    Hi everyone,
    I was hoping to get some advice.

    I have started my novel with a dialog scene (though there are atmosphere elements etc.). Is this typically a bad way to start a novel?

    Also are there any thoughts about a prologue?

    I have searched many articles on prologues and its a little on the negative side.
    Any feedback is greatly appreciated
    thanks
    Jer

  2. #2
    practical experience, FTW rwm4768's Avatar
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    You can start with dialogue, but you have to be careful about how you do it. Make sure your characters are not talking in a "white room." That is, you have to give the reader enough setting details to feel like it's not just a bunch of talking heads. I remember reading that one agent said this was one of the biggest reasons for rejecting a book based on the first chapter.

    Grounding your reader in the setting is good to do in general, even if it's not a dialogue scene. It doesn't take that much room to do it.

  3. #3
    Have pen, will travel Cindyt's Avatar
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    I have read some really good books that start with dialogue in a prologue. for one, Stephen King's The Stand.

    Use of prologues is debatable. I've read articles that advised against them and others that say it doesn't matter as long as there is a reason for it to be there. I have one in my WIP that acts as an introduction/back story. Here are a couple of links that might help:

    http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-...use-a-prologue

    http://www.writersdigest.com/online-...-of-your-novel
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  4. #4
    banned as an incurable tosspot
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    And as with most things in this activity, it should be well-written. Then there will be a lot less complaints and rejections.

  5. #5
    writer, rider, reader...ex-pat! BethS's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by kjasjg View Post
    Hi everyone,
    I was hoping to get some advice.

    I have started my novel with a dialog scene (though there are atmosphere elements etc.). Is this typically a bad way to start a novel?

    Also are there any thoughts about a prologue?

    I have searched many articles on prologues and its a little on the negative side.
    Any feedback is greatly appreciated
    thanks
    Jer
    Make sure the characters are talking about something both important, interesting, and relevant to the story, and that it's not just an excuse for an info-dump.

    Opening with dialogue gets a bad rep because often it's nothing but talking heads speaking about trivialities. That's something you want to avoid.

  6. #6
    New Fish; Learning About Thick Skin
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    Ok so opening with dialog if its relevant and well written is not necessarily a bad thing - good.

    Cindyt thanks for the links I will check them out tonight

  7. #7
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    Personal opinions: I think starting with dialog is fine as long as the dialog conveys action and characterization. No random side characters saying something mundane like "grande pumpkin spice latte with extra whip for Liz".

    I dislike prologues because they try to get me to care about a character who then doesn't show up later. I want action in the first chapter, not backstory.

  8. #8
    Have pen, will travel Cindyt's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by elizabeth13 View Post
    Personal opinions: I think starting with dialog is fine as long as the dialog conveys action and characterization. No random side characters saying something mundane like "grande pumpkin spice latte with extra whip for Liz".

    I dislike prologues because they try to get me to care about a character who then doesn't show up later. I want action in the first chapter, not backstory.
    My prologue has plenty of action. What I did was take my MC and four supporting players and set them down in a format similar to what Stephen King did with his section Six Phone Calls, including titling each scene number, which gives the reader a little info about this and that character. For example:

    1
    The Unconventional Lady

    All the action is connected one to the other in the prologue and sets the stage for what happens in the book.
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  9. #9
    Benefactor Member WeaselFire's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by kjasjg View Post
    Also are there any thoughts about a prologue?
    There are a lot of poorly done prologues. If it's just a data dump, it's a bad idea. If it's just back story, it's a bad idea. If it's done because the story actually begins before the narrator was born, that's fine. Of course, maybe then you have the wrong narrator.

    The bottom line is that a prologue works only if there is a legitimate reason for the prologue. Better authors use them to create a base for the story, or to prepare the reader for a different type of environment. But the best authors skip them altogether and simply write the details found in the prologue into the story line itself.

    For you, write the prologue. Then, when you edit and revise, see how the prologue details can be woven into the main story. You'll probably find that, while it was important to you as the author to write the prologue, the prologue isn't that important to the reader.

    Jeff

  10. #10
    New Fish; Learning About Thick Skin Chris on Eclipse's Avatar
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    I like the idea of starting the story as late as possible, then you don't have to worry about any of this stuff. If dialog is the first point where the story matters, so be it.
    I want to dive right into the story as a reader!

    Chris

  11. #11
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    Sharon Nelson, a literary agent, recently had a blog entry about the starting with dialog thing. According to her, it's not novels where the opening scenes center around conversations that are the issues, but ones that open with unattributed, context-free "talking head" dialog that has given the practice a bad name among agents and submission editors. If aspiring novelists are taking the "don't start with dialog" as an edict that leads them to avoid having any conversations in their opening paragraphs, they are probably shooting themselves in the foot. Starting with reams of static description or with plunging the reader into action without context or purpose is just as problematic.
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  12. #12
    writer, rider, reader...ex-pat! BethS's Avatar
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    Roxxsmom--exactly!

  13. #13
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    Quote Originally Posted by Roxxsmom View Post
    Sharon Nelson, a literary agent, recently had a blog entry about the starting with dialog thing. According to her, it's not novels where the opening scenes center around conversations that are the issues, but ones that open with unattributed, context-free "talking head" dialog that has given the practice a bad name among agents and submission editors. If aspiring novelists are taking the "don't start with dialog" as an edict that leads them to avoid having any conversations in their opening paragraphs, they are probably shooting themselves in the foot. Starting with reams of static description or with plunging the reader into action without context or purpose is just as problematic.
    All of this.

    Personally, I am not a fan of opening with dialogue but I have seen it done well. The big thing here is to still make it interesting and intriguing while also grounding the reader and avoid the "talking head" or "white room" as mentioned above. I also read in an article somewhere (which I can't find now for the life of me) that if you don't have any dialogue on your first couple of pages you are doing something wrong. Now, this is just that person's opinion, but I agree to an extent. Ensuring you have dialogue ensures that you have something going on besides a massive info dump so it's a good way to keep yourself in check.

    As far as a prologue goes: if it's absolutely necessary, keep it. If it sets up certain promises for the reader, keep it. If it's a long, boring exposition with nothing going on, consider tossing it.

  14. #14
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    Quote Originally Posted by AnnRussell View Post
    As far as a prologue goes: if it's absolutely necessary, keep it. If it sets up certain promises for the reader, keep it. If it's a long, boring exposition with nothing going on, consider toss ing it.
    Editorially corrected for correctitudinal correctness.

    caw
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  15. #15
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    Quote Originally Posted by kjasjg View Post
    Hi everyone,
    I was hoping to get some advice.

    I have started my novel with a dialog scene (though there are atmosphere elements etc.). Is this typically a bad way to start a novel?

    Also are there any thoughts about a prologue?

    I have searched many articles on prologues and its a little on the negative side.
    Any feedback is greatly appreciated
    thanks
    Jer
    I personally have no issue with a novel starting with a dialogue so long as it's relevant and draws me in without being sensational.
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  16. #16
    I agree with Roxxsmom.
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    We see prologues in movies and TV shows all the time, so I think a good prologue in a novel should be similar to the ones we see onscreen. There should be something happening, something that somehow relates to the characters we will read about starting in Chapter 1, even if the characters and the reader won't know what that relationship is until later chapters. What a prologue should not be is a bunch of exposition without narration. In other words, write the prologue like you would write the rest of the novel.

    As far as starting with dialogue, I'm fine with it as long as the dialogue is good and it means something. To me, there's no difference between dialogue and narration and exposition; if it's written well it pushes the reader forward. If not . . . well . . .
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  17. #17
    figuring it all out Noir/Blanc's Avatar
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    This is a good question. I've seen the same thing said about starting a novel with dialog. But I always read the beginnings of novels to where and how they start and many of favorites--some are classics even, start with dialog. So i agree the messages on what and what not to do are very conflicting and stifling.

    I agree with the others that said, just start your story where it needs to start. So long as the story is moving through conflict you should be fine.

    BTW I just posted my first chapter of my novel in SYW. And I'm starting with dialog. I think it works. But take a look for yourself and let me know if you agree.

    (Hope it's OK to link it here)

    Click Here
    Last edited by Noir/Blanc; 09-11-2016 at 02:53 PM.

  18. #18
    practical experience, FTW Susannah Shepherd's Avatar
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    Yes, your opening with dialogue works: it jumps straight into the action of the story, not two characters shooting the breeze or giving backstory.
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  19. #19
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    I think whatever you do, your first few sentences must hook the reader. You can do that with dialogue or an opening scene as long as it's done well.

  20. #20
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    Noir/Blanc - When I read your post I hadn't looked at your user name and tried to remember the work you had posted because I thought it was a great example of how starting a novel with dialog could work; then I see that it was you!

    Anyway, I agree that it's all about starting the story at the right point, whatever point that is. When I'm at the book store checking out different books I usually scan the first few pages and if I only see chunky paragraphs I generally put the book down without reading any of it. Maybe that means I'm too impatient, didn't get held enough as a child, or whatever, but I don't think I'm all that unusual in that regard...I mean the book thing....
    Last edited by AKB; 09-19-2016 at 02:16 AM.

  21. #21
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    I think this is an awful way of starting a novel or any other piece of fiction. Starting with dialog is confronting the reader with characters who haven't been introduced and challenging them imagine a context. Why would anyone want to do this?

  22. #22
    please distract me mccardey's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Geoffrey Fowler View Post
    I think this is an awful way of starting a novel or any other piece of fiction. Starting with dialog is confronting the reader with characters who haven't been introduced and challenging them imagine a context. Why would anyone want to do this?
    Actually, it can be extremely effective. Like most things, it depends on the execution.

  23. #23
    practical experience, FTW indianroads's Avatar
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    "Call me Ishmael..."

    Dialogue, either internal or external, can be effective if executed well. The reader can be intrigued, and wonder 'what's going on here?' and inspired to read further. Adding some description of the surroundings is a good idea too.

  24. #24
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    Please provide an example.

  25. #25
    please distract me mccardey's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Geoffrey Fowler View Post
    Please provide an example.
    Me?

    Gilead by Marilynne Robertson is my all-time favourite novel, and chief among my Books To Be Buried With. It starts with dialogue - reported, remembered dialogue. It's wonderful.

    ETA: Hang on while I find it for you -

    ETA2: There you go. Have a look inside.

    ETA3: She also starts Home with speech, but I don't know if one person speaking counts as dialogue.
    "Home to stay, Glory! Yes!" her father said, and her heart sank. He attempted a twinkle of joy at this thought, but his eyes were damp with commiseration. "To stay for a while this time!" he amended, and took her bag from her, first shifting his cane to his weaker hand. Dear God, she thought, dear God in heaven.
    Last edited by mccardey; 05-20-2017 at 04:41 AM. Reason: adding link

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