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View Full Version : Basic q: is starting a story with dialogue a no-no?



Bubastes
11-21-2006, 07:15 PM
I can't recall where on AW I saw this, but I remember reading that you should not start a story with dialogue. Can someone explain the rationale behind this guideline? Thanks!

priceless1
11-21-2006, 08:20 PM
I think it depends on how it's used. Personally, I don't mind dialog openers at all. It can be used very effectively to sink the reader instantly into the story. Don't let yourself become hamstrung by trying to follow all the "rules." Just write a brilliant story. Good luck to you!

greglondon
11-21-2006, 08:20 PM
Dialogue?

I've never heard that one before. I would assume it would be a rule of thumb to get new writers to -not- start with an info dump, describing the color of the room, the type of clothes the person is wearing, and a bunch of other information that doesn't matter because none of it has any context in the opening lines.

The only way you can info dump in dialogue is if you start with "As you know, Bob..." which even starting writers can usually recognize as bad.

I've heard you should start a story with a Person, in a Place, with a Problem.
The first line of "The Old Man and the Sea" does this in its first sentence.


He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the gulf stream and he had gone eighty four days now without taking a fish.

That bit of advice really helped my openings.

Sean D. Schaffer
11-21-2006, 08:41 PM
I've heard this saying too. I have always been kind of confused by it, because a number of the books I've read over the years began with dialogue.

I would tend to agree with priceless1 in that the rules of writing are not set in stone. Like Uncle Jim sometimes says, "If it works for you, then it is right".

I would say to use the so-called rules of writing not as commandments, but as suggestions. They are guidelines, not an instruction manual to be followed to the letter.


I hope this helps, and good luck to you, MeowGirl.

:)

Simon Woodhouse
11-21-2006, 09:51 PM
I've started stories with dialogue, and I think it helps set the scene. I can imagine there might be a problem if it's masses of dialogue. Or you have a big chunk of dialogue and then a big chunk of action. Dialogue tends to affect the pace, and you don't really want your story starting at top speed and then coming to an abrupt halt. I think balance is the key.

Carmy
11-21-2006, 10:17 PM
I've read novels that open with dialogue but the dialogue is usually restricted to one or two lines that make the reader gasp. Even so, I don't like it.

I approach reading a novel the way I would watch a stage play. Do I want or need to see the stage as a background, or do I want the stage blacked out and a disembodied voice saying something? Set the stage and then bring on the actors/characters.

janetbellinger
11-21-2006, 10:22 PM
My current novel has dialogue in the second sentence. I wanted to use it to draw the reader into what was about to take place.

Tracy
11-21-2006, 10:26 PM
I make a point of starting my novels with dialogue, and readers have been good enough to say that the stories hook them right in. I like dialogue because it gets a question going in the reader's mind.

Now, as soon as you have the reader thinking the question, you have to answer it, to start giving them the info they need, i.e. person, place and problem as already said (NOT an info dump).

Not to quote myself - oh go on, do - okay, I will - my first novel opened like this (first sentence is dialogue and question, second sentence answers that first question, and shows the story question)

Quote: Dr Bryne said to me, with compassion on her plain face, "You have another six months".

She wasn't talking about my life expectancy, although it felt like that to me, but about the length of time before I had to worry about not conceiving." End Quote

So, no reason not to do it - just don't overdo it so that the reader qets frustrated not knowing what's going on, and be careful not to 'As you know Bob' ie info-dump.

Good luck

Bubastes
11-21-2006, 10:30 PM
Thanks, everyone! I'll fuss around with the first paragraph and see which way works best.

Side note: I don't know about you, but I find the term "as you know, Bob" quite amusing!

Freckles
11-21-2006, 10:39 PM
I always heard the one about never starting with a questions, but I sometimes like when writers open with dialogue...it puts the reader in the heart of the action.

JanDarby
11-22-2006, 01:24 AM
The issue is usually that dialogue isn't meaningful without context. Even something shocking, like:
"I almost died last night."

doesn't have as much impact as it would have if we knew who was speaking. We can't be entirely sure how to react. Either way, it's sad or scary, but it's hard to tell exactly how upset we should be, how shocked we should be, and if we're honest, we don't know the person who almost died, so we're not invested in his/her situation. Consider how different your reaction would be, depending on whether the speaker is a child or someone who's 103 years old and lingering in a painful deathbed, where death would be a relief.

It can be done and done well. One of Jenny Crusie's books starts with a line where a character says, "Don't jump. Blood is hell to get out of silk." And it works, but that's partly b/c she's known for her snarky dialogue, and someone less skilled might not be able to make it work as well.

Oh, and another issue is that in the wrong hands, starting with dialogue (usually of the shocking sort) can promise the reader something the book doesn't actually deliver. This has to do with hooks generally, where an author will work so hard to come up with a compelling first line, that it's out of synch with the rest of the book. I once read a book that had a great, funny, compelling first line, and I bought book based on that and some general buzz about it, and the rest of the book had absolutely nothing to do with the first line. The first line promised a funny, contemporary book, and the actual story was a time-travel, so after the first scene, it was essentially a historical story, which might have been well done, but I was so annoyed that it wasn't what the first line promised me, that I didn't read the rest.

So, you can start with dialogue, and it can be a compelling hook, but be aware that dialogue without context can be misleading or can lack the emotional impact of dialogue when the reader knows and cares about the speaker.

JD

Scarlett_156
11-22-2006, 02:07 AM
Consider how different your reaction would be, depending on whether the speaker is a child or someone who's 103 years old and lingering in a painful deathbed, where death would be a relief.

Hey! HEY! Just because I'm well over 100 doesn't mean I would welcome death, you... you.. age-ist! *puts out cigar, takes hit off pint of "Ancient Age" and glares*

Higgins
11-22-2006, 06:29 PM
The issue is usually that dialogue isn't meaningful without context. Even something shocking, like:
"I almost died last night."

doesn't have as much impact as it would have if we knew who was speaking. We can't be entirely sure how to react. Either way, it's sad or scary, but it's hard to tell exactly how upset we should be, how shocked we should be, and if we're honest, we don't know the person who almost died, so we're not invested in his/her situation. Consider how different your reaction would be, depending on whether the speaker is a child or someone who's 103 years old and lingering in a painful deathbed, where death would be a relief.

It can be done and done well. One of Jenny Crusie's books starts with a line where a character says, "Don't jump. Blood is hell to get out of silk." And it works, but that's partly b/c she's known for her snarky dialogue, and someone less skilled might not be able to make it work as well.

Oh, and another issue is that in the wrong hands, starting with dialogue (usually of the shocking sort) can promise the reader something the book doesn't actually deliver. This has to do with hooks generally, where an author will work so hard to come up with a compelling first line, that it's out of synch with the rest of the book. I once read a book that had a great, funny, compelling first line, and I bought book based on that and some general buzz about it, and the rest of the book had absolutely nothing to do with the first line. The first line promised a funny, contemporary book, and the actual story was a time-travel, so after the first scene, it was essentially a historical story, which might have been well done, but I was so annoyed that it wasn't what the first line promised me, that I didn't read the rest.

So, you can start with dialogue, and it can be a compelling hook, but be aware that dialogue without context can be misleading or can lack the emotional impact of dialogue when the reader knows and cares about the speaker.

JD

Yeah...I would advise against starting with dialog. First of all it has to be a monolog since there are no defined characters. Second it calls immediate attention to the bad side of say-it don't spray it in that stories are told from some point of view and "dialog" is...well...it's like a piece of paper blowing in the wind, possibly interesting, but also a nuisance.

Some easy steps to removing the first line of dialog would be: move it to first person, and then move it to the author and then make it a statement, so the line might be: "My God, Skeeter is blue!" transpose to unquoted: I noticed that Skeeter was blue to Nancy noticed that Skeeter was blue. Much more blue than she had expected.

Kate Thornton
11-22-2006, 07:15 PM
Some of my favorite stories have begun with dialogue. If you can pull in the reader, then you have a shot at keeping an interesting story going.

Celia Cyanide
11-23-2006, 02:20 AM
Just like any "rule" of this sort, you don't have to follow it all the time, but understand why it's there.

For example, I once read the first paragraph of a novel a woman was writing. The whole first paragraph was a big long chunk of dialog with no break at all. The problem with this is that I have no idea who is talking or where that person is. The dialog was well written and interesting, but I couldn't even imagine what the character's voice sounded like in my head. I didn't know what age that person was, or even if the person was male or female. I am of the opinion that it's fine to begin with dialog, but not too much.

And as others have said, give it context right away. If you know how to write good dialog, then you probably know that very little of what we say is communicated with our words alone. And if all you have right away is a big chuck of dialog without context, all you have is the character's words. They communicate a lot more through context.

jbal
11-23-2006, 02:37 AM
After reading all this, I hope I'm not screwing this up. I started the WIP with...well it's not dialog. It's just a single short line, followed in the next paragraph by the setting and an introduction to the characters. I quite like it though. When I get the damn thing done, I'll post the first chapter and see if I get that reaction. Not a problem for me, unless it's a whole lot of back and forth with no intro to the characters. I had never heard of this as a rule before.

JanDarby
11-23-2006, 07:34 AM
A lot of the so-called rules are actually shorthand, or the Reader's Digest version of solid advice.

What happens is that someone is told something like, "the risks of starting with dialogue include X, Y and Z, so if you're going to do that, make sure you deal with X, Y and Z." And that person remembers it, or passes it along as "don't start with dialogue." Or maybe she remebers "starting with dialogue is risky," and tells someone else, but doesn't explain all the reasons it's risky, so that person only remembers "don't start with dialogue." And a rule is born. The opposite rule springs out of someone saying something like "starting with dialogue has some advantages, like X and Y and Z," and again, the game of post office happens, until the rule becomes "always start with dialogue."

The trick to most of the rules you hear is to try to figure out the reasoning behind them, sort of putting back all the stuff that was removed in creating the Reader's Digest version of the rule, so you understand the pros and cons, and can take advantage of the pros and minimize the cons.

JD