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Opening with dialogue

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Apocrita

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I keep coming across people criticising writers for starting a story with dialogue. Why is that supposed to be a bad thing?
 

VTwriter

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Because there is no context to support it yet. There's no introduction of character, setting, or plot. Some character says something out of the blue and the reader often struggles to understand who is saying it, and what it might reference.

That's not to say that it can't be done. Like everything else in writing, it depends on the execution.
 

Bufty

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It's not a bad thing per se.

"Your Honour, I must strenuously object to the Prosecutor's remark."

That is a simple example of opening dialogue that gives you a rough idea of who is saying what to whom, where and when.

The reason opening dialogue is usually frowned against is that until the reader knows who says what, how, where, why, when and/or to whom - the opening dialogue is pretty meaningless.

The writer no doubt sees the scene clearly but he has the advantage of knowing in advance what's happening.

To a reader, reading most isolated opening dialogue by beginners is like hearing someone speak on stage while the stage itself is in total darkness.

I keep coming across people criticising writers for starting a story with dialogue. Why is that supposed to be a bad thing?
 
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Nightmirror

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I think it's because starting with dialogue means the reader has yet to make a connection with the characters of the story. Even if the dialogue is important and interesting, it loses its significance when the reader doesn't know who's speaking or if he doesn't care what that character has to stay. Words from a character the reader is familiar with ring stronger.
 

Mr Flibble

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You can't NOT do it. I can think of several novels that start with dialogue.

And context - well no first line has context really. But it is harder to do without confusing the reader.

So if the criticism is 'I am confused here, who's talking?' then that's your problem, not that you've dialogue but that it's confusing. If they are saying 'you mustn't start with dialogue' then, well, they should read more :D It's not a set in stone commandment or anything. You just need to tread carefully.
 

Bufty

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I beg to differ.

If an opening dialogue exchange is interesting that's a whole different ball game.

I don't think the OP is talking about dialogue exchanges here.

The problem, if any, usually lies in an unattributed opening line, or opening line(s) (by the same speaker) followed by an attribution.

I think it's because starting with dialogue means the reader has yet to make a connection with the characters of the story. Even if the dialogue is important and interesting, it loses its significance when the reader doesn't know who's speaking or if he doesn't care what that character has to stay. Words from a character the reader is familiar with ring stronger.
 

Maxinquaye

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I wouldn't say it's necessarily bad. Like the others have said, the inexperienced writer starts with a dialogue without anchoring a reader. If you immediately anchor a reader in the scene, following a line, then you can do it. An example.

"Hello."
"Hi."
"Who are you?"
"Nathan. You?"
"Susan."

That's not very good. The reader has no idea who is talking, where they are talking, and nothing is happening.

This quote is from the middle of a chapter in my WIP and I think it could work as a starter.

“Yippie ki yay motherfuckers!” Dan shouted as he jumped, grabbed hold of the chains in the basketball hoop in the middle of the school yard, and then swung himself out reach of Eric and his three minions. He landed on his feet, rolled around and was off in a sprint before the four bullies could react. His laughter echoed across the school yard, drowning out the curses that were flung at his back.

The dialogue is anchored. The last quote is rough, I know. Just copied it out of my first draft. :)
 

cbenoi1

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> {...} starting a story with dialogue

What you want to avoid is the lone, generic, dialogue line. It begs for an info dump shortly to develop the context, it often slows the pace to a crawl, and it comes out gimmicky as a hook.

You can get away with a dialogue-only opening if the context is implicit. And even then... Example from my WIP: http://critiqueaway.blogspot.com/2011/04/diamond-hearts.html

-cb
 

Little Ming

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I am of the firm belief that you can write anything as long as you write it well. So start with dialogue if that's the best opening for you.

For a good example check out Ender's Game. The first page is just two talking heads. There are no names, no setting, no context, nothing. Just quotes. Two people talking back and forth in what may be a black void.
 

blacbird

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Well, you can't please everyone. :tongue

But it can be done. It can even win a Nebula and a Hugo.

I didn't accuse it of being unsuccessful or even of being bad. I just found it more pedestrian and oddly disengaging than its enthusiasts (including my son) do. But that's a derail, so back to the originally scheduled discussion:

The salient points about the hazards of opening with dialogue have all been mentioned by others in the thread (and in numerous other threads, as well). For those examples of successful novels which do open with dialogue, it would be useful to have a more critical look at how and why these openings work.
 

Mr Flibble

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I didn't accuse it of being unsuccessful or even of being bad. I just found it more pedestrian and oddly disengaging than its enthusiasts (including my son) do. But that's a derail, so back to the originally scheduled discussion:

Me too, however the opening wasn't bad for any of the reasons people give for not opening with dialogue - while you didn't know who was speaking, you got an idea of the sort of person they were and IIRC the focus was on who they were speaking about (Ender, the MC). It wasn't confusing and set up part of the premise of the novel (that Ender is always watched). So as an example of an opener with dialogue that works, it's (mostly) a good one, no matter what you personally think of the book as a whole
 

Jamesaritchie

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When done poorly, it kills interest immediately, and most do it poorly. Context alone is not enough to make dialogue interesting, worth reading, or a good way to start. Most of the bad dialogue I see in openings has context oozing out all over the place.

You're almost better writing dialogue that doesn't have context. At least then readers might wonder what the heck the character is talking about, and read on to find out.

I'd also say the best bet is to make sure the dialogue is by the protagonist, about the protagonist, or addressed to the protagonist. Even then, it's a tricky way to start, because you still have to make the reader care, and wonder what happens next, but at least it stands a chance of working.

Ender's Game is a prime example of how to do it right, and shows why context is NOT what matters. If you can open with dialogue this brilliant, go for it. If not, find another way to open.

It can be done, and done well, but slush piles are filled with novels that either start with dialogue, or with the weather, and almost all of both suck dead bunny butts.
 

jaksen

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I have started many of my short stories with dialogue, in fact probably most of them. The point is this, they're saying something interesting.

Most of my ideas for my short stories start with two people talking. I hear them or see them talking and they pull me in. Then I have no choice but to sit down and write about them.

I have no novels published, as of yet, but they start with dialogue, too.
 

senka

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I'd also say it depends on how it's done. You can't say it's a bad thing in general, I know some good stuff starting with a dialog. In my opinion, this "no one knows who is speaking about what" thing can be used to create a certain effect, style, whatever, if it's done properly. Or, on the other hand, the author manages to avoid creating that feeling by the way he chooses the sentences for the dialog. Maybe in case of the critics it didn't fit, wasn't well written or something? It might be more difficult to start a story with a dialog and do a good job than starting with narrative text and doing a good job, I guess...?

The writer no doubt sees the scene clearly but he has the advantage of knowing in advance what's happening.
To a reader, reading most isolated opening dialogue by beginners is like hearing someone speak on stage while the stage itself is in total darkness.
My current WIP also starts with a dialog that's exactly what I intended to do. The first "starting sentences" are a radio message (distress call) coming from a speaker and one of the two persons listening has no idea who is speaking while the other recognizes the person by her voice which leads to the listener taking an action that starts the whole story the book is about. Well, I'll see if that will be considered a bad way to start the story... I hope not.
 

areteus

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I always see dialogue as a means to do what many people say you should do in writing - start it off with some action. Ok, talking is not exactly action but it is far better than a long description or exposition where nothing at all happens. Dialogue engages the reader from the start and allows an anchor point on which to build all your subsequent description and exposition.

I did once write a whole conversation with no description to hang it from. It wasn't for a story, it was a teaser for a game I was running and it was important that players knew what was being said by these two characters but not who they were. It seemed to work quite well, the trick is ensuring that your two voices are different enough to not need any description. I actually suggest this as a writing exercise sometimes because it is a good way to develop characteristic speech skills without relying on description.

One thing I have always considered important in writing is the first line. Whatever else you write, the first line has to get them hooked and dialogue is, IMO, one good way to do that.
 

RobJ

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In a discussion about the use of dialogue-openers on another forum (about 5 or 6 years ago), someone felt strongly enough about (against) the use of them that he produced a bunch of stats which showed something of a sliding scale, whereby dialogue-openers were particularly common in the kind of fiction found in women's magazines (womag), which he considered the grubby end of fiction, slightly less common in most mainstream and genre fiction, and much less common at the more literary end of the spectrum.

I recall an article in one of the popular writing magazines in the UK around that time (Writer's Forum or Writing Magazine, I forget now) in which a successful writer of womag short stories (several hundred stories published) swore by the use of dialogue-openers as a way to get the story up and running.
 

pinkrobot

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Opening with a line of dialogue, IMO, isn't a bad thing at all. I've read several stories in which the first line is dialogue and it hooks me instantly.

The problem I would see is if the entire opening passage is nothing but a conversation between two people. It can get confusing and, as has been mentioned, it's meaningless if you can't yet connect with the characters.

It's a matter of execution. But it can be done.
 

Bufty

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If you haven't a clue what you are doing, or why, the chances are it won't work.

If you know what you are doing and do it well, chances are it will work.
 

Juliette Wade

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I often think of a line of dialogue first, but seldom does it end up being at the front by the time I'm finished. If you're looking deliberately to express the pov character's confusion and lack of physical orientation, it works quite well. In Ender's Game it is effective because the dialogue is not delivered by the protagonist, but is speaking about the protagonist. If one were to locate the two speakers physically, the immediate assumption would be that they were the protagonists; clearly they are not. The way the opening dialogue is handled keeps the focus of the story where it needs to be - on the recurrence of Ender as the topic of the disembodied conversation. It's like those movies where they give you a sense that someone is being watched by picking particular camera angles. It's also possible to begin with a line of dialogue and then follow it with orientation information.
 

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I started my screenplay, "The Little Mornings" with VO dialogue. Although so far no one has bought the script, I've had some positive feedback from actual pros in the business and no one has ever mentioned the opening dialog to me. And I know I've seen a number of films that begin with dialog against black or while hands shuffle cards or some such. I've reach the point now where I'm the damned author and I'll write it my way. If someone is paying me some money, I'll listen to their suggestions — well, maybe.
 
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