Monday, October 8, 2012

Why You Shouldn't Begin With Dialogue

Author Benjamin Percy states a controversial opinion and then backs it up with common sense. I was going to exclaim, "But wait, I know of stories which opened with dialogue!" He quickly addresses that...
When a reader first picks up a story, they are like a coma patient—fluttering open their eyes in an unfamiliar world, wondering, where am I, when am I, who am I? The writer has an obligation to quickly and efficiently orient.
Which is why writers should avoid opening with dialogue. I know, I know—you can think of ten thousand awesome stories that do exactly that. I don't like any them. With one exception—"Where's Papa going with that axe?"—from the beginning of Charlotte's Web. It works because E.B. White fills the white space: immediately establishing three characters, one of them  in the middle of an arresting gesture.
And that is your job, to fill in the white space. Imagine a blank canvas. Now imagine a sun boinging up until it settles on an afternoon angle. Then a hundred or so trees spike themselves into a distant forest. A field of corn unfurls from the furrows—and a combine grumbles through it.
He finishes his anecdote at the link - I encourage you to click over and see how it ends. In the meantime, Benjamin (I can't bring myself to call him Percy) pretty much makes my usual caveat for me - it's best not to break the rules unless you can just be brilliant, in which case, hey, go for it.
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10 comments:

  1. It's a well-reasoned personal preference, but it can't be taken as a rule.

    There are too many of those kinds of "rules", and too many writers, especially newer ones, trying so hard to adhere to a multitude of preference "rules" that their creativity becomes crippled. They don't take the risks necessary to develop brilliance, and the writng becomes formulaic, predictable.

    One of the lessons from short story writing is how to find where a particular story needs to start. Maybe it's by setting the scene, maybe it's a plunge into action, or maybe it's a line of dialog. Because a short story has to economize to fit word count limits, finding that sweet spot where the story most effectively starts is critical.
    And learning where the sweet spot *is* in any given story is just as applicable to first chapter writing for a novel.

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  2. LOL And two minutes ago this popped up on Facebook:"Do you feel like your article or story needs to be enlivened a bit? Add dialogue. And starting with dialogue is a great way to pull us into the scene (showing, not telling), whether you're writing fiction or non-fiction."

    Preferences -- not rules. There's too much conflicting advice when we try to write according to preferences.

    Find the sweet spot where the story starts. Go from there.

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  3. Interesting. I've always been advised to do just the opposite to create a memorable beginning - start with dialogue. I think I'd have to say this one comes totally down to personal preference. I'm never bothered by a story that starts with dialogue - in fact have been rather bored with many that start with long scenes of description to "ground" the reader in the story world.

    I agree with "There are too many of those kinds of "rules", and too many writers, especially newer ones, trying so hard to adhere to a multitude of preference "rules" that their creativity becomes crippled. They don't take the risks necessary to develop brilliance, and the writng becomes formulaic, predictable."

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  4. I think the key is when starting with dialogue is filling that identity white space as soon as possible. Personally, if I have to work too hard to figure out whose talking to whom and why, I'll put the work down and flip over to something else. So, sure, by all means, feel free to try starting with dialogue, but if you do, don't leave your reader hanging. Let them know who's speaking as soon as you can.

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  5. I agree, Phy. It is really important after that initial gab-grab to make the reader aware of setting and characters.

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  6. I don't entirely agree with this idea. There are times when starting with dialogue is exactly right, but too much salt spoils the broth...

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  7. I, for one, would love to see Janalyn's "Why You Should Start Your Story With Dialogue" post!

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  8. Readers like coma patients...LOL! I like your analogy about needing to present a clear place and time right away.

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  9. When I first heard about this "rule," I thought it was hooey. (Matrix, anyone?) But I get it now. False suspense never gets a writer anywhere.

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  10. I'm not a fan of starting with dialogue without at least a few things to ground me into what's going on. I just read a submission to the agent I work for where people named Papa, Mama, and Susie lamented the loss of some building in some town somewhere. The dialogue was laden with an anguish I couldn't understand, so it came across as melodramatic. I recommended rejection.

    Had the author started with a quick, poignant paragraph about the building and why it was so important or of sentimental value to these people, the result may have been different.

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