Thursday, January 31, 2008

Openings-- dialogue

Alicia writes when she ought to be working--

Susan said:
And the answer you gave here is ... well, it's what I was thinking you'd say.

Hmm. Does that mean I'm predictable... or consistent? :)

Jeanne asked for good and bad examples of opening with dialogue. Well, the Giles opening is a good one, at least for comedy, as it's immediately undercut by not-dialogue (a quick cut to her in a cheerleader outfit). (Transcript is from

This is madness! What can you have been thinking? You
are the Slayer! Lives depend upon you! (begins pacing) I make allowances
for your youth, but I expect a certain amount of responsibility, and
instead of which you enslave yourself to this, this... (stops pacing)
What's fun about this opening? Well, first, it's not our first encounter with Giles, so we know it's him by his voice. We already know he's a bit pompous. But even if we didn't know about his character, we can glean from his speech pattern -- "What can you have been thinking?"-- whoa, buddy, what a sexy tense! Most of us would say, boringly, "What ARE you thinking?" But not Giles. He is precise-- using the modal (can) and the present perfect continuous (have been thinking). So notice that the dialogue is more than just the conveyance of a quick hook or of information-- it is in his voice, and tells us a lot about him. It's also not just one stray line-- there's plenty there to give us some information about the "sitch," as Buffy would say. So... what do we know from this passage of opening dialogue?

We know Giles is a man (of course, we can hear his voice on TV), and we know he's a bit pompous. We know he sees himself as in charge here (I make allowances) but we can tell he's not really in control (she's done something he disapproves of). We know he is not a tyrant. He rants at her-- he doesn't behead her. We know he's talking to the Slayer, who is young. We know lives depend on her, yadda, yadda, again to quote Buffy. We know a central conflict for him is between her youth and her responsibility, and another might be his sense of powerlessness both to protect her youth and to make her accept her responsibility. He's not really in charge, and he senses that.

And of course the dialogue sets up the big joke, that this terrible cult he's worried about is... cheerleading. And that punchline is NOT in dialogue but a sight gag-- on the word "cult," the camera cuts to show Buffy in a cheerleading uniform. (And it actually, later, transpires that he's sort of right.)

So... that's a good example, though keep in mind that TV (more than film or novels) is dialogue intensive, so many episodes will start with dialogue. However, this would work in a novel too, though we don't have a camera to cut to the cheerleading outfit. We could have, "Buffy snapped her gum and looked down proudly at her uniform. The sweater proclaimed 'SHS' in orange felt across her little breasts. The skippy skirt promised flips and kicks and splits, all of which she thought she could do, given enough incentive."

Not as funny, but it's a nice counterpart to the dialogue.

So contrast that with a bad example, which I'm making up to protect the guilty. :)

"What do you think you're doing?"

The security guard shoved open the door and shone the light inside.

So what do I find wrong with this? Hmm. Well, I finish those two lines-- so I'm two lines and two paragraphs into the story-- and I know virtually nothing. Someone's doing something (I don't know what) and there's a security guard and a door, so presumably it's in a building, but it could be in a storage container (it's perfectly legal, btw, to say-- shoved open the storage container door and.... in openings, if you can slide in a bit of info, all the better). Am I the security guard? (That is, is the security guard the POV character?) Or am I whoever is doing whatever behind that door?

Also notice the sequence is off, and this is done in the illogical (non-chronological) order specifically to put the line of dialogue first. I see this way too much-- in order to start with the dialogue, the writer reverses the order of events (so effect -- "What are you doing?" -- before cause -- opening the door, shining the light, and seeing someone doing something). Fiction is a temporal (time-oriented) medium, sort of like life, so when you mess with sequence, you're messing with our perception of what's going on. That can be fun in Catch-22, but that was the purpose-- to mess with our minds the way the war messed with Yossarian's. Don't mess with our minds just to get the dialogue before the cause of the dialogue.

And finally, there's no emotion here-- no quote tag telling us tone of voice, no depiction of the guard's facial expression, no eerie words describing the setting. And no internal reaction from anyone. The passage feels barren and cold to me. What reason have you given me to care enough to read on, huh?

This actually is the sort of dialogue opening I've seen most, and I think no one would actually choose to open a scene, much less a book, that way. Rather someone sometime somewhere proclaimed that books should open on a line of dialogue, and there was some justification given (it's active, it draws the reader in, it's a hook, etc.), as if the mere FACT of a dialogue opening meant activity, hooking, and all that.

And so we suddenly saw a bunch of openings with quote marks.

Sometimes the writer would try very hard and come up with something clever to put inside the quote marks:
"You're losing your shirt, sir." (Of course, later it turns out he's in a poker game.)
"Ah, the old in-out, my favorite direction."
"Let's screw, okay?" (Both of the latter two have a screw driver involved, and a block of wood.)

But that's a hook for a hook's sake. Not to say it never works, because it does, especially in a comedy. But notice how disconnected the hook is. It's a hook. Someone has to utter these immortal hook words, but it could be almost anyone. There are few of the voice markers that tell us something about the speaker, and none of conversational markers that tell us about what this is about or who is listening. (In contrast, look back at Giles's longer-- and that's important-- quote... we learn not just about him, but about Buffy.)

There's no "point of view". That is, we don't know if we're the speaker or the listener. Opening IN a character POV is hardly required-- that's why we still have omniscient (overall) POV, for scene openings, I think. But to open with disconnected dialogue is to open in NO POV. We're not in anyone's head; we don't know whether that line of dialogue is important personally to someone or not; we don't know what the internal reaction is. In fact, it's just a line of speech-- there's no actual dialogue, because there's no interaction with the reader. This is far from active... it makes the reader into a passive receptacle of the "hook".

(It's not in omniscient, btw, because omniscient supposes some comprehensive understanding, which is why so many books open with an omniscient "pan shot" of the setting-- so we get an "above" view of where we are, before the perspective "zooms in" to one character to let us know who we are. With bare dialogue, there's no omniscient narrative presence, just a, I don't know, not even a camera, because that first line doesn't SHOW anything visual. A tape recorder, maybe.)

So here's this voice, but because it's prose and there's no actor speaking, we don't know much about the voice (whether it's male or female, young or old, us or them). And for some reason, there's seldom a quote tag (he said), so we don't even get a clue to the gender and tone of voice that way. (Notice that "What do you think you're doing?" the security guard said, and "What do you think you're doing?" the security guard shouted, have very different feels, even if only one word is different. That's because we're told with that word "shouted" to hear it in a loud tone of voice. At some point, I should talk about, btw, why I think quote tags like that should probably, all else equal, go first-- quick reason, so the reader reads the quote in the right tone from the first.)

So let's say you LOVE dialogue openings and want to use one, and you have just the right line for it? Okay. Let me suggest that you do not stop with a single bare line in quote marks hanging there all bereft and lonely underneath "Chapter One."

Who is saying this? Can we tell something about person from the way he/she says it? No? Then see if you can rewrite the line a bit to make it more like that person. See how the Buffy scriptwriter changed what would be prosaic-- "What are you thinking?" -- to something pompous-- "What can you have been thinking?" -- to tell us more about this speaker. Can you do that?

Now consider a quote tag, first, because it tells us more about who is speaking and how, but also because it might reveal whose POV we're in? Are we in the speaker's POV? The listener's? Or in that nice comforting omniscient embrace? (Be careful about the convention of dialogue paragraphing here-- especially at the start of a story, when we have no context, we assume whoever is "in" the paragraph with the dialogue spoke it. So if you want to have the POV of the listener reacting to the speech, go with a new paragraph.)

You don't like that? You want a nice barren line all by itself? Okay. How about putting the context and all that in an immediate next paragraph?

For example:

"Let's screw, shall we?" ( the "shall we" comes from a different man -- this has to be a man either way!-- than "okay," don't you think)

Herman smiled so winningly over his upheld screwdriver that Sadie forgave him for his really, really bad pun. (I changed my initial THE really, really bad pun, by the way, to HIS really, really bad pun, just to drive home-- no pun intended-- that he was the one who spoke the pun above. Whenever you can clarify attribution simply, do so.)

So we know that we're in Sadie's POV, but that Herman said the dialogue. We still don't know the setting, except it's somewhere that needs a screwdriver or two. But that can wait (just a paragraph or two). We have a bit of context here, and now Sadie can answer him back, and we'll learn a bit more about her and their relationship, depending on whether her answer is mild or mischievous or shocked or ....

So... dialogue opening okay if you do it well, but it's not just okay because you do it in dialogue. :) It still has to accomplish what openings should accomplish-- that is, giving us a reason to care enough to read on (which can include but doesn't have to all that setting, context, POV, emotion, interaction, action, character, whatever).


1 comment:

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

Nope, you're not that predictable (especially 'cause you didn't ask for MY opening two paragraphs). I'm just that smart.


Honestly, it was a sort of loaded question on my end 'cause if you gave the answer I was hoping for (which is the one you gave), it opened up a ton of discussion.

I think that it's easy to open with dialogue because it throws you into the scene -- yet it also makes it that much harder to establish the ordinary world right off the bat, too.

Thus, it means that there's much to learn from starting off with dialogue.

See? Told you I'm smart.

*another grin*