Thursday, October 15, 2009

A+ for Jami in the Comments

In our comment discussion about this morning's post (opening with dialogue), Jami writes,

Isn't the goal of the first page to invest the reader in the story so that they turn to the second page? And without a character to feel invested in, the reader won't feel a connection? So, dialogue can work, but only if it pulls the reader in and helps to form that connection? And authors should consciously consider if it's the best method for connecting the reader to the story? And not just do it because of some trend, or because it feels "immediate", or because it shows you're starting in scene and not in backstory, etc.

And I responded,

Jami, that's it exactly.

I know this is a roundabout, somewhat tortured way to make the point, but I thought if I led everyone to think it through, it might resolve the question in a more thorough way.

Your goal at the outset is to cement the reader to the characters as quickly as possible.

Starting with dialogue can slow down that process. CAN. Not MUST.

So some authors use dialogue to start because it helps them reach the goal of snatching reader interest right away. Depends on the dialogue -- how long, content, what follows it.

Another problem, from my perspective, is that we see bad dialogue openings over and over and over. Until we want to cry. Until we become convinced that they must be impossible to pull off. That belief lasts just until we see a manuscript do it right.

I bought a manuscript that starts with this line of dialogue:

"Make me a door, Four."

Grabbed me right away. I wasn't sure what it meant, but I wanted to find out. Will everyone be hooked by that line? Maybe not, but it has turned out that lots of readers have been satisfied with this line and this story.

Compare that to,

"Honey, where are my keys?"
(not all that unusual a question)

"Hi, Mom."
(ditto, and then some)

You can add a speaker attribution without furthering the basic goal.

"This city is the capital of Argentina," Alex Trebek said.

The bottom line: There are rules, and there are tools. The rule for the first page is, "Grab my attention." The tools to help you get there are conflict, character, specific detail, and so on.

I thought it was important to move this to the front page for those of you who don't get to read the comments. It's the answer to our earlier question about opening with dialogue. Yes, you can do it, but only if you do it right!



Jami Gold said...


*blushing* I'll beat everyone to it in the comments. Yes, I am a teacher's pet. LOL!

Jami G.

Riley Murphy said...

Crapatola! I have one thing to say about all this...Poindexter!
But, JG, you know I say this with love, right?

Dave Shaw said...

(Grumble) That's what I would have said if I hadn't had to work today... (Yeah, right.)

Congrats, teacher's pet! 8-)

Livia Blackburne said...

That's a great point! I've never quite understood why opening with dialogue was thought to be a bad idea -- this makes alot more sense.

Wes said...

Thanks for explaining the issues. Good stuff, as usual.

Genella deGrey said...

Woot, Jami!
Great job!

Wes said...

I'm considering this for my opening sentence in my WIP.

'“It wasn’t supposed to be this way,” Kincaid said to the slave.'

I intend it to show goals at risk and to lead to issues creating tension. I want it to suggest that Kincaid is the POV character. This is confirmed 5-6 sentences later.

Comments are welcome. Pro and con.

Edittorrent said...

My issue is with unattributed dialogue, Wes, so yours sounds okay to me. :)

Jami can't help it. She has an inquisitive mind, and a knack for getting right to the nub of an issue. We could use her in Congress. :)

Jami Gold said...

Alicia said: We could use her in Congress.

*snort* Yeah, right. I'd be the one voted off of Survivor Island the first week. *ahem* I have a tendency of telling people what to do. :) Luckily, my day jobs have always been a good fit for that trait. I've decided that's one reason writing really appeals to me - now I get to tell a whole world what to do. LOL!

Jami G.

Ash. Elizabeth said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ash. Elizabeth said...

Would this be bad dialogue to start off with?

"I thought we put the whole you almost killing me ordeal behind us?" He teased, a smile breaking over his face.

JohnO said...

Nick Hornby's "About a Boy" starts with two lines of dialogue. I didn't love that, but I did end up reading (and loving) the book.

Jami Gold said...

Ash. Elizabeth,

The line itself seems interesting, but there are things you could do to make it better.
- First off, whose POV is the scene in? The tag could be changed to make it more clear.
- You could add single quotes around or hyphens between the 'you almost killing me' words to make the flow better - so the reader knows they all belong together.
- And watch your punctuation for your tag. "Teased" is a word that implies a description for how the dialogue is said, therefore, "He" shouldn't be capitalized as the tag should be attached to the dialogue (Yes, even with a ! or ? and not a comma.).
- Also, if the scene is in his perspective, you should probably name him here.

Does that help?
Jami G.

Ash. Elizabeth said...

yes, it helped. i didn't mean to capitalize the H, but I was trying to type it quick in the comment. awell. it's not his POV, so I ddn't want to bombard the reader with names in the first two lines. the you almost killing me is in italics in my doc. would that be alright or should I hyphen?

Jami Gold said...

Ash. Elizabeth,

The italics thing probably depends on how you use italics throughout the rest of your MS. Most authors wouldn't use italics that way, as they use italics for emphasized words or internal dialogue. But if you don't use them for those reasons, and you're consistent in how you use them for this reason, I think that's what's most important.

Yes, if he's not the POV character, then not naming him right away would be fine (so the first named character would be the POV one).

And of course, all this is just my opinion. As they say, your mileage may vary. :)

Hope that helps!
Jami G.

Leona said...

congrats Jami G :D. I love your view on things.

PS I don't think Murphy has much room to talk. Her stuff is quoted and used as good example. LOL

And Murphy, definitely not trying to imply you're a teacher's pet, but as someone who was voted teacher's pet after one year in the public high school, I'm saying it straight up :)

Leona said...

I've been racking my brain since reading this post the first time, yet I don't remember ever hearing about not starting with dialogue. I'm sure I have, but it was missed. I have my first chapter starting with dialogue. Can you tell me yea or nay and a way to fix it? Here it is...

“My mom told me never to trust anyone who looked too good to be true. I should have listened.” Victoria Cunningham’s voice was loud to be heard over the wind, gunfire and plane noise. Her fiery red hair whipped around her face as it escaped its confines she had relegated it to. Her muscular body moved with grace and power as she snapped a new clip into place.

Her green eyes snapped her anger at not only the man firing his weapons at her while giving orders for others to do so, but at herself. Erica’s blue eyes were snapping their own fire only slightly less volatile then Victoria’s fury.