Thursday, October 15, 2009

From the Mailbag: On Starting With Dialogue

A shy reader who prefers to remain anonymous asked this question.

I don't get it. I know I've read books that start with dialogue. So why does everyone keep saying that it's bad to start with dialogue?

I'm going to answer with an example.


"But I like dialogue." John pushed his manuscript across the kitchen table toward Mary, almost knocking over his mug of cold coffee.

Mary shrugged and uncapped her red pen. She drew a big circle around the first line on the first page. "So do I. But I guess this is a rule. Doesn't make a lick of sense, but lots of rules don't make sense. I mean, they tell you they want your word count, but then they say it doesn't matter whether you go off the computer count or the number of pages multiplied by an average. That doesn't make sense, either."

"Word count, shmerd count. I write stories with lots of dialogue, so it's natural to start with dialogue, too." John removed the red pen from Mary's hand and recapped it. "Let's keep the dialogue."


Here's what we have:
* A notch over 100 words, so roughly half a page.
* Two named characters
* Clearly attributed dialogue
* A few small setting details
* A hint of conflict

Now, I have a question for you. Whose point of view are we in?



Craven said...

That can be fixed.

He watched as Mary shrugged and uncapped her red pen.

Riley Murphy said...

My guess would be the red pen's. That sucker's getting around - with all that uncapping and recapping? Yep, I'm going with the pen.


Matthew Delman said...

I'm going with John's because he's the first named character.

I wonder though if the same problem comes up with only one named character. Then is starting with dialogue less of a problem?

Unknown said...

I agree with MattDel. I would say John's POV.

Merc said...

It could be John, Mary, or a thus-unseen narrator lurking behind the curtains or on the wall.

But yeah, it could be fixed. ;)

I'm not entirely clear why a lack of a strong POV in this example means DL openers are bad? 'Course I need to get me some coffee so... O:)

Edittorrent said...

The boy's mother watched him climb the apple tree.

"Look, I can go higher!" The bark was rough under his touch, but he liked being able to look down on her.


First verb is "watched." But we're not in that subject's pov. So I don't think adding "He watched as..." clarifies the pov in our example.

So I think it depends in part on the usage. Does anyone else think that adding "He watched as..." clarifies the pov? Anyone want to argue for Mary?


Merc said...

What if there was something added to the second paragraph about Mary?


Mary shrugged and uncapped her red pen. She always ran into this problem. Some people just didn't get it. She drew a big circle around the first line on the first page.


It's bad, I know, but does that count? Would that be considered getting into her head more than John's to make her the POV?

Or I guess it could be omni, maybe? Distanced from them both?

*goes to get coffee for real this time*

Edittorrent said...

Merc, yes, absolutely, adding interior monologue is a good way to nail the pov to the page. It's not the only way, but it's a good one.


Riley Murphy said...

I think this is why I opted for the pen. It could be anyone's guess until something changes - hence the need for red...heheheh

Riley Murphy said...

I could fight for Mary, but it would still require a qualifying change. Kind of defeats the purpose of clarity to begin with *shrug* okay, what the heck.
Because John's opening line starts with: But I like... there is an assumption that Mary had been previously speaking, right? So when you write: Mary shrugged and uncapped her red pen - that could be tweaked to: Mary shrugged, uncapped her red pen, and made a second attempt to get him to understand her reasoning. She drew a big...


Jami Gold said...


Okay, so we're clear on why opening with dialogue could be problematic:
- unattributed
- no setting
- no sense of direction/conflict
- no POV

But, if you've avoided all those pitfalls, is there anything wrong with the technique beyond some agents/editors simply not liking it? :)

Jami G.

Unknown said...

I still think that John's POV is the point lead as he's the first character to be named.

Edittorrent said...

Jami, there's an underlying problem that ties together all the points you've made. IOW, what you're saying is correct, but you have one big goal to accomplish on the first page, and there are multiple avenues for accomplishing that goal.


Edittorrent said...

Babs, yes, we often lead with the first named character as our viewpoint character. Play with me. Let's reach beyond that. I'm trying to help you see the way all these little do's and don't's lead us toward one goal.

You can get there with me. It's not out of reach.


Jami Gold said...

Teresa said: have one big goal to accomplish on the first page, and there are multiple avenues for accomplishing that goal... and ...I'm trying to help you see the way all these little do's and don't's lead us toward one goal. You can get there with me. It's not out of reach...

Umm, is this a question to the class? :)

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.

Was that your point? Or am I just rambling for no reason here? :)
Jami G.

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

I read this and thought, THAT is what the fuss is all about??

Sort of disappointing, actually.

As for your example of the mom, the kid, and the tree, I'd argue for the kid's POV. Because we know the kid likes to look down -- that's not something we can tell from looking at the kid. Oh, we may know he's a happy kid, but is that because he's climbed a tree? Evaded Mom? What?

Telling us WHAT he likes, to me, fixes the POV with him.

Edittorrent said...

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.

gonna move this one to the front page

Robin Lemke said...

It seems impossible to tell from that 100 words whose point of view it is.

But, here's a question I could get totally skewered for, but would love to have answered: Does it matter?

I read that Dashiell Hammett translated to film so well because he had nearly no internal monologue or obvious POV - it was very streamline and cinematic. Now, I know that "cinematic" isn't always a goal - but still I love his books and wondered if this cinematic, dialog heavy style isn't appropriate sometimes?

Adrian said...

Getting into a character POV on the first page isn't always an immediate goal. Many novels start without a POV to set up some context before zooming into a close-third person. Consider epics, family sagas, and some speculative fiction.

Nevertheless, it is possible to get into a POV almost immediately even if you start with dialogue.