Friday, January 30, 2009

Why not begin with dialogue?

I’d read on more than one site that beginning a story with dialogue might turn off agents and was therefore not a good idea. No particular reason was given for why this was a turnoff, so I accepted it and just made a mental note to start in some other way.

Then I read a story beginning with a seven-line conversation, which didn't intrigue me. The writer had asked for critiques, though, which meant I had to think about why the conversation didn’t work – and for comparison purposes, I found a story starting with dialogue which did work.

So, why are writers warned off beginning with dialogue?

1. Talking head syndrome

Close your eyes and turn on the television, making sure you get a show rather than a news broadcast or documentary. Can you follow the plot simply through dialogue?

I imagine that reading a conversation between two unknown people is often as fun as not-watching TV, trying to tell what’s going on without visual clues. Very often such conversations look like this:

“We can’t tell anyone.”
“But that was a kid--”
“I don’t care. You want us to end up in there too?”

Is this a conversation between a couple, siblings, friends, strangers on a train? It’s words in a vaccum, talk in white space. The writer could fill in more details through the dialogue, but then we run into another problem…

2. As you know, Bob

“We can’t tell anyone what we saw Grandma Peters doing.”
“But that was a kid she lured with one of her homemade blueberry pies.”
“I don’t care. You want us to end up in there too? It’s not all blueberry, you know.”

The characters are telling each other what they already know. And the conflict doesn’t work too well either…

3. Dramatic personae

Since the dialogue alone has to hold the reader’s attention, some writers try to make it as gripping as possible. However, this can backfire if the dialogue is crammed with conflict and emotion, since the reader hasn’t had a chance to connect with the characters and experience whatever they experience.

It feels intrusive to begin a story with characters screaming at each other or confessing their love to each other. If there’s not even a minimal connection to the characters before they start talking about their divorce or the sniper across the street, the readers will be watching the scene from a detached distance. The conflict will be told to them rather than shown.

On the other hand, there are exceptions to every rule. And the one which came to mind right away was Ray Bradbury’s “The Veldt”.

”George, I wish you’d look at the nursery.”
“What’s wrong with it?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, then.”
“I just want you to look at it, or call a psychologist in to look at it.”

The first sentence establishes who’s speaking to who. “I wish you’d look at this” is something most likely said within the context of a marriage, rather than a romance or a friendship. And since it starts with a name, we know the husband is George, meaning that this is probably a conversation between humans in the present or near future (since Bradbury writes science fiction, readers can’t take that for granted).

Also, there’s a problem with the nursery. “George, I wish you’d look at the kitchen” would not have had the same impact, the same uneasy little sense of children-in-jeopardy. Though as the story goes on to show, nothing could be further from the truth.

So the first sentence also sets up the conflict, but does that in a subtle way, so that the reader can learn about the problem along with the characters. Starting with, “Oh my God, George! The children are in danger!” would not have worked so well. By the time the dialogue gets to the request for a psychologist – meaning that whatever’s wrong with the nursery, it’s not easily fixed – I’m hooked.

Finally, this is a stripped-down, minimalist start to the story. That parallels the nursery, which is featureless and blank-walled when someone first enters it.

Picking up on the emotions and wishes of the person, though, the nursery walls quickly produce different three-dimensional scenes, complete with temperature and smells and sound, to make its occupants feel as though they’re in another place and time – hence the title, “The Veldt”. Likewise, the intriguing conversation at the start quickly unfolds into Bradbury’s beautifully descriptive prose, which uses the senses of smell and touch better than any writer I’ve ever read.

I’m still going to begin my stories with something besides dialogue, but it’s good to see how that can work when done well.


colbymarshall said...

I've found for every agent there is, there is probably a different thing that turns him or her off. I try to make it as "turn on" as possible, obviously, but I with the WIP I'm writing right now, I'm jus worrying about writing a story I like. That said, I don't think I've ever begun with dialogue.

Anonymous said...

I've have one more reason why starting with dialogue is discouraged. James Rollins mentioned this at Thrillerfest a couple of years ago.

Starting with dialogue can make it hard for the reader to get hooked into the story. Someone is saying something, but the reader doesn't even know who this person is, or even what's going on. Essentially, they're thrown right into the story and expected to figure it out. Sometimes the dialogue is good enough to be hook, but a lot of times, it falls flat.

Marian Perera said...

Exactly, Linda - with this kind of start, nothing is provided except the dialogue. Even the gender of the people speaking might be unclear.

The dialogue has to hook the reader all by itself. That's quite a requirement for a few sentences of conversation.

Anonymous said...

Some of Agatha Christie's Poirot and Miss Marple books begin with dialogue.

However, from what I recall offhand, none of her standalone mysteries do.

Perhaps that is because she knew that fans were familiar enough with her famous detectives that they could easily get into the novel- no matter if it began with narrative or dialogue. They didn't need the usual hook since they were already fans of the series.

Obviously, standalone novels don't have that advanage of familiarity. So it's much harder for them to begin with dialogue and ease into the story seamlessly.

Anonymous said...

That's a good point about the gender! I hadn't thought of that.