adventures in dysthymia

Monday, December 19, 2016

Opening With Dialogue

One of those ‘rules’ of writing that some love to repeat is ‘never open with dialogue.’ Of course, plenty of quite excellent novels do start with dialogue. It can pull the readers straight into the story, which is good, but it can also confuse those readers.

This latter is why it is discouraged. However, if done properly, it can be an effective way to immediately tell one what is going on. I give you the opening lines of my own YA novel, ‘The Middle of Nowhere.’

It’s not much of a hill,” I whispered to Dad.

Mr. Akin heard me. “That’s about as big as they get around here,” he said, “but it gives a great view of the river.” Leave it to a real estate agent to turn the conversation into a sales pitch.

He pulled his car into the bumpy driveway and asked if we were ready for a look.

And that is how I ended up living in the middle of nowhere.

So, we establish right away who the speakers are (more or less) and what they are up to. A kid and his father are being shown property by a real estate salesman. We also have an inkling as to the geography of the area. We have a name, we have some physical description (the bumpy drive) of the property at which they are looking. Nothing very confusing there.

I make no claim that ‘Middle’ is a great book. It was my first published novel and I see various things about it that might have been done better (such as more concrete details). But I like the beginning. I could have dropped it, I suppose, and started with the next passage but it is not nearly as interesting! I feel that this snatch of dialogue pulls one in better.

A snatch of dialogue — that’s the thing (my sample barely qualifies as dialogue at all). Don’t make it a long-winded conversation that will baffle the readers. And don’t let it be a gimmick, just to catch the readers’ interest — it needs to serve a purpose in the narrative.

I’ll admit that I have employed this approach quite a bit, maybe in about half my novels. It’s just another way of doing things, not good nor bad in and of itself. Like any other technique, it can be misused.

As can dropping the readers into the middle of any sort of action. The same rules apply — you have to make sure they know what is going on. A fight scene may be exciting but one should have some idea of why it is happening and who is involved. Dialogue is, essentially, a form of action, characters doing things.

So ignore the ‘rule,’ if you wish, but recognize why it and all rules were invented in the first place. They are warnings, reminders to be cautious of the pitfalls found on certain pathways. So keep your eyes open and recognize those hazards when you spy them!

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