• Opening Your Fiction With Dialogue

    Posted Posted by David Duhr in ABCs of Writing     Comments 104 comments
    Feb
    29

    Discussion questions: As a reader, do you like when the first line of a novel or short story is dialogue? Why or why not? Do any particularly good examples jump out at you? Have you ever used that tactic in your own fiction? Feel free to copy/paste examples in the comments.

     

    “Don’t start this post with dialogue, David,” said David’s internal critic to David.

    “Shut up, fool; I do what I want,” David replied. “Anyway, that’s the whole point of this.”

    Last week I began reading a novel whose first line was a line of dialogue, with a dialogue tag and no other exposition. This isn’t it exactly, but it went something like this:

    “I’m here,” Melissa said.

    This is usually a turn-off for me, especially if the dialogue doesn’t contain some exposition to help set the scene/situation. I’ll keep reading — I’m not about to discard a book just because I don’t love the opening line — but the writer will have some extra work to do before I feel engaged. Especially if the next few lines are also disconnected dialogue.

    This isn’t any kind of universal writer’s rule; it’s just my own preference. (Hell, I’m sure I’ve opened a story with dialogue, though I can’t think of an example.)

     

    I think what I don’t love about it is that it seems like an attempt to put me right into the action, kind of/sort of an in medias res approach, but without providing any context.

    “I’m here,” Melissa said.

    Yeah, it asks questions: Who is Melissa; to whom is she speaking; where is “here”? But the line, and those questions, don’t grab a reader’s attention.

    But what if the rest of the line afforded an answer or two?

    “I’m here,” Melissa said, bursting into the boardroom and sliding into her chair, keeping her eyes from meeting Harriet’s, whom she was sure was looking from Melissa to the clock and back to Melissa.

    That’s an awful line, because I’m a shit writer, but you get the idea.

    “But David,” you’re wondering, “what if the rest of that info came in the second line?”

    “I’m here,” Melissa said. She burst into the boardroom and slid into her chair, keeping…

    Yeah, I don’t like it as much. Again, it’s just my own tastes. There’s no right or wrong here. It’s just something I’m chewing on.

     

    I went searching for an example of a good dialogic first line in fiction. Naturally I turned first to Stuart Dybek, and I found an OK one in Ecstatic Cahoots, a story titled “Marvelous Encounters of My Life”:

    “You’re going to leave your watch on?” she’d asked as if it were an offense on the order of undressing to all but his socks.

    We learn a lot here, including: Two people are about to doink, and one of them has stripped naked except for his watch; the woman questions it, almost mocks it, which tells us something about her character; and because of the “she’d,” we know the narrator is looking back.

    Compare this to:

    “You’re going to leave your watch on?” she’d asked.

     

    So I guess what I’m learning is that I don’t universally dislike opening fiction with dialogue, but I need for it to be more than “[dialogue],” [dialogue tag].

    What’s your take? As a reader, do you like fiction that opens with dialogue? What makes it work, when it works; what makes it miss, when it misses?

    As a writer, do you ever open your own fiction with dialogue? Care to share with us an example?

    Let’s talk about it below.

     

    WriteByNight co-founder David Duhr is fiction editor at the Texas Observer and co-host of the Yak Babies podcast. He writes about books for the Dallas Morning News, Electric Literature, Publishing Perspectives, and others.

    WriteByNight is a writers’ service dedicated to helping you achieve your creative potential and literary goals. We work with writers of all experience levels working in all genres, nationwide and worldwide. If you have a 2020 writing project you’d like a little help with, take a look at our book coachingprivate instruction and writer’s block counseling services. If you have a manuscript that’s ready for some editorial care, check out our various critiquing, editorial, and proofing servicesJoin our mailing list and get a FREE writer’s diagnostic, “Common problems and SOLUTIONS for the struggling writer.”

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    david lemke

    “Don’t.”
    “Why?”

    david lemke

    Sorry Dave, I’ve been so busy, I haven’t had a chance to get back to leave an actual post. I thought, what would be an intriguing dialogue opening? So I wrote that. It could be sex or love related or it could be something totally different, plus we don’t even know for sure what gender or who they are. I just had the thought that just those two pieces of dialogue could be the whole first chapter, the reader would have to turn the page to find anything out, or… The sense description of a perfectly dark room could be… Read more »

    david lemke

    Ha! I guess now I have to…

    david lemke

    “Don’t.” “Why?” The room was dark with movement. Though the shades weren’t down, no moon lurked and clouds blanked the sky. In the air the scent of cinnamon and something unfamiliar hung, powerfully overwhelmingly, but causing more questions than it answered. There was a creaking, but very much unlike a bed or mattress and more metallic, although the cadence and rhythm were more like what might guess. Sarvex felt the pain, though said nothing. Both love and hate cause pain as do knives and hammers. Along with that thought a smallest moan escaped to linger like dust. There was fear… Read more »

    David Duhr

    Sarvex! My goodness. Keep going, or is this it, a dose of micro fiction?

    david lemke

    Sarvex so I don’t give gender away yet. I guess it will be a story. so lots more to come

    Raymundo

    As a reader, I am lukewarm toward the practice. I believe you are correct in that it can prompt some mystery, even tension, but not well enough. It can even weaken a passage. For example, I think your sample passage would be stronger if the “I’m here” were moved to the very end and eliminating the ‘said’ attribute. I think there is a temptation for writers to start with dialogue because it gets them right into a scene without grinding through intros and setups. At least, I’ve recognized that in myself. That’s OK for a first draft, but I suspect… Read more »

    Raymundo

    A good opening. And probably close enough.

    chuck

    My long-suffering wife says, ” Before we make love, can you tell me a joke?”
    “Wait thirty seconds and the joke will be on you,” I said.

    Always start with a laugh.

    stephen Glick

    It was a dark and story night!. My favorite beginning. I am undecided on the beginnings that you chose Dave.I prefer setting, location , Weather. Just me. I am delighted as King would write and say NOTHING.

    Charles O'Donnell

    As a reader, opening with dialog skillfully written is as appealing as opening with action skillfully written. The emphasis is on “skillfully written.” As a writer, I rarely open with dialog, but I have. The prologue to “Shredded” is entirely unattributed dialog with no action: “People say there’s no hell, but I know better.” “Grace, you’re not easily discouraged. You’re a positive, upbeat person. You don’t talk this way unless you’ve had a setback.” “Not a setback, Madeleine, a reboot. I was doing it, you know I was—making good choices, staying straight—and I still am, but it’s not enough. After… Read more »

    Joe Giordano

    “Call me Ishmael.” Created immediate connection between character and reader.
    Not to put myself and Melville in the same paragraph, but here’s one of mine, “The End, of the Italian Bread.”

    http://joe-giordano.com/2020/02/29/the-end-of-the-italian-bread/

    Bonnie

    “Call me Ishmael.” Works!! “Call me Melissa” Not so much.! Good story by the way.

    Joe Giordano

    Hi Bonnie. Melville read your mind. Thanks for reading. Best regards, Joe.

    KevinW

    “Quarter-note signposts will show the way through the labyrinth of the Harmonic Forest”.

    I began a story with this line once. I thought it was an effective opening, obviously showing the reader a music teacher instructing a student.

    I like unusual forms. I always liked the way “Flowers For Algernon” was written as diary entries. “Camp Concentration” by Thomes M. Disch was in a similar vein.

    Jerry Schwartz

    Odd…when I read that sentence, I thought it was the beginning of a fantasy story. Not everyone sees the obvious in the same way.

    KevinW

    That’s the first line. Then-

    Mr, Finsterburger spread the be-bop score on the stand. “Harmonic Forest, all right”, I thought. More like briar patch. Angry polychords jumped out to block my way, erecting walls too high to peer over.
    “Your job is to be the band’s pathfinder”, Mr. F. encouraged. “You blaze the trail!”.

    Doug Horton

    My current WIP is an MG steampunk. No beta readers commented on it starting with dialogue. They just wanted more description. It starts:
    “Hurry up or I will kill you!” Emma demanded.
    Emma stood at the foot of the stairs, gorgeous as always. The plume in her hat, her light velvet jacket, and her long gown were all coordinated with accents of dark blue. She was luxuriously outfitted for traveling. Even her parasol was trimmed in blue, which she was tapping on the tiles beside the staircase Alex was too slowly descending.

    david lemke

    “Hurry or die.”

    david lemke

    A few years ago I wrote a story for a contest. Mine was about 6000 words. The contest limit was 4000. I had some weeding to do. I cut and chopped and pruned. One part I attacked was dialogue. Within the “” I cut every unnecessary word and outside I trimmed every unneeded tag. I got down to the 4000 and to my delight and surprise, took second place. Since then, I’ve been the Axe Man concerning dialogue. with “I’m here.” I would immediately focus on the comments thoughts and reactions to her late entrance from the point of view… Read more »

    David Duhr

    Have at it! You’re welcome to use that opening as your own. Again, though… acknowledgments, Pulitzer speech, etc.

    Doug Horton

    Thanks for your encouragement. One thing I’ve worked into the story is a code for young readers to solve at the beginning of every chapter. The first word of the coded message is “HELLO”, thus the first word of the chapter also starts with H – “Hurry…”

    David Duhr

    Ah! That’s interesting. It definitely changes my perspective.

    Jerry Schwartz

    I think it works if you couple it to something punchy:

    “Your wife is fat,” Brian said, so I broke his nose.

    Or

    “I’m here,” Melissa screamed over the angry howl of the woodchipper.

    Jerry Schwartz

    Well played!

    KevinW

    WOODCHIPPER’S BALL (cont.)
    Since my wife Murderella is 103 pounds soaking wet in lead boots, I knew Brian wasn’t talking about her. Still, no one disrespects anyone’s wife in MY presence.
    “Bine owes!”, shrieked Brian wetly, blood gushing everywhere.
    “Now you won’t smell anymore, mate!”, I yelled over the grinding whine of the woodchipper.
    “You lost yer nose not yer ears, mate. You can still listen to Woody Herman!” Brian didn’t seem comforted by that at the moment.

    KevinW

    Because one of Woody Herman’s signature tunes was “Woodchopper’s Ball” (not, as youse guys seem to think, “Woodchipper’s Nose”)…

    Bobbie

    Starting with dialogue is difficult. There is no connection to that character so you had better get that connection within that sentence or the next. “I’m here” doesn’t have the impact of “Call me Ishmael” I don’t care if Melissa is here. Now I want to know why I’m to call you Ishmael, and who you are. As Charles said, it has to be done skillfully, pulling the reader into what is happening. Your Melissa example of sliding into the chair in the board room just needs a tad more work but is more appealing than the “I’m here,” without… Read more »

    Bobbie

    I haven’t consciously avoided it, but I have to give some explanation. The closest I got was: Margie flopped down on the couch. “I’m done. I’m so done with him.” The novel isn’t completed so the opening may change, but I liked it. It ends up being a conversation with her mother over a man she has dated for over 500 years and she is done waiting on him…..yeah speculative fiction…lol

    KevinW

    Somebody (Harry Turtledove?) started a piece with something like, “So we’re all agreed. We send the weapons back through the time warp and they win the war and change history to our later benefit”. How can you not read on?

    Bobbie

    That’s called doing it with style and pulling the reader in with one sentence. It covers the time (future), genre (space fiction) and who (a military person). It’s openings like “I’m here,” Melissa said.’ that has nothing to ground you as to where, when, or even why I should care that she is here. Meanwhile the one you gave is excellent. I want to know more unlike Melissa who I could care less about.

    Jerry Schwartz

    Good point. I never read Moby Dick (hold your catcalls, please), so I never found out why I should call him Ishmael.

    Bobbie

    To me, that’s OK. There are a lot of classics I haven’t read. That happened to be one I had to read for English class in high school. Our high school required all academic students to read at least 50 books from a list of 100 above and beyond the ones for class and turn in book reports on them during the 10-12 grades. My teachers hated me. I turned in one report a week, meaning I read all the books on the list plus. MY report of the Scarlet Letter read something like “Woman has to wear a red… Read more »

    Bobbie

    That was the whole report. I wasn’t fond of the book.

    SusanH

    I imagined starting a story with an old lady talking to her baby, and sounding every bit like nothing other than a doting grandma, and then you show more and more of the scene until the reader realizes she is in a nursing home and the “baby” is a doll. But I haven’t gotten around to that one yet.
    I could imagine starting a story with something like “Fairies are not real!” said my sister Ruthie. “Yes they are,” I answered. “And I can prove it.” Because then the whole story is about how she goes about “proving” it.

    SusanH

    I didn’t know when I first read your question. I think it was the idea that the woman speaking to the baby put you more immediately into HER reality, motherly, loving…rather than the author speaking about her, it is her doing the speaking.. and then, by stark contrast, the reality that is external to her is so not-maternal, not nurturing. But then I remembered something. If you will recall my character of the lady who shoved holy pictures into people’s faces saying, “Kiss the icon!” I used to work at an agency that served people with mental disabilities, and she… Read more »

    Susan H

    Thank you, David, but it is terrible how many ideas I have lined up. I need to be more productive. So, I think your idea of 50, then 50 more, etc., might work, but bigger numbers

    Bonnie

    haha. that WAS a terrible example …as she burst into..etc. but you are absolutely right. “I’m here,” Melissa said. Is the worst first line of a novel and I would not read on. BUT Stuart makes opening with dialogue work. He can do anything!! Heart inserted here. Now I am going to look through the books on my kindle at the opening sentence. Thanks for this!

    frances hill

    “I’m here,” Melissa said. I am bothered more by ‘said’ If a story starts with ‘he said, she said’ I am rather turned off. I think “so what if Melissa is here?” If a story starts with, “Where the hell am I?” Frank shouted into the dark, hearing it echo… then I’m hooked, yeah, I want to know who Frank is and what’s he gotten himself into.

    Jerry Schwartz

    Said is relatively weak. I like to start with a punch–something that puts some wind in my sails. That’s why I didn’t write

    “I’m here,” Melissa said over the noise of the woodchipper.

    Jerry Schwartz

    I agree with using tags sparingly. I figure that the reader won’t have any trouble keeping the speakers straight if there’s only two of them and there aren’t many lines.

    As for Stephen King, all I can say is that he doesn’t write my stuff and I don’t try to write his.

    david lemke

    “I’m here,” Melissa said. and she’s late to meeting tell me a lot about the character. Wouldn’t most people just slink in? She’s calling attention to herself, narcissistic, always over dressed, always spotlighted, rude, interrupting, the rest of the team was hoping she wouldn’t make it? How did she say I’m here? apologetic or relieved or a celebration?

    Torria Stevens

    Hah!! Hmmm! or a consolation, as in, I’m here, don’t worry, I’ve got you.

    david lemke

    That could be an interesting flash prompt; late, how would you enter a board room? with donuts? a gun? naked?

    Torria Stevens

    That line sucks!; there’s not enough room for subtlety to want to read further. As a short story writer, I’d never start a piece with a dialogue – I’ll leave that to the masters. However, did read a novel two summers ago that started like this: Bastard! You son of a bitch! Bastard!” How about that hitting the reading palate? It sure got my attention. In any case moi?, as a short story writer due to the element factors of creating that essence of grabbing, pulling (bad sometimes w/literary terms) the reader into that shorter space – where every word/… Read more »

    Jerry Schwartz

    How about

    “Fiddlesticks!” I think that gets one well along in setting a milieu.

    david lemke

    I don’t remember the title but a movie started with Robert De Niro swearing at nobody.

    Torria Stevens

    Swearing at nobody huh? Interesting. The opener I’m referring to comes from the novel The Kin Of Ata Are Waiting For You – copyright 1971 (like to read old stuff) from Strand used books her in the NYC. Thanks for your input. Gonna read your post now.:)

    Torria Stevens

    lol!

    Jennifer Pommer

    I’m generally quite flexible with a book’s first page so the first line isn’t a do or die test. Even the first page can be only okay because, if it doesn’t grab me into the pages immediately, maybe it isn’t the right time for me to read this book, or it’s an author I’ve never read so I don’t know his/her style, or I’m thinking of something else and I probably should put it down for a day or a year. To be honest, it takes a lot for me to quit reading a book though I’m getting better at… Read more »

    Jennifer Pommer

    It’s the perpetual yawn factor. If I yawn or find my mind drifting once or maybe twice it’s okay, especially if I know I ‘should’ be doing something else. But if my mind is constantly drifting or the yawn has nothing to do with being 3am, then I know to scan for the thread and read the last chapter or ditch it entirely if it’s bad. I have been noticing the opening gambit more lately although I can’t consciously remember any first lines as dialogue.

    Jennifer Pommer

    It’s more like I understand how it’s going to play out so I cut to the chase. Of course, I might have been wrong and it would have been a good read. The chance I take, I guess. Again I emphasize, I can probably count on 1.5 hands how often I’ve done this.

    MC Maugeri

    As a reader (as well as an eater) I often let my mood of the moment affect my decisions. Today, when I read the “I’m here,” Melissa said.” opening I kind of liked it. One reason is that right now I wish someone would appear out of nowhere and say “I’m here” (“I’m here with you now.”) Another reason is that this very simple sentence is open to thousands of interpretations, so for a moment I can imagine a lot of different scenarios and wonder which one the author is going to pick. I agree that the other opening is… Read more »

    dennis boisvert

    “No one told me Dad died last night in the hospital and the doctors will not tell be the time of death,” Jack said harshly to his brother. “What’s going on here. Why didn’t you call me it was serious. You know something. You were here hours ago. You said it wasn’t a serious a fall. The hospital when I called said he was in stable from a fall. They couldn’t tell much about the fall. So whats going on here. Everything is a secret. No one knows nothing. I want answers. I show up to visit and I’m told… Read more »

    dennis boisvert

    Thank you. That little story came to me from a few folks upset with hospital and mostly over family or hospital not calling and the reason for death is not clear which means a cover up. I thank you again for response. Dennis Boisvert

    Elissa Malcohn

    I’m pretty sure I’ve read at least one story that began with dialogue, but I can’t call the memory up at the moment. There are stories I think might have begun with dialogue, but that’s more a testament to the mood of the writing than to the actual writing itself, because I couldn’t say for certain. [Checks] Yes, Rushdie’s Satanic Verses begins with dialogue and is one of three stories that do in the American Book Review‘s “100 Best First Lines from Novels” (http://americanbookreview.org/100BestLines.asp) And of course there’s Charlotte’s Web: “Where’s Papa going with that ax?” I would place “Call… Read more »

    Elissa Malcohn

    It’s the same either way. If I’m caught up in the reading, the method becomes invisible to me (e.g., Rushdie, White).

    adrien leslie

    My 1st writer’s wkshop— ripped into me for starting with dialogue between women @ a restaurant. Bruised but still listening, I learned my readers need to know where they were first.

    adrien leslie

    Not too many kitchen scenes in that book. I made Alice uninterested in cooking. But your question hits home. I can’t say they were right or wrong. I really like my 3rd book, but always wish I had a stronger opening. Dave…you always make me think..감 사

    adrien leslie

    Omgosh…i love it. We re not twins

    snowglobe

    (speechless;)

    dennis boisvert

    In the opening words of Tails of Two Cities that almost reads like someone was saying it. It is the best of times so on. In plays someone reads it It left me with that impression. I mean that would be a good dialogue line. Dennis

    Jerry Schwartz

    I’ve never quite understood why “It was the best of times…” is so much better than “It was a dark and stormy night…”

    Jerry Schwartz

    Was it inadvertent that you wrote “Tails of Two Cities,” or are you working on a parody?

    It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of training, it was the age of carpet stains, it was the epoch of pigs’ ears, it was the epoch of nylon bones, it was the season of open car windows, it was the season of traffic fumes, it was the spring of good dogs, it was the winter of bad dogs. Who’s a good dog?

    dennis boisvert

    thank you for your question. Nice parody, fits today’s life. I felt when I first read Tails of Two Cities that would be a nice opening for a dialogue and I wish I came up with the words in starting a story.




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