Nathan Bransford, Author


Wednesday, October 15, 2008

About Those Books Beginning With Dialogue

The results from yesterday's Can I Get a Ruling? are in, and 77% of you are incontinent.

Also, you may have surmised from my own stated philosophy of "if it works it works" as well as the inclusion of a Third Way, that I too am in the "Depends" category. People have raised lots of very good examples of opening dialogue that worked, and those examples speak for themselves (get it?).

But here's why I brought this up. You may not have thought about opening a novel dialogue (or maybe you have), but it's something I notice right away when I'm starting to read a partial. Because when you start with dialogue, you can't hide.

That's because beginning a novel with dialogue is hard. It's very difficult to do it effectively, because the reader doesn't have context, they don't yet know why they should care, and a lot of people are turned off by gratuitous in media res.

Some of my fastest decisions when reading a partial have come from reading opening dialogue. If it doesn't work, it's pretty clear right off the bat.

In my ongoing collection of sports/publishing metaphors better known as EVERYTHING I KNOW ABOUT PUBLISHING I LEARNED FROM SPORTS, co-authored with Dan, let me use the following example.

If you lined up a bunch of people and told them to do something easy, like shoot a free throw, you might not be able to tell which are the good players and which are the great players. Pretty much everyone can shoot a free throw. Make them do something difficult, like dunk or shoot fadeaway jump shots, and the differences will be quickly apparent.

Same goes for difficult authorial tricks like starting with dialogue and/or breaking other "rules." If you can pull it off, fantastic, if not, an agent will be able to tell very quickly.






49 comments:

Anonymous said...

Maybe that's why so few novels start out that way. It is difficult to do well. I'm at a loss as to any I've read that have, but give me a minute to peruse my bookshelves...

Thomas Mason said...

Starting a novel with dialogue can be a risky move unless it's all setup right. I think if an author had their character drone on about the futility of his life or job for 5 or 6 paragraphs I would put the book down and never go back.

However, if the author in 1 paragraph was able to write about the characters life and then get into descriptive examples, not from a first person view, then it would draw me into the story.

I agree with you about the readers not having context when authors just dive right into dialogue. My advice for those out there wanting to start a novel with dialogue is KISS "Keep In Short Supply".

Once the story has been a bit more setup and the reader is hooked, the dialogue will mean so much more to them.

Just my 2 cents!

Margaret Yang said...

Ah ha! So this doesn't just apply to dialog, but to all the rules. If you're going to break them, you'd better play big or go home.

I like.

ryan-field said...

You addressed my concern about beginning with dialogue. I've always been afraid to do it.

Erik said...

Not to disagree, Nathan, but I think it takes more than skill - I think there should be a compelling reason.

If a character is served appropriately by defining them first by their speech, then it works. But people will form an image of that character in their head and you're gonna have to undo it if it's not right. And you can't undo it without pissing off the reader.

So you have to define that character with their speech, which generally means that what they say or the way they say it is something very important about them. If it's not? It's just a clever device, even if you're damned good. And clever devices for their own sake often piss off readers nearly as much as having their mental image of a character erased.

Of course, your mileage may vary. But I'd stay away from opening dialogue unless it really added something important.

Brian Jay Jones said...

"I agree," he said. "With everything."

And then he was punched in the throat.

Marilyn Peake said...

Hi, Nathan,

After reading your blog yesterday, I’ve been waiting with great curiosity for your follow-up opinion today. I found your post today both informative and refreshing. It’s interesting to find out how an agent makes a decision about specific ways in which a novel begins, and it’s a relief to hear that there are no unbendable rules despite so much chatter about the popularity of formulaic novels. My understanding is that there are always great artists on the verge of creating the next new form in every type of art, including novels, and that great novels have been written with widely varying techniques. I think that extreme variation is the hallmark of all creative fields.

Ulysses said...

I can't imagine anyone sneaking a bad opening past you (or anyone with your experience) regardless of technique.

But are you saying that it's harder to tell with other forms of opening?

Why would that be?

Travis Erwin said...

I like the basketball analogy.

Melanie Avila said...

Please tell me we can buy this book. :D

Sarah G. said...

Hey Nathan, isn't it about time for another contest?

Nathan Bransford said...

sarah g-

I'd need a lot more sudafed for that.

But honestly, not sure when the next contest will be -- the rest of this year is shaping up to be extremely hectic.

Dennis Cass said...

"I wonder about starting a novel with a line of dialogue, pausing, and then saying part of it again, for emphasis."

He paused.

"I wonder . . . about saying part it again for emphasis."

Gottawrite Girl said...

Dialogue's gotta be snappy and weaved with stage-direction-type description, so the reader can visualize. That's my goal! Thanks for the post, Nathan!

Susan said...

I love specific, concrete advice like this, and I can see your points.

Now, what do you find in openings that is a PLUS, that makes you smile or nod or keep reading or ask for that partial?

(I'm expecting that that one's harder to define, but I'm hoping...)

Thanks for another great tip.

Anonymous said...

I thought the dialogue contest was very enlightening.

It asked us to jump right in with dialogue.

It's too bad you can't teach (nicely) from that group of attempts about what works and what doesn't and why.

Timothy Fish said...

Tom Sawyer begins as Dennis describes. I have mixed feelings about dialogue openings. I don't like it because it messes up the drop caps. I like it because drops the reader into the action. It's hard to frontload a book with backstory if it starts with dialogue.

Anonymous said...

In his book "The First Five Pages," Noah Lukeman puts it pretty plainly:

Exposition is needed to establish a story.

He even goes so far as to say that opening with dialogue is melodramatic and a cop-out for a real hook.

Harsh, but true.

Dan said...

So Mr. Co-Author,

Building off of Ulysses's question (and this entry), how does the decision process work from partial to full?

Do you ever think, maybe the story is good but the author simply didn't start it at the right point or with the right words?

Or do you just say, this is crap and a waste of my Kindle battery?

Of course, if we're talking about EVERYTHING I KNOW ABOUT PUBLISHING I LEARNED FROM SPORTS, then all these points are moot. However, keep in mind that someone can learn how to shoot a fade away. And though they can't learn to dunk, they can buy trampolines....

something else said...

This post was extremely useful. I will definitely be keeping it in the back of my mind. That is if I ever get around to writing that book of mine...Thanks :-)

Other Lisa said...

@ dan, speaking of trampolines....

Sorry, O/T I know, but this cracked me up no end.

Kat Harris said...

I'm with Erik. There should be a compelling reason for starting a book with dialogue.

Bad cold, Nathan?

Try rubbing Mentholatum on your feet and wrapping them in a warm cloth. I know it sounds weird, but it always works for me.

Elyssa Papa said...

Great blog... like everything in writing, you have to make sure if you do it, you do it well.

Hope you start feeling better.

Wanda B. Ontheshelves said...

Convince Me

Disclaimer: I started my (first) novel with dialogue. I like it, because it's a straight arrow from the opening to the novel's close, visually – I start out with one of the characters in a sunset lagoon-printed Hawaiian shirt, and end with dolphins painted on the side of a van, "and the school of dolphins lumbered into the street."

A global warming fantasia, and by the time you get done with a 300-page novel, how hard is it exactly, to go back and add in exposition at the beginning. I mean, you've lived with these characters and this story for quite possibly years – possibly even before you set down one word, you've been thinking about your characters and story – so I don't think "flipping" (pardon the housing market lingo) the opening of your novel from dialogue to exposition, or the other way around, is that big of a deal.

I would consider very carefully any feedback about my opening, as long as it was specific, rather than a generic 'don't start novels with dialogue.' Convince me that this particular dialogue isn't clear, or is confusing, etc. Or that I need to back up and add in a couple paragraphs before I get to the dialogue. Etc.

Rule me no rules: Convince me.

Lady Glamis said...

Thank you! I happen to hate dialogue openings - probably because, as you say, most of them suck. There's a few good ones out there, I guess. Still not a big fan.

And now I'm scared to death to ever try it myself!

I'll publish a few books first...

LiteraryMouse said...

I didn't know it was that unusual. The novel I just finished starts off with dialogue...I think it works in this case, I hope it works.

It opens with not the main character speaking, but rather, her father shouting her name as she peacefully slumbers in bed, with all this craziness going on around her. I was trying to convey a sense that she's quite content with her life, which most readers would consider to be a life of miserable drudgery (trains going by, shaking the house at all hours, a pillow covered in coaldust, sharing a bed with her little sister, who's kicking her in the ribs), then she finally realizes she's late and that her father's been trying to wake her up and it's this mad dash to start breakfast.

I think, if done right, dialogue can add a sense of energy and immediacy to a scene.

lotusloq said...

I'm so glad that your opinion falls right in line with mine. It makes me feel like I'm making progress and getting the hang of what really works. Yea! Thanks!

BTW it's actually "in medias res." Don't know if that's a typo or not but, anyhoo, the Latin teacher in me can't seem to let it pass.

It sounds like you're feeling better, but not much. Take care!

Jeanne said...

Sick people are allowed to make all the typos they want. I made that rule up after last week when I had the liquid assets flu and could barely type or think clearly. (BTW, this virus clears up quickly but leaves you very drained.)
More great inside industry information, Nathan. You're nurturing talent by sharing these tips and making us think about things. Such as- know the old writing rules, and know when to throw them out the window.
Like in life, some rules are breakable but only if you're really sure you can get away with it.

Jeanie W said...

Do you really have a cold or are you hoping we'll all send you sudafed for the meth business you're running now that the publishing industry is in its death throes?

Stacey said...

Seriously, if I ever get around to finishing my novel and polishing it up, I will cry if Nathan rejects me! You are honestly the most informed and well written agent out there.

This was a subject I had never thought of much, but now I will pay attention to it!

Robena Grant said...

lotusloq:
it's probably my fault. I left the final "s" off in my post yesterday when I mentioned the phrase. But you are absolutely right, it is "in medias res" and if I'm going to quote Latin again I will look it up first. Ha ha.

Marva said...

Like all the supposed rules, it's yet one more the debut author must avoid. After you're famous, then you can break all the rules. Sounds like freedom, but makes for crappy 10th+ novels by well-known authors.

Anonymous said...

"Great," I snarled with growing concern, "I checked three of my manuscripts and every one of those suckers starts with dialogue. Damn! I'm screwed."
I slammed my fist against the wall in abject frustration. And screamed from the pain. "No wonder I haven't snagged an agent," I cried. Then looking at my hand, decided I had better head to the emergency room...to see a good book doctor.

Betty Atkins Dominguez said...

77% of you are incontinent. Poor people!

Ulysses said...

That sounds about right, Betty. Most of us are incontinent. A few are in the islands, I suppose, and I believe Orion lives on a boat.

Betty Atkins Dominguez said...

ulysses, where do they get their diapers?

Anonymous said...

Hated the basketball analogy - didn't even know it was basketball until another comment said so, and so for me it was confusing and I spent more time trying to work out what you were talking about rather than the message itself.

Adaora A. said...

That's because beginning a novel with dialogue is hard. It's very difficult to do it effectively, because the reader doesn't have context, they don't yet know why they should care, and a lot of people are turned off by gratuitous in media res.

I bet loads of authors spend ages looking at the first line of their book and scrapping it, looking again and scrapping that next attempt too. Both ends know how crucial the opening lines are. If you mess it up, it's over. The pressure is definetly on. I'm really bad in that I flip to the beginning of a book, read the first lines, or I'll do the same thing for the back. I might even do both. If I don't like what I've seen, I honestly put it back and pick up the next cover/title that catches my eye.

lotusloq said...

I loved the basketball analogy and thought it was spot on.

Maris Bosquet said...

"Well, Prince, so Genoa and Lucca are now family estates of the Bonapartes."

It's not the best opener for any book, let alone War and Peace, but I think Tolstoy got away with it because he was writing a protracted, serialized St. Petersburg soap opera for the upper crust. The opener, delivered by a society woman during a soiree at her home, sets up the audience as well as the story.

Luc2 said...

I love the basketball analogy, although if you'd ask a big guy to shoot free throws (read Shaq), and then to dunk, the analogy sinks faster than the Suns title hopes.

Ulysses said...

Betty:

Mail order.

bryan russell said...

luc2:

I think the analogy works all the better, as Nathan was suggesting that shooting free throws (a simple task) does little to indicate a player's real ability, while dunking and shooting fade aways does. Thus, Shaq's ineptitude at the line bears the analogy out, as he is (or was) a dominant player, but watching him shoot free throws wouldn't tell you that. But you watch LeBron cross someone over and throw down a windmill in traffic... well, there's no mistaking genius (or should I have said a Kevin Martin pull up jumper in the lane?)

Joseph L. Selby said...

Okay, I'll bite. How does dunking a basketball involve more skill than shooting a free throw? Dunking is the least talented action a basketball player can take.

ashley said...

What about us little 5'2" gals who can't dunk OR shoot a free throw? :)

Hope you're feeling better, Nathan!

Luc2 said...

The Kevin Martin example is a better example in any event, Bryan. Bringing a Kings player into it will please Nathan.
I agree with Joseph, though. Dunking is mostly a testimony to athletic ability, not to skill or technique. So the fadeaway jumper is the best example, and then we should mention Mitch Richmond, one of Sacramento's alltime greats.

Nathan Bransford said...

The dunking analogy was meant to convey that athletic ability is an innate trait, just as with writing talent. Some is learned, some is born. I can shoot a fadeaway, but I can't dunk.

Belletristic Bloggette said...

So, I would assume that opening a novel with a character's thoughts falls into the same category as dialogue, right?

Marian said...

Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card begins with dialogue... but it's easy to remember the standouts because so few novels start that way.

Definitely something to think about, Nathan. And to inspire some blog posts of our own on the topic.

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