Nathan Bransford, Author


Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Can I Get a Ruling?: Beginning a Book With Dialogue

Under the weather today, so a quick post.

How do we feel about novels that begin with dialogue?

I won't prejudice the results with my opinion, although in a departure from Can I Get A Rulings from the past, I'll allow a third response.







102 comments:

Anonymous said...

Does it really matter how a book begins as long as you like it?

And I hope you feel better.

Anonymous said...

The Invention of Hugo Cabret begins with a brief introdction and an illustration of the moon. I just want to be captivated by something.

Ulysses said...

Definitely depends.

How can I love something that starts with bad dialog that turns out to have nothing to do with the plot?

Conversely, how can I loathe an opening that gives me a sense of character, situation and momentum?

I think dialog is a fine way to start a work, if it's done right.

... and for the record, I loathe Depends, but reserve the right to change my mind in about thirty years.

Rene said...

As with anything else, if it's done well. :)

Derek Gentry said...

I voted "loathe." Early drafts of my own novel began with dialogue, but I never could get comfortable with it. I'm sure that some writers can make it work...just not me.

K.C. Shaw said...

If the dialogue's well written, works within the story, and isn't used as a lazy way to avoid establishing setting, characters, mood, voice, etc., I can love it.

Thomas Mason said...

So long as the dialogue is not out of place and is used to set something up, I see no problem with beginning a novel that way. It is often the first paragraph that makes me want to continue reading a book or make me put it down.

Being sick is no fun at all, hope you're back up and kicking soon!

Anonymous said...

I hope you feel better soon. Thank you for your great website. As a long time writer, but neophyte to the 'publishing' concept, the website guides me in more ways that you know.

Take care

Robert Treskillard said...

For commercial fiction at least, I would say dialog would work better if there was something going on at the same time to grab the reader's attention. Something for the characters to talk about that gives a sense of urgency to the setting.

Mark Terry said...

Oh really, just start it with the weather, for God sakes. Preferably: It was a dark and stormy night. And if you don't like that, how about: Once upon a time...

Writer: It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.

Editor: Look, Chuck, this isn't going to work. Which was it, the best or the worst? You can't have it both ways. Why don't you start with some dialogue or something.

Maris Bosquet said...

I'm a loather! (Heh heh...)

I suppose, though, that it really should depend. But there's something about dialogue up front that strikes me as presumptuous and pretentious.

A book's not a movie. I'll read scripts if I want dialogue.

Feel better, Nathan!

Robert Treskillard said...

Oh, and I forgot ... hopefully you're not feeling sick because you read a submission with bad dialogue at the beginning.

Maybe a new strain of dia-flu. Ach! Another dialoge sickness came to mind, but I won't type that one. ;-)

Michelle Moran said...

Feel better!!!

Elyssa Papa said...

I voted depends, too.

Joining you in the feeling under the weather department today. Here's to some chicken noodle soup and sleep.

Gwen said...

Will you share your opinion with us tomorrow, Nathan?

I voted "depends", because it really does depend. On the whole, I am not fond of beginning a book with dialogue; however, there have been a few books which have pleasantly surprised me, and I found that such an approach worked rather well in those situations.

I am not really fond of books that begin with casual, everyday exchanges - like "'Hey,' I said as Ted walked up to me. 'You're late today. What's up?'" I really, really like entering the scene with the characters in the middle of a serious discussion. The world is ending, aliens are invading, the world as we know it may cease to exist... okay, maybe not THAT serious, but something OTHER than "Oh hey, we're at school and I'm beginning the scene with a friendly exchange because I need to show you that I am a friendly person!"

Robena Grant said...

Well, isn't this "in medias res" but taken to the extreme? The problem with starting with dialogue, unless it's truly memorable or shocking, is it requires catch up from the reader.

How are you supposed to be immediately drawn into the story, to feel empathy for the character, when you know nothing about them except for a few lines of dialogue? The opposite end of that conundrum would be info dumping, giving so much back story the reader goes to sleep. So my option would be start in the middle of the action but give us some glimpse of character as well as brief lines of dialogue.

Guess I'm a loather. Hope you feel better soon.

lotusloq said...

I would generally think no dialogue at the beginning, but I voted "depends" because there are ways to make it work, but I think it's much, much more difficult to do, and it is so easy for it to come out cheesy or trite.

I've seen it done to great effect, so I can't say I loathe it for that reason. Are you wishing now that you hadn't given us a third choice?

I hate that you are under the weather. Take it easy and get better soon.

Eric said...

Great. As long as it's a rambling, incoherent slush of exposition and non sequiturs batted madly about between several either clichéd or never clearly-defined characters, speaking free from the shackles of punctuation in at least three different thick and obscure dialects, all phonetically spelled, and going on and on for several pages before inexplicably closing without resolution, never to be heard from again....

Get well.

Andi said...

I'm commenting on all my favorite blogs today to give them notice of Blog Action Day. Tomorrow tons of people will be posting about this years 'global cause' to help raise awareness. This year's theme is Poverty.

Full info & sign up is at - http://blogactionday.org/

R. Battles said...

I like for the first sentence or paragraph to introduce the reader to the protagonist. This can be accomplished either with dialogue or a scene as long as the scene is not a dream or a description of a building or the weather.

RED STICK WRITER said...

Though I now live in Kansas, I still have connections in my home state of Louisiana. Rest assured that chickens are being killed, pins are being stuck in straw dolls, and all manner of gris gris are being rubbed to assure that you return to a copacetic state of being. I voted with the crowd. I think dialog is okay as a start as long as the character is wearing Depends.

Scott said...

If it's good, pulls me in, and is brief, I have no trouble with it.

The problem with beginning with dialog is, of course, that the reader has no clue who these people are. But if written skillfully, it can be a great hook.

One of my favorite books starts out:

***
"TOM!"

No answer.

"TOM!"

No answer.

"What's gone with that boy, I wonder? You TOM!"

No answer.

The old lady pulled her spectacles down and looked over them about the room; then she put them up and looked out under them. She seldom or never looked through them for so small a thing as a boy; they were her state pair, the pride of her heart, and were built for "style," not service -- she could have seen through a pair of stove-lids just as well. She looked perplexed for a moment, and then said, not fiercely, but still loud enough for the furniture to hear:

"Well, I lay if I get hold of you I'll -- "

***
If that opening dialog went on any longer, it wouldn't work. But we discover quickly that Tom is a boy, and is probably in trouble for something (instant hook), and then that the person calling him is an old lady, who the author draws pretty well with a brief description containing action.

Works for me.

(Disclaimer, I realize that using a 100-year-old-plus example has its dangers, but this one still feels modern to me.)

Other Lisa said...

As with most things, it depends.

Feel better, Nathan - hope you can get some rest - rest is even better than chicken soup and vitamin C.

Ben said...

JPod, by Douglas Coupland, is one of my favourite books. It begins like so:
---
"Oh God, I feel like a refugee from a Douglas Coupland novel."

"That asshole."

"Who does he think he is?"

"Come on, guys, focus. We've got a major problem on our hands."
---
Really, when the book starts by insulting its author ... you can't put it down!

If a book begins with dialogue, it has to be good dialogue. But that goes the same for any beginning: it has to pull you in. Beyond that, I don't see what the problem is with using dialogue to do that.

Maris Bosquet said...

Red Stick! I hopped back on here to say pretty much what you said in that last sentence!

Now, who else among us was thinking it but was reluctant to say it???? :)

Jeanne said...

Couldn't think of the last time I read a book that began with dialogue, so I found a list of "One Hundred Best First Lines From Novels" on pantagraph.com

Of my six favorites, some began with dialogue and some didn't. More didn't. So, I guess it depends.

And- get well soon.

Jeanne said...

http://www.pantagraph.com/articles/2006/02/04/news/doc43e3e6b004381080724526.txt

The List was by American Book Review. I checked it out just for fun.

David said...

And the Depends have it!

Er, so to speak.

Yat-Yee said...

You know that as soon as you give a third option that allows writers to explain themselves, it's going to be picked, don't you?

I don't mind dialogue at the beginning as long as I know who's speaking soon. A voice that doesn't belong to a body can be disconcerting.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

I prefer to start my novels with some sort of action. Doesn't matter if that action is talking or something. I enjoy books which start with a general philosphical statement (It was the best of times, etc, suffices). But I suck at that so I fall back on action. It'd be nice if the dialoge had something to do with the overall theme/plot of the book, too, not just the inciting incident, but we can't have it all.

I'm not hung up on first lines, either. I always give books a longer leash than that.

clindsay said...

I signed Kelly Gay because the first page of her urban fantasy opened with clever dialogue. I was instantly hooked.

I love opening dialogue when it's done well.

Chris said...

Depends for me as well. It would seem to be a good way to plunge into a story. Catch them fast or lose them.

Charice said...

Depends. Too melodramatic usually turns me off.

Mary Keenan said...

I voted for, but it's got to be 'show' dialogue rather than the 'tell' variety.

RED STICK WRITER said...

Maris, your profile says your "nom be blog" consists of a combination of the Latin and French forms of the words that make up the name of your hometown. Red Stick Writer refers to my hometown, Baton Rouge. Of course, in its original French, it comes out Stick Red, but we forgive them since they invented pomme frites (French (AKA American)) fries.

The Depends thing reminds me of the Mardi Gras Krewe of Tuck. Friar Tuck's is a bar near Tulane and Loyola in New Orleans. The Tuck parade started as a lark by college students but grew into a full-fledged krewe and parade. Members of the famous African-American Zulu krewe throw coconuts from their parade floats. Tuck members through Tuck's hemorrhoid pads along with their dubloons and beads. Needless to say, Zulu has to pay bigger insurance premiums.

Marie said...

Let's hope colds aren't contagious through the internet. I woke up with a scratchy voice, a sore throat and a cough. I hope you're feeling better soon.

I like a little bit of description (but not a page or two of it) before a conversation begins. I don't like entering the middle of a conversation, whether in real life or in a book.

abc said...

I cringe. It feels overdone. But I could easily be swayed to get behind the book soon enough if the story is good. I'm mostly there for the escape anyway. If Michael Connelly wants to starts with dialogue then I'll go with it.

It reminds me of beginning a movie with one of the characters giving a lecture (class, conference, whatever) on something that ties into the story. Ugh.

Sara Merrick said...

Thanks, Scott -- I was having a hard time remembering a book that starts with dialogue. The opening has to draw me in, whether it's dialogue, action, setting, it has to be compelling writing. Feel better, Nathan.

Just_Me said...

It all depends on the skill of the author and how the DL affects the story.

The Screaming Guppy said...

While action from the start has its merits, I can't say I'm against a well written opening with dialogue at the head.

Get well soon. :)

Suzan Harden said...

It doesn't matter how a book starts. It just needs to be freaking interesting.

And thanks, Scott, for naming one of my all-time favorite books that starts with dialogue.

Marilyn Peake said...

I voted for Depends. (No, not that kind of Depends.) I think the dialogue has to be really strong to pull in the reader, though. I love when the setting or a character is vividly described first, but I also enjoy reading great novels that start with dialogue. I’m reading Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card right now. I was pulled in from the very first sentence, and it starts with dialogue.

Hope you feel better soon, Nathan.

cc said...

I vote for Loathe. How can you care who is saying what when you don't know who they are?


(Hope you feel better, Nathan.)

Steve Axelrod said...

Iris Murdoch did it all the time. Check out the insane shouting match -- culminating with an awful car crash -- that gets The Philosopher's Pupil off to a spectacular start.

Christine said...

I seem to have done it with the first three books in my series. Didn't plan it that way, but now that it's become a pattern, I think I'll try to come up with clever ways to do it for the remaining two books. My first two books, not in the current series, began with narrative. I'm flexible, as long as it works.

However, in each case the dialogue I used was extrememly short and provocative, thereby drawing the reader in immediately. (the first line of Book Two is "Ow".) By beginning in the middle of an argument, for example, it's dialogue AND action, after a fashion.

I don't go in for long descriptive passages that go nowhere as beginnings, but well-done, either dialogue or narrative is fine.

Not The Rockefellers said...

"Is it starve a cold and feed a fever or the other way around?", Nathan wondered aloud.

Get Well Soon!

Peace - Rene

Kimber An said...

I voted 'Depends' and I'm not talking about the undergarments. I think the story should start the instant the primary protagonist takes the first step which propels her or him towards the inevitable conclusion. Sometimes that involves dialogue and sometimes not. Sometimes it's easy to find that instant. Most of the time, at least for me, it takes a lot of work!

Pamala Knight said...

I voted 'depends' because I would want to give the book a chance to hook me by whatever means necessary. I certainly wouldn't stop reading simply because the book opened with dialogue.

Sue said...

I'm really good at writing witty dialogue so if I'm writing it yes. Now OTHER people? WHOLE DIFFERENT STORY.

(Yes, I'm kidding.)

John Quirk said...

We were talking about this last week on a forum I hang around, and the general consensus - including from the resident agent and publisher - is that dialogue to open a novel is a big no-no (albeit with the caveat that knockout dialogue can always sway them...)

The general train of thought is that you can't open up with someone saying something because the reader has no immediate affinity to the particular character, so there's no hook.

My own view is that, as a reader and writer, I don't mind - sometimes it does work, sometimes it stinks.

Will be interested to hear Nathan's thoughts.

acpaul said...

By now I bet Nathan wishes he'd titled that category something other than 'Depends'.
I'm also Depending. I won't not read a book because it opens with dialogue. If the book's good, it's good. If it's not, the dialogue is irrelevant anyhow.

John Quirk said...

Meant to add that, while as writers (and readers) we might not care either way, agents/publishers apparently do have preferences, so it would be wise to bear this in mind when querying.

Maris Bosquet said...

:) Gaaa...From Depends to Tucks!

Nathan, have you considered eliminating the "depends" choice in your polls?

Hold on, did I just say "eliminating...?"

(Have I been working too long on that Baby Boar kids' book?)

ebbye said...

I think it really depends on what the novel is about. I generally don't like reading books which start with dialogue because I find the book annoying, but if it is good and it takes readers in and the dialogue is relevant then I'll love it. I'm not a writer so I am assuming that this is a hard way to write a book.

Nikki Duncan said...

It depends on what's being said, how long it lasts, and if it's the best way to introduce the story and or characters.

I've started my books both ways. Sometimes the action is the best way to jump in, sometimes dialog.

Feel better.

Anonymous said...

Mostly it doesn't work - who are these people and why should I care what they're saying? But War & Peace begins with dialogue, so ... I voted "it depends." Because it does.

Marti said...

I'm thinking "Depends" on how good the writing and overall story is.

Sending virtual chicken soup and healing thoughts your way, Nathan!

Jessica Burkhart said...

It SO depends on the book. Feel better!

Bethanne said...

I do love dialogue...and voted for it. Unfortunately, my own wip doesn't start with dialogue, but I think it's still doing okay. :)

Maybe I should have voted for depends....

Thomma Lyn said...

Definitely depends. I'm fine with it if the dialogue throws out tasty teasers of story and of intriguing characters.

I'm sorry to hear you're sick. I hope you're feeling better soon!

Lynne said...

Depends on whether it works. Hope you feel better soon.

dernjg said...

Probably should have gone with depends. But when done right, like the opening to Fletch, I love it.

K.S. Clay said...

It depends on the story and the author. Just out of curiosity I glanced at the first pages of some of my favorite novels. I found two that started with dialogue and which I remember drawing me in from the start: Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card which begins with two people discussing the child we'll later meet as Ender, and Stephen King's The Stand which begins with a line of dialogue as a man yells at his wife to wake up because they have to get out of the house. I'd say it's like anything else and can either be done well or can be done badly.

Kait Nolan said...

I think that any sort of convention for beginnings can be done well or badly. I've always been told to start with action. Drop the reader in the middle of something. If that's a conversation then that opening line of dialogue should do something to orient the reader immediately to the who, what, where, or why. Or at least make the reader want to know who the heck is speaking and find out more. I find in my own work I rarely start with dialogue. As I write romantic suspense, I often start with either the villain or the finding of a body.

Brian F. said...

While I haven't read all the comments, the overwhelming majority seems to be, "Depends on if it's done well."

May I ask: what constitutes opening dialogue that's done well? Is it like art--you know it when you see it?

I land on the "loathe" side because I so rarely see it done well.

Dave F. said...

Well that was a definate choice of "maybe"...

I like dialog.

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

Get thee some chicken soup.

Adaora A. said...

Aww feel better.
I voted for 'depends.' I believe it was you who said "if it works, it works," and I honestly think this is right. People should just go with the flow. Everything works itself out.

Scott said...

It'd better be good, which doesn't necessarily mean lengthy or particularly rich. But like a scream that kicks off a great rock tune, too often it can just be going to the well for lack of a better idea.

Feel better, man.

Ulysses said...

This time, I blame the lateness of the hour EST...

"Is it a good idea to start with dialogue?"
"What kind of a question is that?"
"Well, I'm just wondering. I mean, time and place and those kind of situational details are important."
"Of course they're important. But so's voice. Mine, yours, his."
"His? He's got a say in this?"
"Sheesh. Of course. You should close your mouth. Every time you open it, your inner idiot escapes."
"Oh, brilliant. At least I don't believe someone else is doing my thinking for me."
"It'd be nice if someone did. Now back up and get your elbow off the keyboard, will you?"
"Sorry."
"Look. A page and a half of capital h's."
"And still better than the drivel you pass off as starting dialogue."

Furious D said...

Considering I've done it myself, I will say that it depends upon the book in question.

In fact, I wrote an entire novel, whose premise was founded on an opening line of dialogue, that piece being the only thing I had before I started writing.

Polenth said...

I said depends. My biggest gripe with dialogue openings is when the book refuses to say who's talking. That can be done through the dialogue... it doesn't always need tags. But I'm not going to read for long if the whole start is:

"I don't want to."
"Why not?"
"Because it's bad."
"Well, I disagree."

It doesn't tell me anything about the characters or what's going on. This is something I've seen more in short stories. People think they're being mysterious, but they're not. And if I ever write a story like that, feel free to slap me.

The Crystal Faerie said...

As everyone else has said, I hope you get better soon.


Dialogue as a beginning...hm...
I suppose it depends. As a writer, I enjoy throwing a reader into a story and having them say "what the hell" and keep reading, but not keeping them clueless for very long. As a reader, I find that far too often, a book will begin with dialogue adn not give me what was going on until the last page...and it ends up being really lame.

And the dialogue has to be interesting. Not "Hi there, Fred, what are you doing here?" or "hey kiddo, how was school?"

No, I need something like
"Mr. President, we need you to evacuate immediately." or even better.

more typically, I like being thrown into the descriptions of action. Like, someone running away or someone hiding from something. But it's gotta be REALLY good.

I'm a really picky reader.

Jeanie W said...

I did a quick check of the bookshelf by my desk and found 7 novels that open with dialogue:

BIG RED TEQUILA by Rick Riordan
RAMONA AND HER MOTHER by Beverly Cleary
NUMBER THE STARS by Lois Lowry
THE WIZARD'S MAP by Jane Yolen
RULES by Cynthia Lord
CHARLOTTE'S WEB by E.B. White
TOM SAWYER by Mark Twain

Lowry's book won a Newbery; Lord's and White's are Newbery Honor books; Riordan's was a best-seller; and Jane Yolen follows this blog.

It seems that dialogue openers work for some novels. My favorite opener is from CHARLOTTE'S WEB:

"Where's Papa going with that ax?"

Erik Hedstrom said...

Unnervingly I have nothing to say... so I'll quote someone else...

"There are no laws for the novel. There never have been, nor can there ever be."
-Doris Lessing

JohnO said...

I'll bet a good writer could pull it off. But if you write visually, you're having someone speak

- without knowing gender
- without knowing setting
- without knowing who s/he is talking to, etc.

So I think it's prolly a bad idea.

But Nathan, here's my You Tell Me: Are you wrestling with someone's partial who started a book that way?

Vera Ezimora said...

I think it definitely depends. Good dialogues are great. Writers like Dean Koontz & Eric Jerome Dickey always have great dialogue that just make you read & read. Bad dialogue however - - - well, it should be illegal.

Vancouver Dame said...

Having dialogue at the beginning of a novel can provide a hook, if that dialogue is interesting enough and not too long. It can be a useful device for bringing the reader into the story, and providing insight into the characters who are having the dialogue. Depending on the type of story (which is important), I like having my interest piqued right away, rather than having to wade through ten pages of narrative. Dialogue brings the characters to life, if they are given enough breath. Then, we can zoom back from that dialogue and take a wide angle look at the setting, etc. The dialogue must be important to have such a prime place in the story. Get well soon, Nathan, your blog is fun to read. (Very informative too)

AmyB said...

I voted "Depends." What I don't like about a dialogue opening is I can't visualize it. Such an opening usually gives me no setting clues, whereas a narrative opening often does. But that's not to say that a dialogue opening can't work if it's done well. And really, most novels openings are disorienting to some degree. I have to absorb a fair bit of information before I can get that little movie going in my head.

Steppe said...

Never thought it over.
Maybe very short to kick off the setup

"We'll never make it."
"I'm going to die trying."
"Don't leave me behind."

Then kick into the set up with out knowing
the fourth line. Maybe the determined one ditches the desperate one maybe the desperate one latches ounto a second wind or a little courage.

I think dialogue could be a pretty clever opener if it's kept short and bitter sweet.

Get well soon.

Kristin Laughtin said...

I'm not a fan of generalizations or always/never type statements, so I'm in the "depends" category as well. I generally don't like books that open with casual dialogue (Hi Sally! How are you today?), and I don't think I've ever started a story with any form of dialogue, but many books have begun with it, and begun well. Overall, though, I tend to prefer non-dialogue openings.

Anonymous said...

“How do you expect to get away with it?” she asked, one blond eybrow arching skeptically.

“It depends,” he answered, pushing the dark curls of his unshorn hair from his eyes.

He was leaning over the table, chopping crystals of cocaine carefully and thoroughly with a one edged razor blade.

“It’s easy enough to do if you are willing to sacrifice yourself, but...”

“But then you don’t get away with it,” she concluded.

“That would seem the case...” his voice dropped off as he considered the matter.

She eyed him unmercifully, unwilling to give ground.

He ignored her stare, concentrating on reducing the crystals to a fine powder, but she knew what he was thinking.

“Why don’t you just forget it, live happily ever after?”

“Can’t.”

“A matter of honor?”

“A matter of Honor, capital H.”

“Men!”

“I belong to that organization, yes.”

He took a plastic pen from his pocket and disassembling it, used the hollow tube to siphon the white gleaming powder off the antique walnut table that now bore the marks of his enterprise. He was not normally a user, but he had already been awake for seventy-two hours and he knew it would be at least another ten or twelve before he had a chance for sleep... Be generous, he thought, twelve hours, do or die. The coke might be just the bump his exhausted body needed. Or not. On the other hand, its previous owner certainly didn’t need it anymore. That is to say, the dead body lying at his feet hadn’t objected yet.

Alphabeter said...

Would Fed-Ex'ing you soup count as a reading fee?

(He read this!)

JES said...

This seems of a piece with the question, "How do we feel about novels that begin with one-sentence paragraphs?" or "...with a prologue?" etc.

My opinion is "it depends." The most important piece of a novel is always the next piece.

Vieva said...

I like books that jump right in. Sometimes that's dialogue.

That said, it's a lot easier to do poorly than well.

Elise said...

How timely! My Non-Fic writing class last night discussed this topic at length...due to my essay that started with dialogue. Arghh. OUr concensus was to NOT do it. The teacher flipped through the Best Essays 2007 and couldn't find one that started with dialogue in the first ten or so. Oh well. If it can be done well, that I say go for it. I just need to make mine better than it was.
The joys of writing and debating!
Thanks for the excellent question, Nathan!

Joseph Lewis said...

Love it.

Good dialog launches into the middle of the action, people expressing their feelings, thoughts, or problems, which is much better than the weather, the setting, or a catalog of the character's physical characteristics.

And obviously, "good" dialog, like "good" prose, is better than "bad."

Feel better soon!

Ryan Field said...

I voted it depends because every now and then you find one that works. But typically I don't like it. And I probably wouldn't do it either.

Stacey said...

I also voted depends, because for me, it is the overall story that matters to me. Honestly I can pull through a bad beginning if I think the story in the end is worth it. I'm reading one of those right now, and I sure am glad I kept reading, cause the story is getting good.

Feel better Nathan! I'd bring you some soup...but we all know how showing up at your office works out. ;)

Carolyn said...

I've always heard a novel should never start with dialog, but I've never heard why. Probably because unless the author has a firm grasp of craft, that dialogue hangs out there without context.

That said, a skilled author can pull it off, no question.

That's why it depends -- on skill.

RachelB said...

The first line of a book/article/essay should catch your attention. At least, I was always taught that in school. You only have one chance to make a first impression. The first few lines of a book are pretty important. I think beginning a book with dialogue is fine as long as it catches my attention and actually has something to do with the rest of the book.

Kate H said...

"Loathe" is a strong word for the way I feel about books that begin with dialogue. Let's just say I can't remember a single well-loved book that began that way. What draws me in most is a lyrical beginning, or failing that, some kind of introduction to the novel's world. I don't want to listen to the characters talk until I know something about them.

Scott said...

I went with "depends". For example, the opening is "My life is total hell!" I'd definitely keep reading to find out why. Now, if the dialogue started with "Don't you think this dress is cute?" Well, I'd probably put the book back on the shelf at the local bookstore and begin searching for something else.

I'm also one of those who hates total identification of a character in the first paragraph. As in real life, when you first meet someone, you don't really know that person. Over time, you get to know them. I like to do the same with the characters in a book. Give me some sketchy information in the first few paragraphs, and give me the rest of the info as the book progresses. I know, those comments were semi-off topic . . .

Moth said...

Depends. If the dialogue is good it's fine.

I do hate the "And that's why I shot my husband."

Or "Don't kill me." etc.

Hook-y, gimmicky stuff that's not really part of the story.

RED STICK WRITER said...

Let's assume none of us has ever heard of Abraham Lincoln or any of his utterings or writings. Would you stop reading if a book started with the Gettysburg Address?

Eileen Wiedbrauk / Speak Coffee said...

RED STICK WRITER said...
Let's assume none of us has ever heard of Abraham Lincoln or any of his utterings or writings. Would you stop reading if a book started with the Gettysburg Address?


YES.

Worse than dialog that's BAD is dialog where the reader has no idea who is speaking or why on earth the reader should care about what's being spoken.

FIRST get me to care, then talk to me.

Rick said...

"I've watched through his eyes, I've listened through his ears, and I tell you he's the one."

"Who is John Galt?"

These are a couple of well read books that begin with dialogue.

I voted (x)depends.

Nevertheless, starting a book with dialogue brings the reader directly into the action, and avoids the often dragged out description of the scene or people that can cause one to become automatically disinterested in continuing the reading the story.

Mary said...

I voted “Depends”. But my general preference is against a novel opening with dialogue. No matter how minimal, I like to know who, what, where. Otherwise, reading the dialogue can feel like eavesdropping.

Hope you feel better, soon.

Linnea said...

If dialogue sets the scene and orients me then it works just fine. If it's simply used for shock value and a cheap hook that has no real bearing on what follows, I probably won't read the book.

Beth said...

Mostly I loathe it, because it mostly it's done badly, which means it's contextless and therefore meaningless and boring.

I have seen a few rare and striking exceptions, though.

Angie said...

I think it can work very well, but as with anything else, a bad writer can mess it up completely. It's a useful technique, though, and can get the reader right into the middle of the goings-on and start showing them who the characters are and what they're into, more quickly and easily than a paragraph of description.

Angie

AnarchyJack said...

"You wanna see nuts?" he bellowed, his eyes bulging. "Oh, I'll show you nuts."

As a hook, dialogue can be just as effective as narrative. But like anything else, you can screw it up, too. No one thought that writing in second person was such a good idea until Chuck Palahniuk did it--and very effectively. But unless you're the Hitchcock of your genre, I wouldn't make a habit out of it either. After a while, it would become stale and predictable.

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