Nathan Bransford, Author


Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Page Critique: The danger of starting with dialogue


If you would like to nominate your page for a future Page Critique Event, please enter it in this thread in the Forums. Also, I'm offering personal consultations and edits if you're interested in that.

First I'll present the page without comment, then I'll offer my thoughts and a redline. If you choose to offer up your own thoughts, please be exceedingly polite and remember the sandwich rule: Positive, constructive advice, positive.

Random numbers were generated, and thanks to ria, whose page is below:
“We have damned the world,” Adriel said. 
“Come again,” Zachery said. 
They stopped at the pond, where Zachery fished some crumbs from his pocket and tossed them towards the ducks. Overhead, the shops and homes of the upper city clung to the walls of Drieh’s three lofty towers. A few rays of morning sunshine dove through chinks between the buildings only to flounder in the gossamer fog among the trees. 
“I’ve felt ripples of energy,” Adriel said. “Here on Altara. And in the netherial. I picked it up a few months ago, and it gets worse every few weeks.” 
He hadn’t felt anything of the sort, and his work relied on the netherial. “And what does this have to do with us damning Altara?” 
“I traced its energy signature back as far as I could and it originates with the Calamity. Something we did back then is building up to... something.” 
He let crumbs fall from his fingers onto the water’s surface. “This makes no sense, Adriel. No one else has felt anything. What you’ve described is impossible.” 
“I only brought this up because I thought you’d care. And I thought you might have felt something in your portals.” 
Zachery looked across the pond. A portal rose between the trees at the far end of the park, two slender pillars of dark rock curving toward each other with an arch of pure magic suspended between them. Anchor and focus, two simple elements that made up one of the most complex constructs on Altara.
There is some great writing here. This: "A few rays of morning sunshine dove through chinks between the buildings only to flounder in the gossamer fog among the trees" is just an awesome and evocative sentence. And the slender pillars of dark rock are also intriguing and mysterious.

I'm afraid I'm a little less sanguine about the dialogue. Here's the challenge of beginning with two people talking to each other: the reader has zero context to understand what they're talking about. They don't know who the characters are, they don't know what world they're in, they probably don't understand the references the characters are making to each other. 

It's sort of like attending a dinner party where everyone makes veiled references so you can't understand what they're really talking about. 

It's not impossible to begin with dialogue, but even if it starts that way it's extremely important to focus on making sure the reader feels very grounded in the story.

With a little more patience and anchoring the story, the dialogue will come alive. 

Here's my redline:
“We have damned the world,” Adriel said. 
“Come again,” Zachery said. 
They Adriel and Zachary stopped at the pond, where Zachery fished some crumbs from his pocket and tossed them towards the ducks. Overhead, the shops and homes of the upper city clung to the walls of Drieh’s three lofty towers. A few rays of morning sunshine dove through chinks between the buildings only to flounder in the gossamer fog among the trees. 
“I’ve felt ripples of energy,” Adriel said. “Here on Altara. And in the netherial. I picked it up a few months ago, and it gets worse every few weeks.” 
He Zachary hadn’t felt anything of the sort, and his work relied on the netherial. [More here on what Zachary is thinking about what Adriel just said in order to help give the reader context, as well as what the netherial is.]  “And what does this have to do with us damning Altara?” “I traced its energy signature back as far as I could and it originates with the Calamity. Something we did back then is building up to... something.”  He let crumbs fall from his fingers onto the water’s surface. 
“This makes no sense, Adriel. No one else has felt anything. What you’ve described is impossible.” 
“I only brought this up because I thought you’d care. And I thought you might have felt something in your portals.” 
Zachery looked across the pond. A portal rose between the trees at the far end of the park, two slender pillars of dark rock curving toward each other with an arch of pure magic suspended between them. Anchor and focus, two simple elements that made up one of the most complex constructs on Altara.
Thanks again, ria!

Art: Reinier Vinkeles by Charles Howard Hodges






10 comments:

Jaimie Teekell said...

You can tell s/he can write. Keep up the good work, ria!

As for the topic of the post, I am quite over this phase of confusing the reader to create interest. "Oh, what's going on here?" is the last question I want to be asking when reading anything. I'm kind of on this phase where you just fucking lay out the scenario in the first sentence and have the prevailing question in the reader's mind be, "So how does that work out?"

I've been obsessing over George Saunders lately. His opening sentence for his short story ADAMS: "I never could stomach Adams and then one day he’s standing in my kitchen, in his underwear." We have our narrator, we know how he feels about the other character, and we have an inciting incident. Away we go.

ProfeJMarie (Janet Rundquist) said...

I think opening with these 2 lines of dialogue actually can work if the follow up paragraphs change to give the context. I enjoy opening with action in the form of dialogue, but usually the very next paragraph gives the protagonist's thoughts/reactions to ground us.

What I would suggest if replacing the descriptive paragraph with true descriptive setting. Give us a time/place or something to understand the next bits of dialogue. Then with the paragraph about the portals, be specific. Beautiful imagery and wording is great when I'm not trying to figure out what, exactly, is going on.

And it IS good imagery. I'd like to see it support clarity in this opening page.

John "Ol' Chumbucket" Baur said...

The question the reader should be asking is, "And then what happens?" Not, "Huh?"

Dotti said...

I love books that open with dialogue.

G. B. Miller said...

I have no problem with dialogue opening a book (my last one did exactly just that, with a phone conversation) so long as the intent of the story is made clear within the first few sentences.

I agree that the way it stands tells me absolutely nothing about the plot.

Father Nature's Corner

Stacy Couch said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Stacy Couch said...

Some truly gorgeous writing. I completely understand the need for a hook, and it was a good one. But I'm glad we don't have to have one, at least not right away.

And I love how the re-write weaves backstory with the present. I do miss the mention of the Calamity, though. Perhaps:



Zachary hadn’t felt anything of the sort, and his work relied on the netherial. [More here on what Zachary is thinking about what Adriel just said in order to help give the reader context, as well as what the netherial is.] He let crumbs fall from his fingers onto the water’s surface.

“This makes no sense, Adriel. No one else has felt anything. What you’ve described is impossible.”

“I traced an energy signature back as far as I could and it originates with the Calamity. Have you felt anything in your portals?”

Zachery looked across the pond. A portal rose between the trees at the far end of the park, two slender pillars of dark rock curving toward each other with an arch of pure magic suspended between them. Anchor and focus, two simple elements that made up one of the most complex constructs on Altara.


Intriguing story, ria. It will make a great read.

Brian Tarbox said...

You summed up why I'm less enthralled with David Brin's latest work. I love most of his books and he always wrote with a huge backstory looming large and mostly never explained. That was fine until his latest work where the backstory was so large and so not explained that I gave up.

adan said...

Nathan, I had a question re "More here on what Zachary is thinking about what Adriel just said in order to help give the reader context, as well as what the netherial is." -

Your critique has reminded me of a complex question that still bothers me at times.

For example, I like the idea of hearing some of the character's thoughts, Zachary's in this case. But if so, does he then need to be the "main" character in this chapter, to avoid head hopping? Or is this something different all together?

Sometimes I read two character's thoughts being conveyed in one chapter, and it seems fine to me, ie, meaning it depends on the work, not a rule.

Or am I being too slippery with convention?

Thanks so much, both to you Nathan, and to ria.

Corrie said...

S/he can really write and I want to know more/continue reading after this excerpt. Really well done.

I think this line of dialogue: “This makes no sense, Adriel. No one else has felt anything. What you’ve described is impossible.” would actually work for the beginning because it raises key story questions in the reader's mind.

Agree that there is some gorgeous imagery here. Love the sentences that Nathan called out especially.

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