Saturday, June 18, 2011

Can you begin with dialogue?

The other day on the Absolute Write forum, I ran across a discussion asking whether it's okay to open a story with dialogue.

Let me say this first: most things in writing can be done. Some will say the real question is whether they can be done well, but I'm going to disagree with that. The question for me is what exactly one accomplishes by starting with a line of dialogue. Not whether you can do it, but what you are accomplishing by doing it.

When I'm opening a story or a chapter or a scene, I'll often think of a line of dialogue first. By the time I'm finished, though, it seldom ends up at the front. Most of the time I'm trying to make sure that my opening is doing a few things: establishing the voice and psychology of the point of view character, anchoring readers in the conflict that's going on, and making them curious. I like to provide grounding information which allows readers to put their feet down (so to speak) so they can then follow me through the rest of the piece. It's possible to put some grounding information in a line of dialogue, but too much will make the dialogue itself seem stilted and odd.

When your story opens with a line of dialogue, what you're really doing is letting your reader listen to someone speaking. You may or may not, at the same time, be indicating who that person is. It's enticing as an opener because it does usually make people curious (depending, of course, on what is being said). If the dialogue continues without other elements of narrative, however, a sense of disorientation will persist.

This is not necessarily a problem. However, you will have to ask yourself: do I want readers to be disoriented?

You might. If you're having a character waking up from a state of unconsciousness, or someone in a state of confusion without a clear sense of physical orientation, it might work. Alternately, if you're letting the reader eavesdrop on nefarious yet unidentifiable bad guys, it might be a good idea. Clearly, there are workable scenarios.

The book Ender's Game opens with a lengthy conversation between two people, and it works very well. It's effective in part because the dialogue is not delivered by the protagonist, but is speaking about the protagonist. If the author had chosen to ground the two speakers in a physical location, the immediate assumption would be that they were the protagonists; clearly they are not. The way the opening dialogue is handled opens both curiosity and the main conflict (the secret controllers of Ender's life) while keeping the focus of the story where it needs to be - on Ender. It's like those movies where they give you a sense that someone is being watched by picking particular camera angles.

It's also possible to begin with a single line of dialogue (maybe two?) and then follow it with orientation information. If the curiosity established by the opening sentence is sufficient, grounding can be provided in the second or third sentence.

As always, you have to assess these things as you go, on the basis of what you're trying to accomplish. I hope these thoughts help clarify some of the variables involved in making the decision whether to open a story, scene, or chapter with dialogue.


  1. Interesting. Dialogue is a great way of setting the mood/relationship between characters but a tricky way opening a story, specially in media res.

  2. You make a good point about making sure to ground the reader. Lengthy dialogue confuses me especially when a lot of names are thrown around. Great post.

  3. Excellent post. I actually recently went through part of this thought process, since I was starting a new piece and the first thing that came to mind was a line of dialogue. I remembered that a lot of people dislike that, though, and tried to come up with a different way to open the scene. I'm much happier with the new opening I came up with. I hadn't thought of it, but grounding is the best way to describe it.

  4. Thanks for the comment, ralfast!

    E. Arroyo, grounding is big for me, especially since a lot of my worlds and protagonists are challenging. I'm glad you liked the post.

    Clare, I'm glad you worked the opening out to your satisfaction. Thanks for the comment!

  5. Glad you included chapter beginnings in your post. Doing a critique yesterday, I noticed how jarring it was when the writer started a chapter with dialogue and there had been a jump in time, location, and characters from the last chapter. The grounding information I needed to understand the dialogue came two paragraphs too late. It was more frustrating than intriguing. Good post. - Ann

  6. I have one story that opens with a line of dialog, but it's brief. The speaker was calling the protag names based on her looks, and she reacts almost as briefly, then makes a choice. This leads right into the opening conflict and also suggests past conflicts because of her appearance. The dialog and react/act moments also give the beginning clues of genre, world, and voice.

  7. Thanks for commenting, Ann. I find that a lot of things that are true about larger story units are also true about smaller ones.

    Jaleh, it is certainly possible to provide a lot of information in dialogue (or internalization, as I often do). Not always enough with the dialogue alone, however, and stuffing dialogue with information doesn't always have good results. Thanks for the comment!

  8. I'm just about to start the first draft of a brand new story - with dialogue. It grounds the reader, and sets up part of the conflict.
    A paragraph or two further along, I show how this world differs markedly from our own. At least, that's the plan.
    A little further along, I raise the stakes in this conflict.
    Must get writing...

  9. Many of Robert Heinlein's short stories began with dialog, at least a sentence or two.

    BTW, Korean taxi drivers are no longer of interest to you? :)

  10. JDsg, thanks for the comment. I'm interested in Korean taxi drivers, of course... did you ever email me a piece? I think that would be ideal from my point of view. Thanks for reminding me.