Creative Writing Reflection: Why my first lines aren’t dialogue

Can starting with dialogue GLUE your readers to your novel?

Can starting with dialogue GLUE your readers to your novel?

Yesterday we started a discussion about writing the first line to a novel: what makes a first line intriguing enough to draw a reader in? Today I thought it could be fun to discuss dialogue as a first line.

I, personally, don’t like to start my novels with a piece of dialogue, but that doesn’t mean starting with dialogue is a cardinal sin of writing.

Dialogue or not, it’s hard to put “labels” on what to do or what not to do with a first line because the content of the line has to work  with the structure of the sentence. So you can’t just say, “have action in the content” or “write a short, simple sentence” and know that the sentence you write will be a good one to start you off.

On top of that, every author wants that first line to do something specific: set the scene, raise a specific question, create a startling image…. Each aim will lend itself to a different kind of sentence and emphasize different aspects of language.

I’ve heard some people say, “Never use dialogue as a first line.” “Using dialogue to start is cheap and overdone.”

I don’t like prescriptive statements like that. Depending on the author and the novel–and what the dialogue is saying and accomplishing–dialogue can work as a first line as well as any other kind of sentence.

WHY I DON’T USE DIALOGUE MIGHT BE WHY YOU SHOULD

While I like my first sentences to engage my readers and raise their curiosity, I want them to feel grounded from the start.

I like my first sentences to be clear and simple, even if they raise questions about the circumstances behind them.

I feel that dialogue, as a general rule, cannot be clear cut enough for me as a first sentence. It gives a reader no way  to get his or her footing firmly in the story. The reader cannot know all the following when dialogue starts a novel:

  • Who is speaking (name)?
  • Who is this person? What does he or she look like? What’s his or her age?
  • What does the person’s voice sound like?
  • What is he or she saying?

That’s not to say you automatically are grounded with a narrative first sentence. Nor is it to say that a reader needs a full history of a character before that person speaks for the first time.

Still, when dialogue starts a novel, I find myself wondering who the heck is talking and I throw less attention on what I should be focusing on: what this unknown person is saying.

Even if I don’t get a full description of a character before dialogue comes, if I have some kind of narration I feel more comfortable and more settled. But that’s just me.

There are instances when starting with dialogue can make real sense. For instance:

  • Sometimes a sense of confusion–a mood of mystique–really fits a novel. The characters might be in over their heads and feel unsettled, and putting the reader in a similar situation by starting the novel with a piece of dialogue makes sense.
  • Maybe your novel is a series novel and readers will be familiar with the speaker and his or her background.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with starting a novel with dialogue. But I think it’s a choice a writer should make deliberately and for a purpose.

In some ways, dialogue is easier to write than narration. Writing a first sentence as narration can feel such a heavy task that a writer might be tempted to start with dialogue just because it relieves that tension of crafting the “great” first narrative sentence.

I wouldn’t consider that a good reason to start with dialogue. But there can be good reasons.

So, what do you think? Some of you guys yesterday posted your first lines, and a few were lines of dialogue: if that’s you, why did you start your novel with dialogue? If you don’t start with dialogue, what are your thoughts on novels that do?

If dialogue is a timely topic for you, you can find more posts about dialogue here.

And don’t forget that my writer’s handbook is still on sale at its introductory price of $2.99. Learn more about “Writing for You: A Novelist’s Guide to the Craft of Fiction.”

 

 

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31 responses to “Creative Writing Reflection: Why my first lines aren’t dialogue

  1. I am not opposed to stories that begin with dialogue depending upon the circumstances of what is going on in the first chapter. Like you said, there can be situations where it makes sense.
    In one of my other works, I debated on using dialogue as the opening line because the character is facing a critical decision in his life and he is discussing this decision with himself/in his mind as the story begins. His decision affects the entire rest of the story. So I considered it might make sense to have the reader step right into this character’s frame of mind and the decision he is facing.

    • That’s makes sense to me too, JC. Thanks for the example: I feel the reader might benefit from being thrown into the character’s sense of unease, helplessness, and doubt in that situation, definitely.

  2. Excellent post, this really has a lot of good points. I’d honestly never considered the different points of opening with dialogue or not. I suppose I’m with you though, that it seems a little… well, just not as strong an opening as you could hope for. I like how Hemingway starts out his novels. Simple, honest, plain. Just let’s you know right where to begin. My novel starts out with an action sentence, but it’s still pretty plain. Thanks for sharing

  3. This got mentioned in a recent Writing Excuses podcast, where they developed the reasoning for not starting with dialogue a little further. If you start with dialogue you haven’t given the reader anything to help them picture the character/situation, as you said. The reader will still start picturing some aspects of the character/situation, and when the description doesn’t match this it’ll jolt them out of the flow of the story. It might only be in quite a small way, but it’s still not helping them get into your writing.

    I’m still pondering how much of an issue this is, but it certainly sounds convincing.

    • Love how you break that down, because those are the same things I was taught in class. It hard to start effectively with dialogue.

      Also, unless it’s particularly wonderfully crafted, I think dialogue to open is less memorable than narration. I will always remember “Mr. Vernon Dursley of Number 4, Privet Drive, was proud to say that he was perfectly normal, thank you very much.”

      Harry Potter’s opening would not be nearly as gleefully sarcastic and wonderful if you had Uncle Vernon saying something to that effect himself.

  4. This is really helpful, thank you. I’d probably pay someone lots of money to write my first line / paragraph! The more I think about it and rework it, the worse it gets. I’ve thought about deleting the whole first chapter but then chapter two wouldn’t make sense… Off to buy your book!

  5. The D word! Sends shivers down my spine! :)

  6. I agree that dialogue as a first line can be okay despite the advice I’ve also read elsewhere recommending it not be done. Dialogue as the first line can be especially effective if the spoken words convey the character of the speaker, so that the reader doesn’t need a preceding description of the character to get the correct feel for who is speaking. I’ve seen it done, but I’m not good at it, so I won’t try to give an example. Still, if I ever thought a story I’m writing would be best served with dialogue as the first line, I wouldn’t hesitate to do it.

    • No writer should ever hesitate to break any “RULE” if they understand that doing so best serves the story. I think rules are “rules” so to speak because most of the time they keep things clean and readable for most people, but every story is different and the rules don’t always make sense for a particular project.

      I totally agree with the first line as dialogue for characterization. That totally can work. Someone complaining, or someone showing faith in something, or doubt, or anger…. that can definitely be powerful.

  7. I never would have thought of those reasons, but great ideas here! Personally, I’ve used dialogue as the first line, but never in a printed work. Mostly just with stories that I’ve written. When I’ve read books with dialogue as the first line, I’ve never really noticed a starting difference. i might now, though :)

    • Great point that most readers really just don’t notice this kind of thing. I never used to and I don’t think it’s a huge major deal or anything. I think a creative writing teacher really taught me the “dangers” of starting with dialogue. I don’t think it’s all that horrible, especially when done with a purpose, but I do tend to avoid it in my own writing.

  8. I’ glad you mentioned use in a series. I have never used dialogue as a first line in a story unless the characters were already established somewhere else. Dialogue, to me, is like a close-up shot in a movie. If I can start with it and then pan out just a little to show characters who are already familiar, great! If I start with a close up and then have to immediately move to a wide shot to get the background in there because the characters and world are new, it feels awkward to me as a writer. As a reader, I can enjoy any opening line that’s well-presented, whether it’s narration or dialogue (or amazing description).

    (Can you tell I have no training in film? ;) )

    • I totally LOVE the film analogy! That’s brilliant, and that’s exactly what starting with dialogue does: it starts with a closeup of a stranger talking, which can be problematic if, like you say, the reader doesn’t already know the characters.

      When you start with a close up of a character in a book, if I don’t know him or her, I prefer a chance to look at him or her and see the person a bit before dialogue sets in.

  9. I’m starting to develop a real distaste for all these writing restrictions. Never put dialogue in the first sentence? Says who? Maybe I’m a bit of a rebel. Fortunately, we have writers like our friend Sarah Cradit who chose to ignore that rule and began the first line of the 2nd book in her series with dialogue. I loved that she did so because I thought it was brilliant. I haven’t read the first book yet and I didn’t need to in order to grasp the meaning. She conveyed so much with that first line. Excellent topic as usual, Victoria. Thank you for pointing out that some rules, probably most, are made to be broken.

    • I’m glad you liked the post, Melissa! I think creative license exists for a reason. I follow the rules when I feel I’m better off following them but when my story improves by breaking them, I break them without a second thought. Starting with dialogue can totally work for some people, even if it doesn’t work for me and I would say it’s not usually the best choice.

  10. The best part of this post, Victoria, is that you give writers the encouragement (and permission) to explore what works for each one of them. As an editor, I find that dialogue usually doesn’t work for the opening because the reader isn’t grounded in anything yet, but as you say, every rule (once learned) just begs to be broken. My favorite piece of advice to writers is if something isn’t working one way (like a descriptive opening paragraph), try rewriting it a different way (perhaps as dialogue). No requirement to change anything, but the exercise is great practice, and often sparks something not previously considered by that writer.

    • That’s a fantastic piece of advice, Candace! Experimentation can be really useful and a lot of fun. You don’t have to keep something new or different, but if you can help you see that what you had originally is your best original, or show you how you can tweak what you had in a less extreme way.

  11. I used to always begin a story with dialogue, but stopped because of the questions you noted above. Now I never start with dialogue. I have nothing against the use of dialogue either. I just want to set the scene first.

  12. I have also heard that you shouldn’t start with dialogue and immediately the angsty teenager inside me wants to start every story with dialogue no matter what. I love your reasons behind why you don’t start a story with dialogue, but that they also may be good reasons to use dialogue. I do agree, you focus on who is talking rather than what they are saying. My teenage self is now safely locked away.

  13. Interesting thought. I just started my third novel with a dialogue sentence, and I might have to get some peer thoughts on that. I’ve never heard that it’s cliche…probably because I didn’t do it with my first two!

    • I think it definitely makes sense to run it through peer review, especially if you like how things are, before you change it. There are no hard and fast rules, for sure :-) Best of luck!!!

  14. Like you said, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. It has to deal with the book’s tone and the expectations the reader has going. If the book has a set of Arc Words at its core, then starting the story with those would stick them in the reader’s mind.

  15. Pingback: AUTHORS: Three ways you can focus the final line of your novel or short story | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

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