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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » starting a story w/ dialogue

   
Author Topic: starting a story w/ dialogue
robertq
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Hello,

I'm a newbie here, so I still haven't learned
the "unspoken rules" on these forums.

I'd like to hear Hatrack members' thoughts
on starting a story with dialogue.

I've seen a lot of openings on the Critters site,
and from what I've seen, this choice
doesn't work as well (for me at least) as
other possibilities.

Thoughts on this appreciated.

Robert


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Robert Nowall
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I'm all for it, if the writer can come up with a memorable and interesting snatch of dialog. We'd have to see it, here or in the Fragments and Feedback forum, to see how it plays.
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pantros
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There's nothing wrong with it. A few people don't like it, but if done right it can jump us right into the action and hook us.

There is no rule against it, but don't go out of your way to do it. Do it when it's the best way to start the story.


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robertq
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I liked this one:

"From the Mouths of Babes" by Trent Hergenrader,
F&SF, March 2006

"Dad, did you know there's a man spying on us?" Daniel
asked, not looking up from the small collection of Tinker Toys
scattered on the motel's brown shag carpet.
Dr. Russell peered over the edge of yesterday's Montreal
Gazette. Still fully dressed in his customary tweed suit, he
reclined on the double bed, with his shoes angled off the side
so as not to soil the already discolored comforter any further.
"What do you mean, son?"
"Across the street," Daniel said. He pointed to the window,
or least where the window ought to have been. It was taped
over with black garbage bags. "There's a man in the tree who
watches us."


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kings_falcon
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The thing about starting with dialog is that you are leaving the reader behind. It works for me if the initial line is brief and the details about who, what, when follow closely. It doesn't work when the dialog just sits there.

Even in Ender's Game the mystery dialog bits are only a few lines at the beginning of the chapter, then there is a page break and the rest of the story continues. It worked for me because I was willing to trust OSC to connect the hanging dialog with the rest of the plot.

The quote Robertq uses in this thread works for me because it's not "pure" dialog. I'm immediately told who is speaking and what he's doing. Because of the line of dialog I know Dr. Russell is Daniel's dad.

There's nothing wrong with it, but you are playing a bit of catch up with the reader. If you can keep the dialog clear and root the reader in the surrounding it tends to work better than times when that doesn't happen.


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nitewriter
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Ya know, I've never read a story and then thought to myself. "That would have been a great story, if only the author had not started it with dialogue." The point is a story will stand or fall on its own strength or weakness - regardless of how it starts.
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robertq
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"The thing about starting with dialog is that you are leaving the reader behind. It works for me if the initial line is brief and the details about who, what, when follow closely. It doesn't work when the dialog just sits there."

I think there you've put your finger on it. Thanks.


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robertq
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A classic dialogue opening, Why does it work?


"What's your name?"
"Fletch."
"What's your full name?"
"Fletcher."
"What's your first name?"
"Irwin."
"What?"
"Irwin. Irwin Fletcher. People call me Fletch."
"Irwin Fletcher, I have a proposition to make to you. I will give
you a thousand dollars for just listening to it. If you decide to
reject the proposition, you take the thousand dollars, go away,
and never tell anyone we talked. Fair enough?"
"Is it criminal? I mean, what you want me to do?"
"Of course."
"Fair enough. For a thousand bucks I can listen. What do you wnat me to do?"
"I want you to murder me."
The black shoes tainted with sand came across the oriental rug. The man took
an envelope from an inside pocket of his suit jacket and dropped it into Fletch's lap.
Inside were ten one-hundred dollar bills.

#

The man had returned the second day to the sea wall to watch Fletch.
Only thirty yards away, he used binoculars.
The third day, he met Fletch at the beer stand.


"Fletch" by Gregory MacDonald, Page 1, Vintage, (REPRINT) 2002


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Kazuo
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As others have said, when you start with dialogue, it forces the reader to imagine someone saying words that they have no mental picture of. Is it a woman, saying these words, which, as of now, float in my head without a speaker? Or is it a ghost, or a man, or a talking chipmunk?

Of course, the impact of a first line of dialogue is completely fine, if the author knows what s/he is doing, and manipulates the reader with the effect, instead of the effect manipulating the story.

I've heard other people say, and I think this is true in many cases, that a reader should be eased into a new universe with an upside-down funnel effect. The beginning gives the reader a sense for the world he's in, then the middle brings him closer, and by the end of the first paragraph, we've zoomed in completely, and are fully in the scene. Of course, this is all stylistic choice. I'm sure some writers would rather plop the reader down in the middle of a hurricane and start him off with a bit of dialogue.


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lehollis
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Honestly, the Fletch opening doesn't work for me.

I don't prefer stories that open with dialogue. It's not because the story starts with dialogue, though. It's because those stories tend to ignore the basic rules of opening a story.

The first sample works because it does give us speakers and a scene.

Generally, one or two lines of opening mystery dialogue can be excused if it is interesting, but after that the reader needs to know the details--all the things you see posters say they need to know in F&F.

So, my opinion is you can start with dialogue, but don't leave the reader behind. Who is speaking? What is the scene? Why are things happening? etc.


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InarticulateBabbler
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It's the same as with prose and/or narraration: If it's good, I'm sold. Like I have said: If I would drop a book/story over simply beginning with dialogue, I would never have read Ender's Game.

If I drop an author's book once, it's very seldom that I ever give him or her a second shot.

[This message has been edited by InarticulateBabbler (edited April 10, 2007).]


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Zero
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I like the hook. It's good.
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robertq
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Hello Kazuo,
You said,

manipulates the reader with the effect, instead
of the effect manipulating the story.

Yes! In many cases, the effect seems to be chosen without much regard to "effectiveness"

I've heard other people say, and I think this is true in many cases, that a reader should be eased into a new universe with an upside-down funnel effect. The beginning gives the reader a sense for the world he's in, then the middle rings him closer, and by the end of the first paragraph, we've zoomed in completely, and are fully in the scene.

This is intriguing. Thanks.


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