Friday, March 05, 2010

All talk, no action, and "Chimes," of course.

“Chimes” is garnering some reviews and mentions around. Randy did a very nice review and I much appreciate that.

The story has also been mentioned favorably at Gary’s Tainted Archive. Thanks!

…And discussed over at Women of Mystery by Clare2E. Much appreciated as well.

Mark has also put up a link to the story. I appreciate that.

I’m reading an article on writing now that talks about how important dialogue is in the opening lines of a story. It lists many positives about using dialogue that way. I have to say I totally disagree, although I suspect many readers would side with the author of that article rather than with me. I almost always hate it when books or stories start with a line of dialogue. In fact, starting with a line of dialogue has probably cost some authors sales where I’m concerned. I just do not want to hear the voice of the character until I have a feel for “where” I’m at or “what” is going on.

As a reader, I don’t mind an opening that involves internal monologue nearly as much, although I prefer to get my feet wet with setting or action first. However, opening with dialogue is, to me, very obtrusive. It feels like I’m being talked at without having any idea who is doing the talking. I’m sure there are exceptions where the dialogue is just perfect as an opening, but I can’t think of one right now. I’ve actually tried starting stories myself with a line of spoken dialogue, but I’ve never been able to finish one. They all just bored me too tears before I could get out of the starting box. I have done stories that started with a character’s internal thoughts.

So, does anyone remember a book or story that started with dialogue and it worked perfectly?


nephite blood spartan heart said...

I have tried starting a number of stories with dialogue and everytime I come back to do my rewrites I move it in a couple paragraphs so that setting comes first-I'm just happier with my own stuff that way.

The only thing I am thinking of right off the bat when it comes to dialogue first that worked in a story was where thge dialogue established setting, such as... Robert E. Howard.


thats nit even a good example because I remembered the story wrong after Skoal its all setting description, same with a bunch of teh other Cormac Mac Art stories.

ArtSparker said...

I suspect this may be character-based, and I wonder if there is a split along gender lines, or with introversion or presumes a certain intimacy, to start with dialogue...

laughingwolf said...

i agree with you, idle chatter at the beginning leaves me cold...

ivan said...

The talented H.E. Eigler, who sometimes visits here, sent me one story--"for a peek"--that opened with telephone dialogue. It just seemed to hit the reader cold and bold.
Better Kipling's Five Stalwart men. Like what's really happening here?
The remarkable (late?) Tillie Olsen is best at opening with dialogue. I can only remember her "Tell Me a Riddle", but there are many other short pieces of hers where she effectively opens with two or three people talking, usually older folk, one of whom is about to be sent to "The Haven", the old folks' home.Confllict for sure!....But she's Tillie Olsen, master of the symbolic, stream-of-consciousness short story.
...And I am Hacker Bilk. :)

BernardL said...

I have to disagree with you here, Charles. I love it when a book gets right into character dialogue. It's funny you mention this because I just re-read John D. MacDonald's 'Free Fall In Crimson' which launches in character conversation including my two favorites Travis McGee and his friend Meyer. As always, I'm sure it has to do with the writing.

Paul R. McNamee said...

I believe opening with dialogue is a quick way to get a hook.

Who's saying that? Why are they saying it? Who are they speaking to?

I think the trick, if there is one, is to do something quick, and not get drawn into idle chatter (as laughing wolf pointed out.)

As short burst, as David mentioned with Cormac Mac Art.

It doesn't always work, but sometimes it does.

Charles Gramlich said...

David J. West, we sound much alike there. I do remember the story you're talking about. Will have to go and reread it.

Artsparker, maybe that's it, the presumption of intimacy. And maybe it could work in a certain type of horror story.

Laughingwolf, I actually took a long time to learn how to write dialogue decently. I still don't think I'm great at it.

Ivan, I suspect that opening with dialogue is more of a literary technique, and your examples kind of confirm that for me.

Bernardl, I really like John D. so I'll have to go back and check that out. He may be an exception for sure. I've got almost all of his books. I'll have a look.

Paul, I can imagine that if the voice is truly and uniquely original it might hook my interest. Too often I see it where the dialogue is standard, though, not really standing out.

AvDB said...

I'm with you. I want some set-up before they start opening their mouths. Doesn't have to be much, a paragraph or so will suffice, just enough so I don't feel like I'm crashing a party.

Tyhitia Green said...

Congratulations, Charles! Sorry I'm late. I'm so going to get that story.

There are a few I've read that started with dialogue and it did work--well.

Lisa said...

Congratulations Charles on Chimes.

I think starting off with a dialogue is good only for short essays or blog posts or short novels that are conversation based. You know books that are filled with conversations.

Charles, checkout this link, I think this is quite a good way to sell books on how to write.

I google how to write a novel and a list was recommended. The above was just a sample.

G. B. Miller said...

I don't think I've read any book or story that starts out like that.

I do know that I make a conscious effort to at least start my stories off with a descriptive paragraph or two (or in one case, about 20) before coming in with dialogue.

I do know I have at least one half completed book that opens with the classically dull "Do you such and such take such and such to be your lawfully wedded wife?", but fortunately, those are few and far between.

Travis Cody said...

This is weird...but if the story begins with dialog, then I feel like the first person to speak should be the "hero" or main protagonist of the book. If the "villain" or main antagonist speaks first, it just feels off for me.

I've started vignettes and short stories with dialog and it seems to work for me...and generally the first words you read are from the character I want you to most identify with.

Maybe that's the problem with starting with dialog. Perhaps it feels more like the writer attempting to direct your attention, rather than letting you ease into the setting.

Cloudia said...

Ah, perhaps this is why my novella didn't "grab" you...

That's cool...I love reading you and knowing you, AND your comments!

Aloha from Hawaii my Friend

Comfort Spiral

Charles Gramlich said...

Avery DeBow, yes, agreed. It doesn't have to be a lot, but some is needed.

Demon Hunter, I'm going to go through some of my books this evening and look for that. Among ones I really enjoy.

Ocean Girl, thanks for the link. I'll check it out.

G, Interview with a vampire begins with a single line of dialogue and I immediately put it down. It just really threw me completely out of the desire to read it.

Travis, I agree with you. The first person to speak does carry that kind of burden. Maybe that's part of it too.

Cloudia, actually, I have not started reading your book, even though I've had it quite a while. I think the only reason I haven't is because most of what I read for fun is genre fiction. For stuff that isn't work related, I'm a very 'spur of the moment' reader. Whatever strikes me at the moment I'm reaching for another book. I'm sorry I've not gotten to yours yet.

Richard Prosch said...

Dialogue without at least a few opening lines of description is, for me, exactly like when movies start out black, with no establishing shots but some overly-something (dramatic, psychotic, grieving, maniacal) voice-over. Without exception those are hard for me to continue with.

Anonymous said...

Right now I can't think of any books that I've read that start out with dialog. I know they are there, I just can't think of them. I would have to agree with you. I never stopped to think about that before.

Middle Ditch said...

I think the only books where it works well are the Sam Spades books. And Rebecca, of course, but that was more thinking than talking. Otherwise, no, I agree with you.

Charles Gramlich said...

Richard Prosch, me too. good point. It intrudes rather than invites.

Jack, the only one I can think of off the top of my head is Interview with the vampire, but perhaps because they leave such distaste in my mouth.

Middle Ditch, I've got a couple of Sam Spade books here. I'll have to have a look at how he pulls it off. Rebecca eh? Hum, I've got a copy of that around here too, although I've never read it.

Bernita said...

I don't care for a dialogue opening for the reasons you mention, though I have read some that are "hooky."
It has always felt "wrong" when I've tried it.

Shauna Roberts said...

I don't mind it when the author starts with dialog, but I try to avoid it myself in stories and first chapters of books. It seems difficult to pull off well there, compared with later in a book when one actually cares about the people who are talking.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I agree totally with you. I like the author to set me down in the scene before people start talking. It works better in a short story than in a novel because you expect a crisper pace.

Steve Malley said...


“To be born again,” sang Gibreel Farishta tumbling from the heavens, “first you have to die.” -- The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie


“When your mama was the geek, my dreamlets,” Papa would say, “she made the nipping off of noggins such a crystal mystery that the hens themselves yearned toward her, waltzing around her, hypnotized with longing.” Geek Love, Katherine Dunn


I'm sure Elmore Leonard's done it a bit too, but these two examples took up most of my net-time this morning... :)

Steve Malley said...

Ever think about how hard it is to *end* a novel with dialogue? I can't think of one...

Charles Gramlich said...

Bernita, the experiments I've tried with it haven't worked either.

Shauna Roberts, that's part of it too. I can't really judge a character until I see them doing things. Maybe it's the behaviorist in me.

pattinase (abbott), I could see that, especially in a short story where the villain is doing something nasty to the hero at the opening moment.

Steve Malley, hum, have never read the Satanic verses or geek love. I wonder if that could have somethign to do with why. I do have a copy of verses around here somewhere. Nice point about the endings, too. hadn't really thought of that.

RK Sterling said...

Steve beat me to the one that immediately came to mind: Geek Love.

As for Chimes, I haven't had a chance to read it yet. The only time I've had this week has been just before going to bed, and being the big baby I am, I don't want to read horror just before trying to sleep, lol. :)

I'm going to see if I can download the mobi version so I can put it on my Alphasmart. That way, I can read it on the train in the mornings. A little horror before going to work may help put the horror that follows into perspective. ;)

Erik Donald France said...

Off the top of my head, I'd have to agree with you all the way. Only in a movie can you really get away with that, I suppose -- at least you get a visual to go with it.

Steve Malley said...

One thing I notice about Geek Love's opening: that bit of dialogue clues us in to setting, character and first hint of tension every bit as well as the old-fashioned narrative spiel ("It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.")...

Akasha Savage. said...

I'm with you on this one. I don't like novels that start with dialogue. The only one I can remember off the top of my head is Stephen King's 'Christine'. I'm fairly certain that one starts with one of the main characters speaking...and it is one of my fav books.

Akasha Savage. said...

...but I've just realised that although my prologue of 'Bathory' doesn't start with dialogue, my first chapter does!!!! :D

Spy Scribbler said...

I don't mind opening with dialogue, but it has to be very evocative. I'm a little obsessed with basically getting the whole story in the first line, first paragraph. I want the setting, the genre, the tone, the mood, a hint at the theme, a hint at the ending, a hook to continue, and a reason to care about the characters.

I know that's a tall order, and I probably don't fill it, and it might be impossible to fill it, but that's what I aim for. Instant orientation, LOL. When I wander the bookstore and skim the first page, if I don't immediately know what it's about, I can't read it.

Plus, it's a learning style. It's why the Idiot's Guides and Dummies books are so popular. See the outline, then fill it in.

Charles Gramlich said...

Kate S, oh man, I could imagine you'd get an interesting feel for the folks around you if you read horror on the train. I'm not sure if you can download mobi. They do have several formats.

Erik, yeah, a movie can stage set and give us dialogue at the same time. Good point. I hadn't really thought of that.

Steve Malley, I do imagine that if used just right an opening line of dialogue could create tension. I don't think I'm still going to like it much because of the jarring effect, but if it was opening into something that was really dramatic I might forgive.

Akasha Savage, I think a prologue is a perfectly adequate scene setting so if chapter 1 started with dialogue then it wouldn't bother me. I like prologues by the way. I've never read Christine.

Natasha Fondren, I think I want the same thing you do, but maybe without the characterization. I do like those first lines to accomplish a lot, but mainly to set a place and a mood.

Lana Gramlich said...

Congrats on the links & reviews, baby.

Motor City Burning Press said...

I think starting off with a line of dialogue better showcase something about the main character of the story. An excellent example is Sue Miller's short story "What Ernest Says":

This is what Ernest whispers to her, "You ever had a man to go down on you? How you like me to be going down on you? How you like that? You like Ernest to eat you ..."

But then again, I'm not sure this example works because all the opening dialogue comes from Ernest and the reader quickly learns that he's sitting behind a white girl, saying dirty things to her.

For the most part, it's probably best to avoid starting a story that way.

sage said...

Although I've only played at writing fiction, I often have started with a dialogue in mind... I once submitted an article to an academic journal with what I thought was a strong opening--a piece of a speech--but after suggestions, it was moved to the second paragraph.

Charles Gramlich said...

Lana Gramlich, thankee sweetness.

Motor City Burning Press, that example certainly develops character, but I would probably put that story down right away. It develops character but not one that I want to spend any time with. It just doesn't strike a chord with me, although I'm sure plenty of folks would enjoy it.

sage, I could see that for some writers story ideas would come to them in snatches of dialogue. I'm not like that myself, perhaps from growing up pretty isolated as a kid on an Arkansas farm.

X. Dell said...

To me, starting with dialogue is counterintuitive because the reader comes from the outside world (or "reality") to escape into the fictional narrative. Thus, the writer has to bring the reader into the narrative.

I'm thinking that a writer might possibly open with dialogue if it is a way to bring the reader in the narrative. For example, the reader might enter an in medias res story at a particularly terse moment, where the immediacy, the urgency, or the danger of the situation might best be given in a brief line of dialogue, followed by actions and discriptions that mark the space.

Then again, I'm not hot on in medias res stories. And while I can imagine that someone could use that device effectively, I can't think of a story I've ever read that has used this method.

Charles Gramlich said...

X-dell, I think that is the issue for me, how starting with dialogue does not open the door into the story for me as well as some setting or action does. I could see the dialogue used as you mention in here, but in that case we'd be past the dialogue quickly. I can't think of a good example of that either. I've looked through some of my thrillers but I can't find a good example either.

j said...

My all time favorite book begins

"Hello there... my name is Daisy Fay Harper and I was eleven years old yesterday. My Grandmother Pettibone won the jackpot at the VFW Bingo game and bought me a typewriter for my birthday. She wants me to practice typing so when I grow up, I can be a secretary, but my cat, Felix, who is pregnant, threw up on it and ruined it, which is OK with me. I don't know what is the matter with Grandma. I have told her a hundred times I want to be a tree surgeon or a blacksmith." - Fannie Flagg's Daisy Fay and the Miracle Man.

This opening felt sort of like dialogue with me, the reader. After reading that first paragraph, I fell in love with Daisy Fay Harper and I was hooked.

With one paragraph, I had a distinct idea who my main character was and that I was about to be taken along for a fun ride. If it had began with dialogue between Daisy Fay and her grandmother, I don't think it would have been the same.

Charles Gramlich said...

Jennifer, it is dialogue in a sense but I think primarily it's first person addressing the reader. I like first person, which is very immediate. I haven't read this book but I do like that opening pretty well.

Naomi Johnson said...

I like dialogue to open a short story because it immediately puts the reader into the short story. Yes, you will have questions - who is saying this, what does it mean- but if the line is interesting then the reader is immediately sucked into the story. I don't need set-up; short stories have to move very quickly for me or I'll start yawning faster than I would if I were reading a novel.

I've just started reading Hemingway's 'The Snows of Killimanjaro' today, and it begins:
"The marvellous thing is that it's painless," he said. "That's how you know when it starts."

Yeah, that's just enough information to suck me right in.

writtenwyrdd said...

I've mentioned a couple of openign lines of dialog in posts about openings, but the vast majority of them that I find really excellent are not dialog.

My preference is for prose, not dialog, in the opening of a story.

But, then, I also like prologs!