In college, I started getting notes on my short stories that said, “Don’t open a scene with dialogue.” Of all the rules I gathered over my writing education, this one always made the least sense to me. Probably because I never really got a solid answer on “Why not?” That’s partially my own fault. I just took more experienced writers at their word and didn’t question it out loud. My mentor and I finally discussed it a few weeks ago.
Despite knowing the “rule,” I had started a scene in my novel-in-progress, which my mentor is beta-reading, with dialogue. He said, “Well, I made a note here not to start with dialogue, but really, I didn’t have trouble understanding. That’s just something you always get told, you know?”
He’s a good deal older and much more experienced than I (and far more widely published), so I was instantly intrigued by that statement. I viewed him as one of the “all-knowing” who understood that rule completely. We got to talking about this rule we’d heard regurgitated by our respective teachers, and neither of us could say we’d ever heard the “why” behind it.
That’s just silly! Why in the heck were we following this rule blindly? Well, I started doing some digging and some thinking, and I’m here to try and clear the air. This rule is in place for a legitimate reason. However, all rules are meant to be broken, so long as you break them with purpose.
This is the third “episode” in a series of posts I’m dubbing The Rebel Writer Series. First, I break down why a rule is in place, and then discuss how it can be broken to great effect.
Why Not Open with Dialogue?
The simple answer: it’s confusing. In many cases, you have not oriented your reader in the space or the action of the scene, rendering the dialogue meaningless until at least a paragraph later.
This applies whether you’re opening a later scene with dialogue or opening the whole story with dialogue.
Opening a story with dialogue is much trickier than opening a later scene this way, and it opens you up to a whole new issue: your reader doesn’t care about the person speaking.
Let’s have an example. Say you open your story this way …
“You wouldn’t dare!”
“Oh, but I would,” said Polly, aiming the barrel of the pocket pistol at Madison’s head to prove her point.
Madison’s rage and surprise gave way to fear that slid down her face from brow to chin, wiping away the harsh lines.
“You ruined my life! Now, get moving!” Polly waved the silver-plated weapon toward the stairs.
Madison looked to the other members of the book club as she took a shaky step back, but they were all frozen in their seats, gaping at Polly, transfixed by the gun.
“I said MOVE!” Polly screamed, strands of her blonde hair coming free of her up-do.
Madison whimpered and rushed to the stairs as fast as her heels would allow. “What do you want?”
“I want you to know what it’s like to lose everything,” said Polly with a lifeless smile, and that was when Madison realized Polly didn’t intend for either of them to leave this house alive.
Attention-grabbing? Absolutely. And you want the opening of your story to arrest readers from the start.
However, that first line, while vaguely interesting, has little meaning until you read a few more lines. You don’t know who has spoken. You don’t know if they’re a man or a woman. You don’t know how old they are or what they look like.
Even when you quickly realize they are yelling at a woman holding a gun, you don’t know where these people are or what their relationship is. You didn’t even know there were other people in the room until the fifth paragraph.
Eight whole paragraphs in, you have no clue what Madison did to Polly, although you figure it must have been pretty awful.
Are you intrigued? Probably. But wouldn’t this scene hold so much more weight if you understood what was going on? If you cared about Madison or Polly, and if you had an opinion on who was right and who was wrong in this situation, wouldn’t you be even more engaged?
Maybe you like mystery, and you’re okay with not knowing the background yet. That’s understandable, especially if you know you’ve picked up a thriller. But, wouldn’t you at least like some spacial orientation (where are we, who’s there, and what the characters and space look like) before jumping into the dialogue? I would. It’s impossible to fully immerse yourself in a scene if your brain is scrambling to find the details that allow you to paint the proper picture. You are left with too many questions upfront, and you can’t fully slip into the world of the story because of it.
How to Properly Open with Dialogue
First off, I’m going to say here and now, I think opening your very first scene with dialogue is extremely risky. Think long and hard about why you’re doing it and whether there is a better way to get the same scene across. There probably is. That rule is there for a reason, and if your reader has just opened your book or short story, that first line of dialogue is going to cause more confusion than anything.
However, I think opening later scenes with dialogue is a great tactic for adding urgency and energy to your story. But only if done properly.
The 1st Rule of Opening with Dialogue
Always. Always. Always include a dialogue tag.
Your reader needs to know right away who is speaking. The words spoken are the highlight, but if you’ve done your job, your readers have assigned tones and traits to your characters, and if they can’t find a dialogue tag, they have no idea how to read that line. That dialogue tag can be a simple “said [character name],” or you can add some extra description in there, such as a note about their expression or an action they’re performing while speaking.
Which brings us to …
The 2nd Rule of Opening with Dialogue
Immediately follow the opening line with a sentence that orients the reader in the space.
You’ve selected that line of dialogue as the opener because it sets a tone you want, adds urgency, or makes the reader perk up and pay attention (or all three), but if you achieve that effect and then fail to orient your reader in the scene, you’ve squandered it. Your reader likely has to come out of the story and skip ahead briefly to get a feel for the scene.
The Two Ideal Scenarios for Implementation
I’m sure there are more situations in which opening with dialogue is effective, and the best way for you to discover them is to play around in your own stories. However, there are two specific scenarios in which I have found this tactic most useful for my writing style.
The First …
When you’ve already established the scene and are cutting back to it.
In my upcoming novel, Arcamira (from Cosmic Egg Books, late 2019), the narrator follows a wide cast of characters through many battle scenarios. In the climactic war chapters, the main protagonists are often split up, and the narrative jumps back and forth between them, with asterisks separating the scenes.
Sometimes, when I made that switch, I chose to start with dialogue because I was in the midst of a fast action scene, and taking up time with exposition at the opening didn’t suit the mood. For instance, I started a scene like this:
“I’m in,” said Erro before Michael had even finished his explanation. “Where’s Andromeda?”
They were gliding over the tree prison, entirely alone in the night sky. The griffins and vampires battled over Alatreon now.
“Atalanta’s gone to find her and Andrew,” said Michael. “We’ll pull in closer and circle until they catch up. We attack together.”
Keep in mind that my readers are already very familiar with these characters. Just three to four pages before, they saw Michael and his sister make plans to gather all of the heroes together, and the readers saw Michael head off on the back of a griffin in search of Erro, who they also know is riding a griffin. I didn’t want to bog down this scene by showing Michael fly up to Erro and reexplain his plan, which the audience read not long before.
So, I chose to open with Erro agreeing to the plan to cut out unneeded exposition and get to the action that comes shortly after the lines you see here. However, I did want to subtly remind my readers what was going on, so I added the extra bit to the dialogue tag. I also took it a step further and had Erro ask about his love interest and included Michael’s short response so that the reader could remember that the plan was to gather everyone together. Lastly, I added that descriptive line in the middle of the two dialogue paragraphs so that the reader quickly remembered that Erro and Michael were talking while riding griffins above the battleground.
Did I need to add a good deal of things to this opening dialogue to make it work properly? Yes. But it still beats opening with exposition. The line “I’m in” conveys the immediacy of the moment and the tone of camaraderie I was going for, in two words.
The Second …
If the scene itself is passive, while the dialogue is attention-grabbing and is driving the scene.
Opening an action scene with dialogue, as I did in the example above, only works if your reader is already fully rooted in that action and can easily remember what was going on before you cut back. But what if your scene is passive? What if your characters are just sitting around at home or in a car, and the point of the scene is the conversation they’re having?
You have a perfect opportunity for opening a scene with punchy, intriguing, and/or shocking dialogue. The words are in the limelight, and you can reveal the setting shortly after without losing any of the words’ effect.
“I slept with Daniel. And I’m not sorry,” said Teresa as the car rolled up to the red light.
Heather slammed the brakes so hard the car behind honked a warning. She whipped her head toward Teresa, her pale face turning puce. Tears spilled from her lashes onto her red scarf.
“No you didn’t,” Heather choked out, shaking her head hard, as if she could keep the truth from penetrating her brain.
Again, this only works if this is a later scene. Imagine the readers don’t know the secret, but they know these characters. They know Daniel is Heather’s fiance. They know Teresa and Heather have been friends since grade school. This makes the second sentence, “And I’m not sorry,” even more shocking than the first. You’ve hit them with a double whammy right out of the gate.
Thanks to the detail in the dialogue tag about the red light, you quickly understand the characters are in the car, but you didn’t have to detract from the opening lines by slipping in some exposition beforehand. Maybe, based on the end of the previous chapter where they agreed to go out, you had an idea from the get-go that they were in the car. Then this is even more effective.
In the second paragraph, you are oriented in the space. You know Heather is driving. You also get a little bit of action, with Heather nearly causing a collision, that keeps the car setting from being totally dull.
Still, the car is not really what’s interesting here; the words are, and this is an effective way to highlight them.