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.”