Monday, October 20, 2008

Opening with Dialog

Last night I sent off a draft of "Ten Days" to the MFA workshop group. Doing so had my stomach in knots. I keep wondering was this the right choice of story? And then I think of course it was, you fool, it was the only one you could finish in time! Still I hesitated. Did another read through. Found stupid, careless mistakes (the repeated line from merging two paragraphs together that I forgot to edit out). Reread the ending again. Took out a line. Added in two more. Removed one of the new ones, brought it back. Toyed with the strange verb tense of those new lines. Does that work? Made it one paragraph. Broke it back into two. Broke off the last line trying to see if the if its place really was with the last paragraph or if it could stand by itself.

About the time I "reattached" the last sentence for the third time I figured I was beyond the point where tinkering was actually going to help the story and just hit send.

Nothin' I can do 'bout it now.

What a great relief. For the moment. I'm sure I'll freak out about it in a week's time when I'm actually being workshopped.

But I am happy to say that the story did not open with dialog.

On that note, I'd like to revived the previous blog category: Notes on Craft

Recently, Nathan Bransford did a couple of posts over on his blog about opening with dialog. First he did a poll of readers "How do we feel about novels that begin with dialogue?" The results pulled in at about 77% "depends" -- possibly because the other options were "love" and "loathe." Then he put in his two cents. Basically that requested partials that started with dialog were the easiest to quickly give a thumbs up/down to. But he didn't address the reason why that was actually so easy to do -- he only attributed it to the fact that a bad writer cannot hide behind opening dialog because the dialog will fall flat as it's the hardest thing to write.

Why really is it so easy to pass on novels that start with dialog? Because it disorients the reader.

When a reader starts reading a story that reader has no idea what he is getting into. It's like walking into a dark room where tiny spotlights are slowly coming on all around him. The spotlights come on at the same pace in most stories (at the speed the reader reads) but what they illuminate is always different. The writer that can quickly shine light on things that tell the reader where the hell he is will have a more comfortable reader, and comfortable readers want to stay put and explore more. Uncomfortable readers want to get the hell out of the room.

Dialog rarely explains place, setting, time of day, time of year, indoors, outdoors, cafe, bedroom, man, woman, teenager, cowboy, republican senator ... yes some of those things can be hinted at in dialog but hints aren't spotlights, they're more like lesser shadows.

Worse than those hints is the fact that a story that opens with dialog gives the reader nothing concrete until it gets to the "tag" the he said she said at the end of the line. Before that point we don't know who's speaking. It's a disembodied voice sounding from the heavens.

Which is why we can spot "bad" opening dialog so quickly. Because almost all of it is bad.

The writing has to be friggin brilliant to do it and do it well, and the content has to trigger such a response in the reader that the reader is okay with the disorienting voice from the heavens. To established that kind of trust that quickly -- to achieve a "good" dialog opening -- is statistically ... statistically it's not worth trying. And in the meantime it's mean to toy with your reader that way.

Highly Recommended