NOTE: There will be no post next week because I’ll be out of town in Las Vegas doing a couple of booksignings with my “Mosaic” co-author Chris Keaton.
If any of you live in the Las Vegas area, stop by and say hello. The signings are both on Saturday, August 26. The first is at Barnes and Noble (12-3 PM), and the second one is at Emerald Isle Casino (6-9 PM).
Writers, particularly beginning ones, are flooded with scores of rules, dos and don’ts, and opinions on how to write. Over the years in this blog, we’ve talked about quite a few of those so-called rules and attempted to steer you toward those that are truly good advice and away from those that aren’t.
As I told someone recently, the truly important thing is to understand why the rule or advice exists and once you know that, only then can you decide if it makes sense and when you can (and if you should) break that rule. This is true for a number of grammar “rules” as well.
One of the best examples of a writing rule concerns prologues. Some say they’re fine, some say never use them, some say to use them with care. The key here is to understand the purpose of a prologue and why people say to avoid them. Only then can you make an informed decision about using a prologue.
One of those supposed cardinal writing rules is “Never open with dialogue.” Unlike the prologue rule, this one carries more weight and has some very good logic and strong cautions behind it. So, let’s explore it.
The following link contains a good discussion and makes an excellent point that “The only thing that’s bad is starting your story in a boring way.”
A Writer’s Digest article link has several important things to say about story beginnings in general, but here’s one excellent tidbit from the article about opening with dialogue:
“If you feel compelled to begin a story with dialogue, keep in mind that you’re thrusting your readers directly into a maelstrom in which it’s easy to lose them.”
Here’s another good bit of wisdom (article link is below it):
“Let me say this first: most things in writing can be done. Some will say the real question is whether they can be done well, but I’m going to disagree with that. The question for me is what exactly one accomplishes by starting with a line of dialogue. Not whether you can do it, but what you are accomplishing by doing it.”
Think hard about that last quote. As with any of the advice in writing, the question is never whether you should or should not do something but what you accomplish in the story by doing so.
One of my favorite punctuation topics is the choice to omit quotation marks when writing dialogue. Some writers have strong feeling about omitting them, but it ultimately comes down to that important question: WHAT DO YOU ACCOMPLISH BY LEAVING THEM OUT? Does it serve the story to do so?
Some authors might say that they find quotations marks distracting. To that I pose the question: Who do quotation marks distract? The reader? More likely I think it’s perhaps the writer, who may (admittedly or not) simply be too lazy to bother with them and is using some other “writerly” excuse. Or possibly the writer doesn’t want the distraction of having to meticulously place them while writing and would rather just keep on writing and worry about punctuation later. If the latter is the case, then I say, fine. But do that in your early drafts if they distract you, then add them in later. Why add them? Because most readers expect them.
Let’s say that you’re one of those quote-mark-hating writers. You also have a story which opening with dialogue works for. Or maybe you also determine that opening with dialogue is required for that story. And that could very well be the case.
Here’s the problem, though. Without quotation marks, how will the reader know that it’s dialogue? You could put the dialogue tag first as a clue, but then you’re not really opening with dialogue. A dialogue tag is exposition. The writer might argue that it will make sense once the reader has read a few lines and won’t have a problem. But, again, readers generally expect quotation marks. It’s a convention of writing.
But let’s get back to the issue of opening with dialogue in the first place. Those who read this blog regularly know that I like to break the rules. You won’t, however, find me doing so just to prove I can (well, not most of the time). I do like challenges, though, and I like proving that you can break the rules effectively.
The bottom line is still always “Don’t flout conventions and advice (a.k.a. rules) unless it makes the story better to do so.” If there is any inviolate rule in writing, it’s that. Your goal should always be to write whatever and in a manner that best serves the story—assuming you have a good story to begin with. If the story is weak to begin with (or just plain sucks), then all your cleverness is wasted. You first must have a story worth telling, and believe me, I’ve read a few such pieces that have been submitted to Fabula Argentea over the past five years, pieces where the author tried to get clever with writing but the story wasn’t worth reading in the first place (in my opinion anyway).
Therefore, if you’re going to open with dialogue, make that dialogue opening impressive and make sure what follows is equally impressive.