10.30.2006

Openings

Noah Lukeman, in "The First Five Pages," says that a writer shouldn't start the opening scene of a novel with dialogue. I've heard you mention that it's easy to have too much backstory before dropping into conflict. Do you share Lukeman's opinion? I know there's probably a happy medium--you don't want to slap readers on the ass without some sort of orientation, but you also don't want to put them to sleep.


I like leaping into the fray asap. If that means dialogue, ok. I'm not put off by it at all.

That said, Frederick Busch opened NORTH and Lee Child opens most Reacher novels with narrative.

Do what works. You may have to write it a couple ways, ok a dozen, to know.

19 comments:

Steve said...

Surely it's like whenever someone discusses generalisations, it's never applicable all of the time.

slobbit said...

Sherwood Smith's Inda starts with this line of dialogue:

"Let's go fight the girls!"

which I think works fantabulously. One just needs the right line.

Ryan Field said...

Noah Lukeman, in many ways is the perfect editor; this is how he thinks. If you truly read his book, THE FIRST FIVE PAGES, you'll notice everything he suggests is simply to keep the new writer from being rejected immediately. He mentions nothing is black or white when it comes to artistic quality, but he also enforces how difficult it is for a new writer to capture the attention of an agent or editor. And, if you read the important things...over-using adjectives...not to mention his advice on dialogue in general...etc...it can only help. THE FIRST FIVE PAGES doesn't promise anything about teaching you to write well; it only shows perfect examples of extremely bad writing.

When you read a Jodi Piccoult novel, and count how many times she overuses the word "that" it becomes clear there are no exact rules. Blogs like Miss Snark's; books about writing and editing...the more your read the better it (your writing) gets if you add your own artistic quality to all the eitorial suggestions.

Ilya said...

I think you can create excitement and interest with a narative. Call me wierd but my favorite book opening is from Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul by Douglas Adams. It says, "It can hardly be a coincidence that no language on earth ever produced the expression 'As pretty as an airport.'" ...

The Unpretentious Writer said...

I usually like to start with diologue because it throws the reader into the frey instantly. Sometimes, it feels like I'm trotting out 'Once upon a time,' or 'It was a dark and stormy night,' if I don't.

The only other thing to do, IMHO, if I don't start with diologue, is to think up a whizzer of a statement that is so out of place or so interesting that the reader is held captive to find out what it's about.

'Miss Snark was usually never one to trifle with mere murder; a proper lady was an assassin, never a murderess, she often reminded Killer Yapp.'

Eric said...

For the love of dog, please gimme a break.

Folks who think there are such rules to write by should be taken out back and have their quills broken.

Every story has its own rules. Some are served best with a heaping of exposition for openers while others demand that Sarah screams "Die!" at word one.

My two pennys, at least...your mileage may vary.

Sherry Decker said...

Rules like that are for beginners, who cannot understand why something works or doesn't work. You CAN start with a line of dialogue if that line makes the reader want to know more, makes them blink and say to themselves, what's that about? Have you ever read the opening line of THE SHINING, by Stephen King?: 'Jack Torrance thought: Offacious little prick.'

srchamberlain said...

Uh..."Who is John Galt?", anyone?

I haven't read "The First Five Pages" recently, but I suspect that Lukeman is referring to people who use dialogue in the following way:

"[Expletive]!" said [full name of character], [-ing verb] his/her [expensive luxury item] in [appropriately creepy setting, described in slightly modified cliches].

It was a dark and stormy night. [Backstory.]


In which case, he's right, although this describes just about every novel Dan Brown has ever written.

michaelgav said...

If an agent reads 100 unsolicited submissions a week, and notices a pattern among those in the 80th percentile of suckitude, and that pattern indicates that certain types of openings usually portend an onslaught of garbage, I would rather avoid those types of openings. I suppose I won't have to think that way on my fourth book, but that's not my problem now.

I haven't read Lukeman's book (I decided not to when I read that he was hawking it in his rejection letters), but when Miss Snark or another blogging agent or editor talks about what makes for an easy "No," I try to take it seriously. That's not slavishly following anyone's rules. That's doing the work necessary to get my story taken seriously.

Samus said...

Whenever I begin a story, I think of an interview I saw with Chuck Palahniuk. He said that the man who taught him to write in minimalist fashion - I believe it was Tom Spanbauer - used to set up readings for his students at sports bars. With televisions and music blaring, your little emotional tale about your nephew's leukemia wasn't going to fly. Perhaps that's why, even if they have their problems, Chuck P.'s novels always start with a bang.

Gerri said...

I looked up the part in The First Five Pages that the letter writer is talking about, and I think Lukeman's point needs to be clarified.

He doesn't say it's impossible to use dialogue, but that it's hard to pull off for beginning writers. Why? Because of the melodrama trap. Because openings, or hooks as he calls them, need to be dramatic, the tendancy is to open with cliched dialogue.

Can dialogue be done as a hook? Of course. However, the writer needs to put a lot of thought, time, and work into crafting something that isn't cliched.

S William said...

I've read some pretty darn good books that open with dialogue. Generally, though, the dialogue doesn't sprawl before some sort of orientation is provided.

Anonymous said...

I opened a book once describing a dim coal miner's lantern illuminating a sterling silver chisel separating gold teeth from a fresh cadaver.

It's a middle grade reader.

Anonymous said...

Rules, schmools! My first novel starts with dialogue in a dream that forms the prologue to the book. Two editors have offered to publish and I'm now working on the sequel. Some or all of these things are probably best avoided but do NOT have to be the kiss of death. Its smart to be guided by the rules but the first rule is to write the best story you can. If it grabs and won't let go, thats the opening to go with.

Minty Fresh
ps word verification - fucvklyw -my mother would be mortified.

The Rentable Writer said...

samus: HAUNTED didn't start with much of a bang, but it sure did end with one. What an amazing book.

Also, I think Lukeman's book was well-written and easy to understand. It was the first thing I read that truly helped me understand writing (and then came Miss Snark). The only problem is, when I find myself going against something it said, I feel I'm doing something "wrong."

Verification: UPPOFF

Racy Li said...

Tangentially related, Paperback Writer had a first line contest awhile ago. None of the lines are dialogue.

Though who am I to say anything. The promo ebook I just put out starts with dialogue.

Betsy Dornbusch said...

My understanding is the current trend for openings is to leap in, explain later.

Of course, then you'll hear some readers say they aren't invested enough in the character to care what's happening.

Alanye said...

[Moderator: You needn't publish this; I just wanted to get it off my chest.]

I've read The First Five Pages and consider it time and money well spent. It's a valuable compendium of advice. Further, I'll say that Noah Lukeman is probably a wonderful agent, not to mention husband, father, son, and so on. In other words, he probably has almost all the qualities one would wish for in a friend and business associate. He only needs one thing more.

In The First Five Pages he initially argues (quite effectively) that the first five SENTENCES are enough for an experienced editor to evaluate a writer. He takes seven pages to do this.

In the body of the book he coaches us on numerous points of better writing, almost all of them quite valuable. He uses 197 additional pages in doing so. Along the way he often recommends terseness.

He gives many examples of excessive use of modifiers, problems with viewpoint, tone, pacing, style, settings, etc. These examples are not from real life, however; perhaps he feared to hurt some feelings. Instead, he composed them himself—or had his thirteen-year-old compose them, for they are exaggerated in a rather juvenile fashion.

I formerly read submissions, and (I say this in all humility) did a fine job of it. Had he submitted to me I would have replied thus: "You've written an excellent novel, Mr Lukeman; how regrettable that we asked for a short story."

As I started to say in the first paragraph, Noah Lukeman's good qualities are manifold. On the basis of The First Five Pages he needs but one thing more: an editor.

Ken Boy said...

The First Five Pages is quite good for what it is. It is obviously intended for beginners, and I got a great deal out of it.