Bad advice

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Or perhaps, should I say in this particular case, misguided advice.

I came across something about “five rules writers should keep in mind when writing their first sentence/opening” in my wanderings. Rules for art itself are, in my mind, immediately suspicious. After all, art is subjective and writing, like any other, is no different. I’m not talking about nuts and bolts basics. Of course you should be able to spellcheck. Of course you should ensure your grammar is appropriate. These are not the sorts of rules the author of the aforementioned item was referring to, although one of her items was, to me, spot on: that of not opening a novel or short story with the main character looking in a mirror or waking up to an alarm clock (unless, as I’ve mentioned before, if the character did not believe they would wake up at all) and then following the character around as they do the mundane things people do after waking. I’d add another leg to this rule, and say starting off with a weather report if the weather is inconsequential is a bad idea.

Of the other four, three did not stick with me, and I’m not sufficiently interested to go hunt the thing down to refresh my brain – I’m quite certain there are many, many posts/blogs/videos about exactly the same thing. The fourth, though, did. The rule was never to start a novel with dialogue.

I absolutely disagree with this one. If the story needs to start with dialogue – explicit or internal – and if it isn’t more of the banal nonsense that usually follows the alarm clock opening, then it needs to do that. We are not interested in someone asking another person what they want for breakfast and the other person suggesting oatmeal, with the entire preparation and eating of said oatmeal described by the characters for pages on end. Oatmeal for breakfast doesn’t cut it. Rat burgers for breakfast would. It doesn’t need to be that extreme, naturally, but if a novel opens with dialogue it should deliver a package of curiosity for the reader to open. It should draw them into a conversation with the world and the people the writer has created and make them want to know more. I’m fairly surprised the “no dialogue” person doesn’t seem to realize just how many books – and not just any books, but classics – open with dialogue, either of the explicit/external or the internal variety.

I dreamed I went to Manderly again – Rebecca (Daphne DuMaurier)

This is considered one of the best opening lines of any novel, and rightfully so. Who could read this and not be interested in knowing what the character is talking about. What or where is Manderly? Why does the speaker say “again”? Was it a good or bad experience? We read on because we want answers to these questions. Maybe it will hold our attention, maybe not, but the first line does its job well.

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. –  Catcher in the Rye (JD Salinger)

Another fine example. We know the speaker wants to tell us a story, but wants to skip all the crap and cut to the chase, leaving out the things that would likely be both boring and irrelevant to that story.

Call me Ishmael. – Moby Dick (Herman Melville)

Simple.

“Well,” you might say, “the author of that five rules piece didn’t mean internal dialogue opening the book, but someone actually saying things. What do  you think about that rule now?”

I think exactly the same thing.

“We need you to kill a man.” – The Cat Who Walks Through Walls (Robert Heinlein)

“I’ve watched through his eyes, I’ve listened through his ears, and I tell you he’s the one. Or at least as close as we’re going to get.” – Ender’s Game (Orson Scott Card)

In both of these, we have no idea who the speaker is, who they’re talking about, or anything else. I do not, however, see anything wrong with these starts. They would make me read on to find out what’s going on.

There is an implicit promise to the reader that things will be made clear after this, and the writer had better follow up on that, but I can’t see anything wrong with starting a book with dialogue if it is done well. The problem with starting in this way is the same problem as starting in any other way: if it’s done badly, and the writer does not hold up their end of the bargain, it really doesn’t matter what the opening is, because the reader will stop caring if the writer does not get down to business and they’ll move along to another book. That would be the only reason to not begin with dialogue. The only thing all this harping on not starting with dialogue has done for me is a vow to start every book in one particular series I have in mind with dialogue. Who doesn’t love a challenge?

 

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