QUESTION: What’s the problem with opening a novel with dialogue?
Answer: I prefer not to open with dialogue, but there are writers who do it successfully. Most people are familiar with Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White (you know, the White who coauthored The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition with Strunk). The first line of White’s famous book is etched in my memory:
“Where’s Papa going with that axe?” said Fern.
In the case of Charlotte’s Web, the opening draws the reader into the story, right into the middle of some exciting conflict. However, it’s risky to open with dialogue when the reader has no context for what is taking place. Similarly, it’s chancy to open with a character’s thoughts (interior monologue).
If an opening makes a reader feel disoriented, (s)he might not continue reading. Although some authors get away with opening a novel with dialogue, it’s better to introduce the characters and setting first. If a character speaks before a reader knows anything about the character, the reader may form an image that is different than the author’s. Then, as more details about the character come to light, it could be quite jarring to the reader if he is forced to change his mental image of that character. Some readers even create voices in their heads when they read dialogue. Imagine a reader’s frustration if he has to recreate a character’s voice.
There’s nothing like a real-life example. Suppose for a moment that you’re a single woman at a party. Some guy you’ve never met walks up to you and says, “Let’s get out of here.” That line will certainly get your attention but maybe not in a good way. Now consider the same scenario, except that a friend introduces that guy as the Chief of Neurosurgery at a well-known hospital before he tries to whisk you away. Maybe you still wouldn’t want to leave with him, but you might decide to steer him to the punch bowl. Dialogue means nothing without proper context.
Until next time,
Write something you love! — Joanne