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(Apologies if this question has already been asked. I've looked around but can't find this specific question, only related ones.)

The general advice seems to be "don't start your story with dialogue." Readers will be disoriented from the start and feel unmotivated to continue reading since they don't know and don't care who's talking.

But what if the dialogue is woven into the opening scene like this?

"Talk, or I'll shoot."

Beads of sweat rolled down Adam's face as he stared at the barrel of John's gun. It was hard to see in the darkness of the room, lit only by a single dim lantern hanging from the ceiling. The smell of cigarettes and urine muddled his senses, and he bit back the vomit that was rising from the pits of his stomach.

"Okay, okay," Adam said, giving in. "I was there. I saw her take the money."

John's eyes were dark. "Where'd she go?"

"I don't know."

John pulled the trigger. The bullet flew past Adam's face, blasting a hole in the wall behind him.

"Fifth Avenue!" Adam blurted, trying to steady his breath. "In a red sedan—there was another man in the car. That's all I know, honest."

John lingered for a few moments, then lowered the gun and dipped his head in thought. Seeing his chance, Adam struggled against the ropes that bound his arms and legs, desperate for escape. If the smell of the room didn't kill him, John definitely would.

  1. Would this approach work? Will publishers frown upon my work after reading the first line?
  2. What do people mean when they say "don't start your story with dialogue"? Do they mean a full conversation or just any dialogue?
  3. Can anyone offer a better explanation why starting a story with dialogue is bad? I don't quite understand. Many great stories start with dialogue, and they definitely hook me.
  • 1
    The only thing that's bad is starting your story in a boring way. — I don't find your opening sentence gripping, but not, because it is dialogue. What I miss is something that intrigues me. It is too short for that. Google for "first sentence novel" or some such, there's a plethora of examples and advice out there. Read a lot of that, then work on your beginning. – user5645 Jul 14 '16 at 16:30
  • I read a lot of books that start with dialogue. – Aspen the Artist and Author Oct 19 '17 at 19:25
  • .....my problem with the first sentence is the immediate need for a gun to establish drama. – elrobis Oct 20 '17 at 19:08
  • Fair, but it was only an example to get the point across... – Summer Dec 12 '17 at 20:01
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The reason people say not to start your story with dialogue is because doing so throws you into the story without giving you any context. The exposition you give has no background to build off of, and the action that tends to follow feels meaningless to a new reader. Here, that lack of exposition is very prevalent.

The problem I have--and that a lot of your readers will have--is that we know nothing about Adam or John. There's tension in the scene, but no meaning. You illustrate the scene perfectly, but that illustration conveys little about the characters.

This line is the problem with this scene exemplified:

Seeing his chance, Adam struggled against the ropes that bound his arms and legs, desperate for escape.

Prior to this, we don't know that Adam is tied up. One can easily imagine Adam being cornered by John as he advances on him, or frozen still as John blocks the exit and points the gun at him. Without warning, the reader has to completely change the scene to account for it, and that change is both disorienting and disrupting.

That being said, I don't believe you need to scrap this work.

One of the reasons that people say that you should never start a story with dialogue is that there's almost always a better way to do so. Most of the time, that better way is to introduce the characters and setting before the dialogue. With this scene, you can introduce the characters beforehand while still keeping the great scene you've wrote, introducing meaning and character development without sacrificing anything.

A short example:

Adam cursed as he struggled against the rope wrapped around his arms and legs. Once more, he desperately tried to reach for the knife in his pocket, fiercely fighting against his rope bindings, but the ropes held strong against his efforts.

[space to expose Adam's background]

The door in front of him flung open, and a large man's frame appeared silhouetted by the outside night. John, intimidating in all his stature, stood in front of him, a large pistol in hand.

"Talk, or I'll shoot"

...

This example gives Adam a lot more background and the setting a lot more detail. It keeps the tension of the scene, while also explaining what exactly is going on. Obviously, there is room for improvements, but this format provides all the information the reader needs while expanding on your current introduction.

All in all, while you can start with a quote, most of the time there is a better way to introduce your story, and I'm sure publishers will appreciate not starting with a quote.

5

Of course you can start your story with dialogue. It happens in many books.

However, it is true that the reader will feel disoriented from the get go, so you should do your best to clarify everything (through dialogue or otherwise) as early as possible. Nobody drops a book completely in the first chapter, the absolute worst thing that could happen is people not liking the first chapter because they just don't know what is happening.

The problem with starting with dialogue is that dialogues are usually character focused, and in the first lines of your book, you usually don't have a defined character. The reader will be forced to imagine something you haven't given him juts yet. What if the character is actually an old man, but the reader imagines a young adult? What if the protagonist is actually the guy with the gun, and not the other way around? The reader interprets as he wants, because dialogue is, most of all, a way to deepen what has already been established.

However, that doesn't mean you CAN'T start with dialogue, you just have to paint a clear picture of what you want to establish using only dialogue. The example you gave does this absolutely perfectly. You know from the get go that Adam is the victim, you can also make out where he is, based on the description of the room right on the second paragraph. Everything paints a picture, and that is all happening during a dialogue. But now imagine this:

"Talk, or I'll shoot."

"Okay, okay," Adam said, giving in. "I was there. I saw her take the money."

John's eyes were dark. "Where'd she go?"

"I don't know."

John pulled the trigger. The bullet flew past Adam's face, blasting a hole in the wall behind him.

"Fifth Avenue!" Adam blurted. "In a red sedan—there was another man in the car. That's all I know, honest."

You can clearly see the difference. You have no idea what is Adam position in relation to anything. Nor do you know what he has to say, where he is, what is his personality, what he is feeling, nothing.

But, it's a dialogue, and it's not a bad dialogue. Maybe if you put this in the middle of another scene, in a later part of the book, it wouldn't be so bad. But since this is how the book start, and nothing is established yet, this basically doesn't give the reader to go on, and he is left guessing.

TL;DR

Yes, you can start a book with dialogue, but establish the setting and the characters as soon as possible, or the reader will have to do a lot of guessing.

3

As you say, there are many stories that work that start with dialogue. Far too much advice about writing is much too mechanical in nature. Dialogue is just a mechanism for telling a story. Rules about which mechanism to use are silly, and usually easy to prove false with counter-examples.

What a story must do is to establish conflict. Can you do that with dialogue? Of course you can.

But note that conflict does not mean violence. Nor does it mean confrontation or argument. Conflict, in story terms, means desire and obstacles to that desire. Bullets whizzing by heads are not exciting or gripping until we care about whose head they are whizzing by and understand what desire drove them to the place in which bullets are apt to whizz by heads.

Desire and obstacle are what you need to establish. Dialog is as good a tool as any for doing it.

0

It's fine to start a story with dialogue; a lot of books do this. Using dialogue at the start could help you build a sense of mystery, or suspense, as you have been thrown straight into an ongoing scene. Starting a story with dialogue isn't bad, but some might say its overused.

Be sure not to throw the reader into a maelstrom of dialogue right away though. Sometimes, if you throw it all at them too fast, with lines upon lines of dialogue, they will feel like they've been put into a fast whirlwind which they can't escape from (when people say 'don't start with dialogue' they probably mean this). Make it clear what the setting is, and who the protagonist is, and what is going on before spamming dialogue.

Personally, I enjoyed your description and thought it was fine. If your story benefits from starting with dialogue, just start it that way. Weaving it into the opening scene is something you should definitely do, as it helps avoid the dialogue maelstrom.

0

You want to begin a story with "action." In most cases, it's physical action.

But in some cases, it's "psychological" action that is best depicted by dialog, so starting a story with dialog is not necessarily a bad thing.

For instance, Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice begins, "IT is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife."

  • You don't want a story to begin with action. You want it to begin with conflict, which is a very different thing. Conflict is desire and the obstacles to desire. Austen's passage is a classic case of this. It is a statement about desire. But it is also an ironic statement, for the desire it really expresses is the desire of the mothers of young women for husbands for their daughters. Then again, there are plenty of stories that do not start immediately with desire either. Many start with setting. Most of Steinbeck's work, for instance, starts with setting. – user16226 Jul 15 '16 at 23:38
  • Not really. "In most cases it is physical conflict" is simply not true. Millions of stories have no physical conflict. In story terms, fighting is not conflict. The conflict is the reason you fight, or, equally, the reason you avoid fighting. It is what drives and motivates the character. Until you know the why, action is not interesting in itself. There is a reason the battle (if there is one) is usually at the end of a book or a movie. It is the climax, not the starting point. – user16226 Jul 15 '16 at 23:56
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As a reader, I'd rather not have a story start with dialogue, and it's more about background and voices rather than context per se.

Why? I create particular voices for characters in my mind when I read them, and it's annoying to have to change those voices. Giving me dialogue without any details on the character 'locks in' a voice that may be radically different than the character's voice really 'should' be. Especially if this opening dialogue keeps revealing a bunch of information about motive, background, etc., then I spend a ton of mental energy just updating voices.

Analyzing your example by this metric, at first I'm forced to choose between a dark, commanding voice and a desperate, high-pitched voice for that first sentence. Voices are only settled at the end of the second sentence, since now I know which person was making threats and the power dynamics. Everything from then on is fine, voice-wise.

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