How you start your novel is one of the most important decisions you will make as a writer. You might be asking yourself, Can you start a novel with dialogue? Or should you start with action, drama or a character introduction? When faced with the daunting decision of how best to open your novel, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by indecision.
So, let’s clear the dialogue question up right now.
Even though opening your novel with dialogue is completely acceptable, there are certain circumstances where starting with dialogue can be either a good idea or a bad idea. The keys to mastering the dialogue opener are knowing the pros and cons of using dialogue to launch your story, and then making an intentional artistic choice while applying best practice writing techniques.
The Pros and Cons of Starting a Novel with Dialogue
Many well-meaning writing teachers or online coaches will tell you to avoid opening your novel with dialogue. But why? Maybe it’s because so many unpublished bad stories start with it. Maybe because so few professional authors choose to open their novels with dialogue. Whatever the reason, let’s take a look at the upsides and downsides of this story mechanism.
There are clear pros and cons of starting your novel with dialogue.
- It’s unique (in published work)
- It grabs attention
- It sets your story apart
- You start in the middle of the action
- It’s powerful if handled well
- You build immediate character connection and empathy with the reader
- You haven’t yet set up the place or the characters
- It can be confusing
- It can be jarring because it’s different
- It can put some readers off
- It can be a sign of an ameteur writer
Opening with dialog can be a great asset to a story because it’s not common, it instantly engages readers in an ongoing conversation and pulls readers in emotionally to an experience with a set of characters.
That’s why dialogue can work very well as an opening to a novel. It’s immediate. It rises to the level of theater (or screenplay) in technique and experience.
The downside is that readers can get confused because they haven’t yet been grounded in the setting and backstory of the characters. Not only can this be confusing, some readers can be put off by jumping right into dialogue. Some readers don’t care what a character says until they care who a character is as a player in the story.
One of the appealing factors of fiction, and of novels especially, is how these longer narratives offer space to settle into a story. You don’t have to jump into the deep end of the pool with something as immediate as dialogue. You can, instead, slink slowly to the edge of the water and dip your reader’s toe beneath the surface just barely enough to build anticipation for the rest of the story.
Perhaps the biggest con is that many beginner writers start their stories with dialogue because they don’t know any better ways (such as with subtext, thoughts, observations, etc.). The reason why there are so few examples of published novels starting with dialogue is because, while it’s completely acceptable, it’s not easy. A dialogue opening requires skilled craft, intentional choice and the sacrifice of the potential downsides.
In the end, there’s no right or wrong way to open a novel. The only rule is that it has to work. You can start figuring out if it’s best to start your novel with dialogue by weighing the pros and cons for your own story.
The first job of your story is to grab attention. However you open your novel, you need it to hook your readers in. So make it fascinating. Even if the dialogue is boring, make sure the characters are breakdancing or dodging bullets or burying a body. The is the “Pope in a Pool” technique from the screenwriting book, Save the Cat. The gist is that if you have to give exposition or backstory, don’t do it with the Pope in his regular setting. Put the Pope in a pool. Have him backstroking while delivering dialogue. The idea is to always enhance the scene, especially the opening.
Is Dialogue a Good Way to Start a novel?
Ok, so opening with dialogue is acceptable. But that’s different from the question, Is dialogue a good way to start a novel?
Dialogue can be an excellent way to start your novel. If you have reviewed the pros and cons, and believe your story is enhanced by starting with dialogue, I wouldn’t hesitate with using this opening strategy at all.
It often comes down to the characteristics of your specific story and your strengths as a writer. In a moment, Let’s take a look at each of these issues separately one at a time.
There are certain special circumstances where starting with dialogue makes perfect sense for a story.
- When the genre of a story can make a dialogue opening more appealing and workable (such as writing thrillers or horror fiction).
- When writing dialogue is one of your strengths as a writer.
- When the dialogue is captivating and interesting.
- When the dialogue moves the story forward.
- When there is tension in the dialogue..
- When there is misunderstanding in the dialogue.
- When there is subtext or multiple meanings in the dialogue.
- When your story features a character with a very colorful, big and vibrant personality.
To determine if you should start your story with dialogue, ask yourself the following questions:
- Is my chosen genre conducive to the dialogue opener?
- Can you think of at least three published books in your genre that start with dialogue?
- Do other people praise you for your dialogue?
- Do you consider dialogue one of your strengths?
- Do you think dialogue is the strongest part of your story?
- Is there a stronger way to open your novel?
- Is there tension or conflict in your opening dialogue?
- Is your main character’s personality vibrant, bold and colorful? (Think ET and Odd Thomas)
- Does starting with dialogue seem organic to the story? (or forced into it?)
- Can you quickly establish the story details (setting, character names, plot) after the dialogue or in the dialogue?
- Have you honestly considered at least three other ways to start your novel? (Action, description, character introduction, etc.)
One of the most important features of beginnings is that they become the filter through which the rest of the story is experienced. If your novel is dialogue heavy, then starting with a dialogue opening might make perfect sense.
The most practical question to ask yourself is, does opening with dialogue enhance my story or take away from it? If opening with dialogue enhances your story, go for it!
Tips for Starting Your Novel with Dialogue
Ok, so you’ve labored over the pros and cons. You’ve asked yourself the list of clarifying questions. And let’s say you still want to start your book or novel with dialogue.
No problem. If you’ve done all of that work, odds are dialogue is a GREAT way to start your story. What I want to share now are a few hard won tips learned in the trenches of writing (and reading) both good and bad story openers.
- Make sure the dialogue is compelling. Make it fascinating. This isn’t the time to be boring. You’ve got to hook your readers. (Can your dialogue be easily and memorably quoted on a t-shirt? Can it be a catch phrase? Make it pithy, different, gripping.)
- Limit the characters to two people talking. (The reader is just broaching the book, perhaps uncertain of who is talking and who they should trust or root for in the story. If you load them up with three or more characters talking, it can quickly become very confusing).
- Give each character very distinct speech patterns: Length of speech, pace of speech, word choice or vocabulary, etc. (The more distinct, the easier the reader can tell the difference between characters, even if you haven’t named them yet)
- Keep it short (There is no rule about length, but the shorter usually the better. Longer dialogue can grow burdensome and confusing. Aim to keep your dialogue to half a page or a page…at most)
- Name the characters as soon as possible (This helps clarify speakers and starts to build characterization).
- Identify the setting as soon as possible (This helps group the conversation and avoid the dreaded “talking head” syndrome where all you read are people talking. Even slipping a sideways, indirect reference to the setting can be very helpful).
- Describe the appearance of the characters as soon as possible. (Quick, 1-3 sentence descriptions of characters can work wonders. Remember to differentiate characters not only in speech, but also in dress, accessories and mannerisms).
- Interweave action, internal thoughts and description (Too much of anything can get old fast. Between dialogue, have your characters do something – “He dabbed the napkin against his forehead” – , and interact with the physical setting “She walked to the window and stared out at the black sea”.
If you want more tips on how to start your novel, characterization and improving your writing, read my post on The Best Writing Books For Beginners.
Opening scenes and opening lines can be tough. The best ones balance story “rules” with gripping hooks that grab readers by the throat. Dialogue exists in that shifting mix of warning and possibility. There may not be a clear cut answer to the how or when, but there is a straightforward answer to “Can you start a novel with dialogue?”
Yes, you can. And, if the right parameters are met, you really should.