On writing

Starting your novel with conversation

As writers, Sherylyn and I are both dialogue people. We can make words come out of our characters mouths with an ease that other writers we know struggle with. The hardest part, for us, is putting some emotion and colour around those words.

Because we’re such big conversationalists, we usually hit the story talking, as it were, and keep going from there. My first drafts always used to start with conversation, although I don’t do it as much now, while Sherylyn’s still do. By around the third draft we’ve usually managed to kick the habit.

Starting a story with conversation is not quite taboo, but it is frowned upon, and is something a beginning writer should avoid where possible. There are famous and popular exceptions to every writing rule and I’m sure we can all name at least three books we love where the story starts off with someone speaking. In general, however, it’s a good rule to be aware of.

Back when I didn’t have so many novels under the bed I used to think this was simply a bias of specific agents and editors. I could name books that did it. Books I enjoyed. Books that were popular.

Three things changed this.

  • The first one is, obviously, experience. The more one writes the better one’s writing becomes. Or that’s how it works for most of us, anyway

The other two are connected, and they are both to do with the explosion of writing sites on the internet.

  • Agent and publisher blogs which, in general, give you a better respect for agents and how they work. Or at least those whose blogs you follow. The agent becomes an authority and what they say helps you to understand and improve your own work. A number of agent bloggers I admire say that opening a novel with conversation is an automatic negative that the writer has to overcome. Best of all, they explain why it’s a negative.
  • Lastly, online writing sites like Authonomy expose you to a huge range of writing from people whose work ranges from publishable now to first drafts that need a lot of work. I participate a lot in online writing communities and I see a lot of writing that doesn’t make it to the bookstore. Many of the stories that don’t work open with conversation. When you’re reading multiple stories like this you start to get a feel for what works and what doesn’t. It works a lot like an agent’s slush pile. I imagine that prolific users of sites like Authonomy—can I say serious users, not those who are in there for the votes but those who are in it for the community and to better their own writing—plus say, Critters, would be better able to pick the promising stories out of the slush than they were before they started.

“Start in the middle of the story,” the experts tell you. You can’t get more middle than the middle of a conversation, surely.

So what makes stories starting with conversation so bad?

Another thing they tell you is that you only have a few lines to grab the reader’s attention.

They also tell you that the reader has to get the context of the story quickly. Lose the reader on the first page and you’ve lost them for the whole book.

I believe that one of the main reasons starting with conversation doesn’t work is because the reader has no context for that first line. They have no investment in the characters, they have no interest.

To use our own well-overdue-for-an-update novel in progress, Barrain:

I’m not sure how many revisions ago, but once we started the novel with:

“One man masterminded all of this.” In spite of her determination not to be, Taliah was impressed.

She might be talking about someone organising a barbeque for all we know. We have no idea who Taliah is, and we have no idea what the ‘one man who masterminded all this’ did to impress her, or why she didn’t want to be impressed. As yet we don’t even care.

In the latest re-write we put some context in first—before she speaks.

It wasn’t a battlefield, it was a slaughter yard.

Dead bodies lay everywhere amongst the smouldering ruins. Some of the bigger warehouses still burned, the flames unchecked. The enormous vultures that flickered in and out overhead were almost hidden by the choking black smoke that hung over everything.
In spite of her determination not to be, Taliah was impressed. “One man masterminded all of this.”

We’ve added four sentences and moved one around. Now we have context.

We know where we are. We’re on a battlefield. We know—or we will when I fix the second paragraph—that we’re probably on a different world, because the vultures flicker in and out. We know what the man did that impressed Taliah so much. We don’t yet know why she didn’t want to be impressed, but that can come. We start to get an idea of who Taliah is.

We know now whether we want to spend a bit more time with her or whether it’s not our type of story.

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