Avoid Opening With Dialogue

Benjamin Percy

It’s a typical pet peeve of editors and agents: Stories that begin with dialogue.

In the latest Glimmer Train bulletin, author Benjamin Percy explains why a dialogue opening is so often ineffective:

When a reader first picks up a story, they are like a coma patient—fluttering open their eyes in an unfamiliar world, wondering, where am I, when am I, who am I? The writer has an obligation to quickly and efficiently orient.

Which is why writers should avoid opening with dialogue. I know, I know—you can think of ten thousand awesome stories that do exactly that. I don’t like any them.

Read more of Percy’s essay—in the latest Glimmer Train bulletin—by clicking here.

Or read two other essays from the bulletin:

Posted in Writing Advice and tagged , , .
Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the co-founder and editor of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. She also has a book forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press, The Business of Being a Writer (March 2018).

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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32 Comments on "Avoid Opening With Dialogue"

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The coma analogy is by far the best argument I’ve seen for not starting a story with dialogue. Makes a great case for setting the scene first.

James Scott Bell
Have to disagree with this. Starting with dialogue is often a great choice. For one thing, it forces the writer to open in a scene and not in the often fatal over-descriptive opening, or character-alone-thinking opening. For another, it invites instant conflict (see, e.g., The Last Coyote, perhaps Michael Connelly’s best book). Readers may be in a coma but they’re not brain dead. They will wait for information if caught up in something that’s happening. Dialogue is happening. Thus, a reader can wait for the seventh paragraph of Tom Sawyer to know who is speaking. There is no confusion, no… Read more »
Charlene Bell Dietz

Don’t you think it all depends on what the dialogue does for the reader? I’d much prefer to discover the emotional tone, the urgency of the situation, and be a part of something that let’s me imagine a setting without reading a long descriptive (or even short) paragraph. Good dialogue with well-placed beats can do that. I just don’t believe we have to spoon-feed our readers.

Heide Braley

I have to say that I might disagree as well. To say that one style of writing is not good is like saying we should all talk the same way. I like the challenge of figuring out what is going on and sometimes find it boring when books and television or movies describe too much. Older movies and books left us to figure out things, making us feel so much smarter!

Jim Hamlett

Add one more to the “Disagree” column, Jane, for reasons already cited. May I close with a great quote: “There are no rules.” (For those who MUST have one, try this: The first sentence must compel the reader to the second, then the third, etc. to the end.)

Michael Kizzia

I don’t know. There is always White (even without Strunk):
“Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.

Michael Kizzia

Posted before I finished)
Just this: it doesn’t mean it can’t happen again.

Nancy Mehl

I disagree as well. Opening with dialogue pulls the reader immediately into the
story. It’s active, and it helps to identify the genre. Readers who usually make quick decisions may use that initial introduction in their buying decision.
I’m not saying that making a sale is more important than quality. I believe opening with dialogue can do both.
And of course it should be well written, But that’s true with narration as well, isn’t it? I guess if an author can’t write good dialogue, the they probably can’t write narration either. (S)

Michael Kizzia
Now that I am not rushing, let me explain. It may have just been me, but I read the article as do this, don’t do that, whereas I never say never. White rather shows that it can be done if done well — as you keep saying. Apart from that, I feel there is too much emphasis these days on the first page, first paragraph, first line. I recall L’Engle’s first line from her award winning “Wrinkle in Time:” “It was a dark and stormy night.” In other hands, in another time it might have elicited certain death. But I… Read more »
An exception to the above I’d like to contribute to your comments collected is from one of my favourite books, Autobiography of a Yogi, by Paramhansa Yogananda. I believe each chapter, with the exception of the first two, begin with dialogue. That writer inhabits a world that is foreign, strange, and mysterious, with much need to provide the reader navigation aids, and his opening with dialogue does this remarkably well. An example, from Chapter 9: “It would serve you right if Father disinherited you, Mukanda! How foolishly you are throwing away your life!” An elder-brother sermon was assaulting my ears.… Read more »
Dawn Dix

Hi Janet – I’ve gotten so many different opinions on this one. As a result, I changed the initial opening to my thriller manuscript from description to dialogue. Then back to description, and that’s where it’s remaining! lol I can only hope that when I submit it, the agents will be fond of some narrative before dialogue. 🙂

Dawn Dix

Silly question, off the subject, but how do I get my name to appear as a link to my blog here? It just asks for a name & email rather than a URL

Mariam Kobras

About two week ago, when I was visiting my publisher, I said to her, “I like to start my novels slowly, ease the reader into the story.” She nodded, her eyes closed, while we were served red velvet cake and coffee. So yes, I agree with you, Jane.

Brian Hoffman
This is the sort of advice I hate. What this agent or publisher or editor says is right. Thank goodness these people are becoming more and more irrelevant. Remember, the vast majority of them can’t write or they would be. Instead, they act as gatekeepers who decide on what is right or wrong. When I hear that some best seller was rejected 17 times and when the the industry only breaks even on 30% of the books they publish, I don’t think they know what they are doing. With the success of ebooks, we can let the real judges of… Read more »
Edward itor
“Are you sh…sh..sure…” Hal stuttered staring into Laura Bell’s hazel green eyes. A drop of sweat poured off the tip of his nose dropping into the teen beauties cleavage causing her to giggle. “Are you sh..sh..sure you’re ready!” She reached up, twining her fingers in the hair on the back of his head then pulled his face down mashing their young and eager lips together as an answer. Rule of literature are guidelines. All so called rules of writing are constantly being revised and updated. Dialog is an easy and great way to jump right in to a new tale.… Read more »

“Where’s Papa going with that axe?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.
Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White


Guess it is better than opening with the weather report.

Marylin Warner

“Ssshhh. Don’t move.” His hand covered her mouth, and enough of her nose that she struggled to breathe. (Or–move the dialogue to after ‘breathe’–but it loses something, don’t you think?)

Jake Richert
Definitely late to this conversation but I agree in part to this advice and appreciate the first line of ‘Charlotte’s Web’ as an example of the best way to open a story with dialogue. The father going to kill the runt of the litter of piglets sets the entire story into motion in six words. It is because he’s on the way to kill the runt (Wilbur!) and that his daughter sees him, asks, then reacts by saving the runt that there’s even a story. If Fern hadn’t seen her father, there’d be no story. We wouldn’t have met Charlotte.… Read more »
Peter Bernfeld

How to turn anybody off reading an article you’ve written. Make the statement
QUOTE:you can think of ten thousand awesome stories that do exactly that. I don’t like any them. UNQUOTE

Read all ten thousand then have you?

Rick Smarm
I have a degree in English Literatue, Creative Writing and have written a couple of novels. I am publishing my first full length novel very soon. Jane’s advice is bad advice. First of all I know that there is no hard and fast rule about dialogue. Good writers use alot of it. Some very badly written websites give some very poor advice about dialogue. Here’s what to expect from dialogue advice. Bad advice. I don’t mean to sound mean but Jane clean up you’re act. You’re gonna find alot of writers with reasonable skills who use dialogue in many places… Read more »