Monday, November 15, 2010

Getting right down to dialogue

This post is inspired by Susan Kaye Quinn's post highlighting an agent's first-page tips. The unnamed agent is a fan of dialogue as a way to show character and went so far as to say lack of dialogue on the first page might be a red flag. I'd never thought about the importance of first-page dialogue to show voice, but it feels like a no-brainer in retrospect.

I went searching through some good reads to see what I could find along those lines and was surprised that character-revealing first-page dialogue is hard to find. Really hard to find. There were mundane scraps of dialogue on Page 1 or more catchy stuff arrived a few pages later in an assortment of books I would rate four or five stars. In novels that are first person, the need seems lessened, because the story is told in internal voice anyway.
Still, I think this tip is worth pursuing. Here are some examples I did find of excellent books that have spiffy dialogue on the first page:
*PARANORMALCY by Kiersten White jumps right into its snappy attitude on Page 1.
"Wait--did you--You just yawned!" The vampire's arms, raised over his head in the classic Dracula pose, dropped to his sides. He pulled his exaggerated white fangs back behind his lips. "What, imminent death isn't exciting enough for you?"
"Oh, stop pouting. But, really, the widow's peak? The pale skin? The black cape? Where did you even get that thing, a costume store?"

FEED by M.T. Anderson sets the tone right away of a dystopian world where the language is slightly changed but the teen attitude is for all time.

We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.
We went on a Friday, because there was shit-all to do at home. It was the beginning of spring break. Everything at home was boring. Link Atwater was like, "I'm so null," and Marty was all, "I'm null, too, unit," but I mean we were all pretty null, because for the last like hour we'd been playing with three uninsulated wires that were coming out of the wall. We were trying to ride shocks off them.

REVOLUTION by Jennifer Donnelly delves into the emotional darkness of a girl who comes from a privileged life but suffers an inconsolable loss. The opening sets the tone and her sharp world view.
Those who can, do.
Those who can't, deejay.
Like Cooper van Epp. Standing in his room--the entire fifth floor of a Hicks Street brownstone--trying to beat-match John Lee Hooker with some piece of trip-hop horror. On twenty thousand dollars' worth of equipment he doesn't know how to use.
"This is the blues, man!" he crows. "It's Memphis mod." He pauses to pour himself his second scotch of the morning. "It's like then and now. Brooklyn and Beale Street all at once. It's like hanging at a house party with John Lee. Smoking Kents and drinking bourbon for breakfast. All that's missing, all we need--"
"--are hunger, disease and a total lack of economic opportunity," I say.

I'd love to hear from any of you, if you know of other examples where first-page dialogue really sets voice. I was surprised how hard it was to find examples.


Susan Kaye Quinn said...

I'm intrigued, too, now that you're having a tough time with examples. A couple of mine:

Behemoth: Alex raised his sword. "On guard, sir!"

Uglies: No dialogue until second page.

I think it's just something to consider, not anything like a requirement. And I like your observation about 1st person, where internal dialogue may be the substitute for dialogue to show character, although I think too much of that can be a problem too.

In the end, if it works, it works. :)

Elana Johnson said...

Interesting. I don't have dialog on my first page at all. I don't think it's a red flag if you have voice in your narrative. And let's face it, dialog isn't the only way to give "voice" to writing, you know?

But great examples!

Claire Dawn said...


Not every book lends itself to a "great dialog" first page. There are lots of different ways a first page can be great. But you can't put them all together.

It would be like that time they tried to make the perfect face by combining 'perfect' features from several models. Basically, ended up with Frankenstein.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

@Susan: Yeah, I was surprised how hard it was to find anything. I've never been a fan of dialogue that starts without any mooring, so it's tricky to get it in right at the start of a story.

@Elana: I found lots of good books that didn't have any dialogue on the first page, so I'm not going to consider it a 'must do,' but I am intrigued to experiment with it.

@Claire: Ha! I think sometimes we do create Frankenstein manuscripts when we try too hard to follow all the varied advice.
In the end, I guess we have to be true to our own voice/our character's voice above all else.

Wen Baragrey said...

I'd never thought of this before. I love M.T Anderson for voice, he's got it so nailed in all his books. Sometimes it's almost too raw and real for me.

Elizabeth Mueller said...

Hi, Tricia! Interesting post. I reviewed my novels and only found that 3 of them have dialogue in the first page and 1 is the only one that has a 'character defining' moment.

I do agree with Elana. The way the narrative is written also reveals voice.

But I guess that's the way that particular agent likes their work read. :)

Jemi Fraser said...

I hadn't thought of this before, but dialogue is a great way to get to know someone quickly! Thanks :)

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

@Wen: Yeah, FEED got really raw and dark, but I so loved that book. He is masterful with voice.

@Elizabeth: It may be just this agent's take on things, because I hadn't heard anyone else put it that way before. Sure got me thinking....

@Jemi: Sure is, especially if there is a distinct voice.

Donna said...

Hmmm. I never thought about immediate dialogue. I will now. Thanks.

Liza said...

I'm going to pay attention to this going's intriguing...

Suzanne Casamento said...

I've heard a lot about Revolution lately. I'm so glad you posted the opening. It totally sucked me in!

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

@Donna: It was a new idea for me, too. I steered away from opening with dialogue because it can be confusing if the reader isn't grounded. But I'm going to experiment for sure.

@Liza: It really is. Fun to play with the concept, I think.

@Suzanne: I loved Revolution--beautiful and powerful story.

VR Barkowski said...

I do have dialogue on page one of my first novel and it does show character, but that's only because I reversed the first two chapters. I find inner thoughts a much more compelling way to show character. I can't imagine any snippet of dialogue that could enthrall more than, Lolita Light of my life, fire of my loins, My sin, my soul. On the other hand, I'm abysmal at opening paragraphs - which is why chapter two is now chapter one. :)

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

@Viva: Interesting that you got it by reversing chapters. So often we do move chapters from first drafts up to the opening. Hmmmmm.
Yeah, Nabokov nailed that opening, without a doubt.

Lydia Kang said...

Yep, voice and dialogue aren't equal, however, good voice is really important, and especially on that first page!
I like Jennifer Donnelly so thanks for the reminder on her new book!

Unknown said...

I've never really thought about the dialogue on the first page when I read a book. I just kind of take everything in--the complete package. :D

Sarah Laurence said...

Interesting observation that dialogue is rare on the first page. If the MC is narrating in the first person (common in YA) we are getting interior monologue, which can set voice even better than dialogue, I would argue. Your examples were really helpful.

Cynthia Lord’s Touch Blue opens with “The ferry is coming!” I loved that for a book set on an island. Everything changes after that passenger on the ferry arrives. This was a big revision from her first draft.

My MS on submission opens with interior monologue but shifts to dialogue in the first 250 words. The first page of a MS is actually a half page due to chapter header formatting. My WIP opens with dialogue in the first sentence, and it introduces the central conflict. Both MSS are narrated in the first person.

Terrific post – you really got me thinking!

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

@Lydia: I think you'll really enjoy Revolution.

@Stina: I hadn't thought about it, either, until the agent made that comment. Quite intriguing.

@Sarah: Thanks! The agent's comment set me off on this. I think you're right that interior monologue can set voice better than dialogue, especially when we don't know the characters or situation yet.
I can see how the ferry dialogue would work, because it tells the reader right away how important that boat is to the life of the people in the story.

storyqueen said...

Looking at my own stuff....

Trinket-No dialogue on first page (but the MC is addressing the audience....?)

Nix-Dialogue in the first paragraph.

Keelie-No dialogue for a couple of pages, but the beginning is apt to change when I get around to it.

Very interesting topic.


MG Higgins said...

Just finished The Chosen One by Carol Lynch Williams. It opens with dialog, which is supposed to be a no-no, but it immediately drew me in:

"If I was going to kill the Prophet," I say, not even keeping my voice low, "I'd do it in Africa."

As they say, you can break rules if you do it right.

Patti said...

Interesting, now I want to go look at all of my books on my shelf.

Shannon O'Donnell said...

I've never really thought about this much. I knew we should start with action, but I hadn't heard the dialogue advice.'ve got me thinking. ;-)

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

@Shelley: It's intriguing to look at your own work and others in this regard, isn't it? I'm not sure yet where this will shake down in my opinion but I'm fascinated by it.

@Mel: Ooooooo, that is riveting opening dialogue! Great example. I want to know what's up and am drawn to the MC's out-front attitude. Thanks!

@Patti: Yeah, I was pulling books out like mad, looking for any that worked. ;)

@Shannon: It's a whole new concept, another layer to consider, but I'm having fun with the notion right now. :)

The Words Crafter said...

Huh. I never considered this before. I'm going to have to open several of my faves and see which they did...

Robyn Campbell said...

Pat, excellent post. Actually, I have dialogue on my first page of SEVENTY-TWO HOURS, to set the tone for Anna's character. It worked out well. I think anyway. And I don't think I could've written it any other way.

I'm surprised by the comments of folks who haven't thought about it, though.

Jennifer Donnelly is one of the BEST. REVOLUTION is such an excellent read. Andi's depression of the loss of her brother really brings the reader in. Then when she finds the diary. Oh man! Happy Thanksgiving Pat. I love ya girl. EAT TONS. :)

Carolina M. Valdez Schneider said...

I definitely think it's tough to find, but most especially with first person. But like you said, easier to hear the voice in first person, too. It's an interesting subject to bring up, though. I guess I've never given it a lot of thought, but I tend to have a lot of dialogue anyway--I tend to prefer reading it, too, so...

I can't wait to read Donnelly's book. Heard a lot of good things about it.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

@WordsCrafter: Happy hunting!

@Robyn: How cool that you've got that dialogue thing down! Can't wait to see that book on the store shelf someday.
I hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving, too!

@Carol: It was what the agent said that made me more aware of first-page dialogue. So much to think about...
I think you're going to love Revolution. It's excellent.