What You Do When You Say It: Dialogue and Action

far sideAnother method of beginning a novel is to start with dialogue, but of the best 100 lines, only three contained dialogue. So, while it is popular to suggest, it may not be as practical. But why not? Perhaps because it’s so easy to begin with poor dialogue and uninspiring action. “Nelson walked down the street.” Or, “Nelson said, ‘Excuse me, can you tell me how to get to the nearest gas station?’” We’d be hard pressed to find a reader who was enthralled with these less-than-stupefying examples. As a high school Creative Writing instructor, I often caution my students against beginning with dialogue because, often, their dialogue is the weakest part of their writing. I think it’s safe to say that you never want to open with your weakest skill.

Instead, if we are to begin with dialogue, we need to find the right piece—something unexpected or something that will wrench a reader from their safe world of reality and thrust them into the world of the fiction. We can think of these as elevator lines. If you’re beginning with a piece of dialogue, take your manuscript into an elevator crowded with strangers and read it out loud. If there’s a great unease in the elevator, you might be on to something. If people chuckle, and you’ve intended the line to be funny, you may have some success. If, instead, there’s a complete dearth of interest, you’ll need to scrap it and start over. To exemplify, a crowded elevator will not respond to, “I wonder if I need milk.” But they may be more interested in something like, “Anyway, I shot him. What else could I do?” How about, “Luckily, I was able to stash it in the trunk before the cop got close enough to see what was in the bag.” These lines are more of a sure-shot for getting uncomfortable looks, and, by extension, prompting a reader to move further into the text.

The first of the three dialogue lines in the best 100, Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, only places 66th. Regardless, the line is engaging. “‘To be born again,’ sang Gibreel Farishta tumbling from the heavens, ‘first you have to die,’” (100BestLines.asp 66). One thing that makes this line memorable is the combination of dialogue and action. In fact, as intriguing as the dialogue is, the action may be more arresting. A character falling from heaven is far more interesting than an average man taking the subway to work. Compile that with the pseudo-philosophical reasoning, and we have a falling philosopher who speaks, it would seem, with aplomb in the face of disaster.

Ten places after Rushdie, Rose Macaulay’s The Towers of Trebizond, is listed: “‘Take my camel, dear,’ said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass,’” (100BestLines.asp 76). Like Rushdie, Macaulay combines multiple techniques to harness our interest. Instead of combining strong dialogue with action, she matches it with setting. We’re reasonably able to assume that wherever Aunt Dot is, it’s likely not in America. And if she is in America, something is very different about the America we know. In this way, we’re compelled to read further.

Finally, in 83rd place, Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love, is the last dialogue opening in the top 100. “‘When your mama was the geek, my dreamlets,’ Papa would say, ‘she made the nipping off of noggins such a crystal mystery that the hens themselves yearned toward her, waltzing around her, hypnotized with longing,’” (100BestLines.asp 83). Here, Dunn hasn’t simply relied on an ordinary speaker for the dialogue. We get a sense that Papa is a master storyteller. Additionally, within the dialogue, we have more action—the “nipping off of noggins.” While we may not understand fully what it is, we’re lead to believe it has something to do with beheading chickens. What better way to start a story than with blood, an ax, and a flock of beguiled chickens on a proverbial chopping block?

In the same way that dialogue should not be ordinary or easily anticipated, action should be believable and unexpected. The mundane and routine do not intrigue or engage. Maybe this is why walking to school or driving to work won’t prompt us as readers to progress. Certainly it’s why we’re told in various craft books and by assorted writing professors not to begin with characters waking up (or, as Chip MacGregor says on page ten, waking up drunk and staring in the mirror). In addition to being clichés, they’re boring.

The only writer who was able to write about someone waking up with any amount of detail that urged a reader on, and in such a way that it pleased critics, was Kafka in The Metamorphosis. “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect,” (89). Obviously, this example stretches the credulity of the novella, but Kafka continues in such detail that the reader buys in. So, while the first line is not necessarily believable, it is grandly unexpected and original—the true reason we continue.

Gertrude Stein understood the importance of beginning with unpredictable action and unanticipated dialogue, and throws in a little setting while she’s at it. In The Making of Americans, she begins with the action and follows it (albeit in the second sentence) with dialogue. “Once an angry man dragged his father along the ground through his own orchard. ‘Stop!’ cried the groaning old man at last, ‘Stop! I did not drag my father beyond this tree,’” (100BestLines.asp 33). The setting, clearly, is the dragged man’s orchard. While she doesn’t belabor the details of said orchard, we at least understand there are trees, and can make a reasonable assumption about the climate. But the orchard is not why we read. The angry man dragging the other (presumably the father of the dragger), cave man style maybe, is what piques our curiosity.

Another fine example is Virginia Woolf. She begins Orlando with these words: “He—for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it—was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters” (100BestLines.asp 97). Here, again, is an establishment of setting. Though we’re not given a specific place name, we understand the fashion of the area, and that it’s likely either feminine or sexually ambiguous (something that is later developed in the rest of the novel). Clearly, though, the compelling element here is the action slicing at the head of a Moor.

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