As a Blue Mesa Review reader, I evaluate a lot of fiction for the magazine. I see the same mistakes made over and over again. One of the most persistent, and most unfortunate, is the use of dialogue in the first line. So maybe you write a first line that looks something like this:
“My God, Henry! What are you doing?”
The reader has a lot of questions. Where are we? Who’s speaking? Who’s Henry? Is anyone else here? What’s going on?
Here’s another question: who cares? There’s no setting, no narrator, nothing at all to visualize—so why should I bother? Editors don’t typically make decisions based exclusively on the first line (at least not at Blue Mesa Review), but the first page is our first impression. When I see untagged dialogue in the first line, I doubt the quality of the next few pages.
Listen, I’m a writer too. I know how hard it can be to create a dynamic, engaging, imagistic opening scene that grabs the reader by the lapels and flings them head-first down the Slip-n-Slide that is your story. But free-floating dialogue lacks all context. Two people speaking into a void is boring. Two people arguing in a living room is slightly better. A girl watching through the crack in the living room door as her two suitors argue, their words growing more heated until—“My god, Henry! What are you doing?”
I care a lot more about what Henry is doing when I know who’s involved, how they’re related to each other, where they are in time and space.
“But wait,” you say, “what about _____?”
Indeed, what about ______? There are a number of novels and short stories, famous and otherwise, that open with a line of dialogue. A popular example is Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange:
“What’s it going to be then, eh?”
There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie, and Dim, Dim being really dim, and we sat in the Korova Milkbar making up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening, a flip dark chill winter bastard though dry.
Now look at Ray Bradbury’s short story The Veldt:
“George, I wish you’d look at the nursery.”
“What’s wrong with it?”
“I don’t know.”
“I just want you to look at it, is all, or call a psychologist in to look at it.”
“What would a psychologist want with a nursery?”
“You know very well what he’d want.” His wife paused in the middle of the kitchen and watched the stove busy humming to itself, making supper for four.
Burgess’ opening compels me, but Bradbury’s does not. Why? For one, Bradbury doesn’t give us a setting until seven lines into the story. For another, his dialogue is fantastically empty. This is small talk—an inefficient form of dialogue. The malfunction of the nursery, and the involvement of a psychologist are both relevant to the story, but the exchange doesn’t really explain their connection in a meaningful way. Burgess, meanwhile, opens with a line of dialogue closely followed by a paragraph of narration. The narration situates the dialogue in space, place, and time.
The first line does a lot of work. It identifies the narrator and the characters in the scene, sets the time location of the action, and introduces a strong voice.
There’s nothing to say a writer shouldn’t open with dialogue—starting a conversation as early as the second line can make for an engaging first scene. I won’t call it a rule, but I’ll make an aggressive suggestion with your best interests in mind: open with narration, and if you really must start with dialogue, you had better be clever enough to get away with it.