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Be wary of rules.

Discussion in 'Insights & Inspiration' started by U.G. Ridley, Oct 17, 2016.

  1. Mckk

    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Yet I distinctly remember one of Lee Child's books starting with dialogue - worked just fine. Now his writing is by no means excellent, but successful he certainly is.

    Seems like dialogue as opening is just your personal pet peeve though :p Goes to show how subjective writing is and how getting published is, to some extent, pure luck.

    Out of interest, why does dialogue as opening irate you so?

    I just started something where I open with a line of dialogue, you see :p so genuinely curious. It's not my norm to do so - it just happened that it suited the scene I was working on.
     
  2. BayView

    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    Maybe more like wanting to ride your bike to the store and not knowing how to ride your bike - you can either get on the bike and figure it out or you can read books about how to ride a bike.

    I don't necessarily disagree with your general point, that some combination of study and application may be the most effective way to learn... but there do seem to be some people who spend a long, long time reading the books about riding the bike and never actually get on the bike to try it out.

    I'd have thought all of that was included in the umbrella term of 'writing'. If we think about writing as just word-choice, a lot of our discussions don't make much sense... characterization, plot, themes, etc... all part of writing, to my definition.

    I'm not really sure that reading fiction without analysing is useless. I think of myself as a fairly 'natural' writer, meaning I've never studied writing or read books on writing or even spent much time breaking down the writing of others. But I have read voraciously for almost all of my life, and I think I've picked up a lot about storytelling just subconsciously. Not to say that consciously studying writing isn't useful as well, but I do think simply reading and absorbing is useful, too.
     
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  3. 123456789

    123456789 Contributing Member Contributor

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    By literary canon I meant all books that have ever existed, which obviously affects all readers. I suppose there is a more technical definition for the term, which I ignored. That's my fault.
     
  4. 123456789

    123456789 Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'm pretty sure opening with a line of a dialogue irritates many more people than just Deadrats. @jannert gave a terrific explanation of why to avoid opening with dialogue, but I'm going to add the number one reason it often irritates me, as another aspiring writer.

    I can practically see the author desperately trying to create a hook that catches the reader. "Oh, look how tense and thrilling my piece is. I'm jumping straight to a character talking." As if the book were really a film, and the opening scene black but for a voice. Sorry, not impressed. Have seen a million people try it in the workshop and it is always discombobulating and sort of silly. Like, why would the narration even start with a character talking?

    Not saying starting with dialogue never works, but I'd say more >60% of the time it does not work.
     
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  5. jannert

    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    A line or two of dialogue can work as an opener, but, the setting and circumstances need to be established immediately afterwards, or it just becomes babble. And yes, it's often employed to create what the writer thinks is a stunning 'hook.'

    What you need, in your opening lines, is something that makes a person want to continue reading. That's it. Your reader doesn't have to fling the book in the air at that point and say 'wow, what a fantastic/clever/exciting/unique line THAT was.' You just need them to keep reading. That's all.

    I've read a fair amount of feedback from agents discussing what works and what doesn't work for them. One point that consistently crops up is their disappointment when the clever writing hook isn't matched by what follows. In other words, when it's obvious the writer has slaved over a clever opener, but then reverts to whatever their 'real' style actually is. The general advice is to keep your style consistent, and craft an opener that entices the reader into your story without unnecessary pyrotechnics.
     
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  6. Mckk

    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    @123456789 - it's true that one certainly should not open with dialogue if they're doing so because they think it's somehow really clever. It isn't. And echoing what @jannert said, totally agree with her and you both that starting with dialogue creates basically a blank screen where the reader is essentially lost, because unlike in a film, there're no visuals to clue you in to what's happening. So yes, setting needs to be established immediately or almost immediately afterwards. In my case, the opener is one short line of dialogue and the next is already a paragraph of setting - where it's happening and who's around - so folks shouldn't honestly be lost. As long as readers are not lost and again, as Janet says, as long as the readers read on, I'm happy! I often think opening with "It was a dark and stormy night" is better than some convoluted sentence designed to dazzle. If you can't think of a relevant, exciting hook as your first line, then I'd say go with an easy to read sentence :)

    @BayView - I may argue that "absorbing" without any kind of analysis only gets you so far though. Without reading critically, how do you learn? You may get a general feeling for things, but that would be all. I guess perhaps the critical reading could technically come during your own editing process - and I have found my writing improves the most during the editing stage, not writing stage.

    And maybe it's just me, but I have always just focused on the writing aspect when I think about writing. Might explain why my WIP still isn't done... sigh.
     
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  7. SethLoki

    SethLoki Unemployed Autodidact Contributor

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    Oh crap!
     
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  8. KaTrian

    KaTrian A foolish little beast. Staff Supporter Contributor

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    But how is starting with a spoken line much different from starting with a direct character thought, though?

    I just downloaded a sample of this fantasy book called Kiss of Deception. It might be shit, of course (the title alone... I admit, I picked it based on the cover), but at least the author got published, and it begins like this:
    Journey's end. The promise. The hope. Tell me again, Ama. About the light.

    It might as well read "Tell me again, Ama. About the light." Okay, cool. I've no idea what's going on. Who's Ama? What light? Who's talking (thinking)? Who's s/he talking to? I don't have a clue... because it's the first friggin line so I'm not even supposed to.
    So I read on, and then I realize it's the protagonist thinking about stuff. And I read on. And I read until I understand better what's going on. My point is, what separates a thought from a piece of dialogue? Or should the writer be wary of both?

    Maybe they should start with the protagonist's name?
    Surfeyn could no longer protect his master from thieves and vipers. (The Dark Citadel)

    Or with the antagonist?
    The Prince had all his young life known the story of Sleeping Beauty, cursed to sleep for a hundred years, with her parents, the King and Queen, and all of the Court, after pricking her finger on a spindle. (The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty)

    The protagonist's mom?
    If Susan Black had not been quite so brave, she might have got away with it. (Masters of War)

    Or is there really that big of a difference as long as what follows, like the first 5 pages or so, is gripping enough? I think in any case the reader has to read on for a while to fully orient themselves and become immersed. I think anyone would be clueless after the first two or three sentences in any case, so I'm wondering, is starting with dialogue (or a character exclaiming or cursing) a bigger "problem" and something to be avoided because it's inexplicably annoying and/or because it seems too calculated and/or because agents balk at it more easily?

    And no, my WIP doesn't begin with dialogue, so I'm not defensive as much as I'm... curious? :p
     
  9. jannert

    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    I think that's a good question, actually. Thoughts as opposed to dialogue?

    If the thoughts are quickly grounded in some sort of reality and not an extended load of airy-fairy waffle, they probably work okay.

    I believe a writer should remember, when crafting their opening couple of lines (probably best done after the whole story is finished) is this: the reader is new to that world. They have just sat themselves down with a new book, and have no idea what's in store for them, unless they've read blurbs or reviews. They don't know what the story is about, who the characters are, where the story is taking place, etc. It's a good idea to get them oriented as soon as you can. Give them what they need to get started. If you go off on some flighty tangent for a few paragraphs and THEN attempt to dish out your story's reality, you may well have lost your readers by then.

    I have a lot of patience if I encounter this situation when I'm doing critiques, either here on the forum or as a beta reader, but I have no patience with this kind of waffle in a published (or self-published) book. If I haven't got something tangible about the who, where, what and why of the story after the first couple of sentences, I usually stop reading. Permanently.

    Get the reader oriented quickly. There isn't really a formula, and anything can work, including a couple of lines of dialogue. But your intention should NOT be to create mystery for the reader at this point. Get the readers oriented instead. Then give them the mystery, if there is one.
     
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  10. KaTrian

    KaTrian A foolish little beast. Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Can you think of examples of books where this happened? I'm reminded of my linguistics homework from yesterday -- I was in desperate need of examples of how not to do the exercise. I guess that's how I learn. :p

    Anyway, I usually download a sample, or if I'm at the book store, actually read the first few pages (in addition to the blurb) before I decide if the book is for me. It's easier to hop on--and stay on--when the protagonist's name is introduced right off the bat, as well as where they are and what they're doing, and hopefully it's all going to be relevant in some way.
     
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  11. Mckk

    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    @jannert technically there should always be a mystery - your opening should always make the reader ask questions. But there's a difference between making the reader go, "Wtf is going on here? I can't follow it at all. What a load of bleh that doesn't make an ounce of sense!" and making the reader go, "Why did he do that? I must find out!" There's a difference between being mysterious, and just plain being vague. The two are not the same thing :bigtongue:

    @KaTrian - it's funny because your post perfectly illustrates the purpose of this thread, where the message is: tools not rules :agreed: because it really doesn't matter how you start as long as it grips the majority of readers. Perhaps certain ways of doing it are harder than others, but it doesn't mean it can't be done. And also, actually, first person narrative often starts with trains of thought - Fault in Our Stars begin with Hazel philosophising about death and cancer without any setting as far as I can remember.

    What you said also illustrates another point I've come across perfectly, and that is the terrible, terrible advice people give all the time: "Make me care about your character! Your opening doesn't work because I don't care about him. Well, why should I care?"

    In my opinion, this whole "caring" thing is a load of crap. Yes, of course you have to make readers care. But the point is, you cannot by sheer force of will or magic make the reader care deeply about anything after just one line! Yet people often critique opening lines with, "Oh but I don't care." Well, to that I say, you can't make someone care who won't listen - or in this case, read :coffee: It's false to think you have to make readers care after just one line - interested to at least move onto the next sentence, yes. By the end of the paragraph you should preferably be having the reader ask a few questions. But emotional investment? - to the point where you can say you care about a fictional character? That takes more time than one line, but many novice writers are made to believe one line is all they have. Not true. In general, I think you have at least a page or two to hook the reader.
     
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  12. jannert

    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    I'll try to remember some, but these are the books I didn't read!
     
  13. jannert

    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Yeah, maybe I didn't make that clear. What I meant by mystery is exactly what you've said. Wtf is going on? I can't follow this.

    If the story is well-written it will certainly raise questions, and the reader needs to be patient about getting the answers. The reader might not know WHY somebody does something until the end of the story. In fact, finding out why might be the whole point of the story. But if the reader doesn't know who is doing what, or where any of it is taking place, and is just wading through words that don't connect to anything yet ...then I think there's an orientation problem.
     
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  14. U.G. Ridley

    U.G. Ridley I'm a wizard, Hagrid Supporter

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    Before I joined this forum, I tried out a smaller one that was focused entirely on critique and no discussion on anything else, which I don't think was a bad setup, but unfortunately, the community was another story. The forum had some crappy web design, so few people seemed to stay on the forum for long until they found something better. Anyway, while I was there, I noticed that every critic was pretty much a site veteran, and they all said the same things. One of the biggest things I saw repeated again and again, was this whole thing about "caring" that you mentioned. Now, the sample I posted, was 180 words that established the setting and gave you an idea of what was going on, and also had some dialogue and character development. But my critics just couldn't get over how they just simply didn't caaaaree.

    Really? 180 words and y'all expected to be deeply in love with my characters or something?:confused:

    First thing that made me really happy when I came here: people disagree with each other in almost every, if not every thread, and thank god for that. I can't handle another echochamber forum where everyone just repeats the same dumb things as if reading from a sacred text.
     
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  15. EnginEsq

    EnginEsq Senior Member

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    After 180 words, I should be interested in your character. Love comes later.

    The classic SF novel Norstrilla (www.cordwainer-smith.com/norstrilia.htm) opens with 108 words:

    The story is simple. There was a boy who bought the planet Earth. We know that, to our cost. It only happened once, and we have taken pains that it will never happen again. He came to Earth, got what he wanted, and got away alive, in a series of very remarkable adventures. That's the story.

    The place? That's Old North Australia. What other place could it be? Where else do farmers pay ten million credits for a handkerchief, five for a bottle of beer? Where else do people lead peaceful lives, untouched by militarism, on a world which is booby-trapped with death and things worse than death?​

    Are you interested? I was.
     
  16. U.G. Ridley

    U.G. Ridley I'm a wizard, Hagrid Supporter

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    "Interested" and "care" are two very different things. Am I interested in the paragraphs you showed me? Mildly. Do I care? Nah. So that's just a matter of how you define your words I suppose, but the impression I almost always get from people when they say they don't care about the character after the first page or so, is that they don't feel invested in what is going to happen to the character. That's just a pretentiously silly thing to ask, in my opinion. It would be like dismissing every individual you meet in your life before getting to know them at least a little. You and your precious time are not that important. I do absolutely agree that your reader should at least be interested in the story by the time they've read two hundred words, though.
     
  17. ChickenFreak

    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    When discussing an opening, I would interpret "care" as "interested", simply because, yes, the reader can't care so quickly.

    That's one reason why I like starting a book with action, but not THE action of the book, because you should care about the characters before the big plot stuff happens.

    I think that one way to make you care about the action and the character--two birds, one stone--is to start with action that the reader can empathize and identify with, because the readers certainly care about themselves. Getting fired, being snubbed, stolen laptop, rude waiter, rude customer--countless small things can buy that empathy.
     
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  18. Mckk

    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    But you're an experienced writer, and I've read your stuff in the workshop at least once I think, and I've certainly read your critique - you're not an amateur by any means. Care and interested are two different things, as @U.G. Ridley rightly said. The fact that you interpret "care" to mean "interested" might be just because you're experienced and therefore have good common sense when it comes to writing. I certainly didn't get this at the beginning!

    As for "starting with action" - that's yet another confusing piece of advice that gets bounced around. (this is not a criticism on you or your post - I'm just speaking generally). Novice writers end up starting with some fight scene or chase scene or something otherwise very dramatic - in general when people think "action", they think Mission Impossible, not a character getting food he hadn't ordered. People don't usually see a rude customer as "action" because films like Transformers are action, whereas Interview with the Vampire certainly isn't. I know that's just people confusing genre labels with the more dictionary definition of the word "action", but there you have it - it causes confusion. But people saying "Start with action" almost never clarify what kind of action they mean. To the novice writer who's writing a family drama, this could get quite confusing. What would be dramatic enough to be considered action? Of course we know action doesn't have to be dramatic, but these are things that come with experience and are not necessarily intuitive.

    And then you get people starting with action and then getting the feedback "I don't care" in return. They get told they must establish character, give the reader time to get to know him. But start with action. Don't start with the character at the table having a conversation. And don't start with him alone making coffee either. Nothing's happening. It leaves novice writers at a complete dead end because it feels like whatever they do is wrong.

    Although I agree starting with action that the reader can easily empathise with is definitely a good idea.

    I personally don't think this whole "start with action" thing is good advice. Not every book is about action. A book I read called Sister of My Heart and it begins with beautiful descriptions of Indian religious beliefs and ceremonies about demons and babies. Fault in Our Stars, as I mentioned, starts with musings about death. Hunger Games starts with Katniss waking up. Harry Potter starts with description about the absolutely ordinary. Handmaid's Tale starts with Offred in a bed doing perfectly nothing (she pretty much does nothing throughout the book!). None of these would be considered "action" and certainly not "action" in the typical sense of the word. Brandon Sanderson's Elantris starts with a prologue that consists entirely of description, and a chapter one when the MC wakes up to find himself struck with a curse/disease.

    I would stand by the advice of: don't worry about action and don't worry about making anyone care - rather, does your opening invite questions that the reader wants answered?

    That, in the end, is honestly all you need. It can start with a bang or it can start quietly, but a successful opening is one that makes the reader asks questions. And/or one that fills the reader with expectation. With Potter, the reader obviously expects this normality to be shattered - the more normal, the greater the disturbance - so the reader is filled with anticipation. With Katniss, right away we ask: why are they afraid, what happened to make the mother no longer "beautiful", and what on earth is the Reaping? I wanted to find out what the Reaping was, and that intrigued me enough when combined with the more emotional questions, if less "hooking", that had already been planted in me. And all that in the very first paragraph.
     
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  19. 123456789

    123456789 Contributing Member Contributor

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    You fear that new aspiring writers will take such and such advice the wrong way, but my fear is that they'll also take your advice the wrong way too.

    You bring up a great point about Harry Potter. However, Rowling mentions a deep dark secret by the end of page 1. I think we forget that a lot of stories do try to give us something pretty big pretty early on to keep us interested. Not all of them, but a lot of them.
     
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  20. deadrats

    deadrats Contributing Member

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    If people don't understand what action is, that's a whole different problem that has nothing to do with the rules of writing. But picking the right point to start a story can be tricky. I like to start with story and character simultaneously. I feel like that really works. All starting with action means is that someone is doing something. But maybe it helps to think of it as starting with story.
     
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  21. Mckk

    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I must say, I read the first Potter book when I was 12 or so, so I can't say I entirely remember the details. It's good for the stakes to be high as early on as possible, of course, but what's "pretty big"? What if your story isn't "big" and nothing typically exciting happens? I guess I have an issue with how vague these terms often are. For example I am currently reading a book called Girl in Translation, and the whole thing is about a mother-daughter pair emigrating from Hong Kong to America, and their lives of poverty and culture contrasts. It opens with the girl musing about what she's good at, her hopes for the future, and chapter one is about their arriving at their horrible flat filled with roaches. None of this is "pretty big" - or at least not "big" as I would have normally interpreted it. These terms are just too vague to be useful, in my opinion, because too much rests on the reader interpreting it correctly for the advice to be useful. (I'm not saying some level of correct interpretation doesn't rest on the reader. Of course it does. But I don't believe these terms we use to give writing advice is sufficient enough to properly guide the reader to the correct interpretation)

    I'm now intrigued - in what way could you take my advice the wrong way? (genuine question) Happy to find a better way of saying it all :)
     
  22. ChickenFreak

    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    Well, to quibble, I am literally an amateur because I haven't been published, but I suppose I'm not altogether a beginner. And I have probably read more novels than the average unpublished writer, and written more words, though the majority of those words have been nonfiction words.

    Hmm. My brain is now sloshing with thoughts about the nuances of the word "care", and whether there's a generational difference, but I'll just let those slosh for a while.

    Maybe "start with action" should instead be "start with events." To expand, "To capture the reader's interest quickly, consider starting with events that will spark curiosity, interest, and/or empathy, rather than starting with backstory or narrative." Or something.

    Ah, but wanting answers IS caring. And that may be getting us back to the nuances of that word. I'm wondering if the meaning of caring has lately been dominated by the idea of love and concern, whereas to me it just means that I have some interest, some stake, some emotion. If I hate somebody's guts, I care about them. If I "don't care if they live or die", then I don't.

    I would argue that Hunger Games is starting with an empathetic event. Waking up on a day that one has dreaded is, IMO, such an event--while just waking up for another day at the office isn't.

    Edited to add: But it is arguably not action, which is probably an argument for "event" rather than "action".
     
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  23. BayView

    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    Maybe it's another rephrasing of "start your story where your story starts"? ie. Don't give us the backstory and whatever up front, give us the story.

    And I think there's definitely an element of "start as you plan to continue." If your book is a lush, atmosphere exploration of a woman's internal struggles, start the book with a lush, atmospheric exploration. If your book is an action-packed thriller, start with an action-packed thrill. There's no 'right' way to write, just ways that create the effect you want and ways that don't.
     
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  24. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Contributor

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    Lee Child is actually brilliant at what he does. In other words, if you're writing the kind of books Lee Child writes, there aren't many people who do it better. Decisions about "rules" should fit the style you're going for.
     
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  25. 123456789

    123456789 Contributing Member Contributor

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    A lot of people come to the forum with this idea. Here is the idea. What if I could start my story with something really mundane, maybe even boring, and keep going with it untill BAM, the reader is struck by lightning! I call this rather ambitious idea, the calm before the storm. Members have absolutely voiced their desire to try this on numerous occasions, but I think often the result is a boring introduction and not much else. Another thing to consider- and we go over this idea often- what works for the majority doesn't necessarily apply to all. I think more begginer aspiring writers than not should aim for a spicy intro, because if you go to the workshop, youl find a number of pieces where really not much happens, and in a bad way.
     
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