Chip MacGregor

December 8, 2016

Thinking about Writing: Effective Dialogue, Part 2 (The Sooner the Better)


brick green no smile b:wIf you caught Tuesday’s post, you’ll know I’m spending a few days talking about good dialogue in fiction– how to write it, how not to write it, how to recognize it, and who does it well.

One of the suggestions I often make when reading manuscripts is for the author to use dialogue earlier. In general, the more pages that pass without hearing a character speak, the more distanced I feel from her and the longer it takes for me to engage with/care about her. The most common source of this problem seems to be the author’s compulsion to tell the reader EVERYTHING he knows about a character right away. I’ve lost track of how many manuscripts I’ve read that started out with a literal biography of the main character from childhood to the events of the story– what she was like in high school, how many relationships she’s been in, what her friends are like, what her work history is, etc . While it’s important for the author to know all this so he can write intelligently about the character, the reader doesn’t need to find out all the background info at once (or ever, in some cases). My favorite way to get to know a character is to hear him talk and to see how he interacts with other characters and his environment; to be dropped in the middle of this character living and breathing rather than shown his baby album and medical records, and so I frequently encourage authors to examine whether they need to pare down their opening content in order to get to the first “live” scene sooner. Now, obviously I’m not saying there’s a hard-and-fast rule for how early in a manuscript dialogue should appear, or that you should manufacture some if it’s not a natural place for it, but how do you make that call? Though by no means a comprehensive list, here are some scenarios I’ve encountered where I don’t miss early dialogue.

  • First-person narration. In a book written in first-person, we get to hear one of the characters speak right off the bat– he’s talking to us even if we don’t hear him converse with other characters immediately, and we start to pick up on his voice and personality right away. Even in a first-person novel, however, it can get boring to be listening to a single character’s thoughts and voice for too long, so be careful not to get stuck in narration mode. A first-person narrator shouldn’t be used as an excuse to info-dump for ten pages. Examples of books which do this well include A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving, To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee, and Rebecca, by Daphne DuMaurier. In each book, we spend pages, or even chapters, with the narrator before the first line of dialogue appears.
  • Vital description/background information. I’m not talking about the “Mary was popular in high school but never had a steady boyfriend” kind of background info, or the hair color/eye color/outfit of your main character, but description/background that immediately lets your reader know what kind of universe your story is taking place in and how to interpret the events that are about to take place. The opening chapter of The Scarlet Pimpernel comes to mind, in which five pages of third-person description and background info on the events taking place in Paris in September of 1792 precede the first line of dialogue. We don’t miss the dialogue, however, because the information we’re given is calculated to excite our interest in the plight of the aristos and make us aware of the dangerous world the story takes place in. A novel in which the context of the historical or geographical setting is vital to understanding the stakes of the opening events or the motivation of the main character may be better served beginning with compelling description or well-chosen history rather than a conversation manufactured for the sake of getting dialogue in early.
  • Establishing tone/author voice. Certain genres of fiction lend themselves to long dialogue droughts better than others. Suspense and mystery novels often open with a third-person account of a sinister event or a foreboding setting, and humorous novels can get away with pages and pages of even trivial description or meandering background info if the delivery is funny and helps establish the author’s voice and sense of humor. These tone-setting openings serve the same purpose as vital geographical or historical description; they help the reader to understand the universe in which the story takes place and what rules the author is going to be playing by which helps us connect to the characters more quickly when we do get to see/hear them.

Even though these exceptions to the “rule” of early dialogue are obviously used extremely effectively by many authors, the essentials of storytelling I referenced last week remain true: stories are told in action and dialogue. More specifically, characters are revealed through dialogue, and readers connect with characters through dialogue. If your novel starts with three or four pages of dialogue drought that don’t fall into one of the categories discussed above, you may want to consider weeding out the excess set-up and letting the reader see your characters in action a little sooner. It may keep an agent or editor reading longer!

I’ll talk more next time about naturally occurring and natural-vs.-realistic dialogue, but if you have examples of authors who do a good job drawing the reader into a story by using dialogue up front, or of authors who successfully delay dialogue use, share them in the comments.


Erin Buterbaugh, who has worked as an agent and sometime-editor, is a longtime friend and a wonderful writing instructor. She’s fabulous… and she’s been filling in while Chip has been on vacation. 

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