You Can’t Start with Dialogue
“You can’t start with just dialogue!”
“What? Why not?”
“Okay first, it’s confusing. You’re not saying anything about who’s speaking, where they are, why I should care or anything. You have to introduce your characters and give them some context!”
My first attempt at writing The Total Manageability of Everything was appalling. I still feel embarrassed when I read it. The novel, as I saw it then, opened in the middle of a conversation between Cal and Jason about their story, the story Jason was writing down. He was showing Cal an early draft of the very book you would be reading, and Cal was objecting to how it began.
“Meta” is the highest aspiration of the Millenial, and bro, I’m so META Even This Acronym.
The only problem was that Cal was right. Even from the pages I was writing, he was calling me on my bullshit. The biggest obstacle I faced when I started work on the novel was simply that I had never written anything of substance before, excepting a few philosophical papers I wrote in college that still make me proud.
And writing is hard. Anyone who tells you differently is selling something. It’s hard because there is so much inertia standing between the ethereal idea in your head and its realization on paper. It gets easier once you get started, it’s easier to create something from nothing, but the blank page is intimidating.
“It’s about two guys who talk a lot. Conversation is the context.”
“Yeah, but you still have to establish something concrete. Look at Homer. ‘Sing to me, O Muse, of the wrath of Achilleus!’ It’s invocative, it draws you in! The opening of the story is crucial. No one’s ever going to listen to you if they don’t think you have something to say. Hell, even Stephen King could write an opener! ‘The man in black fled through the desert, and the gunslinger followed.’ There’s no more concise description of protagonist, antagonist and environment than that! How can you just open in the middle of a conversation?”
I could have bought a book on writing a novel, but the story in my mind was still so raw. It was complex, but clear to me. I knew all of the pieces that needed to be there, and I had at least a chronological idea of how to put them together. At the beginning, I was worried about letting secondary texts color that naked first attempt.
The Real Cal (who studied creative writing in graduate school,) told me that the hardest part was getting that first word on the page. If I could just start, I would have something to build from. It would grow from the first sentence, and I could prune or train the branches as they sprouted. He said it almost didn’t matter what I wrote, so long as I wrote something.
The meta-conversation lasted for about seven hundred words, none of which made it into any other draft of the novel. Reflecting on it now, I can see the conflict I felt subconsciously about starting it that way, and I’m glad I let Cal convince me to cut it.
“No, I really feel like the characters speak for themselves. Their setting is immaterial, it doesn’t matter. They could be floating down a river or hiking a mountain or something and the content of their conversation would remain the same. What I’m trying to emphasize is that these guys aren’t anything really spectacular to behold, and there’s nothing particularly compelling about their circumstances. If I started out by describing them, no one would be interested. And fuck Flagstaff, we could be in New York or Milwaukee and the story would be the same. But the story is interesting, and the most interesting part is the significance these guys place on it. Even the events themselves wouldn’t warrant a second glance if not for everything there is to say about it!”
Reading it later, I realized that my opening scene was going to talk my reader out of reading the rest of it. My protagonist was trying to argue that nothing material about the story really mattered, and my antagonist was trying desperately to convince him that was a bad way to start. It directly undermines any good faith the reader may have put in the author, and that’s a terrible way to tell a story.
I’m showing it to you now in the interest of honesty and full disclosure. I started writing this book from a perspective of complete ignorance about the craft, despite having been a prodigious and voracious reader my whole life. Starting is the hardest part, it takes chutzpah, not education, and anyone can do it. It doesn’t matter what the first words are because they’re not going to end up being the beginning anyway, it matters that there are first words. No one else will ever know they were there.