Sunday, 13 May 2007

More on D-Os

I mentioned I'd surveyed over 1.00 stories. In fact it was nearer 2,00. I was sent an old snippet from East of the Web which began as follows... (The other posts were in a thread which could be deleted by its owner so I wanted one which couldn't)

I've cut away various items of junk and tidied this up to be read her, added some points.

Here it is, but note first it doesn't BAN dialogue openers.

It's not a RULE.

What it says is 99.99% of the time it's INFERIOR writing and the easiest way for a writer to improve is to mentally "ban" their own use of them.




Here we go




I would say to ALL beginning writers and to ALL intermediate writers, and essentially all writers

There is hardly ever a valid reason for opening with dialogue and 99% of the time there is a better way of opening the story.


Dialogue openers become more common as you move DOWNWARD from Nobel-Winners, and World Class (where they are very rare indeed), through quality fiction such as Best American Short Stories, decent published fiction, and then finalists of competitions (but rarely, if ever, the WINNERS). It's only when we reach NON-finalists, low-end magazines, ezines and the reject pile to we find many dialogue openers.

Excluding womag stories, only 1 in 20 half-decent published stories have dialogue openings. IMO almost all of these stories can be improved by making them NOT open with dialogue.

Because the approximate 5-6% is FACT (including womag stories) (and I have surveyed 2,000 short stories to check the data) and because virtually all editors I have every conversed with outside the womags associate dialogue openers with beginners, you are taking a high risk for very low possible reward. You're story may well be rejected line one, or so prejudiced against that it's fighting an uphill battle.

I can see NO great benefit in the dialogue opener.

Where people say it increases intimacy I say it DECREASES it (and I can prove it).

Where they say it's a great tease, a lead-in, a hook, I say it has become a clich├ęd opening that is associated with poor writers in general.

I believe CONTEXT enhances dialogue 99.99% of the time and all, repeat ALL dialogue openers can be at least equaled with added context, setting, or other literary devices.

I doubt there are ten dialogue openers that HAD to be dialogue for the story to work.

I conclude that beginners and intermediate writers (and probably all writers should avoid dialogue openers except in cases such as "all-speech stories", "camp or deliberately affected stories" or stories where the dialogue opener, rather than leave the reader vague and wondering, "pegs" the story. For example,

"Is your poetry difficult?" the countess asked.


Does LOADS. We know who spoke and we know the spoken-to person is a poet.


That kind of dialogue opener is NOT like the woffly barely attributed dialogue we get with some stories, (such as the Kate Atkinson openings in the other thread) where we eventually have to explain what's happening."


I'm aware of the kind of responses I'm likely to get. But think on this. READ some dialogue openers and just see if you can't improve on them by adding context etc.

I had to search over 1800 stories to find 100 published dialogue-openers, but you should note that many of these openers were not the hanging, dangling, what-the? dialogue openers some others have been posting.

In some cases they have been instantly explained, very often in line one:

"That's not a good idea, son," the sheriff said quietly, staring at the barrel of my gun.

This is one kind of dialogue opener which I don't particularly recommend but in actuality we have almost the whole situation so it's a lot better than:

"That's not a good idea, son."
"I think it is."
"Well, it isn't, son."
"Don't call me son."
"Son, I'll call you what I damn well like..."

He stood there, defying me, despite the .45 I had pointed at him. So it was true what they said about Sheriff Iron-balls McLintock


BLETCH!


This was a summary of my position posted years ago at East of the Web. One of the first responses was from a serious newbie stating, " Hemingway opened some of his short stories with dialogue. Do you consider these to be examples at the top end, dialogue openers that work because the author is at the top of the tree and can do so better than most, or do you believe you could show how his dialogue openings could be improved upon?"

Note this? A correspondent turns immediately to counter-examples (fine, that's "appeal to higher source" but did the correspondent bother to count how many times the first thing in a Hemingway story was the quote mark?"

Hemingway did id TWICE in 65 published stories and novels. One of those instances was a near "all-dialogue" story and also one of his earliest pieces. But remember, here is an example of an author quoted in SUPPORT of D-O's and he used them just THREE PER CENT OF THE TIME.

Why not look at this the other way?

Hemingway, a very famous writer, a Nobel Prize Winner (1954) did NOT use dialogue openers in 97% of his writings. His stories were more than 32 times as likely to be NON-Dialogue-Opener as dialogue opening. Orwell did it never.



Can a story open with dialogue and be successful? Yes.

Could that story be (at worst) equaled non-dialogue? YES.

Could the story often be improved by making it NOT a dialogue opener? Answer, almost always, every time, yes, 99%, etc.

Remind me again why dialogue openers are rarely, if ever a good idea?

Because they rarely give proper context and are thus like big-bang openings. After the initial "intrigue" the author has to pause to explain, give context, often to show the gender of the speaker.

Is that the only reason?

No, 99% of editors, outside the cheap-and-cheerful womag market associate dialogue-openers with inexperienced writers. That is, as soon as they see a dialogue opener they think "beginner rubbish!"

I think it's worth pointing out that there are many types of dialogue openers (whether good or bad, whatever the eminence of the writer).

Let's look at John Updike's story "The Bulgarian Poetess". The first thing to remember is Updike is famous, he is given latitude. If he sends his story to the New Yorker (if his AGENT sends…) the editor will NOT first see " he will see JOHN UPDIKE.

Second, look at the title. It isn't "The Dinner Party" it's "The Bulgarian Poetess". This gives a very large amount of context. It's 99% certain this is about a Bulgarian Poetess, will involve "difference" and probably involve poetry or intellectual discourse. Thus, whatever comes next, we are 80% of the way to understanding the context (UNLIKE many, many DO's)

One of the so-called dialogue openers from Hemingway was that to The Snows of Kilimanjaro.

Here it was, quoted:

The Snows of Kilimanjaro

"The marvellous thing is that it's painless," he said. "That's how you know when it starts."

"Is it really?"

"Absolutely. I'm awfully sorry about the odour though. That must bother you."

"Don't! Please don't."

"Look at them," he said. "Now is it sight or scent that brings them like that?"

The cot the man lay on was in the wide shade of a mimosa tree and as he looked out past the shade onto the glare of the plain there were three of the big birds squatted obscenely, while in the sky a dozen more sailed, making quick moving shadows as they passed.


This is a story about a man with a broken leg, just about to get gangrene and die. I LOVE Hemingway and like this story but looking at it, there's no great magic or advantage in Hemingway dicking around here. We don't really know he's talking to a woman until half-way down the page and there's a she said.

Well, again FIRSTLY, was it a dialogue opener? Answer NO.

You see, immediately after the title came this:

Kilimanjaro is a snow-covered mountain 19,710 feet high and it is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. Its western summit is called the Masai Ngaje Ngai, the House of God. Close to the Western summit there is a dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was doing at that altitude.

LOOK! We have place, setting, probable weather, at least one character (the leopard) and another (God) plus an air of mystery (why was the leopard there) plus an omniscient author, a certain tone. We know that we have something spiritual to follow. And THAT is cited as a dialogue opener!

Why? Probably because the info above is italicized and appears like an epigram "before the real story"


IMO this is easy to improve. yeah, yeah, I know, "improve on Hemingway?" but if someone can explain some literary brilliance in this obscurity, fire away.

I would keep the same title, the epigram, but why not now :



The Snows of Kilimanjaro

The cot the man lay on was in the wide shade of a mimosa tree and as he looked out past the shade onto the glare of the plain there were three vultures squatted obscenely, while in the sky a dozen more sailed, making quick moving shadows as they passed.

"Look at them," he said. "Now is it sight or scent that brings them like that?"

"Don't! Please don't," she said.

"The marvelous thing, is that it's painless," he said. "That's how you know when it starts."

"Is it really?"

"Absolutely. I'm awfully sorry about the odour though. That must bother you."

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