An excerpt from “Beginnings,” which appears in The Writer’s Notebook II, a forthcoming collection of craft essays from Tin House Books.
Beginning with dialogue is one of the most difficult ways to open a story successfully. The dialogue must be compelling enough to draw the reader in before he or she knows anything about the character(s) speaking or the context in which the dialogue is taking place. There exists the danger that the dialogue will feel disembodied or separate from what follows.
Difficult, but not impossible, as Salman Rushdie demonstrates in The Satanic Verses, which opens with this line of dialogue: “’To be born again,’ sang Gibreel Farishta tumbling from the heavens, ‘first you have to die.’” And Katherine Dunn in Geek Love: “’When your mama was the geek, my dreamlets,’ Papa would say, ‘she made the nipping off of noggins such a crystal mystery that the hens themselves yearned toward her, waltzing around her, hypnotized with longing.”
Why do these openings work? First the speakers—Gibreel Farishta and Papa—are identified by name. In this way, the reader is introduced to the character who is speaking, which prevents that disembodied feeling. But perhaps even more importantly, what they are saying and how they say it draws the reader in immediately. With The Satanic Verses, we wonder if the speaker is dead. And we are given the wonderful added detail that Gibreel is tumbling from heaven. Papa’s dialogue is strange and charming at the same time. Mama was a geek? The nipping off of noggins? Hens yearned toward her? Both of these beginnings make the reader want to find out what will happen next.
Ann Hood is the author of the novels The Red Thread, and, The Knitting Circle, as well as the memoir, Comfort: A Journey Through Grief, which was a New York Times Editor’s Choice and chosen as one of the top ten non-fiction books of 2008 by Entertainment Weekly. Her stories and essays have appeared in The New York Times, Tin House, The Paris Review, Glimmer Train and many other publications.