Archive for March, 2012

The Dialogue Controversy

Friday, March 30th, 2012

jungleDialogue can be surprisingly controversial.

In fact, the submission editors of some literary journals say that they are so offended by stories that open with dialogue that they reject them outright. These submission editors argue that readers can be confused when they don’t know who is speaking or what is happening. Without the help of a “grounding” narrative sentence, the story gets off to an uncomfortable and disorienting start. Submission editors are so busy that they reject a confusing story in favor of one that neatly lays out the action for the reader.

At Beaumont Hardy, I am not so opposed to an opening line of dialogue, as I think it might draw the reader immediately into a story. However, some stories are so complex that writers may need to establish their openings more clearly than dialogue might allow.

Consider this example:

“But wasn’t Charlie supposed to bring the rope?”

Penelope held the flashlight and looked at her boss.

Two sentences into the story, the reader still has no idea what’s happening. Is Penelope speaking? Is Charlie Penelope’s boss? Are there two or three characters in this scene? A confused submission editor might not care enough to read more in order to answer these questions.

A story as complex as this one might need a few expository sentences to set the scene for the dialogue:

Penelope held the flashlight and looked at her boss. He was trying to pry the gate open with a crowbar. Once it swung open, he asked Penelope for the rope.

“But wasn’t Charlie supposed to bring the rope?” Penelope asked.

Or consider this example:

“The green ones are three for a dollar.”

Susan and her brothers shoved each other as they stood in front of the carnival barker.

A reader might wonder who is talking and what that person is talking about. What are the green ones? Is Susan telling her brothers the price of them? Or is the carnival barker the one who is speaking?

Of course, one assumes that the author of the story will explain everything at some point. However, a busy submissions editor might not have time for that explanation, and she or he might toss the story onto the rejection pile after reading the two confusing sentences. Once again, some expository explanation might help:

Susan and her brothers shoved each other as they stood in front of the carnival barker. They had waited all week to buy the marbles he kept in the locked glass case. When Susan asked how much the marbles cost, the barker smiled and unlocked the case. “The green ones are three for a dollar.”

Despite what some submissions editors might say, however, I still think a clear opening line of dialogue can be an effective beginning to a story. If the dialogue conveys enough meaning to explain the action and to suggest the relationship between the characters, it can be a refreshing start to a story.

Consider this example:

“Give me your money.”

The gun felt slippery in Gavin’s hands, but he kept it pointed at the man with the briefcase.


“I never knew I could bake a pie in a hubcap.”

Susan carried the dessert into the dining room and wondered why her guests looked so startled.

Let us know what you think about dialogue in an opening sentence.

Writers can find the editorial guidelines of various journals at Duotrope, a website that provides an invaluable service to those who might not otherwise know where to submit their stories. The website keeps exhaustive and updated lists of online and print publications that are actively seeking submissions.