Pub Rants

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By Kristin Nelson & Angie Hodapp

For Part 1, click here.
For Part 2, click here.
For Part 3, click here.

Your opening pages might be in trouble if…

#4) Your novel opens with a lengthy passage of “talking heads” dialogue. 

Here’s what fascinates me: The openings we suggest that you avoid actually evolve out of a writer’s good intentions. In this case, writers know that starting with dialogue can be a very dynamic way to open a story. Dialogue is inherently more energetic than a description-of-the-setting opening, and if done well, a dialogue-heavy opening can reveal a lot about character(s).

Just so we’re clear, we’re not suggesting that you ax every bit of dialogue in your opening. The problem arises when an opening provides only dialogue to the exclusion of all other narrative elements.

We call this the “talking heads” opening. When two (or more) characters have a conversation for a page (or more), then readers receive no other vital story clues, such as setting, context, tone, background information, or the power dynamic between the characters doing the speaking.

Angie here. Consider the following:

“Did you bring my money?”
“Relax. I brought your money.”
“Where is it? Give it to me.”
“Not yet. We’ve got some things to talk about first.”
“I already told you everything I know.”
“Not everything.”

Any interest I have in this story, or any investment I might feel in the outcome of this conversation, is eclipsed by questions. Where are we? When are we? Are these characters men? Women? Children? Aliens? Talking squirrels? What are their roles in this story and how do they relate to each other? Is one a police detective and the other an informant? Is it two mobsters, one bribing the other? Is one a bully and the other a nerd? Is one a circus clown and the other an elephant trainer? Is this a funny story set in a 1960s Florida retirement community or a disturbing psychological thriller set in present-day Baltimore?

The human brain is hardwired for story, so when you, the writer, leave details up for grabs, the reader’s brain is going to fill them in. It literally cannot stop itself. The longer you withhold basic story information, the more time the reader’s brain has to stockpile incorrect assumptions. That means that when you do reveal story details as you intended them, and readers discover they were wrong, they’re going to get confused, frustrated, and annoyed. They might even abandon your book. And that (brace yourself for some tough love) is not their fault.

Remember that a published novel comes with a title, cover art, and back-cover copy, elements often worked up by professionals. These give the writer’s opening scene context. But with sample pages, all we have for context is your query letter’s pitch paragraph…and often that’s not enough. Approach your opening scene as though you’re writing for an audience with zero context, and you’ll start to think differently about what to include and what to save for later in the story.

For now, take a look at your opening scene. If you’ve got lots of dialogue, make sure it’s balanced with other narrative elements: some details about setting, some evocative word choices that set the tone, some personal details about the characters—not only what they look like, but how they move, react, and behave. For fun, consider this revision:

     Sister Mary Margaret slid onto the empty stool next to mine and tapped the bar. Old Joe uncapped a bottle of Jameson’s Irish and set up her usual double. She threw it back, then motioned for another.
     Without so much as looking at me, she said, “Did you bring my money?”
     “Relax,” I replied, watching Old Joe pour. “I brought your money.”
     Down went her second double. “Where is it? Give it to me.”
     I took a sip of the warm beer I’d been nursing for the last hour. Sister Mary Margaret was known for two things: drinking hard and being late. Scratch that. It was three things she was known for. The third was dealing harshly with anyone who crossed her. I gulped. Sam made himself clear when he sent me in here. No info, no money.
     “Not yet,” I said, trying my best to sound tough. “We’ve got some things to talk about first.”
     Her laugh sounded like gravel in a cement mixer. “I already told you everything I know.”
     I pulled an envelope out of my coat’s inside pocket and slid it toward her. “Not everything.”

Want to try? Craft a brief opening scene from these six lines of dialogue, and then after we repost this article on Kristin’s blog (within a couple weeks), leave your scene in the comments section. Just for fun.

Remember: Please take all the advice we give you in this article series with a grain of salt. If a writer has mastered craft, he or she can make any opening work, even ones we suggest you avoid. We read hundreds of sample pages every month, and the types of openings we’re sharing with you here often don’t work because they are overused. Avoid them, and you automatically increase your chances of standing out in the slush pile. Until next time…keep writing!

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Francois Bester

9 Responses

  1. Lara O'Brien said:

    The rain beat down and drummed on the tin roof. The floor was cold against my face.
    “Did you bring the money?” Micky pushed the gun against my temple. His hand was unsteady for being one of Basher’s men. He was tough, but young, unpredictable.
    “I brought it, relax, it’s here.”
    He pushed the gun harder into my head. Where the hell was Joey? He kneeled down to my ear. “Where is it? Give it to me.”
    Car wheels crunched over gravel. Micky didn’t move, didn’t hear it.
    “Not yet.” I said. “We’ve got something to talk about.” Two, three, four…a car door slammed.
    “Don’t bullshit me. I already told you everything you need to know.” He looked up, the wind howled across the old fireplace. Come on, Joey. He took the gun from my temple as the shack door came busting off its hinges. Joey shot first and Micky fell in a heap.
    “Not everything,” I said.

  2. Hillsy said:

    Dammit! It’s like a candle to a moth!


    I’ve many rules. One is that there are three things you need if you want to survive any sort of 3rd party ambush on your illegal transaction. One: a safe place to store the contraband somewhere far away. That way if you survive, so does your merchandise. Two: Firepower of some sort. You don’t need the Fusion Annihilator off a Terminator Class Dervandian Battlecruiser – we’re not talking about coring out planets here – but something that can lay down some kind of covering fire to keep the pursuers at arm’s length. Three: Athleticism.

    Unfortunately , Qu’Dran was a fat, pacifist moron.

    “Did you bring my money?” It was a good job he was Gerfecti, and therefore telepathic, or I wouldn’t have heard him over the thunder of Maser fire chewing through the alley wall about a foot away from my right ear. Sparks of white hot stone dashed against my cheek, stinging, like I’d been slapped with a jellyfish. Grabbing his collar, I shoved him around a corner and sprayed the alleyway behind liberally with Mag-Gun Rounds before ducking in after. I had no idea if I hit anything. The Kilk we all wearing Chamosuits.

    I slapped a proxicharge on the wall and planted a big size twelve in middle of his five bulbous buttocks to get him moving. “Relax. I brought your money.” Which I hadn’t; see the first of the three things above.

    “Where is it? Give it to me.” I rolled my eyes. He wanted a banking transaction in the middle of a fire fight? The Cosmos only knew how someone so dense as to bring the actual thing they are selling to the sales meeting, and demanding payment while sprinting down an alley, ever managed to steal confidential weapons data in the first place. With a soft whump the charge detonated behind us, the force giving me a small push in the back. I knew I wasn’t lucky enough that the Kilks had forgotten to activate their kinetic barrier defences; a half second later maser fire stitched the air overhead with lethal needles.

    “Not yet. We’ve got some things to talk about first.”

    “I already told you everything I know.” Qu’Dran wheezed. Despite his bulk, fear was doing a decent job of keeping the Gerfecti moving along at a decent clip, though his face had gone from a jade green to ochre and his ventilation gills were wide open, viscous purple mucus dribbling out in ribbons.

    “Not everything,” I whispered to myself.

    We rounded the corner and out into the open space between the dull grey buildings where Qu’Dran’s ship was stashed, and he staggered to a halt, a cry of shock and dismay echoing round the small space. A whole twenty man unit from the Juran Navy crowded the space, a further five more lead a number of Kilk down the gangplank from Qu’Dran’s ship, hands on their heads. He’d planned to sell the information to the Kilk all along of course; he just didn’t want to anger us Jurans in the process.

    I lanced the air with a whistle and jerked my thumb over my shoulder. A Dozen soldiers turned and sprinted by me, mag rifles already lowered. I gave them a casual salute as they passed.

    I lied. You need four things to survive. Number Four? Backup.

  3. Lisa Marie Hagerman said:

    “Did you bring my money?” the girl asked. She stood outside the grocery store behind a table neatly stacked with boxes of cookies, her green Girl Scout vest an overachiever’s dream of merit badges. She pressed her hand to her hip the same way his ex-girlfriend he had abandoned back in Fresno used to whenever he left the toilet seat up.

    “Relax. I brought your money.”

    “Where is it? Give it to me.”

    Jesus, kid. How about some manners? He had promised her he would buy ten boxes of cookies if she told him what he wanted to know, not realizing that one box cost five dollars, and the total cost of the transaction would cost him a whopping fifty bucks. He didn’t have that much cash. He told her needed to find an ATM. She answered that she was taught it wasn’t nice to make promises you couldn’t keep, and she expected him to keep his promise. The ATM was right inside the grocery store, she said, pointing to the sliding glass doors just past the display of potted geraniums, and she expected him to come right back. She had told him that if he left the store without buying the boxes he promised, she would take his picture and post it on Instagram.

    He pulled out two twenties and a ten from his back pocket and waved it at the girl. The girl opened a glittery, vinyl, baby blue, Princess Anna and Queen Elsa Disney purse decorated with snowflakes and flowers, and held it out expectantly. He put the money back in his pocket. She frowned. He grinned.

    “Not yet,” he said. “We’ve got some things to talk about first.”

    “I already told you everything I know.”

    He looked across the parking lot. A woman he assumed was the girl’s mother was talking to a man holding a brown shopping bag. The woman wore a sensible pair of running shoes, a tennis mini-dress, and a transparent, green visor that threw a weird light across her face, making it appear radioactive. She noticed him and waved, her smile wide and full of teeth. He waved back.

    “Not everything,” he said. He looked at the girl, who was now tapping her foot. The girl had told him everything except what he wanted to know. She had told him her name was Peggy Perkins and that she was the top selling Girl Scout in her troop three years in a row. She told him that she loved riding the horses at the camp she goes to every summer, and it was important that she sell as many boxes as possible to get there. He did not give a damn. All he wanted to know was where two kids were, a teenage boy who could read minds, and his little sister who had not yet displayed any obvious paranormal abilities, the pair orphaned from someone else’s botched job. Not his problem. All he cared about was finding the boy and the girl. It was dumb luck that he had overheard the kid bragging that she was selling more cookies than the new girl in her troop, an orphan who had an older brother, and that they were both foster kids and kind of weird. It’s not that he didn’t like Girl Scout cookies. He loved Girl Scout cookies, especially those mint ones. He just didn’t want to pay for them. He needed his payment. He needed to find those kids.

  4. C.J. Blakeley said:

    On the distant horizon, through the flash of explosions and flames, Dresden burned. The merciless pounding from American B-17’s gave the midnight sky an eerie afterglow, like an aurora borealis from hell. In the flickering light of destruction, I watched the silhouettes of two civilians in an open field approach from a distance. The figures, a man and young girl, carried suitcases.
    “Did you bring my money?” I asked. I looked the human cargo over. The Star of David on the lapel of the girl’s dress, worn and dirty, caught my eye. So, this is who they want me to take to Switzerland, a teenage girl trying to escape the concentration camps.
    “Relax. I brought your money,” the underground contact said through a thick Czech accent.
    “Where is it? Give it to me,” I said.
    A bright flash from a direct hit on a Dresden building briefly illuminated the man’s features. Unkempt and unshaven, he looked as if he hadn’t slept, eaten or showered in five days. The girl didn’t look any better. A small sacrifice to pay for risking life and limb to do the right thing by god and humanity, I suppose.
    “Not yet,” he replied. He eased his suitcase free hand into the pocket of his overcoat. “We’ve got some things to talk about first.”
    “I already told you everything I know,” I ranted. What the fuck was there to talk about? He knew the drill, the steps that would be taken to avoid capture. He knew where I was going, how I was getting there, who I was contacting. I was just one link in a chain to freedom, not the mastermind behind the operation, for crying out loud.
    He pulled a Luger from his coat pocket and pointed it at me. He opened his overcoat, exposing a Gestapo uniform underneath. “Not everything,” he said, flashing a sinister smile.

  5. Ellen Ziegler said:

    Fourteen-year-old Robby Cole’s world took a wrong turn in the back seat of his Uncle Malcolm’s white Jaguar.
    Running a damp palm along the plush leather, where he sat behind his father and uncle, Robby tried to shut out their voices. He fixed his gaze out the side window where the moon formed a perfect white disc, shimmering between the skyscrapers of New York City.
    Their conversation came to a head like the boil on the back of his father’s bony neck:
    “Did you bring my money?” his father said, his voice weakened by chemotherapy.
    “Relax, I brought your money.” Uncle Malcolm’s manicured fingernails tapped the steering wheel.
    “Where is it? Give it to me.” Robby’s father faced Uncle Malcolm. He reached into the pocket of his plaid shirt, pulled out a cigarette and captured it between his lips.
    Uncle Malcolm’s eyebrows shot up. “Not yet. We’ve got some things to talk about first.”
    “I’ve already told you everything I know, Malcolm.”
    “Not everything.”
    Robby’s heart fisted as he pictured his name on the legal documents on his father’s desk.
    Lowering his voice, Uncle Malcolm said, “You can’t take care of yourself, let alone Robby’s challenges. I want to be the trustee on his trust fund.”
    “My lawyer said the change would be too complicated,” Robby’s father said, wheezing, catching his breath.
    Leave my father alone! The hamburger Robby ate for dinner shot up as a sour lump in his throat.
    His father opened the passenger door, slamming it behind him.
    Robby’s pressed the button to slide his window down and felt rain mist his face. He stared at his father, memorizing his face to sketch later.
    “I’ll come for you in a few weeks, Robby,” his father said. “Don’t worry.”
    Robby watched his father disappear into the shadows of the street.
    “Come sit up front,” Uncle Malcolm said.
    Feeling separated from his body, Robby climbed out of the back seat and lowered himself into the passenger seat, chilled from the rain and everything he could not control. He stared at the shadowed street where his father had vanished.
    He felt like a stranger in his own life when he found out he was different – born with a genetic disorder that made the sun his enemy and darkness his friend. Having little light in his life depressed him, so he sketched and painted worlds of light on paper that could not kill him.
    Uncle Malcolm turned and looked at Robby with his intense dark eyes, his hand settling on Robby’s knee. “I can give you a good life, Robby. Your father’s way to weak to take care of you, and frankly, I don’t think his progno….”
    “Don’t!” Robby shut his ears. “My father’ll be okay.” Anger at his father for getting cancer scalded his insides and burned his gut with dread.
    Uncle Malcolm squeezed his knee and Robby felt like it was crawling with ants.
    On the dark, wet interstate, the red taillights of the cars in front of them gleamed, reminding Robby of his sister Holly’s red ruby earrings, tucked away in his backpack next to the money she mailed to his post office box every month. The earrings had graced their mother’s earlobes when she was alive.
    Hope ballooned in Robby’s chest. A plan formed in his head. Holly had been blinded in a mortar attack on her battalion in Afghanistan. She was recovering in a veteran’s hospital in California.
    I can be Holly’s eyes. She can help me get to art school in California and become a great artist.
    Uncle Malcolm tightened his grip on Robby’s knee, his pinky finger on an upward journey. Robby’s stomach lurched.
    “Hey buddy, let’s get ice cream.” Uncle Malcolm turned at the next exit.
    Robby remembered the name his sister Holly gave their uncle after he took them for ice cream: “Lester the Molester.” He inched his leg away from Malcolm’s hand, noticing two ripped motorcyclists standing near their Harley’s in the rest stop parking lot. They stared at the white Jaguar. The shorter biker smiled.
    The taller biker rested the sole of his black boot on the cement base of a pole lamp. Above his boot, above his rolled up jeans, a bone knife handle gleamed.
    A bus pulled up at a glass shelter. Its doors swished open, drawing Robby’s gaze.

  6. E. Love said:

    “Did you bring my money?”

    I sighed, but resisted the urge to roll my eyes. Twitch was notoriously paranoid about not being taken seriously. Chances were that one good eyeroll would send him scurrying back into whatever hole he’d briefly crawled out of.

    “Relax. I brought your money,” I assured him.

    Twitch licked his lips and jammed shaking fingers into his jacket pockets. After all his ridiculous demands – meet him two exits down the freeway in Gordon Park, sit on the farthest bench, pretend to read a book while he walked past the bench three times to make sure no one was watching – he made no effort to be inconspicious himself. It was probably difficult for him. Harry Richard Jackson, AKA Twitch, could never keep his hands nor his eyes still, although no one knew if it was because of nerves or drugs. Personally, I’ve never seen any advantage to asking.

    His eyes darted briefly to my face before dashing back to the lake. “Where is it? Give it to me.”

    “Not yet,” I said. I slipped a bookmark in between the pages of the romance novel that I had decided to actually read while waiting. Deliberately, I swiveled to face him, not particularly interested in playing his cloak-and-dagger spy games anymore. “We’ve got some things to talk about first.”

    “I already told you everything I know.” His voice went up a pitch, laced tight with fear. He was an excellent rat, but a terrible liar.

    I leaned back and carefully rolled up my right sleeve. Red and angry, a long gash bisected the inside of my forearm, held together by a neat row of butterfly bandaids.

    “Not everything,” I responded dryly.

  7. Kenneth Wohner said:

    Thank you for Pub Rants. I’ve used the advice given to reshape the beginning of my first attempt at writing. Writing can be a very scary. It is great someone of your experience is out there to help.

  8. Alizabeth Lynn said:

    Rain poured, thundering down upon the umbrella Elise mistakenly thought would offer protection. Kyne simply raised an eyebrow and tucked his thumbs into his pockets. The rain didn’t seem to bother him at all. He smiled as lighting flashed, illuminating the carnage around them.

    “Did you bring my money?” he asked.

    Elise nodded, one hand resting on the hilt of her dagger. “Relax, Ky, I brought your money. I never back out of a promise.”

    “Where is it, then? Give it to me.”

    Shaking her head, Elise took a step backward, the rapidly pooling water sloshing up over the tops of her low boots. “Not yet. We’ve got some things to talk about first. Howard wants the rest of your information.”

    Kyne moved forward, the heat of him pressing against her, even though the chill of the late November storm. “And what about yours? When are you going to tell me your secrets?”

    Elise gripped the dagger tighter, her heart pounding harder than the thunder that shook the ground. “I already told you everything I know.”

    With a flick of his wrist, Kyne swiped open the screen of his phone and showed her the picture of a young girl—a girl that looked like him. Elise gulped. /He knew./ “Not everything,” Kyne said softly.

    Elise raised her eyes to his, eyes that she’d looked into for eleven years…eleven years without him. It was past time for the truth. “Her name is Bryn,” she whispered,” and she’s your daughter.”

  9. Jamie said:

    When Jonathan appeared around the corner and stepped into the moist alley, Peter’s eyes lit up with the zeal only to be found in the minds of maniacs and drug addicts.
    “Did you bring my money?” Peter whispered, blinking rapidly.
    “Relax,” Jonathan said, fishing around in the pocket of his army surplus jacket as though he were looking for a roll of bills. “I brought your money.” He found his canister of mace, releasing the safety catch.
    “Where is it?” Peter held out a shaking hand. “Give it to me.”
    “Not yet. We’ve got some things to talk about first,” Jonathan replied. He scanned the brick buildings towering over them- windows and a fire escape in the apartment building to the east, a locked up loading dock in a blank wall to the west, and the back of the alley closed off by a fifteen foot fence. The apartments were all dark, despite the fact that it was early evening. Peter had selected this alley for a reason.
    “I already told you everything I know,” he stammered, glancing up at something near the front of the alley.
    Jonathan guessed by the angle it was a window on the second floor of the apartment building, a good vantage point to observe both his arrival and their meeting. He moved to put his back against the opposite wall, and Peter took a hesitant step toward him, waving his outstretched hand like a frustrated child begging for a sweet. Jonathan leaned against the edge of the loading dock as if he hadn’t a care in the world, but his eyes flicked up to the windows at the opening of the alley, hunting for movement.
    “Not everything,” he smiled, as passing headlights revealed a ghostly face watching them from the corner apartment.