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Photo: Jennifer May

  Benjamin Percy is the author of two novels, Red Moon (forthcoming from Grand Central/Hachette in 2013) and The Wilding, as well as two books of short stories, Refresh, Refresh and The Language of Elk. His fiction and nonfiction have been published by Esquire (where he is a contributing editor), GQ, Time, Men's Journal, Outside, the Wall Street Journal, Tin House, Glimmer Train, and the Paris Review. His honors include a fellowship from the NEA, the Whiting Writers' Award, the Plimpton Prize, two Pushcart Prizes and inclusion in Best American Short Stories and Best American Comics. He is the writer-in-residence at St. Olaf College and teaches in the low-res MFA program at Pacific University.
 
"Where's Papa Going with that Axe?" Follow glimmertrain on Twitter

On Opening with Dialogue

When a reader first picks up a story, they are like a coma patient—fluttering open their eyes in an unfamiliar world, wondering, where am I, when am I, who am I? The writer has an obligation to quickly and efficiently orient.

Which is why writers should avoid opening with dialogue. I know, I know—you can think of ten thousand awesome stories that do exactly that. I don't like any them. With one exception—"Where's Papa going with that axe?"—from the beginning of Charlotte's Web. It works because E.B. White fills the white space: immediately establishing three characters, one of them in the middle of an arresting gesture.

And that is your job, to fill in the white space. Imagine a blank canvas. Now imagine a sun boinging up until it settles on an afternoon angle. Then a hundred or so trees spike themselves into a distant forest. A field of corn unfurls from the furrows—and a combine grumbles through it.

In the cab of the combine sits a teenage boy with an Adam's apple the size of his fist. He's wearing Carhartt coveralls and has a cell phone pressed to his ear. His attention obviously isn't on the field—the combine is veering right—and from the gravelly roar below him, he ought to be powering down the engine: too much corn is getting mowed down too quickly. "You're sure?" the boy says, his voice pitched high. "You're sure you're ready?"

Maybe the boy is talking to his girlfriend and maybe she is at last ready to have sex with him at the gravel pit—or maybe he is talking to his father, who has decided to put the farm up for sale after a real estate developer expressed interest in building a subdivision on their land—or whatever. I'll trust the mystery will drag my reader forward. Because at this point they are invested in a world and character.

But if I had opened with that line of dialogue? "You're sure? You're sure you're ready?" It would mean nothing—it would be ungrounded, a genderless, ageless voice echoing through white space—and I would have to store it in my short term memory and carry it with me for several sentences until it was at last contextualized. You don't want your reader working that hard at the start of a story. Moving from this world, with its myriad distractions, to the world of the page is hard enough.

Back to the bulletin.


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