This reminder from Benjamin Percy in Glimmer Train about the perils of starting a story with a line of dialogue came at the right time as I had scribbled down an idea for a new story that started with a line of dialogue. I don’t think it’s quite as good as “Where’s Pa going with that axe?” so I’ll proceed accordingly.
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.
Read on…and you'll be convinced, too.
(Also, if you want to read a gripping and suspenseful novel, check out Percy’s The Wilding—though you won’t be in any rush to spend the rest of your summer hiking in the woods.)