Know what sets apart the okay writers from the great writers? Subtlety and subtext. This is true in absolutely every area of storytelling, from narrative to plotting to character development. But the lack of subtlety and subtext is perhaps nowhere more obvious than in dialogue. I’m talking, of course, about on-the-nose dialogue. When I pick up a potential read and skim through its opening paragraphs to discover whether or not the book will pique my interest, one of the first things I look at is the dialogue. If it’s on the nose, I’m outta there.
Because if the author is giving me on-the-nose dialogue, then it’s a sure bet he isn’t going to be able to give me the other subtleties of story and the rich subtext I–and so many other readers–crave. In short, this is a big deal. If you’ve got on-the-nose dialogue in your story, you could be endangering your chances of getting read by everyone from agent to editor to Amazon shopper. On the flip side, however, we have the good news: if you can identify and slay on-the-nose dialogue from the outset–and learn how to replace it with rich undercurrents of subtext–then you’re on your way to becoming a master author.
What Is On-the-Nose Dialogue?
Simply put, on-the-nose dialogue is dialogue that says exactly what it means–nothing more and nothing less:
“You’re a terrible boyfriend,” Melissa sniffed.
I shrugged. “I know, and I’m sorry. But just think about the horrible example my father set me. He was gone all the time when I was a kid.”
“That doesn’t matter to me. I can’t stand it anymore. I’m breaking up with you.”
My heart fractured. “I understand where you’re coming from. But I still love you.”
And why is that a bad thing? Because it’s two-dimensional, because it’s obvious, because it’s boring, because it’s unrealistic.
You know all those Walmart conversations you’ve made a professional hobby out of eavesdropping on? Take another listen. In real life, human beings very rarely say exactly what they mean. And, when they do, they rarely say all they mean. We play our cards close to our chests–perhaps because we don’t completely trust whomever we’re speaking with, perhaps because we have our own agenda and blunt honesty isn’t the best way to achieve it, perhaps because we’re lying to ourselves about our own motivations.
Our brains are complicated places. So are our relationships. Our real-life dialogue reflects that, and so should our characters’.
3 Ways to Create Subtext-Rich Dialogue
On-the-nose dialogue=bad. Got it. But where do you go from here? How do you create dialogue that isn’t on the nose? In truth, there are as many ways to avoid on-the-nose dialogue as there are ways to write beautiful dialogue (and that’s a lot). But let’s focus on three of the most important.
1. Make the Conversation About What Isn’t Said
If the problem with on-the-nose dialogue is that it’s about nothing more than what’s being said on the surface of the conversation, then the obvious first step is to start digging around under that surface. Consider this early exchange between Emperor Marcus Aurelius and his daughter Lucilla in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator:
Marcus: If only you had been born a man. What a Caesar you would have made.
Marcus: You would have been strong. I wonder, would you have been just.
Lucilla: I would have been what you taught me to be.
Marcus: Oh. How was your journey?
Lucilla: Long–uncomfortable. Why have I come?
Marcus: I need your help… with your brother.
Lucilla: Of course.
Marcus: He loves you, he always has and… he will need you now, more than ever. Enough of politics. Let us pretend that you are a loving daughter and I a good father.
Lucilla: This is a pleasant fiction, isn’t it?
This is the first conversation between these two characters, and it takes place early in the First Act when the story still has much to establish about the characters and where they stand within the Normal World. From just this tiny conversation, we learn of the rocky but still affectionate relationship between Lucilla and her father, we learn that Marcus’s parenting skills were questionable, we learn Marcus would prefer Lucilla to have been his heir rather than his son Commodus, and we hear a hint of the obsessively strong relationship between Lucilla and her brother.
But none of this is ever stated outright. The characters dance around these truths, because their truths are both personally painful and politically dangerous. They understand what’s really being said, as does the audience, but the result is much more realistic and pleasing than if it had all been spelled out. (Reportedly, Ridley Scott disliked the original script because the dialogue was too on-the-nose and ordered it reworked. The result is masterful, not just in this scene but throughout.)
2. Employ Irony
Sometimes story circumstances just plain demand you spell things out. Sometimes this works well simply because of the contrast with the preceding subtext-rich scenes. But sometimes you’ll still need to finesse the circumstances of the dialogue to keep it from being too obvious. A bravura example comes at the end of Band of Brothers, with the monologue that sums up the entire theme:
Men, it’s been a long war, it’s been a tough war. You’ve fought bravely, proudly for your country. You’re a special group. You’ve found in one another a bond that exists only in combat, among brothers. You’ve shared foxholes, held each other in dire moments. You’ve seen death and suffered together. I’m proud to have served with each and every one of you. You all deserve long and happy lives in peace.
That’s about as on-the-nose as it gets. But it totally works. Why? Because the person delivering the speech is a captured German general who asked leave to speak to his men one last time. His words are translated, quietly, respectfully, by the American translator.
If we put aside the understatement allowed by the translation, we can see it’s the irony of the situation that allows this pointed speech to be so powerful and touching. This is the enemy talking. This is a defeated enemy talking. And yet his words move not just his own imprisoned men, but every one of his victorious captors as well, because the irony of war is that the words are perfectly true of both sides.
3. When in Doubt, Shut Your Characters Up
Never miss a good opportunity to shut up.
That’s just as true for our characters as it is for us. If discretion is the better part of valor, then silence is often the better part of discretion. Some of the most powerful revelations in life are the wordless ones–sometimes because they’re so obvious they don’t require words and sometimes because they’re too profound to put into words. In an interview with The Writer (November 2014), Veena Sud, author of The Killing, noted:
Most truth exists in the space between words, and most of our lives–if you observe carefully a day in the life of a home you are a visitor in–is lived in silence.
Show, don’t tell is one of the most important aphorisms of the writing life. The basic problem with on-the-nose dialogue is that it tells readers what characters are thinking and how readers should perceive those characters. Don’t ever let yourself fall into that trap. Instead, use the awkward silences. Show readers what’s going on inside your characters through their action, their narration, and the complexities of their non-talking moments (which can be deliciously misinterpreted by other characters).
On-the-nose dialogue is more than a trap, it’s a cage. Once we learn how to identify its bars and break out of the rigid confines of its strict factuality, a whole new world of opportunities opens up for us. Look beneath the surface of your story and embrace the endless depths of subtext in your characters’ dialogue. The result? A story that will assure readers right from its opening pages that they’re in the hands of an author who knows what he’s doing.
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