Get Rid of On-the-Nose Dialogue Once and For All

Get Rid of On-the-Nose Dialogue Once and For All

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.

Why?

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.

Lucilla: Father.

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?

Connie Nielson Lucilla Gladiator

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.

Liebgott Nixon Band of Brothers

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.

The-Killing-Episode-3-03-Seventeen-the-killing

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.

Get Rid of On-the-Nose Dialogue Once and for All

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K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Good article Katie. This is such a good subject to touch on…and SO important. I think the place where I’m at as a writer, where I find I have the hardest time, is figuring out when to use the subtleties of subtext and irony, or use on-the-nose “thinking.”
    There are times when writing, especially when in the early process of setting up a story when characters need to spout exposition–information that needs to be understood. In those cases, I think to myself, “this scene I’m writing has a lot of boring information that the reader MUST know. How can I make this scene a bit more interesting?”
    While there are a lot of tools in the toolbox a writer can use, sometimes it still is difficult to get around the feeling that “I should just get out there and have this character say what he has to say.” I’m not sure I was clear enough about what I was trying to say, but do you ever feel yourself in the same position? How do you approach it Katie?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s often best to just go ahead and spell everything out in the first draft. Once we get it all out of our systems and figured out for ourselves, we can go back and revise to allow the complexities of the subtext to shine through. And, of course, when in doubt, beta readers are crucial for offering objective advice on the places were need more or less on-the-nose-ness.

      • Beta readers…heard of these mysterious entities, but never tried them. I guess I’ll have to look into that. As always, thanks for your suggestions K 🙂

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          They can sometimes be hard to find (I recommend making friends with other writers online), but they’re a crucial part of any writer’s success.

        • John Chalinder says:

          In the mid-eighties I lived in a writers household with a literary agent and read many original manuscripts.
          I offer myself as a Beta-reader, if you like.

  2. Couldn’t agree more that dialogue is a bellwether of the novel in general. Especially because dialogue is the one place I expect the story to come to life. And if it flops, I too am outa there. Now, I guess I better to look at my own dialogue in my WIP. Thanks, K.M.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Dialogue is (arguably) the only area in which an author is truly able to show, rather than tell. We definitely want to make sure we’re taking advantage of the opportunity.

  3. Good stuff, Katie. I often ask myself, “can the reader guess how the character will respond?” If the answer is yes, then what am I doing here? Why am I writing at all? Just let the reader come up with the obvious dialog. Rather, my job is, as you point out, to bring out the character-driven undercurrents and tension.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I was just thinking something very close to those lines while watching a television show last night. Half the time when watching a show or movie, I’m able to anticipate and complete the line of dialogue before the character finishes saying it. The best dialogue is always surprising in fresh and delightful ways.

  4. I enjoyed the article and agree.

    Elmore Leonard is my favorite writer of dialog. In addition to subtlety, he taught me that sometimes character b doesn’t need to answer character a. A conversation can split into two where neither speaker is truly listening to the other.

    I think dialog is a skill that can be refined and improved throughout a writer’s lifetime. One can always find ways to make it richer.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This is a tremendously excellent point. The silences in a character’s non-answer often raise all sorts of interesting complexities.

  5. I’m reluctant to read your posts, Katie, because they often hurt! Another very valuable bit of advice. Thanks.

  6. KM, this is wonderful! Thank you!
    I had a problem with speeches between characters before, and on-the-nose dialog is a reader-killer. I killed my own interest in my budding story while writing it!
    Sometimes I think we as the author forget that our readers are thinking, reasonable people who want to figure out our story. So when we find ourself writing dialog like that, we should pull up a picture of our best friend, role-model, and a relative and write for them.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      When in doubt, it’s always best to err on the side of believing our readers are smarter than we are and can figure out anything we can dish at them. Beta readers will always tell us later on if something ends up being too complex.

  7. thomas h cullen says:

    Know the story, then like so many other facets this one will get solved by default; to a great degree at least.

    On its own, formatting can create huge obstacles for an issue such as this. Is the television season a 12 episode run, when it can just be re-formatted down to 6 or 7 episodes? Is the agent or editor asking for additional chapters? Is the studio requesting more exposition, or more material to be packed into the “same running time”?

    What about tone, and theme? The whole of the matter really just rests on this.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Knowing your story really is a crucial aspect of writing subtext-rich dialogue. If you have the entire story in mind as you’re writing a single scene, you know what needs to be excluded and can be left to the subtext.

  8. This was great! Thank you for the specific examples as well. I’ve always liked that scene in Gladiator because it says so much while saying so little. But I don’t think I could have articulated exactly why I liked the scene. I will look forward to reading more from you in the future!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      “Says so much while saying so little” – that is, pretty much, the essence of dialogue that’s *not* on-the-nose.

  9. I’ve never heard the expression “on-the-nose dialog” before. However, I recognized your examples. It’s what I (and others) refer to “info-dumping.” Although I know that the dreaded info-dump can happen during description as well.
    Thanks K.M. for another great “how to” post.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Info dumping is definitely a huge part of on-the-nose dialogue, but on-the-nose dialogue does involve more than even just that. It’s not *just* about telling readers information; it’s also about robbing characters of the extra dimensions that might be found in the dialogue’s subtext.

      • John Chalinder says:

        Of the two stories I wrote that were published, I found the it was the characters writing the story and I was merely their scribe. This is the result of an over-active imagination.

  10. Hi,
    Happy New Year! Hope you have a great year.

    I enjoyed this post. In fact, every time I read one of your posts I learn something new. They help keep me grounded and strengthen my writing ability.

    Thank you.

    Shalom,
    Pat

  11. Thanks for this discussion. I have always felt this on-the-nose weakness in amateur stories but couldn’t explain it.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, it’s a very telltale sign. That’s why, if I spot it in an opening chapter of a book I’m considering buying, I rarely read farther.

  12. Thanks for this great post.

    There’s a saying that 90 percent of communication is non-verbal so writers who understand the value of their characters’ silence also have the chance to “show” using body language what they’re feeling, which deepens the conversation. Imagine a fight between lovers. They’re in the kitchen and the man says something to the woman; she doesn’t respond verbally but, as she’s cleaning up, she starts slamming dirty plates and cutlery into the sink. A treasured teacup from her deceased grandmother breaks as a result of her unspoken anger. Now she will either scream or cry–or both!

    Body language can communicate so much more than dialogue–in fiction and in real live. And there is rarely such a thing as on-the-note body language since it needs to be interpreted.

    Thanks again for sharing these insights. (And I’ve seen Gladiator. The relationship between brother and sister is cccrrrreeeeeeeeeeeeepppyyyyy!)

    Joe

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes! One of my favorite examples (from Nancy Kress) of good body language is the angry wife who throws a raw chicken at her husband’s head!

  13. Yes, yes, yes!!!!! Oh, I just loved this post!!! 🙂 I would also add that sometimes an author can have subtlety in what is “said”, but then undercut the effect by adding a mental note from the character fully explaining the circumstance. (If you don’t mind my paraphrasing your first dialogue between Melissa and her boyfriend), here’s an example:

    “You’re a terrible boyfriend,” Melissa said.

    I shrugged. “I know.” I was sorry, but how could I have done differently with the horrible example my father had set me growing up? He had been gone all the time when I was a kid.”

    The “I know” line could raise questions for about a tenth of a second, but then the narrative spells everything out and mystery vanishes.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Totally agree. The strength of written fiction or visual fiction (movies) is that it lets us get into the character’s head. But that can also quickly become its weakness if we don’t respect it or use it incorrectly.

  14. Katie–
    This really is a useful post. For me, the key to effective dialogue is paying attention–not as a writer, as a person. Are you observant of others? If so, do you bring what you see and hear of actual people to the process of creating characters? The writer interested only in shoving stick figures around and having them say what’s needed in order to get to the next Big Scene needs not only to go back to the drawing board, but back to school. For accounting.

    • thomas h cullen says:

      A sound principle, but a tall order if the story in question needs to be epic, rammed with dialogue.

      This is why I don’t criticise genre art. To do so misses the point.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

        Out of all the worthy elements to pursue in good writing, it’s definitely one of the most worthy.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Great way to put it. If the characters are just puppets, there to mouth the author’s words, then you know something is wrong.

  15. thomas h cullen says:

    It can matter, actually. You’re right. Genre’s inherently loaded with such connotations it makes recognising merit harder.

    Self-reflectivity. Organic behaviour. Saying and doing what the reader expects. Provoking an emotional response… It doesn’t matter what the genre, the existence of any of these is merit.

    • Hold on, Thomas. Saying and doing what the reader expects always has merit? I can’t agree. The reader doesn’t want to be lost, up a creek without a paddle, but she does want to be surprised, wants unanticipated turns and reactions.

      • thomas h cullen says:

        That’s true. In fact what I meant was something very nuanced. If a character experiences a set of circumstances, and the artist’s gone to great lengths to make this character’s reality believable, there’s then rightly some amount of expectation on the part of the consumer.

        If this is meant to mean so much, why’s the character not brought it up here? If the character has an education in this and this, how come they’re not applying it here? The aversion between these two characters isn’t mutual – so why now is this exchange acting as if it is? Etc, infinitely…

        Fiction is always fiction, but, depending on the labour and the rigour of the artist, it can always too be so close to reality.

        You express yourself very well Barry!

  16. These tips will make writing dialogue a lot more fun. I actually can’t wait to rewrite some scenes to replace the on-the-nose dialogue I’ve employed all over the place in my manuscript. Fantastic article.

  17. On-the-nose dialogue is even more painful in screenwriting, where the visual aspect of the medium is capable of carrying even more weight. I would say that this might be the single biggest problem with most independent Christian films I’ve watched–every character says exactly what is on their mind, ALL of it. It’s bad writing, and it can make even a decent actor look really foolish.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s painful pretty much anywhere. Not to disagree with you (because I adamantly don’t), but I think on-the-nose dialogue actually has a better chance of scraping by in film, simply because a good actor can sometimes make even horrible dialogue work. But on the page, it’s all up to the reader.

    • Braden Russel, amen to that!

  18. Spot on! A much needed and excellent post! Absolute truth! I cannot begin to list the number of books I’ve picked up – believing them to be deep, rich, and soul-nourishing reads – that end up being so predictable and boring that I want to gag. An excellent story line can be WASTED when an author leaves nothing to the imagination and spells everything out. Horribly boring, very superficial, and a waste of time. Finding an author in this day who knows how to paint the subtle nuances that transport you into another world and introduce you to new people is rare. When one is found, I don’t let go. I’m a fan for life.

    • Have you found ‘an author in this day who knows how to paint the subtle nuances that transport you into another world and introduce you to new people’? Let me know.
      I’m reading Rosemary Sutcliff for the first time. She’s not exactly contemporary, but I find her writing brilliant as regards description of character and setting; the plot is perhaps weaker.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Totally agree with you. *That* is the true gift of a great writer.

  19. James Davenport says:

    That on-the-nose dialogue example you gave could’ve worked…IF the two characters were on a romantic date that was going sort of well and saying all this with sly little smiles. (And with a few teensy tweaks.)

    “You’re a terrible boyfriend,” Melissa sniffed with all the nuance of a rodeo clown.

    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. (also added) I never learned when and when not to fart. Let alone not to do it as Jingle Bells. In July.”

    “I’ don’t care, it doesn’t matter to me. I’m breaking up with you.”

    “I understand, but I still love you…(added) ..and in the divorce I’m calling DIBBS on the chihuahua and all the remaining Blue Bell in our freezer.”

    “Fine! But I’m taking the hot fudge and the sprinkles-”

    “-How dare you, monster” I gasped, sticking my tongue out.

    “I know” Melissa smirked, baiting me with her eyes.

    I stole a kiss. It was as good a time as any.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Nice. And I totally agree. That was actually the hardest part of this post to write – because so much depends on the context. As I said, the Band of Brothers example is totally on-the-nose out of context, but works beautifully within the structure of the scene.

  20. Wow.
    Just when I thought I had ‘show don’t tell’ under wraps…
    Now I see the fine balance in disclosing information through dialogue, yet keeping it from being on-the-nose. This is a big deal for me, and I appreciate this article. My writing has been stilted, specifically concerning dialogue. Now I know why. Thanks.
    Looks like I’ve added another pass to the revision of all my WIPs: Look for On-The-Nose Dialogue.
    But as I’ve just identified one of my weaknesses–like you said in another post–That is fantastic.”

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Doing a dialogue-only pass through a manuscript can be really useful. It lets you focus on what the characters are saying versus what *you* are saying in the narrative.

  21. Zarjaz article! I’d been looking for a phrase to use when critiquing and ‘On-the-nose’ hits it …. well … On the nose. I read a similar one recently by Chuck Palahniuk who went as far as to suggest certain words which should never be used, especially when concerning internal dialogue e.g. ‘He thought’. On the subject of beta-readers, I hope you don’t mind me suggesting a site which I have found particularly helpful: Scribophile. There are some very astute authors on there who will give anything from inline edits to freeform critiques. Thanks again.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I totally agree with Palahniuk. “Telling” verbs like “thought,” “saw,” “heard,” and “felt” are weak shortcuts and signs of areas where we could be dramatizing our prose more.

      And thanks for the Scribophile recommendation! I’ve never used it myself, but several people have mentioned it as worthy.

  22. I’ve found some extremely helpful critters on Scribophile.

  23. A great example of your last point is the end of the film Witness. In the film, Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis just sit on the porch right before he leaves. The script has Harrison giving a big speech but it was left out and the film was powerful as a result.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      In general, I do feel movies have a little bit of a head start on subtext, since they can pull off a scene like that with no words at all. A scene like that would still be great in a book, but it wouldn’t be wordless, since the POV character’s narrative would still have to explain the character’s thoughts.

  24. Samuel Aladejare(JNR) says:

    Thanks so much for this. I’ve had to suspend my current WIP because I felt something wasn’t right with it. I think I’ve identified one problem. Your posts have been very helpful.

  25. Roxane V. says:

    I agree with you but I can’t help but wonder if there are certain exceptions. For example, I have a character who often holds her cards extremely close to her chest. She’s always dancing around subjects but when she loses her temper everything comes out. In such moments, the dialogue from her side could definitely be considered on-the-nose. Is this okay in this situation?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yep, you’re definitely okay. One of the greatest benefits of avoiding on-the-nose dialogue for most of your story is that you build up this huge *punch* of in-your-face truth that you can deliver at sparse and strategic moments. I wrote about this in one of my e-letters: http://createsend.com/t/j-19F295213952185C. Scroll to the bottom to find the article “Why Your Characters Should Never Tell the Truth—Until This One Important Scene.”

  26. Ouch. This entire post just sawed me straight in half. Yikes. Bleeding profusely. Sorry for the visual. Maybe because I don’t know anything about dialogue. If it makes me a better a writer, then it was worth it.

    Someone sent me an article about subtext. I can’t remember if it was you or Kylie Day. Will have to do some more research about it. Or reading would even be better.

    The subject matter is on point. Not on the nose. But on point. Been wondering what “Show don’t tell” meant for some time. I think I’m beginning to realize what it is by this post.

    Geez. You are a true samurai my friend. Cut to the core.

    Thanks

    Benjamin.

    • A few years ago I discovered I quite liked the books of Elmore Leonard. His dialog is some of the best written in the last 100 years.

      One of the “ah ha!” moments for me came when he had two characters taking but not listening to each other. It was two separate conversations going on and neither one cared what the other was saying.

      He’s a genius.

  27. One suggestion I’ve heard is to write your story with no dialogue, just actions, then go back and put in off-the-nose dialogue only where it is absolutely needed. I am reminded of that scene from Being John Malkovich and John Cusack is talking to that secretary and she’s completely off kilter in responding to him. It’s a fantastic, funny bit of writing.

  28. Thank you, Katie. You have improved my prose for me as I read this blog. I’m sure I’ll read it a few more times. It will come in handy for my third novel to come out next year.

    Can’t thank you enough.

  29. To me, the example of the General’s speech was one of the great moments in a great series because, as you allude to, it captures the essence of what the previous episodes of “Band of Brothers” have shown us about Easy Company, but, in a moment of amazing empathy, it turns our assumptions about the Germans as the ‘Enemy’ on its head and makes a crystal clear observation about the universal truth about comrades in arms.

  30. Just want to say that this is one of the best articles I’ve read in a really long time about the craft. Well done. Pinned!!!!

  31. Even after studying Screenwriting, I still struggle with this (possibly the paranoia of low confidence too.) I feel like it is a tightwire act of saying too much or not saying enough. Nuance is something that some of us definitely struggle to master. Being able to write dialogue was the Crucible of my college writing courses. For this reason, we watched a lot of silent films (as contradictory as that may sound.) The prof had a bit of film edited with the titles and placards removed. If you are only given X number of placards to interject into the film…what are the most important pieces of dialogue to be said. It was harder than it seemed and it was interesting to see how very different everyone’s movie would become.

    I recall during the endless clips of films we watched to study exactly what you illustrated above, a scene in Out of Africa has always stuck with me. I can’t find the quote now, but I remember Karen (Meryl Streep) says something about not being able to have children and how she is not truly a woman. She had this long bit of dialogue up to that point and Robert Redford’s Character, Denys cuts her short with simply, “NO.” That’s all. No big lecture to expound on that or chastise her. Just… “NO.” And it was AMAZING. (Probably also because Streep and Redford, but still,) the power of that one word said everything that needed to be said.

    Gladiator is one of the best as you showed. The fantastic thing in that film is one of the momst powerful scenes in that film, when father gets on his knees before son and says, “your faults as a son are my failures as a father” which is met with silence and (spoiler actions) was not in the script. Richard Harris ad libbed that and while it is a bit on the nose, I think as you pointed out above, it is Commodus’ silence that makes it truly powerful, not the actual spoken words, the lack thereof. Just my two bits and a shilling. 😉

  32. Ms. Albina says:

    K.M. , Here are dialogue samples that I want to make better and more simple.
    Halt!!” commanded the priestess holding her hand up.“State your business!”

    Leilani watched intently to the man’s reaction. Her eyes were a deep at the moment as they changed with her moods.
    The man stopped and said. “My name is Zane Merrick,” he continued, “I wish you no harm,”
    At last he was trustworthy and intended no harm she spoke. “My name is Cara, I am priestess to our mer-princess Leilani,” she said as she bowed to Leilani.
    Zane bowed to the young mer-princess and said. “It is an honor to meet you my lady,” then he bowed less deeply to Cara. “And you also my priestess,” The women were impressed by his good manners…Cara telepathically told Leilani they were safe for the moment.

    Leilani and Cara have telepath’s powers. How would you show that instead of tell that?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      “The women were impressed by his good manners” is a good example of on-the-nose. No need to tell readers they’re impressed. Let the subtext of their behavior show it.

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  1. […] Get Rid of On-The-Nose Dialogue – I’m really liking K.M. Weiland’s stuff. Check out her take on writing dialogue here. […]

  2. […] K.M. Weiland recently posted an article on her blog, Get Rid of On-the-Nose Dialogue Once and For All. In this article she presents three ways to make boring and obvious dialogue more interesting by […]

  3. […] Get Rid of On-the-Nose Dialogue, from Helping Writers Become Authors: As writers, we tend to hear a lot of advice about showing […]

  4. […] Sometimes writers have problems when their character’s emotions don’t resonant properly. Mary Kole analyzes the problem with stuck emotions, Fiona Quinn and Hannah Byrnes discuss the emotional reverberations in a crime survivor’s psyche, Kathleen S. Allen warns to do mental illness right in fiction, Writer’s Relief has tips to help choose the perfect name for your character, and K.M. Weiland explores subtext in dialogue. […]

  5. […] Let’s close out with an article about dialogue. Check out Get Rid of On-the-Nose Dialogue Once and For All from K.M. Weiland’s awesome […]

  6. […] Get Rid of On-The-Nose Dialogue Once and For All (K.M. Weiland) – Important tip for writers!  “Simply put, on-the-nose dialogue is dialogue that says exactly what it means–nothing more and nothing less…” […]

  7. […] on FaceBook, a writer friend shared the link to “Get Rid of On-the-Nose Dialogue Once and For All,” an excellent piece by K.M. Weiland about improving dialogue through subtlety and subtext. The […]

  8. […] Get Rid of On-the-nose Dialogue K M Weiland talks about how to get messages over in silences and what’s not said, rather than hitting your reader over the head with the obvious. Interesting blog post. […]

  9. […] am told by K.M. Weiland that it’s wise for an author to eavesdrop on ordinary conversations with real people in everyday […]

  10. […] K.M. Weiland on “on the nose” dialogue, how to recognize it, and how to remedy it. […]

  11. […] at with your MS, she’ll definitely help you improve your current draft. Some of my favorites: “Get Rid of On-the-Nose Dialogue Once and For All”  and “Most Common Writing Mistakes: Describing Character […]

  12. […] at with your MS, she’ll definitely help you improve your current draft. Some of my favorites: “Get Rid of On-the-Nose Dialogue Once and For All”  and “Most Common Writing Mistakes: Describing Character […]

  13. […] Do you know if your dialog is mundane or engaging? Find out if it is with this post from Helping Writers Become Authors. […]

  14. […] The trick is to use what we find in a creative way. Nothing bores a reader than a bunch of facts. There are many ways to do this. You could have one character teach another, which is what I did in Marred. Or, you could have a detective watch an autopsy, or have the medical examiner explain what he found, which is what I did in Wings of Mayhem. You could show the detectives collecting evidence. Or have crime scene investigators discuss what they found and why it’s important. If you choose the latter, don’t have two seasoned investigators discuss what they should already know. Nothing irks a reader more than on-the-nose dialogue. […]

  15. […] Get Rid Of On The Nose Dialogue Once And For All […]

  16. […] Online Resources: “Get Rid of On-the-Nose Dialogue Once and For All” […]

  17. […] very original dialogue, but the problem with this is walking a fine line between what is called “on the nose dialogue” and witty subtext that is both different and not downright strange at the same time. Shane Black , […]

  18. […] K.M. Weiland’s full article on “on-the-nose” dialogue for more helpful tipsThe ultimate aim of all good literature is immersion – distracting your […]

  19. […] intermediate-level writing problems: action-packed plots enacted by dry characters who speak on-the-nose dialogue; themes developed entirely by having NPCs discuss them at length, rather than through action or […]

  20. […] Get Rid of On-the-Nose Dialogue Once and For All by K.M. Weiland […]

  21. […] On the Nose Dialogue | Helping Writers Become Authors […]

  22. […] 3rd resource: K.M. Weiland’s Get Rid of On-The-Nose Dialogue Once and for All […]

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