Today I’m looking at On-The-Nose dialogue (OTN).
This isn't a problem for Scriptwriters alone. Fiction writers need to avoid this trap as well.
On-the-nose dialogue will ensure readers drop your book faster than a red-hot ember.
You and I both know that nobody wants to read dialogue that isn’t close to the way people really talk. Otherwise it’s boring, tedious and not worth reading.
Yet, writers are still falling into the trap, not realising that the ability to avoid writing on-the-nose-dialogue sets great writers apart from so-so writers. It shows editors, agents, readers, reviewers and the like that you have the skill, understand and know-how to implement the numerous other fine distinctions of the craft of writing and storytelling.
So what is on-the-nose dialogue, and how can we avoid this hazard?
What is On The Nose Dialogue?
An example of on-the-nose dialogue would be...
“Hi, Jim, it’s really hot today.” Pete tugged at his tie.
“Yes, Pete, but they say it’s going to rain later.”
Pete glanced out the window they were passing. “I can see some rain clouds coming in overhead.” His tie was still choking him and his loosened it. “So I saw you with Carol, your wife. Are you two getting back together?”
“Maybe... I think so... We’re working on it. Why do you ask?”
“I was wondering because she cheated on you with your brother and all.”
“I really shouldn’t take her back, but I still love her.”
Okay enough! I can’t take anymore, and I’m sure you’re ready to stop reading by now.
Do you see how utterly uninspiring and dead boring OTN dialogue is? Did you notice anything else? Not only did I show you OTN dialogue, I also threw in some OTN action as well—just as a treat :).
Pete tugged at his tie. Why is Pete tugging his tie? Not because he’s nervous, but because it’s a hot day.
Pete glanced out the window they were passing. Why? Just so he can see the rain clouds closing in.
This is all obvious action to go along with his obvious dialogue, and that’s what makes it OTN action.
Another obvious statement coming from old Pete is: “So I saw you with Carol, your wife."
I'm pretty sure Jim already knows who his wife is! And that she cheated with his brother.
Rule of Thumb: anything that is obvious is On-The-Nose, whether it’s dialogue or action. Think subtle. Think show don’t tell. Think mystery (not of the whodunit, but of the I-wonder-what’s-really-being-said-here variety).
The next part of the above scene, which leaves the reader cold, is the lack of any real point of view character. Through whose eyes are we viewing the story? These are all hazards of the OTN dialogue.
How Do We Avoid This Hazard?
The trick, my friends, is to use subtext and deep POV. We say things all the time that we don’t know we’re saying. As authors, we can use this to great advantage. I spoke about subtext in my Pull Up a Chair With Mon series over on my blog a while ago, so I won’t delve into it again too deeply here.
What I’d like to do is try and see if we can make the above scene any better. Let’s hang out in Pete’s head to see what's going on...
“Hey, Jim, wait up.” Pete jogged the few paces to catch up with his buddy. Even at this early hour in the day, sweat trickled down his back. Snagged his dress shirt and plastered it to his back.
“Just leave it, Pete, I’m warning you.” Jim’s dark, narrowed gaze sliced into him. But what sort of buddy would Pete be if he didn’t make his friend realise he was heading down the same road to destruction as before?
“You know I can’t do that, bud. Just hear me out, and if you still want to take Carol back, I'd be first to raise a toast to your happy future.”
Jim skidded to a halt. Spun on Pete like he had murder on his mind. “What is your problem with my wife?”
The clenched fists and steam shooting from Jim’s nostrils let Pete know his friend of ten years was close to outing his lights. Pete loosened his tie. Maybe the god-awful heat had gone to his head, but Pete was ready to duke it out with Jim right here is the hallway of TTNT—in front of all their work colleagues—if it meant Jim would finally listen to what he had to say.
“The only problem I have is that she’s a liar and a cheat, and she doesn’t deserve all the chances you keep giving her. What second chance are you on now? Fifth?”
Fist balled tight, Jim drew his arm back.
Pete knew what was coming and he welcomed it. What he didn’t expect was the force of the punch that connected with his jaw, and knocked half a day’s memory out of his brain.
This is a rough example. It needs more subtleties added. The senses, for starters, and a deeper understanding of who Pete and Jim really are, but I’m not writing a story here, just giving you a quick example.
With any luck, you see the difference between the two scenes. The first is out and out OTN. The second is a little more subtle. Giving the reader info while keeping her/him wanting to know what’s going on by dripping in the relevant facts. I achieved this by letting the reader see what’s happening inside my POV character through action, internal narrative and emotion.
Have you ever been snared by the dreaded on-the-nose dialogue trap? Do you have any neat tricks or ways to avoid it? I'd love to hear what you think.
Until next time... let's avoid the nose.
Monique writes Romantic Comedy stories some call Smexy—Smart & Sexy—and others call fluff. Monique makes no apologies for writing fun, emotional feel-good romance! She also writes Christian Suspense with a more serious edge.
Monique loves to hear from her readers. You can contact her by visiting her http://moniquedevere.blogspot.co.uk to learn more about her and check out her other books.