From time to time I try to flag rookie writing mistakes so you can avoid making the same blunders I did early in my career. Today’s topic: writing on the nose.
On the nose refers generally to dialogue where the characters say exactly what they think.
Sally: “John, I am so mad at you because you always flirt with my sister, Carol, and you know how jealous I get and how competitive I am with her.”
Sounds pretty bald and unnatural, doesn’t it? That’s because people go to great lengths to NOT say exactly what they’re feeling. Your job as a writer is to covey what a character wants to say without having him actually say it.
What if Sally said this to John instead?
Sally: “Remind me the next time we’re at my parents. I think they have a copy of Carol’s prom picture. You can keep it in your wallet.”
Subtext is your friend.
People use sarcasm, drop subtle and not so subtle hints. They’ll lead to you a conclusion without actually spelling it out. They’ll react passive-aggressively. They’ll mask their feelings, or deny them. Sometimes they’ll just clam up altogether. Or communicate more through their tone of voice than their words.
Body language is an excellent device. Most actors would prefer conveying their attitudes via gestures, facial expressions, and posture. A person’s body language might also be completely counter to the words out of his mouth.
Sally is in the kitchen chopping vegetables. Sally :“Are you kidding? I think it’s great that you and Carol get along so well.” As she says this John sees her vigorously chop off the end of a carrot.
Let someone’s behavior inform us of his or her attitude.
Sally starts flirting with Carol’s boyfriend.
Sally goes outside and has a cigarette and we’ve established that she no longer smokes.
Sally “accidentally” spills a drink in Carol’s lap.
When Sally and John are getting ready for bed that night and John is in the bathroom, Sally picks up his iPhone and checks to see if there are any texts between John and Carol and how many times he’s called her recently.
Now this isn’t to say characters never articulate their feelings, but there has to be a reason for them to. They’re cornered. They’re confronted. They’ve had a few drinks and let down their guard. They slip. They’ve left so many clues that haven’t been picked up that out of frustration they just blurt it out.
And even then, they rarely spell out word for word what they want to convey.
Sally: “Okay, you wanna know what’s pissing me off? You, John. You’re an asshole. You did everything but stick your tongue down Carol’s throat. That’s my sister, you dick!”
The point is there are alternative ways of expressing feelings. Explore them. Your characters will thank you. Or they’ll give you a little gesture that says thank you.