Monday, January 10, 2011

A rookie writing mistake

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.


Brian H said...

Subtext is your friend.

This is why I loved Arrested Development so much, and why I have a problem with shows where you can see the joke coming from a mile away. Let me find the humor instead of force-feeding it to me.

Modern Family is good with subtext... there are a lot of nuances and "joke grenades".

Malinda said...

This is probably one of the most helpful posts I've read. Thank you, and feel free to post other "rookie mistakes" anytime soon.

Rod said...

I really liked this post.

Uh, I mean...

Look who got visited by the Good Blog Fairy last night!

carol said...

Friday quesiton: I tried writing a script once, just for fun, and one of the hardest things for me was to introduce the characters and history in the 'pilot' without resorting to the whole 'as you know, Bob' thing. I'm a pretty good writer when it comes to stories, if I do say so myself, but when it comes to scripts I'm completely lost.

What kind of 'show don't tell' exposition tricks do you hae up your sleeve?

Chad said...

This is good advice, but I feel like I've seen errors in the other direction to - characters that avoid disclosing their feelings about something long past the point when any normal person would usually to maintain some comic tension.

Secondary Lead said...

This is great Ken, thanks a lot. More of these would be fantastic.

Mac said...

Very useful. And free! Thanks.
BTW The "How Frasier Came About" post did the rounds on several comedy forums and was much appreciated. Cheers.

Jason said...

And this is why most TV is made for and appeals to women.

Then again, you could probably have a lot of fun with this if your cast included a best friend or roommate who is always direct and cut-to-the-chase. Have the other characters do the usual dance, then have him wander through the scene to provide the punch line as he grabs a beer from the fridge.

Robb said...

You would love the new pilot I'm working on. It's called "On the Nose". It's a family comedy, about a family...of Rhinoplasty surgeons.

Rudy Martinez said...

Bookmarked for future reference. [What I'm really saying: "Great post, Ken! You nailed it!]

Friday Question:
I'm curious to hear about any shows you may know of that premiered as a half-hour and were eventually turned into a one-hour show, or vice-versa. Am I crazy for thinking networks actually do this?

Phillip Stamp said...

Awesome post. Great things to keep in mind.
Conversely, I think you could have great fun with this in a comedy situation where someone actually says precisely what they are feeling, and the other person thinks they are holding back the truth because it goes against human nature;

John, "Sally, something seems to be bothering you. What is it?"

Sally, "Well, to be perfectly honest, I didn't like the way you were flirting with Carol".

John, "No, seriously... was it my desert? Table manners? What's bothering you?"

Sally, "You were blatantly flirting with Carol. My sister! My sister with whom I've had a life long competitive relationship. Honestly... that's why I'm upset."

John, "You don't like my pants?"

Sally, "I'm going to cut your penis off now."

Lantastic said...

skyline was the worst movie I have ever seen and the on the nose lines were unbelievable. I mean it was a if a 7 year old wrote it.

things like "open the door, hurry."


Niveeik said...

I've always wondered who says that: "You always flirt with MY SISTER, Carol who we both have known since childhood so I don't really need to mention to you that I am referring to my sister, but just in case we have an audience..."

That's turkey-writing right there.

Dwauctioneer said...

Surely you're not decrying the greates line of cinema dialog ever " Flash! I love you - but we only have 14 hours left to save the earth!"

lar @ wezen-ball said...


I apologize for posting this here... feel free to delete it if you prefer.

I write a baseball blog that talks about esoteric stuff (I guess that's a good word for it - Wezen Ball), and I was wondering if you'd be willing to answer a couple of questions about a M*A*S*H* episode you wrote. If you'd be willing, you can email me at

-- Larry Granillo

Hugh Mann said...

Hugh Mann: I'm a retired engineer who wrote good expository material for proposals and reports -- but --I'm not doing so well on fiction. However, as I read the comments, I see that they really boil down to "Be logical." I have read instances of certain situations' being established, and then treated in a different manner later.

Susan Marlene said...

I'd never heard of "on the nose writing" until I heard it from a talk that Jerry Jenkins gave. Excellent post. When a person doesn't write "on the nose" it truly creates a more excellent and enjoyable experience!