In Search of the Obvious: On-the-Nose Writing

A sure-fire way to enrich the inner lives of our characters—and engage readers—is to cut dialog. Specifically, I’m talking about dialog that states the obvious; dialog that describes exactly what the characters are doing.

Here’s a simple yes/no scene test you can apply to sniff out expositional or “on-the nose” conversation.

Ask:

  1. Does the dialog feel fake or unnatural?
  2. Does the dialog seem obvious?
  3. Is the dialog unrealistic?
  4. Is the dialog boring?
Screenplay lines from The Princess Bride by William Goldman. Photograph by Monique Peterson.

If you answer “Yes” to any of the above questions, good! You’ve likely sussed out moments in which characters are talking about exactly what’s happening in the scene. Remember, readers like reading between the lines! When we tone down the obvious and ramp up the subtext, we convey insights into the character’s internal worlds and build moments in which characters reveal qualities to which they themselves may be blind.

Once you’ve spotted your obvious culprits, here’s what you can do about it:

  1. Make the conversation about what isn’t being said.
  2. Write dialog that seemingly has nothing to do with how the characters feel or what they think.
  3. Use irony. If the conversation is obvious, have the character speak that way, but in fact mean the opposite.
  4. Streamline exposition. Delete sections of narrative or dialog that overtly state what the character is thinking or feeling.

Not sure what to do? Try silencing your characters. Let the elephant in the room grow bigger.

Finally, ask:

  1. Is there subtext in the dialog?
  2. Is the dialog advancing the story?

If you answer “Yes” to these questions, chances are, your characters are all the richer for it.

Write-in: 12 February

Drop-in gatherings for no-excuse writing.

Join us for a 90-minute stretch of focused writing in the company of familiar faces and perhaps a nosh or beverage.

We’ll keep the first hour dedicated to pens on paper, so bring your notebook/laptop and whatever writing project is on your front burner. Not working on anything specific right now? No problem. We’ll have a few prompts and writing ideas to get you rolling on something new.

For those who wish to share your work or your writing process, let’s discuss! We’ll lift the silence for the last half hour.

Wednesday, 12 February 2020
10:30 a.m. – 12:00 p.m.
Brew Bakers
209 West Main Street
Grass Valley, Calif. 95945

Sustainable Sabbatical

There are few things more rewarding to a writer than having the opportunity to retreat to an undisclosed place for weeks on end and writing like the wind.

Of course, finishing a manuscript is its own reward.

I’ve been fortunate enough to start out my year doing just that. It’s not always possible to carve out a schedule during which I can spend at least eight hours a day dedicated to a singular writing project. To do so without distraction is pure heaven. I can truly immerse myself in the world I’m creating, with a level of depth and indulgence that isn’t always possible.

It’s hard to let that go.

However, there is a way to keep it.

C. Lockhart-Gordon. To the End. London: John F. Shaw and Co., 1898[?]

In simple math terms, four weeks of fifty hours of writing equals two hundred hours of writing. Practically speaking, that breaks down to four hours per week for fifty weeks (an entire year, with two weeks off), or eight hours per week for twenty-five weeks (roughly an hour and forty minutes per day, five days per week, for a six-month spell). 

With the latter plan, it’s very possible to knock out two manuscripts per year, without taking any time off to go away on a deserted coastline to do so.

For me, the early morning hours are most precious, and I’ll get up ninety minutes earlier to carve out that time. Before long, I’ll not even notice that I’ve changed my schedule.

When is the best time for you to carve out some precious writing time? Do it—and hold to it. Every writer deserves a sabbatical every year.

Write-ins: 5 February

Drop-in gatherings for no-excuse writing.

Join us for a 90-minute stretch of focused writing in the company of familiar faces and perhaps a nosh or beverage.

We’ll keep the first hour dedicated to pens on paper, so bring your notebook/laptop and whatever writing project is on your front burner. Not working on anything specific right now? No problem. We’ll have a few prompts and writing ideas to get you rolling on something new.

For those who wish to share your work or your writing process, let’s discuss! We’ll lift the silence for the last half hour.

Wednesday, 5 February 2020
10:30 a.m. – 12:00 p.m.
City Council
233 Broad Street, Nevada City, Calif.

Coin, Country, and Comma

If there is one point of grammar I insist upon, it is the use of the serial comma. Across the pond, it’s affectionately known as the Oxford comma. Simply defined, it’s the final comma that comes before “and” or “or” in a series.

Footsteps on the Road to Learning, or, The Alphabet in Rhyme (1849)

Many style guides consider the serial comma optional; however, lack of said comma may open the door to unwanted misinterpretation.

A little comma can make a big difference.

Read here why award-winning author Sir Philip Pullman is urging his fellow citizens to boycott a newly minted coin that omits the Oxford comma.

Convinced?

“I’ll Get You, My Pretty!”

I often think about the dangers of preciousness when doing any kind of art… writing included. Perhaps, writing especially. We often work so hard to come up with just the right word, tone, image, or idea that once we’ve landed on that perfect solution, it can become nearly impossible to part with it.

And yet…

True discipline comes with the ability to do just that: let go of our pretty little darlings. No clinging. No saving them in little boxes. No holding on for future use. Cut them up, turn them to kindling, and set fire to them.

Why?

Illustration by William Wallace Denslow in L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

Our precious darlings can imprison us—limit us to seeing the part and not the whole. They can prevent us from being objective about our own work and make us more rigid in our process, rather than more flexible.

Letting go of preciousness forms the foundation of good practice, improved technique, and continuing fluidity in the creative process. We will make more art—after all, that’s what we do. The more we make, the more we can see that what we once thought was precious perhaps isn’t that special after all. The more we do, the more skilled we become, the more we learn from our own shortcomings—and, the more confidence we have that there will be many more little darlings to come.

Let the Screenplays Begin!

The early bird deadline for the PAGE Screenwriting Awards is January 20 this year.

Image by Futuregirl from Pixabay

Congratulations to colleagues who have placed in past contests and success to those who I know are applying in 2020.

Not yet ready to submit your work for review? I encourage you to plan now for next year, and for inspiration, immerse yourself in some of the best screenplays past and present for free here:

Simply Scripts

The Internet Movie Script Database

The Screenplay Database

So, screenplay writing isn’t your specialty? No matter! Scan scripts for snappy dialog, rich subtext, and visual writing styles. It can only serve to up your game.

Write on!

Simply Character

Some of my favorite windows into character are revealed in the smallest of gestures, those seemingly benign details that exist between action and dialog.

The Maltese Falcon (1st edition cover)

Here’s how Dashiell Hammett describes Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, published in 1929:

“He talked in a steady matter-of-fact voice that was devoid of emphasis or pauses, though now and then he repeated a sentence slightly rearranged, as if it were important that each detail be related exactly as it happened.” [The emphasis is mine.]

And here’s how Sam Spade describes the man in the story he’s relating:

“He went like that … like a fist when you open your hand.”

It’s an act of writing almost like sleight of hand, but with an impact in the imagination that reveals far more than the sum of the words.

Write-ins: 10, 12, and 19 December

Drop-in gatherings for no-excuse writing.

Join us for a 90-minute stretch of focused writing in the company of familiar faces and perhaps a nosh or beverage.

We’ll keep the first hour dedicated to pens on paper, so bring your notebook/laptop and whatever writing project is on your front burner. Not working on anything specific right now? No problem. We’ll have a few prompts and writing ideas to get you rolling on something new.

For those who wish to share your work or your writing process, let’s discuss! We’ll lift the silence for the last half hour.

Tuesday, 10 December 2019
10:30 a.m. – 12:00 p.m.
Brew Bakers
209 W Main St., Grass Valley, Calif.

Thursday, 12 December 2019
10:30 a.m. – 12:00 p.m.
Brew Bakers
209 W Main St., Grass Valley, Calif.

Thursday, 19 December 2019
10:30 a.m. – 12:00 p.m.
Brew Bakers
209 W Main St., Grass Valley, Calif.

Write-ins: 3 & 17 October

Drop-in gatherings for no-excuse writing.

Join us for a 90-minute stretch of focused writing in the company of familiar faces and perhaps a nosh or beverage.

We’ll keep the first hour dedicated to pens on paper, so bring your notebook/laptop and whatever writing project is on your front burner. Not working on anything specific right now? No problem. We’ll have a few prompts and writing ideas to get you rolling on something new.

For those who wish to share your work or your writing process, let’s discuss! We’ll lift the silence for the last half hour.

Thursday, 3 October 2019
10:30 a.m. – 12:00 p.m.
Brew Bakers
209 W Main St., Grass Valley, Calif.

Thursday, 17 October 2019
10:30 a.m. – 12:00 p.m.
Broad Street Bistro
426 Broad St., Nevada City, Calif.

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