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.

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