editing

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.

Right Imperfection

“A human being in action cannot represent perfection. You always represent one side of a duality that is itself perfection. The moment you take action, you are imperfect: you have decided to act that way instead of that other way. That’s why people who think they are perfect are so ridiculous. They’re in a bad position with respect to themselves.”Joseph Campbell

"Don't be afraid of perfection, you will never reach it...."
          - Salvador Dali
Salvador Dali, 1904-1989

In my previous post (Cakewalk Into Town? 1.8.19) I spoke of my own challenge in crafting the things I write, of often “picking through the weeds for the right word, the only word in the entire English language that will do at the given moment.” Now I want to make the distinction between the right word and the perfect word. The former is a sometimes illusive diamond buried in the undergrowth. The latter doesn’t exist.

Writing is an activity that requires continuous choice-making. Every sentence is one particular way of constructing a statement, chosen from a multiplicity of possible similar sentences with various configurations, styles, tones, etc. Each word is a choice of this one as opposed to that one. Sometimes that one would be suitable, but this one is more right because its denotation, or dictionary meaning, corresponds more precisely to what I want to convey, or that one has unwanted connotations or perhaps a broader denotation more easily misinterpreted, or perhaps this one just sounds better in the given context. We choose our words for all sorts of reasons.

"Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words."
                         - Mark Twain

As for perfection, fuhgetaboutit! Sure, in a spiritual sense we can say “it’s all perfect,” but I’m talking about Joseph Campbell’s feet-on-the-ground perspective (or in this context, pen-to-paper) regarding the work of being human. Language is an inherent human tool, inherently limiting. That’s what it is designed to do: limit, shape, define, distinguish, circumscribe, order our chaotic experience of this material world based on duality. As soon as I name something, I limit it. That’s the point. It is no longer perfect, in a non-dualistic sense (it is something, not nothing), but now I can deal with it.

So, perhaps I could say that my picking through the linguistic weeds for the best word is a quest for right imperfection.

Or maybe, as noted in certain Eastern philosophical traditions, it really is all about the process, not the goal. The juice is in the doing more than in the getting it done. The search for just the right word usually helps me toward finding out what it is that I’m really trying to say. It can be a catalyst for self-discovery.

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