Subtext Versus On The Nose Dialogue

I recently received some feedback on my story pointing out I have too much on the nose dialogue. It’s a problem I’m aware of, but struggle to put right, so decided on a little more research.

What is on-the-nose dialogue? It’s when a character says exactly what they mean and reveal his/her exact emotions. The result can be flat and lacking in depth. The reader is deprived of opportunity to interpret the underlying meaning and to be more actively engaged in the story.

As an example. My main character, Leo, finds a stray dog outside his office and his personal assistant says:

‘I bet you keep that dog.’

‘Definitely. She’s a great dog,’ Leo replies.

Here, both characters are laying their cards on the table and the dialogue feels stilted and boring, without emotion. The solution is to use subtext; the unspoken meaning beneath the words. In life people rarely say what they mean for many reasons. Maybe we don’t know how we feel, or believe it to be true at the time. Perhaps, admitting how we really feel will leave us open and vulnerable in some way.

Back to Leo and his dog, here’s take two. I have him asking the PA to try and find the dog a good home with a large garden.

‘Like yours,’ the PA asks, one eyebrow raised.

‘I’m not keeping her,’ Leo responds immediately.

At no point in the story does anyone tell Leo he’s going to keep the dog, and he continues to deny he wants to. But hopefully it’s clear that everyone, including the reader, know where the dog will end up.

In her book, Subtext: What Lies Beneath, Linda Sager likens on the nose dialogue to “the tip of the ice berg, but the subtext is everything underneath.”

Leo’s continual refusal to admit he wants to keep the dog, hints at other issues simmering beneath the surface. He lost his parents and sister in a car accident aged 16. He doesn’t want any more attachments in his life because he’s worried about losing them too.

So this was my attempt at using subtext, and I didn’t make a conscious effort, it just happened. In writing, some things seem to happen instinctively. The problem comes when it isn’t instinctive. Further on in the story, nearly all my emotional moments feature on the nose dialogue which I don’t seem able to put right. I kept hoping there might be a place for it at the end of a romance story, as surely to be together, the hero and heroine must both express how they really feel.

But then I remember the movie Jerry Maguire. When Tom Cruise returns to get the girl, instead of ‘I love you, I’ll take you back,’ Renee Zellwegger responds with ‘You had me at hello,’ now one of the top 100 movie quotes.

In his blog post,  9 Steps To Writing Dialogue With Rich Subtext, writer/director, Charles Harris, suggests creating two random characters “and give them something they mustn’t mention. Say, two prisoners are waiting to be hanged. They talk of anything but that – the weather, their last meal, a mouse in the cell. See how every word, every pause, can be filled with unspoken meaning.”

He also says to practise.”Subtext is a muscle, like any other writing skill. You develop it by working it.”

So, for me, it’s back to the drawing board….

 

 

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