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readers-ask

QUESTION: What is “on the nose” dialogue?

ANSWER: When a character says exactly what he thinks or feels, writers refer to this as “on the nose” dialogue. Inexperienced writers tend to use this kind of dialogue exclusively. Skillful writers aim to use dialogue with subtext. Dialogue with subtext reveals a character’s thoughts in more subtle ways.

Most writers are familiar with Vito Corleone’s famous line from The Godfather: “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.” Corleone says this line when Johnny Fontane (his godson) laments that a movie director, Mr. Woltz,  won’t give him the lead role in a Hollywood movie. Suppose that instead of the famous “make him an offer he can’t refuse” line, Vito Corleone had said:

Perhaps if Woltz wakes up with the bloody head of his expensive horse next to him, he’ll change his mind!

The example above demonstrates “on the nose” dialogue. The line doesn’t leave anything to the imagination. Few people wouldn’t agree that the original line is better, because it doesn’t specify how the powerful Vito Corleone will deal with Woltz.  The viewer can surmise that Mr. Woltz is in big trouble.

Is it ever reasonable to use “on the nose” dialogue?  In truth, not every line needs to be filled with subtext. Recall this dialogue from the movie Taken that Bryan Mills says  to Marko while preparing him for torture:

You know, we used to outsource this kind of thing. But what we found was the countries we outsourced to had unreliable power grids. Very Third World. You’d turn on a switch – power wouldn’t come on, and then tempers would get short. People would resort to pulling fingernails. Acid drips on bare skin. The whole exercise would become counterproductive. But here, the power’s stable. Here, there’s a nice even flow. Here, you can flip a switch and the power stays on all day.

In the dialogue above, Bryan doesn’t leave anything to the imagination about his experience in using torture to get information, but in this case, the dialogue works beautifully. Imagine if Bryan had said this instead:

I have ways of getting people to tell me what I want to know.

Doesn’t the original dialogue seem more effective at awakening a sense of dread? Writers must develop judgement about when and how to engage viewers/readers by weaving subtext into the dialogue to subtly reveal a character’s emotions (i.e. anger, jealousy, desire). Good writers avoid “on the nose” dialogue to state the obvious.

Until next time,

Write something you love! — Joanne

WriteSomethingYouLove.com

readers-ask

QUESTION: Why are writers told not to use mirrors to provide character descriptions?

ANSWER: Many writers use mirrors as a way to sneak character description into their stories with minimal effort. Seasoned writers avoid this method, because it’s considered lazy writing. In fact, the use of mirrors as a way to provide the description of a character has been done so often that it’s considered a cliché.

How to Describe the Viewpoint Character

The reason writers tend to use mirrors (or reflections) is that the protagonist is often the viewpoint character. Writers don’t want to commit point-of-view errors, and mirrors are a convenient way to allow the viewpoint character to see and describe herself. Fortunately, there are ways to provide character descriptions without resorting to mirrors. One method is to use other characters to give a description through dialogue. Another method is to have the viewpoint character look at another character and compare that character’s physical appearance or clothing to her own. It’s also possible to drop subtle hints. For example, if the character is a petite cheerleader named Joan, one could write something like:

Joan didn’t get along with Molly, the head cheerleader, but Molly needed her for the top of the pyramid.

Then readers will have a reasonable idea about Joan’s size.

Breaking the Rule

Most of the time, it’s best to come up with a way to describe a character without using reflections or mirrors. Of course, there are successful authors who break this rule. The Moonlit Garden, by Corinna Bomann (translated by Alison Layland), begins with a character looking into a mirror. The opening line is simple: “Helen Carter gazed in bewilderment at her reflection in the mirror.” A description of the character’s cheeks, eyes, and makeup ensues. At the time of this writing, this book has 3,279 reviews on Amazon.com that average four stars. The book also begins with a prologue, but that’s a topic for another day.

Until next time,

Write something you love! — Joanne

WriteSomethingYouLove.com

readers-ask

QUESTION: Should the protagonist be introduced on the first page?

ANSWER: Experienced writers often introduce the protagonist on the first page. To create empathy for the hero, get readers interested in him as close to the beginning of the story as possible. There are exceptions. Some writers choose to introduce the antagonist first. Although it’s less common, minor characters can appear in prologues and framing devices.

There are disadvantages to delaying the protagonist’s introduction. Readers like to experience a story through the eyes of one character and go on an emotional journey with that character. If the first character the reader meets is not the protagonist, the reader might feel disoriented and stop reading. It’s important to show a clear connection between the first character introduced and the protagonist in cases when the story opens with a character other than the protagonist.

In The Terminator, the nemesis (a cyborg from the future) appears first. This technique works because a powerful antagonist creates anticipation and concern for the protagonist (a waitress named Sarah Connor). While this example is from film, writers of thrillers often begin novels in a similar fashion.

Still, one of the chief reasons agents pass on manuscripts is a lack of empathy for the protagonist. To prevent this problem, show what makes the main character tick pronto. Convey the protagonist’s essence. A good opening scene sums up who the character is at his core using actions. The protagonist should show his defining qualities (admirable traits, serious flaws) through his behavior. While there are exceptions to nearly all writing guidelines, new writers benefit from using proven methods. Authors rarely go wrong by introducing the protagonist first.

Until next time,

Write something you love! — Joanne

WriteSomethingYouLove.com