Quick Tip – Don’t ‘BEE’ an “on the Nose” Writer

I’ve been writing a very long time so when my learning curve takes a leap, I have to share it.

Writing too “on the nose” (a term recently introduced to me by my editor) is a sure-fire way to spoil the readers’ experience. They will be robbed of the very thing they are craving – subtext and subtleties inside the story. Readers want to make their own interpretations and we have to remember they are smart enough, intuitive enough, to do just that. Readers want the reading experience to be alive. And, they want it in technicolor.

Here is an example of where my editor caught me.

My writing: I don’t care about money. I just want to feel safe, loved. I want my friends to like me. I want to ferret out the truth so my family returns to normal. 

Editor: Sounds too simple and on-the-nose. You want to imply/show these things rather than say them outright.

What she forgot, or was too kind not to mention, my POV character would never have said “I want to ferret out the truth.” That was me, the author, talking.

On-the-nose writing is unnatural, and unexciting. And if the reader recognizes the words as author’s instead of the character’s, the novel becomes merely a piece of reading material.

Here’s an example of a too-on-the-nose internal dialogue::

I’m lucky Sears and Roebuck delivered my silk stockings on time. Bare legs wouldn’t be nearly as impressive, besides I want to be in style. As I pull them on, I think about tonight. I’ll find a quiet place where Samuel and I can be alone. Will I let him kiss me?

Now for the more colorful version from my Work in Progress. Notice the subtext:

I slide the stockings up to my thighs, roll the tops, and give a word of thanks to the Sears and Roebuck Gods for the delivery. The screen in my head flickers with thoughts of tonight’s picture show, me as the lead actress — Samuel sitting next to me on a well-chosen bench; the carnival lights catching the silk shine on my legs when I ease my dress up to my knee.

Think subtext – I like to think of them as hidden messages.

How boring it would have been if Dorothy Boyd (Renee Zellweger) had told Jerry Maguire (Tom Cruise) “Yes, I love you. I’ll take you back.” But she didn’t. She said that famous line, “You had me at Hello.”

Think natural, yet colorful dialogue (unless they are sitting on a therapist’s couch, people rarely say exactly what’s on their minds).

Think of better visual clues: “She pulled the sweat-soaked shirt away from her skin and looked up. Nothing but sun. Even the birds were too hot to fly.

Think of a colorful world where information is not allowed to be dumped into the readers laps.

If it sounds a bit like “show vs. tell,” it is. But WITH the added bonus of rich dialogue, subtext and subtleties.

As my editor told me with metaphor – Let the readers enjoy the roller coaster ride on their own. If there is someone behind them (the author) telling them where the drops or loops come up, the thrill is gone.

HERE is a great article that gives excellent examples of how the screenwriter of This is Us avoided “on the nose” by using subtlety and subtext.


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