Strategies to Minimize On-The-Nose Dialogue
I’m a huge fan of subtext and always looking for ways to incorporate it into my own writing.
In real relationships, saying exactly what we mean seems imperative— in fiction, it's the kiss of boredom.
I love what's smoldering underneath the spoken word. I find dialogue is a great tool for mining deeper layers— and the subtext, a perfect antidote for dull, flat, straightforward, ‘on-the-nose’ conversation.
Generally, my goal is to delete or minimize expository/explain-y conversations. A favorite application of on-the-nose dialogue is with a calculated dramatic purpose, e.g., I think it’s great for demonstrating the avoidance of deeper issues.
I like it best when “Nice weather we’re having.” really means, “You conniving little weasel!”
Below is a list of strategies I am compiling to help me craft subtext, create depth, inject tension and keep the dialogue fresh.
Can anyone out there share other techniques to avoid on-the-nose dialogue? I’d love to add to my list!
Implied information allows us to learn about people and events through interesting inference rather than ‘on-the-nose’ explanations.
Alluding to unspecified incidents in the past can create history and mystery.
Private jokes, exclusive comments, or ‘loaded’ nicknames can reveal intimacy and allude to secrets.
Abrupt changes in subject can reveal taboo issues.
‘Talking around’ issues rather than addressing them head-on can reveal nervousness, enhance inter-personal dynamics, and create tension.
Strong reactions of any kind can mask feelings that reveal character and allude to deeper issues:
-Syrupy sweet sentiment can mask seething rage.
-Gruff standoffishness can mask adoration.
-Cavalier indifference can mask longing. (Apparent indifference can mask many emotions.)
-Maligning and ridicule can mask jealousy.
-Machismo or boasting can mask insecurity.
-Excessive piety or righteousness can mask moral bankruptcy.
-Concern or protectiveness can mask control issues.
-Humor or making light of a topic can mask pain.
-Mocking can mask jealousy or resentment.
‘Freudian Slips’ can eek out bits of repressed emotion.
Long repressed feelings can explode into conflict or deep emotion with surprising, irrational, or inappropriate outbursts.
Withholding or silence can inform us by what is NOT being said.
Ignoring a comment or question completely can reveal avoidance.
Answering a question with another question can deflect responsibility or demonstrate avoidance.
Answering a different question, or responding to a different comment than was stated can reveal discomfort and an intentional redirection of the conversation.
Multiple meanings - where each character focuses on a different meaning of a word or issue can reveal character and create depth in a conversation.
Teasing, either good natured or mean spirited, can reveal relationship quality, character and emotion, and may reveal a bit of history.
Insults about sensitive or private issues can ratchet up relationship tension and allude to past history.
Casual questions can border on interrogation and indicate insecurity, mistrust, or suspicion.
Physicalizing an emotion with an action in response to a question or comment can make a powerful statement (a tender touch, shoving a knife in the back) especially when the action seems to vary from the expected response.
Perseverating on a topic can reveal obsession.
Sarcasm can inform about underlying feelings and create tension.
Chronic complaining can indicate self-imposed victimization or failure to take responsibility.
Clichés (strategically used) can reveal a pathetic shallow character.
Symbolizing or referring to anything that symbolizes something else can expand and deepen meaning.
Speaking in metaphors can symbolize and illuminate personal issues.
Inserting poetry or lyrics (our own or those of others) to speak for a character can vary the speaking style, utilize metaphors, and create depth and emotion.
I think the best fiction writers are closet psychologists. I'm trudging through my own mini-PhD program here in my writing corner.
Do comment if you have ideas. I’d love to hear more thoughts on creating subtext!