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“On the Nose” vs Subtext

April 20, 2015

“On the nose” dialogue is when a character says exactly what they are thinking. The same goes for action. If a character’s actions are reflective of exactly what the character is thinking, that’s “on the nose.” Seth Rogen is famous for this. In many scenes you will find him laughing, jumping up and down, and exclaiming, “I’m having so much fun!” Not only is it redundant, it’s boring.

Sometimes characters will say exactly what’s on their minds, but most often, just like in real life, your character will (should) use subtext. What is subtext? Subtext is when a character uses action or dialogue that is not direct, but still manages to get the point across. For instance: the wife asks, “Does my ass look fat in these jeans?” If the husband were to respond with exactly what he was thinking, it might go something like: “Yes, those jeans are much too tight to fit around your butt without making it look big.” With subtext it might sound and look a little like this: Husband’s eyes widen. He breaks out in a cold sweat. He swallows hard. “Honey. You look beautiful in anything you wear.” Wife purses her lips and narrows her eyes. “Hmph.” That exchange tells you everything you need to know without the characters saying exactly what they are thinking and it’s less boring.

I know what you’re thinking. “But Tony, if my characters are never speaking what’s on their minds, how will they ever get their points across?” First, there will be occasions when a character speaks or acts out exactly what they are thinking. It shouldn’t happen often, because as we demonstrated above, that can get boring very quickly. Second, if you’re using subtext properly you’ll get the point across, and most likely even more effectively. Sometimes just a look will say it all.

I know, I know, you’re saying, “But that’s going to slow my writing down if I have to stop to consider what the subtext will be.” For first drafts, go ahead and write “on the nose.” Write it however it falls out of your brain. But don’t leave it that way. That’s why it’s a first draft. After you’ve completed it, go back through and look for dialogue and actions that seem to be direct or exactly what your character is thinking. Then work on how you can say the same thing through subtext. “But how will I recognize it? How do I know what subtext looks like?” In real life, most people do not act or speak exactly what is on their minds. Watch lots of film and television. Go to the mall and eavesdrop on conversations, but please be discreet about it. Otherwise you’ll get more “on the nose” than you bargained for.

So it’s okay to write dialogue and action that is “on the nose” in your first drafts. Rewrites are where you’ll make those corrections. To recognize it, just ask yourself, “Is this what my character is thinking, or is she being indirect?” If it’s the former, think of what she might say or do that would get the same point across without being direct. There may be sometimes when directness works for the scene, especially if you’re writing a comedy: The wife asks, “Do these jeans make my ass look big?” The husband responds, “No, sweetheart, your ass makes your ass look big.” Until next week, happy writing.

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