You’ve all heard it before. Characters seems to say the perfect line at the exact moment. I’m not talking about Arnold one-liners here. I mean dialogue with no hidden subtleness that deflates the dramatic tension.
When character’s speak exactly what they’re thinking, the dialogue’s called “on the nose.” Sometime’s this is wanted, especially when you want to convey the meaning exactly. The phrase: “I hate you,” often doesn’t need any subtext. Some people confuse “on the nose” dialogue with exposition or info dumps. That’s the author intruding. True “on the nose” dialogue is the character spewing his or her thoughts straight out with no holding back.
This form of straightforward way of speaking leads to some pretty boring exchanges. Take the example below. (Tweaked to “on the nose” status from the movie Pulp Fiction.)
Butch: I’m going to borrow your car. I’ll be back soon.
Fabian: Hurry back. I’m worried about you.
Butch: I’ll come back as fast as I can.
Fabian: Thank you.
Pretty boring right? The characters come right out and say what they mean. Now here’s the actual dialogue as spoken in Pulp Fiction:
Butch: Here’s some money. Go on, get those pancakes. Have a nice breakfast. I’ll take your Honda. Be back before you can say “blueberry pie.”
Fabian: Blueberry pie.
Butch: Maybe not that fast. But pretty fast, okay?
There’s two layers to what’s going on with a character. Below the surface, the character thinks about what he or she wants. Then, on the dialogue level, he or she speaks. But these are never the same. Ever try asking for a raise from your boss? Or how about asking someone out for a date? Often we approach these sideways, saying anything but what we really mean.
The same goes for arguments. When the sparks fly, you’d think the filter would come off. Just listen to people argue (yes, I’ve stalked a few arguing couples, so beware if you see me in public listening). They often restrain themselves. They still avoid coming right out and saying what’s bugging them. It’s almost as if we have this inner censor that prevents us from being blunt.
Whatever the reason, as an author, you’ll need to channel this inner filter if you want your dialogue to come off as realistic. Make sure your characters have opposing goals or desires. These don’t have to be major. They could be different opinions on a subject they both love. But it’s the difference that’ll create friction.
Next, try writing the dialogue on the thought level (below the surface). That’s right, embrace the on-the-noseness. Then in your next pass of revising, tweak each one, making sure it shifts away from the obvious thought underneath. This way the real intentions will become subtext.
Of course, it’s easier said than done. If you need more practice, do what I do—stalk strangers and listen to them talk. Because until humans start speaking their minds, every word that comes out of our mouths will be loaded with deeper intent.