On the Nose Dialogue

Captivating, entertaining dialogue is essential to great storytelling. As I discussed in my previous newsletter entitled “Talk,” what your characters say can add detail, depth, realism, humor, understanding and emotion to your stories. 

If it’s done well.   

If your dialogue is too long, repetitive, unnecessary and boring, or if it’s absent altogether, your stories will never have the impact you desire. 

You must also avoid obvious dialogue where your characters simply announce facts that you want to convey to your readers and audiences (“I was once a successful judge, you know.”), or where they declare their true feelings and desires directly (“I’m so angry with you.” “I’m afraid of telling you I love you.”)

Stilted, unrealistic, uninvolving speeches like these are too ON THE NOSE. In real life we rarely state facts that the people we’re close to already know. And we almost NEVER declare what we really think, feel and want. Out of fear of rejection, imposing, or simply looking bad, we hide our true desires and emotions behind the camouflage of small talk, allusion, humor or silence.

The powerful antidote to on the nose dialogue is to employ subtext. Have your characters say things that seem to be about something far less important than what they really think, feel and want.

In Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor’s Oscar™ winning screenplay for Sideways Miles (Paul Giamatti) is clearly falling in love with Maya (VIrginia Madsen), but is terrified of letting her see that. In this beautifully written scene near the midpoint of the movie, she asks why he is such a fan of Pinot Noir. 

Miles gives her a lengthy, thoughtful response, and his entire speech is seemingly just about wine. 

I don’t know … It’s a hard grape to grow… It’s thin-skinned, temperamental… It’s not a survivor like Cabernet that can grow anywhere and thrive even when neglected. Pinot needs constant care and attention… only the most patient and nurturing growers can … tap into Pinot’s most fragile, delicate qualities. Only when someone has taken the time to truly understand its potential can Pinot be coaxed into its fullest expression.

His speech clearly reveals Miles’ understanding and passion for, wine. But the subtext reveals what Miles subconsciously longs to convey to Maya: “I need you to look beneath my external qualities and see who I truly am – to love me and bring out the best in me.” 

Of course, if Miles had actually said that, the dialogue would have been artificial, completely out of character, and ridiculously on the nose.

As the scene continues, Maya shares her own feelings about wine: 

I love how wine continues to evolve, how every time I open a bottle it’s going to taste different than if I had opened it on any other day. Because a bottle of wine is actually alive — it’s constantly evolving and gaining complexity. That is, until it peaks … and begins its steady, inevitable decline.

Once again, in a speech about wine, the subtext reveals that Maya is attracted to Miles, but that if he lets his fear hold him back for too long, he’ll have lost her, and his life will begin its own inevitable decline.

If you want to see this entire scene and witness the subtext first hand, go to YouTube to first watch Miles’ speech about pinot noir, then jump to Maya’s answer about why she loves wine. 

Or better yet, just watch the movie. Sideways is hilarious at times, and also a wonderful portrait of a man living a rather sad life, and struggling to find the courage to fall in love.

To master subtext in your own storytelling, begin by having your characters say exactly what they think, feel and mean, and tell us directly the information and exposition you want your readers to possess. In other words, purposely write on the nose or “announcing” dialogue, so you’re clear on what you want the scene to convey.

Then ask yourself, “Is this really something this character would need to say, or can I reveal it later through action, or with more natural, believable dialogue? Is there a way the character can subtly hide his or her true feelings or desires by using subtext, or even silence?” 

With each successive rewrite, examining your characters’ speeches in this way will make your dialogue, and your stories, more realistic, entertaining, revealing and emotionally involving.