What is writing on the nose?
Writing on the nose is a screenwriting term that refers to dialogue or action in which the character’s innermost thoughts and feelings are fully expressed by what the character is saying or doing. There is no nuance, mystery, ambiguity or surprise (as there is in real life). The subtext has been written directly into the text.
What is subtext? It is everything that is not on the page. It is the unspoken dialogue and hidden thoughts found in the whitespace between the lines.
Because people often go to great lengths to hide what they are thinking, even subconsciously at times, on the nose writing feels unnatural and is neither compelling nor dramatic. Actors don’t want to act it, directors don’t want to direct it, and film editors will slice it out and let it fall to the floor. Likewise in the literary world. On the nose dialogue (and activity) robs characters of their complexity, bores readers, and signals “amateur” to editors and agents. To wit:
Sam knocked on the door, let himself in, crossed the room to one of two leather chairs and sat down. He looked across the desk to his boss. “Good morning. You wanted to see me?”
There was a knock on the door. Before Turnbull could answer, Sam walked in and sank into one of two leather chairs facing the desk. He ran his fingers through dark hair that had grown considerably since his ouster from Corporate America, then clasped his hands on top of his head. “The furrow in your brow, it’s as deep as anything on June’s face. What’s up?”
Which of these examples has nuance and mystery? Which has an inner life, something going on between the lines?
Here’s an example paraphrased from Robert McKee’s book Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting:
He sits across from her at the candlelit table, the light glinting off the crystal wine glasses as soft breezes billow the curtains, and a Chopin nocturne plays in the background. He reaches across the table and takes her hand in his. She looks longingly into his eyes. He says, “I love you.” “And I love you,” she replies.
What’s wrong with this scene? It’s full of detail and ambience, and people do this in real life, don’t they? Yes, they do, but even then there are unspoken, and often unwanted, thoughts swirling in their heads. This scene lacks nuance, mystery, ambiguity, or surprise. It lacks an inner life, and if I’m the reader and this is how the bulk of the story is being told, I’ll quickly lose interest. On the other hand, if the scene is rewritten with subtext that offers subtle hints—a telling gesture, facial expression, or shift in posture—that say this guy has an agenda, now the scene is infused with drama, and I’m interested.
Does this mean every action or exchange of dialogue must be laden with subtext? Of course not. That would wear out the reader and the writer. But in scenes where high drama is unfolding, let it unfold in the white space. Let the reader do some work. When the reader puts two and two together and figures out what’s waiting around the corner, it is much more satisfying than having been told. Remember, show don’t tell, and subtext is a great way to show.
Early in my writing career, I had a difficult time grasping the techniques of subtext. Although I referred to a number of craft books, it was Robert McKee’s Story that finally drove home the concept. For my discussion on McKee’s book and seminars, and how they can help the prose writer as well as the screenwriter, go here.
If you know of a book or other resource that helped you understand subtext, please mention it in the comments below.