February 18, 2021

The Cloverfield Conundrum

If you’ve been following this blog (or me on Twitter) for any amount of time, you know one of my favorite Saturday thing to do is watch B-movies. I’ve always had a certain love for them, and I think it’s a place to find some unsung gems if you’re willing to dig. Plus, lots of chances to flex your storytelling muscles and figure out some stuff. Where did this go wrong? Am I doing this in my own writing? How could it be fixed?

One type that always puts me on edge is found footage movies. After movies like The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield became huge hits, shooting movies in this style exploded. Especially lower budget movies. There are dozens and dozens of them out there, covering topics from US forces in Afghanistan to dinosaur lost worlds to Judgment Day itself. Although you do have to ask… who found that particular footage…?

The catch, though, is found footage is one of those storytelling methods that looks very simple and forgiving. In fact, it’s an incredibly difficult way to tell a story, especially if I want to do it well. Possibly one of the hardest ways. And I’ve thought a few times about scribbling up a bunch of points and warning signs to watch for in such things, but the simple truth is I don’t offer a lot of straight screenwriting (or filmmaking) advice here anymore. Nothing major, anyway.

But it recently hit me there’s a way this ties to prose writing, and that’s through the epistolary form. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s when the story’s told through letters, journals, news articles, and other bits of found media (aaahhhhh, sound familiar?). Dracula and Frankensteinare both classic epistolary novels. There’s a magnificent one that just came out from Dan Frey called The Future is Yours, which uses emails and blogs and text messages. I used it for a section of one of my own books, Ex-Communication, where we get a look at a young girl’s journal, and in the very first story I ever sold for cash money, “The Hatbox.”

But just like found footage, an epistolary novel or short story can look deceptively easy. And it turns out they hit a lot of the same basic problems as found footage movies. So I thought I could take a few minutes and talk about four major flaws I see in both of these related formats—the movies and the books..

As always, none of these are die-hard absolutes, and it’s always possible someone could do this in a movie/ novel and make it work beautifully. But I also think they’re common enough as flaws that I need to be 100% sure what I’m doing is flawless if I decide to use one of these devices, because the automatic assumption is going to be… it’s a mistake. And when people hit the third or fourth obvious mistake in my story, they’re probably going to move on to something else. And that’s all on me, not them.

So… first thing.

Mistakes must be deliberate and clearly be deliberate
A lot of storytellers see the found footage/epistolary style as, well, an excuse to be lazy. Yeah, they do. Sorry.

Sure, there are lots of spelling mistakes, but that’s only because my narrator doesn’t know how to spell. Yeah, there are gaping holes in the plot, but the narrator wasn’t there for everything—they can only tell what they know. Yeah, this isn’t what we want to see or hear, but it’s more believable they’d be writing about this or pointing the camera at that. And, whoa, did we not once get the actress’s face in that scene? Well, it’ll be fine, that’ll just look even more authentic.

What’s going on here is something I’ve talked about before. People are confusing reality—that thing we walk around in most of the time—with fictional reality. Often they fall back on this to excuse bad dialogue or behavior in prose. Here I’m using it to excuse my writing in general. Or, in the film case, horribly framed and/or lit shots.

The bigger aspect of this, though, is my audience (readers or viewers). I mean, we can all spot mistakes when we see them. Clearly I wasn’t supposed to see that crew member in the mirror, or the battery pack and wires for her mic pack, and we all know the difference between there and their and they’re (don’t we…?). So when we see these things, our automatic gut reaction isn’t “gosh, this seems so real,” it’s just “Mistake!!” and maybe a pointing finger.

That’s why I need to be super cautious about “mistakes” in this sort of storytelling, because they’re going to be interpreted as, well, actual mistakes. Not something wrong with my character’s spelling ability, but a failure on my editor’s part. Its just an actual mistake in the film or book. And that’s the kind of thing that ruins the flow.

Cause here’s the thing… Absolutely no one went into Cloverfieldthinking they were looking at actual footage of a giant monster attacking New York. They knew it was a movie (or a book in their hands). The format pulls it a little closer to home, maybe bulks up the willing suspension of disbelief a bit, but everyone still knew this was something that had been created and promoted for months in advance.

So if I’m going to make mistakes, they have to be super-blatant mistakes. Things nobody could’ve missed. Things a spellchecker would catch. I don’t want to put their instead of they’re, I want to see there’re or theyer. Really clear, very deliberate mistakes.

Cameras are not characters
There’s a scene (or series of scenes) in every found footage movie where the camera moves too much. It’s imitating the gaze of the character holding it rather than, y’know, being a camera they’re holding. These moments can be subtle and ring a bit false—looking back and forth between two things, for example—or they can be big and make the audience shout “Why are you stillholding the camera?!!?” Y’know, like when you stop to point the camera at the giant monster opening its mouth to eat you.

We all recognize in these moments that no human being would still be carrying a camera on their shoulder or holding a cell phone out in front of them. They definitely wouldn’t be turning, aiming, resizing, refocusing, and so on. It’s a cheat, and we all recognize it as one.

Likewise, there are things it’s tough to buy in epistolary form. A journal is close to first person POV, but it’s still something different and distinct. If I just spent six hours fighting the zombie horde with an axe, am I really going to sit down and write out those six hours in meticulous detail? Would I write out what all the zombies looked like, what I was thinking of when I decapitated them, some random observations about the human condition? Or would my entry just be—

Feb. 18th (??? Thursday???) – brutal day killing zombies. friggin exhausted. most everyone made it. maybe write more tomorrow if there’s time.

Heck, would I even write that much? I mean, with everything going on, am I really going to spend any of my precious downtime writing? And by… flashlight? Campfire?

And it’s not just fighting zombies. How much would you want to write after eight hours of hiking or a twelve hour work day? Seriously, think of the writing you’ve done in your own life. Letters, journals, diaries—how much detail did you really go into? How often? How many things did you just skim over? I know my attempts at journaling were never that great, and I know they would’ve been worse if I was in the middle of a custody battle or an alien invasion. Or both. Heck, I still write physical letter to a few folks, but there are long gaps between them and lots of stuff I never include. Yes, Kevin, I know I’m very behind—sorry.

I need to have amazingly rock-solid reasons for why people would continue to point that camera or keep up those journal entries. And doing this can’t conflict with that first flaw up above. There’s only so many times we’ll buy “oh, I thought I turned the camera off.”

Cameras are not eyes
When watching my Saturday geekery movies, it’s pretty common for me to give a movie crap for jump scares. Especially ones where the monster/ ninja/ cyborg is leaping into view of the camera but it clearlywould’ve already been in view of the characters. This is a really common problem in found footage movies—confusing what the camera sees for what the character sees.

This is more a mechanics of storytelling issue. Understanding there’s more going on than we’re seeing, and that my characters have thoughts and experiences beyond what they share with the audience. We know they’re hearing and seeing things the camera isn’t, so it’d be bizarre for them to act as if the only things they experienced were the things that appeared on camera.

A weird flipside of this that happens enough to make it worth mentioning—I can’t show something on a found footage camera and then say my characters didn’tsee it. Either they were looking through the viewfinder or they watched it reviewing the footage (because why else did they have cameras running?). So characters acting like they didn’t see what we, the audience, saw just makes them look stupid.

Likewise, journals aren’t really narrative. They’re one person’s very limited view of a narrative Even more limited than regular first person. We’re removed from the actual events by the narrator and by the narrator’s personal biases and limitations—again, how much they actually write and what they write about vs. what’s actually happening in the narrative.

If that sounds a little confusing, think of it in terms of an unreliable narrator. We know they’re telling us a story, but we also know it’s not the real story. Maybe they’re leaving things out or putting a spin on the facts or just don’t understand what’s going on around them. We understand we have to translate what they’re telling us and fill in some facts ourselves.

And this is what every journal is like. They’re all kinda unreliable. They’re filtered by our individual experiences, our knowledge, our maturity, and our own views. There’s always going to be more going on than what’s on the page.

Super short version of this–I can’t have piles of story beats that are only about how the audience will react to things—I need to consider the characters too. How are they interpreting and reacting to the events going on all around them?

It’s all just random incidents and coincidences
This is what usually happens when more than one of the above flaws happen. The narrative starts to break down because it can’t actually be supported in this form. A lot of time when this happens, filmmakers will give up on the found footage conceit altogether and just have random camera views from, well, anything. It was 90% cell phone footage until we had a car chase, so now it’s all random traffic cams or ATM cameras. How did we get that footage? Not important!

Likewise, as tension mounts in a story, it becomes less and less believable that someone’s taking the time to write out more and more details in their diary. It makes us aware that the zombies could burst in at any minute, but I took half an hour to scribble down all the gory details of how Wakko died. It’s either the story grinding to a halt or the story getting skimmed over because who has time to be writing right now?!?!

A common sign of this in both films and journals? The story just stops. It doesn’t end, mind you. It just… stops. The movie that goes black or the journal that ends in mid-sentence. Which, I mean, is still slightly better than…

I hope this letter gets to you somehow, Yakko, because I hear footsteps on the stairs. There’s no way out for me but remember what I told you! Oh no!! They’re right outside my door!!


There are the four common flaws I’ve seen in this type of storytelling. Each one is pretty bad. I think any two of them together will pretty much sink my story. So if I’m going with the found footage/ epistolary style, I need to make sure I avoid them.

But hang on! All of this means it’s going to be a lot harder to tell the story, right? I’m going to have to figure out new scenes and sequences. Probably change dialogue. Maybe restructure some things. And then still make it a good story?

Well… yeah. I mean, I chose to tell something in this format. This is what the format needs. What am I complaining about? Can you imagine if I started writing a romance novel an then said “awwww, geeez… there’s all this relationship stuff and kissing I have to deal with. I don’t want to write any of that.”

Like so many artistic things, I need to do a lot of work to make it look easy.

Hey, speaking of work and advice… WonderCon is coming up, and I’m going to be doing another Writers Coffeehouse with a bunch of professional writer-friends. We’re recording next week, so if there’s any writing-related question you’d like to get a consensus answer on, this is your big chance. Just toss it in the comments below or hit me up with it on Twitter. Outlining, characters, dialogue, daily schedules, editing, tell us what you need.

And next time here, I’d like to talk to you about the one time when all these rules don’t matter.

Until then, go write.

Or shoot something with your phone.

August 4, 2017

Stop Hitting Yourself…

            Just want to thank you all for your patience while I was off at (and recovering from) SDCC.
            Now, back to our usual rants about storytelling…
            I’ve mentioned once or thrice before that I like watching (and commenting on) bad movies.  Sometimes I find a hidden gem.  Most of the time, though, they’re just fodder for these little rants. Much like when I used to read scripts for screenplay contests, if I watch three or four bad movies in a row I almost always find some common flaws and teachable moments.
            So I saw a Dracula movie recently… 
            He’s arguably the most commonly-filmed fictional character on Earth.  It’s not that big a surprise I stumbled across one.  Actually, it was a three-Dracula geekery day, if memory serves.
            Anyway, this one was set back in the 16th Century and went the ancient-noble-prince route.  It’s a not-uncommon take on the character (Fred Saberhagen wrote a whole series that used it). Dracula used his supernatural powers to protect Transylvania and had this whole warrior code and all that.  And I’m kind of guessing 16th century.  Vlad Tepes lived in the 15th, but these people were actually dressed in a more medieval-fantasy style.

            Except… we also had Jonathan Harker and Mina and Lucy and Van Helsing.  Medieval versions of all of them.  Again, not terribly uncommon.  We’ve seen lots of interpretations of these characters (looking at you, Hugh Jackman).  So Mina and Lucy being kickass demonhunters isn’t that odd.

            Except… we also had this huge biblical subplot, where vampires are all descended from Cain and can only be truly killed by descendants of Abel.  Which, I mean, I’ve heard stories that tied vampires to the bible before.  So it wasn’t really an outlandish, crazy thing.
            Except… we also had the romance.  You know the one.  Mina is a near double/reincarnation of Dracula’s long-dead princess.  Long scenes of wistful staring and passionate confusion ensue.
            Man, that’s kind of a lot for a ninety-odd minute movie, isn’t it?
            I think one or two Saturday geekeries later I ended up watching this twisty-turvything about dead children and stalkers and swapped identities and second marriages with creepy undertones.  That could all balance out kinda cool, right?  But there was also this whole parallel plot about guardian angels and angel sex (no, seriously) and sin and redemption.  And the plots didn’t so much as dovetail together as butt heads for a while and then have a high-speed impact (which also involved some fatalities…)
            What’s my point here?  Well, I have two, believe it or not.  They’re kinda related, but still—bonus tips for you.

           First, in both of these movies, the plot kept getting in its own way.  There were so many clever ideas that none of them really got developed to a satisfying degree.  We’d start dealing with one and then have to rush off to deal with another one before people forgot about it.  Or the ideas would collide head on, which led to analyzing the story instead of… y’know, enjoying it.

            I’ve talked about this problem a few times before—where a plot or story is just overpacked with ideas.  And what tends to happen is the plot will overwhelm the story, the story will smother the plot, or sometimes they’ll just collapse into this mess of well… random plot and story points.
            This is a really tough idea for new writers to grasp, because it feels counterintuitive to everything we’ve been led to believe as storytellers. If the idea’s good, how can it be wrong for a story?  Thing is, sometimes a really good idea just doesn’t work in the story I’m telling.  If it’s not driving the plot or motivating the characters, if it’s pulling us too far off course or just filling space that could be used for something else… it probably doesn’t belong there. 
            I got to interview Kevin Smith a few years back, and we talked for a few minutes about his legendary hatred of ad-libs. He was quick to point out that he didn’t hatead-libs. His problem was that ad-libs rarely fit into the final story. Sure, they might be hysterically funny at the moment while filming on set, but then you’d get to the editing room. Now they had to fit in with the tone and pacing of the overall movie.  And more often than not… they didn’t.  It’s not that they weren’t funny or clever, they just didn’t fit. And then Smith even made a point of praising his then-leading man, Seth Rogen, for the ability to fire off lots of funny lines that were, as he put it “very germane to the discussion.”
            Y’see, Timmy, when we come up with these really cool ideas for a new take on werewolves, some really hot and sexy dialogue, or an incredibly cool way to describe the feeling of a knife piercing the flesh… well, we want to use them.  That’s our job, after all.  To take cool ideas and make cool stories out of them.  But sometimes—a lot of the time—our job is really knowing when to take the cool ideas out.  It’s being able to cut away the excess, to figure out what our story’s about and what parts are just wasting time and space.
            Which brings us to my second clever point…
            There’s a general idea  I see crop up a lot that stories can be any length.  Any length at all.  I can make the story whatever it needs to be—fifty pages long to five hundred pages long.
            And while, in a general sense, there’s some truth to this, the stark reality is that there are a lot of limits on how long a story can be.
            Look at screenwriting. We all acknowledge that movies are generally ninety minutes to a little over two hours.  It’s just how it is.  When a movie’s only seventy-plus minutes… we feel kinda cheated.  It can be really good, but almost always there’s a response of “That’s it?  Only seventy-one minutes?”  Likewise, when a film stretches out over two and a half hours, it usually feels pretty excessive.  There are a few really great just-shy-of-three-hour movies, but there are a lot of really bloated, desperately-in-need-of-editing ones.  So if my screenplay doesn’t fall in the 90-130 page range… I might get some folks to look at it, but not many professionals are going to take me seriously.
            And if I’m publishing… well, paper costs money.  And shelf space in book stores is precious.  Most publishers don’t want to see a massive, beef-slab of a book unless they know they’re going to sell a lot of copies of it.
            Ahhh, I say, well I’ll just publish it myself, then nobody can turn it down for financial reasons.  True, but a lot of the POD sources still work off page length to calculate costs, and they’ve got much more hard ranges. Just a few pages this way or that can mean a price jump of three or four dollars per copy. And somebody’s got to eat that cost.  It’s not going to be them, so it’s either me or my readers.  This is why I had to cut almost 30,000 words out of my book 14 –the small publisher couldn’t afford to have it stretch into the next page-range.
            Heck, even if I just give up on print altogether and go with epublishing only—check the numbers. Shorter books do better as ebooks, especially from self publishers.  The vast number of folks who’ve had any degree of success with ebooks are doing it with books under 100,000 words.  I think many of them are under 70,000. The “why” of this is a whole ‘nother discussion we could debate for a while, but for now we just need the simple numbers. Ebooks tend to do better as shorter books.
            Y’see, Timmy (yep, a double Y’see Timmy—haven’t had one of those in a while) what all this adds up to is limited space.  Those pages are precious.  My words are precious. I don’t want to waste them on irrelevant things.  I want them to be moving things along for the plot and for my characters.  I want the ideas to work for the story, not to be flexing and contorting my story to accommodate some ideas.
            A while back a friend of mine was working on a Frankenstein-esque story, and he had this super-cool idea for a detail about the monster’s origins.  And it really was a cool idea.  Thing is… his story was all structured around the idea that we never really learn much about where the monster came from or how it was built.  That was part of the mystery.  There wasn’t anywhere to use this idea, but he was soooo determined.  Even when it made no logical sense for this detail to be revealed, he kept trying to force it into different chapters. Because it was too cool an idea not to use… even though the rest of his story was suffering because of it.
            You may have heard that old chestnut—kill your darlings. This is kinda like that.  I may have the coolest line of dialogue, the neatest way to explain something, or the most fantastic description of a giant robot ever, but if it doesn’t work in my story…

            Well, then it doesn’t work.

            And if it doesn’t work—if it’s not adding to my story—then it shouldn’t be there.
            Next time, unless someone has some other ideas, I was going to toss out a few quick little tips about genre and devices.
            Until then… go write.
January 23, 2014 / 5 Comments

Noxious Phrasing

            As you probably noticed, there was no ranty blog last week.  All the publicity stuff for Ex-Purgatory ate up a ton of my time.  And this week is fallout from that plus a bunch of dental issues I won’t bore (or horrify) you with.
            Thankfully, Thom offered to dive in and make some helpful tips for editors, and for writers who might be suffering from poor editor-ship.

            And maybe next week I’ll be back on the ball and we can talk about Robocop or something…


            I’m still not Peter Clines, and even though it is something of a crippling disability, I will strive to fulfill your sense of… of… I don’t know, whatever it is you’re looking for when you stop by this here blog. My name, if you’re the type what needs one, is Thom Brannan. (O hai, Thom.) I’ve appeared in this blog a couple of times, filling space when Pete was super-busy with his writerly duties. If you’re reading this, this is one of those times.

            Usually, Pete tries to talk about the craft of writing, and the many, many pitfalls he’s seen as both a casual reader and as a judge for some hifalutin’ screenwriting business. One of the things he’s asked for is a continuance of this tradition, but this blog will be a little different. If you’re reading this, Pete wasn’t only busy, but has allowed it.
            I’m talking to the readers today. Not your everyday, run of the mill readers, but participants in writer’s circles and beta readers instead. If you take time out of your busy, busy schedule to read for content and to provide meaningful critiques, I’m talking to you. If you’re receiving these critiques, I might be talking to you, too.
            During the course of these readings and critting, there are some phrases which make the rounds I wish to all that everybody, everywhere holds holy I could remove. They’re next to useless, and sometimes, downright insulting. If you use these phrases, but not in the way I’m about to mention, relax. Down, Simba. I’m not talking to you.
            You may have to forgive me if I become… animated during the writing of this blog. These things tend to get my hackles up.
Show, Don’t Tell

            If this is the limit of your advice for any bit of a critique, you’re doing it wrong. Please, readers, if you feel the urge to spout this piece of… advice, attach an example of what you mean. Or at the very least, be specific about what it is you wish to see and not be told.

            For instance, if the writer has written “John felt nervous,” and your reply is SDT, throw your writer friend (or circle-mate) a bone and give some examples. Don’t you think if the author in question had thought of a way to show it, he or she would have?
            It’s so bad that in my capacity as editor, I find myself cringing when I come to an instance where I want the author to show something. Somehow I power through, but always, always leave an example.
This Would Work If You Were Author X
            Yes. This one kind of sets my blood aflame. That was in an early critique I’d gotten; I disremember the reason. It might have been opening with a dream sequence. But the least helpful thing I read that day was, “This would work if you were Harlan Ellison, but you’re not.” You know what, you silly bitch? Before Harlan Ellison was Harlan Ellison, he wasn’t. The same holds true for Stephen King, for Clive Barker, for Cormac McCarthy, for goddamn anybody else. We all start small.
            I guarantee you, the guy up the street who has a woodworking shop wasn’t… uh, insert famous carpenter who isn’t Jesus here… the first time he picked up a hammer and saw. He was clumsy with his tools, and maybe if you look close, you’ll see he’s missing part of one of his fingers where he learned a bloody lesson. But now he has his own place, doing what he loves for a living, and fashioning memories for other people using those same tools he was clumsy with on day one.
That’s Cliché/ Been Done Before
            You don’t say. Man has only been telling stories for thousands of years. I would never have thought the same thing might pop up in more than one story.
            Clichés exist for a reason. They work. The work involves taking a pile of clichés and using them in a way that turns them on their heads, if need be, or exactly as they were intended. What? Yes. Sometimes it is a dark and goddamn stormy night. Don’t tell me that doesn’t happen, I’ve lived in Seattle. There most definitely is a calm before the storm. People don’t realize they’re holding their breath until whatever they’re holding it for is over. This really happens. And while some of these things are over-represented in fiction, that’s no reason to shun them.
            The same holds for monsters. As I’ve said before, not every instance of a monster needs to be a stunning new breakthrough in horror technology. Dracula hasn’t lost a scary step in 116 years; the vampire was done right the first time. (Yes, I know Dracula wasn’t the first. If you have to keep telling people this, maybe it’s because he was the first done really well.) The same holds for zombies and werewolves and man-made creatures of doooooom.
            For my money, the last worthwhile advance in horror technology came with “The Call of Cthulhu” and the idea of an uncaring, inhuman universe where we’re not the apex predator.
            But I digress. Things have been done before. If that’s your beef, maybe suggest ways the author could keep his or her cliché but use it in a better way.
When Will This Pay Off?
            Not everything mentioned in a novel will be essential to the plot, or to the overall story, or to character development. While it’s true that a lot of the bestest books and movies tie everything together in a neat little bow, some of them do not.
            Look at The Blues Brothers. Everybody loves that movie. Don’t they? Well. I do, and that’s enough for me. Where was I?
            Right. Take The Blue Brothers, if you will. That movie is just full of so much win, and there are parts in the beginning that link to parts at the end, and little bits in-between that talk to you when you see them reappear. “They broke my watch,” I laugh and laugh every time I hear that.
            But there are unrelated things. “Did you get my Cheeze-Wiz, boy?” What the hell is that? Is it important? Does it shed some light on Elwood’s character that, yes, he did in fact bring the Cheez-Whiz? No. No, it doesn’t. “Orange whip?  Orange whip?  Three orange whips?”  Does it matter what he ordered? No, it only mattered that the VP of the company asked to be included, and John Candy is a funny, funny man.  “Fix the cigarette lighter.”  Did that ever come back to haunt them? Hells, no, it didn’t. “Breaks my heart to see a boy that young goin’ bad.” Did that kid come back and help out? Or hurt the cause? Or was he even in the sequel? It’s in this paragraph for a reason.
In Conclusion
            No, that’s not one of the phrases, that’s just me, trying to figure out how to bring this to a clean-ish close. There are plenty more noxious phrases, but Pete doesn’t like these to be too long. Hey, if there’s reason, and he says yes, I’ll do another one. But for now, let me leave you with this.
            Beat readers and critiquers, you fulfill a vital part of the writing process. All the acknowledgements you read include people just like you, and authors rely on you to be straight with them, and to do what you can to help. From my own experience, the few works I do have out in the world would have been poorer indeed without the input of my beta team and the Permuted Pit and Pendulum critique groups.
            So, yes, you’re needed. Try not to be dicks about it.
January 22, 2010

Pinocchio Syndrome

If you’ve never heard that term and are grasping for a pop culture reference… don’t bother. I just made it up. The reasons why will soon be as plain as…

Well, you’ll see.

As I’ve said once or thrice before, good dialogue is everything. We learn so much subtle stuff from characters by what they say and how they say it. Does Bob call Cindy his girlfriend or his woman or his old lady? Is she his lover, his ho, his chica, his bitch, his significant other? No matter what their relationship is, the words he uses to describe it tell us something about him.

One term that comes up a lot while reading contest submissions–or writing of any type, really—is on the nose dialogue. I’ve seen it tossed out to beginners numerous times in feedback, but usually without any explanation. It’s the difference between “Why are you always so disrespectful to me in staff meetings, Bob?” and “What the hell’s your problem, anyway?” At its very simplest, what this means is the character (or characters) are saying precisely what they’re thinking with no subtlety to it whatsoever. There’s no inference, no implications, no innuendoes or layered meanings. It’s dialogue stating the obvious, and I’ve mentioned before what a horrible idea it is to state the obvious.

On the nose dialogue usually strips away character, too. When your gangsta drug dealers begin to lament the failed potential of their fallen brethren, they’re not speaking like people who grew up on the street. That’s the writer poking through and trying to tell us something. Often it’s to spew out some character elements or backstory, and it comes out awkward because it’s being forced from the character speaking.

To be clear, there is a difference between on the nose and exposition. While most exposition is on the nose, the reverse is not always true. You can have on the nose dialogue when people talk about their relationship (or someone else’s), the Thai food they had last night, or the movie they want to go see tomorrow.

Here’s a couple things you should be on the lookout for–these are all either common with on the nose dialogue or sure signs you’re avoiding it.

Proper English–I’ve mentioned before the difference between written English and spoken dialogue. When dialogue follows all the rules of grammar it starts to get wooden and lose a lot of its flavor. Sometimes there’s a point to this. One of my own characters in Ex-Heroes, Stealth, is a bit of a grammar Nazi. So is Data on Star Trek (robots and aliens always have great grammar for some reason). For the vast majority of us though, we get a bit loose when we speak. We use contractions and mismatch verbs and numbers. It just happens. When we don’t, dialogue becomes rigid, and that’s just a short shuffle from being wooden.

Characters talking to themselves–Nine times out of ten, if someone’s talking to themselves out loud, it’s on the nose. All those monologues about stress, Yakko psyching himself up, or Dot trying to figure out how to get past the thirteen ninjas to free Wakko… odds are every bit of that is on the nose dialogue.

Telling what’s happening–While it’s never good, on the nose dialogue is a killer in scripts, especially when it takes this route. It’s when characters describe what they’re doing for no real reason. Not when they explain what they’re doing (say, defusing a bomb), but when they’re just saying their actions aloud. Have you ever heard an old radio-show when the actors had to depend on just dialogue with no visuals at all?

“Lamont, is that you? Help me! I’m tied to this chair.”

“Easy, Margot. Just let me get this blindfold off you… there we go.”

“Oh, that’s better. I can see now.”

This kind of clumsy dialogue immediately tells the reader that the writer isn’t picturing this scene visually at all. For screenwriters, this kind of thing is almost guaranteed to get your script tossed in the big pile on the left.

Lack of jargon–The idea of slang has been around for a long time. Bram Stoker talked about it in Dracula 120 years ago, and it’s a safe bet printers had their own special jargon in the workplace less than a decade after Guttenberg made his printing press. Everyone has their own set of words and terms that gets used within their particular group, and these words spill out into most of their conversations. In other words, lawyers speak like lawyers, mechanics talk like mechanics, and sci-fi geeks with no lives talk like Klingons (or Na’Vi, these days, I guess). When these characters lose these basic subtleties, their dialogue starts getting on the nose.

Lack of flirting–It sounds silly, I know, but it’s one to look for. This is a fact of human nature. We show affection for one another. We all flirt with friends and lovers and potential lovers, sometimes even at extremely inopportune times. It’s not always serious, it can take many forms, but that little bit of playfulness and innuendo is present in most casual dialogue exchanges. It’s impossible to flirt with on the nose dialogue because it requires subtlety and implied meanings. If absolutely no one in your story flirts on any level, there might be something to consider there.

Five easy things to look for in your dialogue. They’re not the only ways your words can be on the nose, but they’re the most common, by far.

Next week, I’d like to talk to you about… well, you know. Everybody knows, right?

Until then, go write.