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The "Standard of Ur" from ancient Mesopotamia

The "Standard of Ur" from ancient Mesopotamia

02 June 2010

On the nose, off the track

One criticism that is sometimes directed at my stories is that they are too "on the nose." Today, I investigated what that means.

"On the nose," it turns out, is a screenwriting term for dialog in which the person says exactly what she or he means.

I crinkle my brow. I'm from the Midwest, where speaking directly is not just a habit, but a virtue. I've also spent twenty-plus years doing science and medical writing, a field in which one must convey information simply, clearly, and directly. By upbringing and training, I consider "off the nose" a sin.

I consider the kind of people who speak off the nose. Liars. Braggarts. Manipulators. Dumb ones. Inarticulate ones. Passive-aggressive ones. People with things to hide. People with the vice of beating around the bush.

Heroes and heroines with Midwestern virtues are, apparently, boring.

I continue my research and realize there are honorable reasons characters may say one thing and mean another. They're shy. They're confused about how they feel. They're not in a private place. They're exchanging small talk with a stranger. They're not sure how the other person will react to the truth. I start to feel less hostile to characters who speak off the nose.

I also learn that novel writers use the term "on the nose" more broadly to include writing that spells out too much information or too often or writing that places the moral of the story in the dialog. I can get partly on board with this expansion of the definition. It's the old "show, don't tell" rule.

But how much information is too much? Some writers want the reader to struggle with the text and to guess what is happening from vague, ambiguous hints. Not me. I don't enjoy such stories and I don't want to write them. I want my readers to relax and enjoy, without doing anything harder than looking up words in a dictionary or facts on the Internet.

More research. I come across another term: subtext. At last the lightbulb goes on, and I think I grasp the problem—or part of it, anyway—with on-the-nose writing: It lacks layers. The information is all on the surface, with all the dots connected. Too little information is conveyed through characters' body language, choices, and actions and the author's use of literary devices such as irony, symbolism, and metaphor. The rose is just a rose and not simultaneously, as in the Medieval Roman de la Rose, love, a particular woman's name, and female sexuality. Too little room is left for the reader to bring in her own experience and knowledge to enrich the story.

I suspect it won't be easy for me to reduce the on-the-nose writing in my work. Subtlety is not my strong point.

But I will try.

What skill or technique of writing have you struggled to grasp? How did you work it out?


Linda Weaver Clark interviews me at her blog this week. People who post a comment by 7 June will be entered in a drawing to win a copy of my novel of ancient Mesopotamia, Like Mayflies in a Stream.


Charles Gramlich—who blogs at Razored Zen and whom I interviewed here in 2007—has a new book out. Bitter Steel: Tales and Poems of Epic Fantasy contains 20 Sword and Sorcery short stories and poems in the tradition of Robert E. Howard. It is available at