Writing Dialogue “Off-the-Nose”

DialogueOne of the hardest aspects of writing for me to grasp was the idea that characters shouldn’t always say exactly what is foremost in their mind. After all, we don’t always do that in real life, right? Often we beat around the bush, or make elliptical comments designed to elicit information without asking for it, or make provocative suggestions hoping for a revealing response. The cliche about “the elephant in the room” reflects that often what is not being said is paramount, not the trivia that is spoken.

The preference for off-the-nose dialogue is much like the preference for showing rather than telling. When a character says, “I’m sad,” it seems obvious and, frankly, boring. The savvy writer will use an off-the-nose comment which, coupled with what the reader already knows and perhaps a bit of suggestive action, reveals the character’s true thoughts. Yes, the reader has to work a bit, but they always do in more profound works, and that causes the reader to have a more profound literary experience.

Here’s an example from my book Dynamic Dialogue:

Beth peered over the rim of her coffee cup. “I think maybe this year we shouldn’t put up a Christmas tree.”

Her husband did not look up from his newspaper. “I thought you loved putting up the tree. You always make such a big deal about it.”

“I don’t think anyone cares but me.” She took a long drag from her mug. “Especially now that the kids are gone.”

“What about the stockings? The Christmas lights.”

“I can do without them, too.”

“The wreaths? The crèche?”

“Why bother? Better to make a clean sweep of things.”

He laid down his paper. “And me?”

She held the mug in both hands, treasuring the warmth.

Looking Back on 2015–and Ahead to 2016

Everyone is saying that the two biggest trends in publishing for 2015 were adult coloring books and the surge in audiobook sales. If you’ve been reading the Red Sneaker newsletter for long, though, you knew audiobooks were hot a long time ago–and since you write books with words, you may not care much about coloring books.

Here are some more useful predictions for 2016:

  1. Two Worlds, One Family. The articles declaring that “print is winning” or “ebooks have stalled” are based upon sales data from the big NYC publishers–excluding Amazon and independent publishing sales. If you look at the whole picture, ebooks are huge and getting huger. Penguin’s recent decision to fire dozens of employees is probably due to the failure of their ebook program. The Big Five fought for agency pricing, got it, and now that they’ve raised the prices on their ebooks, the books don’t sell as well. Is this a surprise? No. But bear this in mind: according to Author Earnings, 45% of all books sold by Amazon Kindle are independently published. In other words, there are now two parallel markets, both almost equal in size. One is traditional Big Pub, which dominates print. The other is nontraditional Indie Pub, which dominates ebooks, primarily with adult genre fiction.
  2. Children’s Publishing is Poised to Explode. Audiobooks will continue to grow, but what you may not know is that children’s publishing has provided the biggest growth sector for traditional publishers for the past 3-5 years. Last year, the US market children’s book market grew by 13%. The Big Five will expand on this, not only in book publishing, but also by seeking media and licensing deals based upon children’s books. If you’ve got an idea for a children’s book, this is the time to market it.
  3. Rights Management Becomes Critical. As the Big Five become more dependent upon big authors, licenses, and multimedia partnerships, they will attempt to retain every right possible. Too often, authors have been willing to sign away rights for the thrill of getting a book in print. This has always been a mistake and will become even more so in the future. Never sign away rights unless you’re getting something of value in return. Never sign away rights unless there’s a term limit clause or a fair provision for the eventual reversion of your rights.