One 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.