Monday Advice from Editors & Agents – Don’t Be “On the Nose”

In looking for a juicy bit of editorial advice for my Monday blog, I came across some notes from the 2010 SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) conference in New York. In these notes, Ingrid Sundberg gives the highlights of a presentation made by Ben Schrank, President and Publisher at Razorbill, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers Group. Schrank is also an author.

His advice on writing for teens included a list of common mistakes authors make. I could see the sense in every one but this:

  • “On the nose” introductions can kill an opening.

What in the heck does that even mean? Is it even a real term? Or did Schrank make it up?


What is “On the Nose” writing?

I had no idea how to avoid something I didn’t understand. So I did a search with Google and discovered a clean, clear definition in Quick Writing Tips by Allen R. Kates (MFAW, book editor, writing coach, ghostwriter, book producer, publisher). According to Kates, the term comes from movie and television writing, but applies equally well to fiction.

“When a piece of dialogue or description is “on the nose,” it means you are saying something that should be left unsaid because saying it ruins the mystery….

“A great tip: In books and movies, characters rarely say what they mean. This helps create mystery and suspense. Whenever you are tempted to write “on the nose,” try to say the opposite. Instead of having your character say “I love you,” have him say “I hate you,” even if the reader knows he’s lying, and see where your writing goes from there….

“What is the official definition of “on the nose?” The meaning is as plain as the nose on your face. Which means it’s boring, a cliché, it’s not entertaining. It may also mean that your dialogue stinks.”


Why avoid it?

I’m guessing that the dead-on-arrival introductions mentioned by Schrank include so much true and obvious information that there’s nothing left for the reader to discover. If I describe my heroine, Scarlet Smith, as having been in love with Rhett Jones her whole life, I’ve got a bucket load of TMI when I meet Rhett for the first time. There’s no nuance in Scarlet’s dialog, no mystery in her reactions to Rhett’s lines. They aren’t fascinating characters with unlimited possibilities. They have labels. And reader expectations. Now I could mess with those expectations and come up with a good story, but wouldn’t it be easier – and probably more successful – to start with a blank slate?

In other words, what we first conceal from the reader – and only gradually reveal through action – can make the story we tell much richer and more likely to hold a reader’s interest.

Another point: What a character conceals from other characters tells a lot about him or her. What a character conceals from himself tells even more.

Q: Have you ever revealed too much too soon in a story, and had to revise the opening to leave it out?

About Donna Maloy, Author

Captivating romantic suspense. History, mystery, and sometimes... a little touch of fantasy.
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