Thursday, April 1, 2010



The best dialog is off-the-nose dialog. This is dialog when what isn’t said is the important thing—the subtext. The opposite of that is dialog we might call “Q&A” dialog, that is, where a character asks a question or makes a statement and the responder answers “on-the-nose” or, in a direct response. That kind of dialog often is seen in info dumps where the author is trying to get across information she thinks the reader needs. Writers should try to avoid such dialog at all costs!

Below is an exercise I give my classes you may find useful. I pick two students who act out the two parts (cleverly designated as “She” and “He”). When they’re done, I have them answer the questions that follow, and then they split into pairs and come up with their own examples. It’s a great exercise and most of the students really get into it. Most importantly, it gives a realistic example of off-the-nose dialog and it also provides a great lesson to my students about just how hard it is to write good dialog. Besides helping writers become better at their craft, it also informs students to become better readers. And we need intelligent readers!


She: The Bentley's baby was cute, wasn't it?

He: I don't think I saw it. I was in the kitchen with the guys all night.

She: Well, she was a cute little baby.

He: Great. Women think all babies are cute. Ever heard a woman say someone's kid was ugly? I mean, except for Shrek's parents' friends?

She: Brad and Gena seem so happy.

He: They should be. He just got a promotion.

She: Silly! I mean the baby.

He: There goes the promotion. The raise part of it, anyway.

She: I think they'll manage. Babies are worth a sacrifice or two.

He: If you say so.

She: Look at it practically. Their little girl will probably take care of them in their old age.

He: That's a great tradeoff. Let's see... take care of a kid for 22 years—I'm including college—and they stick you in a home for your final three years. Probably use your own money to fund your own old folks' home. Sounds like a good deal.

She: It's not like that.

He: Yeah. Whatever.

Silence for a few seconds.

She: Samantha.

He: Huh?

She: Samantha. They named her Samantha. I think that's cute. I wonder if they'll call her "Sam."

He: They ought to call her "Stinky."

She: What?

He: You heard me. "Stinky." The kid smells.

She: All kids smell when they make a mess. You smelled. Besides, how would you know if she smelled? You said you stayed in the kitchen.

He: All kids smell.

She: Then you change their diaper.

He: Yeah. There goes the entertainment budget.

She: You mean the beer budget.

He: So?

She: So is if you cut out a few beers, you'd have plenty of diapers... and lose a few pounds...

He: You sayin' I'm fat?

She: I'm saying diapers don't cost that much. A six-pack or two.

He: Maybe. But how many six-packs does it cost to send a kid to college?

She (laughing): About what you go through in a week!

He (mutters): Must be a cheap school. All the classes on the internet? The school's in the Caribbean?

She: She'll probably get scholarships anyway.

He: That's cool. That means she'll spend all her time partyin'. End up pregnant.

She: She'll be way too smart for that.

He: Like her mom was?


Who were this man and woman really talking about? What did the woman want? What did the man want? Did either of them come right out and say what they were really talking about?

This is dialogue that isn't "on the nose." It's the way the best dialogue is written. What's important is what isn't said; the subtext. The subtext is the real message that's under the surface of the actual dialogue spoken.

This is what I want you to write (in teams). Two people talking about something that is really being expressed in subtext—dialogue that's not "on the nose." You can pick any subject you want for them to discuss (within reason!). Whatever they’re really talking about can’t be mentioned in the dialog itself. After you deliver your dialogue, the class will attempt to guess what it is you’ve really been talking about.

Time: 2-3 minutes performance time per person. I'd rehearse this so your team falls within the time limit. That’s where I’ll take the most points off, for being short of the minimum.

Notes: You don't need to memorize the exchange but can read off your script.

Bonus points: Your team can gain bonus points if you use props and/or costumes.

That’s the whole enchilada. For those on here who teach classes on writing, you may want to adopt this puppy for use in your own classes or for a workshop if you’re in a writing group. It’s really fun! Especially when participants get uber-creative and come in with props and costumes. I’d tell you about some of the ones students have come up with, but many are R-Rated and even X-Rated and there may be kids up late at night sneaking a peek at this…

If anyone uses this, I’d love to hear how it went!

P.S. If anyone's wondering what the photo is, it's my former wife (and the mother of my daughters, Britney and Sienna) and moi, back in the early seventies... I think we had this same conversation and obviously I lost...) I'm really struck at my fine sense of fashion... I still wear that coat to important functions...


Sarah Ahiers said...

This is a great example of subtext. Also this is osmethign i need to work on. I do it a bit without thinking about it, but i think i need to pay more active attention to it and "fluff it up" so to speak

Les Edgerton said...

Thanks, Sarah! It's a real eye-opener for my students. They think this writing thing is easy, and it looks easy when they do the exercise and then they start working in pairs to come up with their own... and they get a reality-check and find out stuff that reads easily takes a bit of effort. They leave the exercise with a new-found respect for writing, believe me.

Glynis Peters said...

What a great exercise. Thanks for sharing Les, it will come in useful. I am rewriting dialogue in my wip. When I read it out loud some of it is flat, it needs the unspoken undertones you suggest.

Unknown said...

I'd like to be in your class, Les! Where do I sign up? I love having assignments and this looks like fun. How long do you allow for gathering props? This could get very competitive. Could also leave me asking myself whether I am a writer or an actress. Is there a difference?

Les Edgerton said...

Hey Pam--don't know if you were serious about a class, but I do teach two places online. I'll be teaching classes for Phoenix College (not that University of Phoenix that has all their classes online and is basically a Caribbean diploma mill, but the "real" college), beginning this summer. If interested, you can see info at: These are accredited classes.

I also teach online for Writer's Digest. I don't (sorry!) have their web address handy, but if you Google WD online classes, you'll see it. I also coach writers privately, but that's a bit expensive as the fee for that is $100 an hour.

Blue skies, Les

Unknown said...

Oh, and very nice photo. Some things just never go out of style. Spend your big bucks on the classics is what I always say. Hunt for bargains for the trendy stuff.

This pose of yours speaks as well of what isn't said. You only look confident and relaxed. No one can tell what you have clutched in your hand and are about to pop into your mouth or smoke the minute the picture is taken. Do I see a glimmer of perspiration? A spray water bottle would be good to have on hand for this performance--at the end the guy could have his tie loosened and be soaking with sweat.

Les Edgerton said...

Funny, Pam! If I had anything in my hand, it was most likely a Camel regular, which is what I smoked in those days. Why my lungs today look like a couple of black walnuts...

Found the url for the Writer's Digest online classes and posted it here in the websites section. I think my next class will be in May. They list the price at $399, but they always have sales going on where they knock off 60-60 bucks. Hope to see some of the folks here there. It's a rough class--years, ago when I taught at the UCLA Writer's Program, a student said my classes were "Bobby Knight Bootcamp for Writers." I kinda like that description, and nothing's changed... The thing is, writing is too important to provide a "pat on the back" service. We work very, very hard and when you get that pat on the back, it's real.

Helen Ginger said...

Look. at. you. What a cutie.

Great exercise. I've seen it used in acting classes and it makes an even better writing class exercise. I'd like to see your students dressed up and performing their off-the-nose conversations.


Cynde L. Hammond said...

Hi, Les!

I'm so glad to have found your blog--it's awesome!

This exercise came at the perfect time for me. I've always had an idea of how I wanted the dialogue to progress in my wip, but when I'd go to put it on paper, it would fall flat. Now I see why. Thank you so much for opening my eyes. I am so excited about working on this for myself--I can't wait.

Oh...and I have to ask you something personal. Has "Mary" seen this particular article of yours? The reason I'm asking is because, I know it's a cute picture of you and all, but if you didn't clear it with her first, I'm not sure it was a good move on your part to post a picture of you and the "ex" in wedded bliss. I don't think I would have liked it at all if it were me. None of my business, I know...I'm just saying. Please forgive me if I overstepped, OK? (I just thought it would be a shame if your mug were smashed in with a cast iron frying pan some day, that's all. LOL!)

By the way...I'm "following" you. No, I'm not a stalker! I meant on your blog, silly. :o)

Have a great weekend, Les!

Cynde's Got The Write Stuff

Les Edgerton said...

Glad this helped, Cynde!

And Mary doesn't care at all that I post my ex-wife's photo and me. She and Sheila are good friends. In fact, Sheila came to my wedding when we married. I'm good friends with all my former wives and the ones that know each other are friends as well.

She's got plenty of self-confidence, so she wouldn't worry about an ex-wife. We all got over that stuff in junior high, pretty much!

Shannon O'Donnell said...

I am definitely going to use this with my composition classes. What a great lesson (for them AND me)! I love the picture, too. How tall are you? You tower over her!

Thanks again for the email yesterday. I went through my story and made the changes. You rock! :-)

P.S. I am going to check out the links for your classes. Thanks for providing them.

Les Edgerton said...

Thanks, Shannon. Hope your students enjoy it.

You noticed the height difference, eh? Well, at the time I was 6 foot and a half an inch (that half inch is important!). I've lost a couple of inches from being pounded into the ground over the years by guys without a good sense of humor. And, Sheila is 4'8". Mutt and Jeff...

When we were married, she got spitting mad at the Randy Newmann song, "Short People." Commiserating, I told her she should go to NYC where he lived, march up to his apartment, knock on his door, and when he came out to jump up and smack him as hard as she could on his kneecap.

I wonder sometimes why we're not still married. Think that has something to do with it?