On the Nose

I’ve noticed that novice (and sometimes not-so-novice) writers spend an inordinate amount of time and energy explaining the story’s theme or moral. In the writing biz, this is known as “on the nose.” It’s not a compliment.

Sometimes it involves the writer explaining the same thing a dozen different ways. (Note: More is not a good thing. Pick one and go with it.) Other times, the writer will give one of the main characters a speech or will create a scene that points to the message with a metaphorical flashing neon sign. (In other words, he will make it overly-obvious. What I mean to say is, the writer wants to make sure we get it. Are you following me? Is this pissing you off? Good.)

A couple of things are going on here. The writer doesn’t trust her own ability. And she doesn’t trust the audience. By underestimating the audience’s intelligence, she’s actually taking away the joy of discovery that makes reading or viewing so compelling. Think of your own experiences. Don’t you enjoy trying to stay one step ahead of the story? It makes you feel smart and involved. Sometimes we like to be taken by surprise (ala the “Sixth Sense,” in which five hundred of us let out a big gasp all at once) and other times it’s fun to figure things out first (ala every “Scooby-Doo” mystery ever written. My eight-year-old grandson explained to me that it’s all about the mask). Either way, we become part of the process of creation. (Makes me feel rather God-like just writing that.)

One of the reasons I detested the “Last Samurai” (besides my wife schlepping me to see another stinking Tom Cruise movie), was  how often the writer used flashbacks to show us why Tom’s character was such a tortured soul. I got it the first time. Honest. And I’m not the sharpest butt in the seat.

So give your audience some credit. Maybe even leave things a little ambiguous. Not to the point where your story dumps them in an emotionally-unsatisfying abyss. But let them draw a conclusion or two. In other words…oh, never.