Tonight’s call:

Gail Carriger, NYT Bestselling author of SOULLESS, et al, will be our next Authors’ Advisory guest on Wednesday, June 1, 2011, starting at 8:45 PM, EDT. She’ll be talking to us about The Business of Writing (including all the parts she wishes she’d known when she was new). for details and call-in instructions.


New York Times Bestselling Author David Farland

David Farland’s Daily Kick in the Pants – Don’t be “On the Nose.”

The topic for today’s kick comes from a question by Brandon Lindsay, and it’s going to take a moment to get to the point.

In screenwriting, one bit of advice that you’ll often hear is “Don’t be too ‘On the Nose.’” It means, don’t have characters giving speeches, telling you what’s going on inside them, playing down to the audience. Imagine that you have a character who is angry, and we get the following snatches of dialog:

Angela: “What are you so mad about?”

Derek: “You! Why did you have to wear that red dress? You look like a slut, and at my company party!”

Can you hear how hokey, how contrived, that dialog sounds?

There are a number of ways to avoid being ‘On the Nose.’ For example, maybe Derek doesn’t quite know what he’s angry about, or maybe he doesn’t dare say it. Or maybe he’s torn, because Angela looks so hot, and Derek noticed how his boss was eying her. Or maybe he’s even worried that the problem goes deeper. Maybe he’s not sure about Angela. Is she flirting? Does she really feel committed to him?

So you re-cast the dialog, you circle around the truth, skirt the deeper issues. You let the audience wonder what is going on, let the actors perhaps interpret the performance, insert their own nuances. You might reconsider the argument:

Angela: “What are you so . . . furious about?”

Derek: Pushes her away, turns and starts to walk. She follows. “Nothing.”

Angela: “This isn’t nothing. Tell me, please?”

Derek: “Really, I’m not mad.”

Angela: “Liar.”

Derek: Sighs. “It’s not you. It’s . . . did you see my boss, undressing you with his eyes?”

Angela: “He’s a drunken slob.”

Derek: “A rich drunken slob, and other women throw themselves at him.”

Angela: “I’d rather throw myself at you.” Derek hurries his pace, leaves her behind. “Grow up. You’re so immature.”

Derek: Whirls and yells at her: “You looked like a slut! And you acted the part . . . perfectly!”

Now, do you see what I’m doing here? Instead of having a character define himself, instead of having him come to the point, I let him circle the point. I let characters argue about who they are. Derek is defining Angela. She’s trying to define him. Others will be defining each of them separately during the course of the story. In other words, one central conflict in most stories is “Who are you?” It’s not just a question, it’s the center of an argument. A lot of different voices from various characters should come into play, sometimes with wildly different accusations. Who is Derek? Maybe his priest thinks that “He’s that gay guy.” His mother might think he’s too shy to ever “make a catch.” His father worries that he’s an over-educated loser. His girlfriend thinks that he might be ‘the one.’ The local cop might think he’s good for a murder, and the truth is, even Derek isn’t sure who or what he is. The story grows as he decides which roles to take and steps into them.

So, when you’re creating characters for a screenplay or book, you avoid being on the nose. You as the author know all of the secrets, all of the answers. You just don’t spill them too easily.

Over the weekend, I spent a little time working on the screenplay for “The Runelords.” I’d had several other screenwriters try to write that screenplay over the years, and in each case, fans of the books felt cheated after seeing what they’d done.

One fan of the series, J. Arthur Miller, wrote a nice note to me pointing out that he loved how “the world is a character.” I’d done that consciously when I wrote the book, having the world in pain, growing, changing. I got to thinking about that.

In each case with previous attempts at writing the screenplay, I think that the authors didn’t quite understand how to approach this. They tried to define the world, when the world itself is mysterious and unknowable.

In the books, we came to know the world through the actions and conflicts faced, very often, by minor characters. Each person makes up his own mind about the world, and how to approach it.

As we tried to take the novel into screenplay format, every one of the writers tried to disconnect the minor characters from the story, in an effort to cut down on cast and on the length of the movie. In doing so, we lost something—we lost the sense of what was going on in the world—the raw brutality, the devastation, the sense of impending doom, the desperation, the high price of compassion—and we lost sight of the sacrifices that people were willing to make in order to perpetuate their world, so save it.

In short, in the book we came to know the world through minor characters, and that then set up the conflicts for major characters, creating internal resonance in the piece. By understanding the world, I’d guided audience expectations for the major characters.

So the question became, how do I turn this complex tale into a screenplay? The answer was really quite simple: make the screenplay more like the book!

I think that, at last, I’ve got a screenplay that not only reflects the book, but actually improves upon it. The movie will be two and a half hours long, but that’s not bad for a major fantasy epic. Now all that I have to do is feed it to the dogs—er, I mean, a few loyal readers—and see how the audience feels about it. I’m sure that I’ll need to do some tweaking.


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