This article was contributed by Script Reader Pro.
by Alex Bloom (@ScriptReaderPro)
One of the hardest skills aspiring writers’ have to acquire is learning how to convey information to the reader without relying on “on-the-nose” dialogue: conversations that feel false because the characters are explaining things for the benefit of the reader rather than themselves.
So in this post, I’m going to take a look at:
- What is “on-the-nose” dialogue and why is it so bad?
- What’s the best way to eliminate it and replace with effective dialogue?
Just What Is “On-The-Nose” Dialogue And Why Is It So Bad?
Perhaps the biggest indicator for any literary agent, manager, producer etc. that a writer hasn’t yet mastered their craft is “on-the-nose” dialogue. This means the characters are speaking in a way that’s very direct and upfront and not how people actually speak in real life. And often for the benefit of explaining things to the audience rather than how the characters would actually speak or behave in real life.
Great dialogue, on the other hand, always feels authentic to the character speaking and this enables the reader to be able to engage with them and take them seriously as real people with real emotions.
Let’s look at an example of “on-the-nose” dialogue from an aspiring writer’s screenplay. This scene in a car is between husband and wife, Kyle and Jenny, and he’s forgotten their wedding anniversary:
Dialogue like this jumps off the page and is so easy to spot because it feels inauthentic, forced and unnatural because it’s so far removed from how we speak in real life.
The reason why it feels unnatural and therefore “on-the-nose” is because both Jenny and Kyle are baldly stating up front what they’re thinking. Jenny’s upset and so asks Kyle if he’s forgotten something. When he can’t think of anything, she tells him upfront what it is — their anniversary. Kyle then openly admits he’s forgotten it, and Jenny tells him how mad she is. Kyle then tells Jenny exactly how he’s feeling — ashamed.
This kind of dialogue is very common in plays, novels, and screenplays by aspiring writers, as it seems obvious that the way to let the reader know how characters are feeling is to just have them say it. However, this is almost always a bad idea and other subtler ways should be found to convey character emotions.
What’s The Best Way To Eliminate “On-The-Nose” Dialogue And Replace It With Effective Dialogue?
In real life we don’t say everything we’re feeling upfront, but rather we talk with subtext. We imply what we’re really feeling under the surface of our words and this is the key to creating great dialogue.
Here’s how Jenny and Kyle might get to an argument over their anniversary using subtext rather than “on-the-nose” dialogue:
Dialogue like this communicates to the audience that Jenny is angry at Kyle for forgetting their anniversary but in a much less in-your-face way.
Rather than her saying “Are you forgetting something?” her action of not answering Kyle tells us she’s upset with him. Then she references Hawaii, letting us know that this is probably somewhere she’d like to have been taken on their anniversary. And her sarcasm at the end is much subtler way of saying in effect “I’m so mad at you right now”.
The subtext in the whole exchange is that Jenny’s mad at Kyle for missing their anniversary, but she doesn’t say this up front.
Here are the top three practical exercises you should do in order to improve your script dialogue:
- Read (A Lot)
The best way to learn how to write realistic sounding dialogue that’s not “on-the-nose” is to read professional plays, novels and screenplays. If you call yourself a writer you should be reading as much as you can and absorbing all the great dialogue that’s out there by osmosis. Hunter S. Thompson used to type out novels from his favorite writers — Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald — just to get into the rhythm of their writing. If you don’t have the patience for that, reading is the next best thing.
- Think About Subtext
Another useful thing to do is keep subtext in mind while reading novels or watching plays or movies. Make a mental note of whenever one character is saying or doing one thing, but really you know they mean something else. Movies, for example, rarely contain “on-the-nose” dialogue because they’ve been written by professional writers who know how to hide when they’re conveying information.
- Read Your Dialogue Out Loud
Finally, read your dialogue out loud. Or get some friends around to read the different parts. Any instances of unnatural sounding “on-the-nose” dialogue will become more obvious once read aloud, rather than relying on your inner voice to pick them up.
Do these three things enough and you’ll soon be able to notice “on-the-nose” dialogue in your writing much easier and cut and replace it with subtext.
Alex Bloom is the founder of Script Reader Pro, a script consultancy made up of working screenwriters. Alex and his team provide a road map to take people out of the often confusing land of writing advice, and toward a place where they’re confident of what works on the page and what doesn’t. Learn more about their script coverage services and online screenwriting course at scriptreaderpro.com.