This past weekend, I went to the movies to see a new release that confounded me. It seemed like every line of dialogue was just announcing thoughts, emotions, and feelings in a way that didn't sound natural or creative; it felt too 'on the nose'.
But when I used this complaint after, the friend I went with had never heard of the expression. So, it might be smart to outline it here.
In the world of screenwriting, dialogue serves as one of the primary tools for storytelling, character development, and creating emotional resonance. However, not all dialogue contributes positively to a narrative.
This brings us back to the common pitfall: 'On the Nose' dialogue. But what exactly does this term mean, and why is it something writers strive to avoid?
'On the Nose' Dialogue Definition
'On the Nose' dialogue refers to lines where characters say exactly what they think, feel, or intend without any subtext or nuance.
It's direct, straightforward, and lacks depth, making scenes feel flat, artificial, or overly expository.
While it might seem like an efficient way to communicate information, it often undermines the complexity of human emotions and relationships, making characters and situations less believable.
Examples of 'On the Nose' Dialogue
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
I don't want to throw specific movies or TV shows under the bus, so instead, let's look at this another way.
Let's assume we have a scene where a character is upset. Instead of showing their frustration through actions or indirect speech, they simply say, "I am very angry with you right now."
This direct statement leaves no room for interpretation or depth, making the emotional exchange feel simplistic.
But let's contrast this with a more nuanced approach, where the character might say, "It's funny how you always know what to say to ruin my day."
This line hints at underlying tension without explicitly stating the character's feelings, inviting the audience to read between the lines.
As you can see, it's all about taking a nuanced approach.
This doesn't mean a character will never say what's on their mind, but the idea is you have to earn those blunt truths by mimicking a more human experience otherwise.
Why You Should Avoid 'On the Nose' Dialogue
Reduced Realism: Real people rarely express their deepest thoughts and feelings so directly. More often, they speak through implications, body language, and actions. 'On the Nose' dialogue can make characters feel less like real people and more like mouthpieces for the writer.
Limits Engagement: Part of the joy of watching films is the opportunity to engage actively with the story, deciphering characters' intentions and emotions. When everything is laid out plainly, there's less for the audience to interpret, reducing engagement.
Weakens Subtext: Subtext—the unspoken undercurrent of scenes—is vital for creating tension, depth, and complexity. 'On the Nose' dialogue often eliminates these layers, making interactions feel one-dimensional.
How to Write Better Dialogue
The West Wing
If you want to avoid writing 'on the nose' dialogue, you should attempt to employ these guidelines.
Show, Don't Tell: Instead of having characters express feelings directly, show their emotions through actions, reactions, and body language. Let the audience infer what's going on internally.
Use Subtext: Craft lines that imply more than they say outright. Let characters speak around their feelings or intentions, not directly about them.
Read Aloud and Revise: Reading your dialogue out loud can help identify when lines sound unnatural or too direct. Revise these moments to add nuance and depth.
Study Real Conversations: Pay attention to how people talk in real life. They often speak indirectly, change subjects, or leave thoughts unfinished. Incorporating these elements can add realism to your dialogue.
Seek Feedback: Sometimes, it's hard to see 'On the Nose' dialogue in your own writing. Getting feedback from other writers or a script consultant can help identify and refine problematic dialogue.
'On the Nose' dialogue can be a stumbling block for many writers, but recognizing and understanding how to avoid it is a crucial step in crafting compelling, believable, and engaging scripts.
By focusing on subtext, showing rather than telling, and striving for realism in character interactions, screenwriters can elevate their narratives and connect more deeply with their audiences.