HOW TO AVOID “ON THE NOSE” DIALOGUE
Dialogue, it’s a crucial part of any successful script, but also the easiest element to get wrong. Novice writers will often write flat dialogue where characters simply state how they feel, asserting a beat within a scene instead of massaging it into place. If a character is tired, a flat piece of dialogue will express that beat in a line like “I’m sleepy.” while richer dialogue might have the character remark at the time, showing the day has gotten away from him, while matching his words with the action of a yawn. Stating “I’m tired” to express the beat “I’m tired” is obvious, and it’s what’s known as “On the Nose” dialogue.
So, how do we avoid this common mistake?
Well, one way to avoid this might seem counterintuitive, but it could work for you in the long run. If you want to avoid on the nose dialogue, write on the nose dialogue. It’s simple, the better we understand a problem, the easier it is to avoid it when we come across it later. Many writers struggle with scene structure and often times this boils down to the fact that they don’t fully understand what their characters want going into the scene and they get lost along the way. Sitting down to write flat, on the nose dialogue before you even begin to write a scene can help you visualize and focus in on what it is that a character wants in any individual scene. Once this is out there, the writer can take those raw beats, emotions, and feelings from the on the nose dialogue and infuse it into the subtext of the scene they’re about to write.
Here’s a short example from a scene most of you will be familiar with. In Jaws, there’s an early encounter between Hooper, the young scientist who relies on gadgets and technology to deal with the shark, and Quint, the hardened fisherman who finds all that silly. The beats of the scene unfold like this: Quint thinks Hooper looks like an ass with all of his equipment, Hooper counters by stating it’s all necessary, and Quint thinks it’ll get him killed.
Here’s what the scene would look like with on the nose dialogue.
Quint: You don’t need all that stuff. You look dumb.
Hooper: I’ll have you know, this stuff is important and special.
Quint: The shark is going to kill you.
And here’s how the real scene plays out:
Do you see how the exchange takes the beats of the scene –what is obvious about what’s going on– and buries it underneath charm, quips, and even a song. Quint doesn’t call Hooper stupid, he makes a joke at Hooper’s expense, calling him a “half-assed astronaut”. Hooper shows us his equipment is important simply by naming it, and Quint doesn’t flat out tell Hooper that he’s going to die, he just reiterates what a cage does before he starts to sing a song about sailors who are never seen again. The beats are the same, one is just more obvious than the other.
Early drafts are usually full of on the nose dialogue. That’s okay, you’re still figuring everything out at that stage. Don’t waste it. Use the flat, obvious dialogue to better understand your characters. When you know the intention of what’s being said, it’s easier to come up with creative ways to hide it.
You’re not alone with this problem, but next time you’re looking at a page that’s on the nose, remember, you don’t look dumb, you’re a half-assed astronaut.
A production coordinator working in Indie Horror, Rob Clarke is a screenwriter and reader determined to help other writers improve their work. You can listen to him every week on his podcast, the Upside Fans, where he dissects Fandom and Pop Culture from a positive point of view. @JurassiClarke