How to Avoid On-the-Nose Dialogue

“Definitely an amateur.”

Why did the reader judge the script so? Probably because you’ve used way too much on-the-nose dialogue in the screenplay.

On-the-nose dialogue is not only off-putting but it also feels unnatural and unrealistic. 

🤔🤔 What is on-the-nose dialogue exactly? 🤔🤔

Let’s explain with a simple example:

Picture a movie scene where a fire breaks out in a house and the dad dashes into the garage to grab a fire extinguisher.

On his way back to the living room, the man is met by his wife and daughter, who were also present when the fire broke out.

The dialogue plays out as follow 👉👉👉

Mother: Did you grab the fire extinguisher?

Daughter: Are you going to put out the fire now?

Man: Yes, I am going to put it out, now get out of the house and get to safety!

What’s wrong with the dialogue?

It states the obvious, something that was implied, and that the writer need not use words describing. 

On-the-nose dialogue is any conversation between characters that is pointless because it states something already known to the reader or describes what’s going to happen in the next few moments.

On-the-nose dialogue can creep into your script as you’re hurrying through ideas.

It could be because you’re looking to fill the dreaded white space. It could be because you’re rushing to finish the first draft.

Everyone at some point ends up writing on-the-nose dialogue, especially on the first draft.

However, in subsequent drafts, make sure to perfect your screenplay formatting, and take out all on-the-nose dialogue.

And you don’t want to come off as an amateur when you get that chance to pass your script to a video production company, director or film producer.

Here’s how to avoid it for a professional-looking screenplay:

📣📣 Say your lines out loud

Writers easily separate themselves from their work, and you can miss on-the-nose dialogue when scurrying through the pages during editing as you look to get the cumbersome task off your plate.

If it don’t make sense when you say it, delete it!

Reading silently with your mind, mistakes that are obvious to a third party won’t be as clear to you as it is to the audience.

Developing a habit of reading out aloud and imagining the scenes unfolding as a member of the audience is a great way to gain perspective on on-the-nose dialogue.

When there’s a voice to the words, it hits you in the face like a bad smell.

You’ll be able to identify repetitive exposition, scenes that sound so cheesy, and other errors that you can revise for better delivery to the viewers.

Reading aloud is also a great proofreading habit, and it can spark that logic light bulb at times when scenes simply just play out wrong.

Additionally, set aside enough time for proofreading because when you’re in a hurry you miss a lot of problems. A second pair of eyes goes a long way in eliminating on-the-nose dialogue.

Another perspective, preferably professional in nature, can pick up crumbs of it that you possibly missed or saw nothing wrong with.

Seasoned writers know to have someone else take a look at their work.

Real people rarely say what they mean, they use subtext

Subtexts are an excellent way to make something known that would otherwise sound unnatural or mundane if one of the characters said it exactly in conversation.

Many great writers have used it to superb effect over the years to pass messages that the audience can piece together, although, on the surface, the info might not be so clear at first glance.

Here’s an example of how you can use subtext to steer around on-the-nose dialogue:

Mary: Pass me the bottle.

Jane: How old was he?

Mary: I said pass me the bottle Jane, don’t start up with this again!

Jane: I’m not giving it to you until you answer the question. How old was your dad?

Mary: 76 okay, now give me the stupid vodka!

The subtext here hints that Mary lost her dad and that it had something to do with the drinking.

The writer could have simply had Jane outrightly warned Mary not to drink because her dad died of an alcohol-related disease, which would have done all the thinking for the viewer.

It’s a clever bit of exposition that is spread out in the dialogue as it unfolds. 

Here’s an excellent example of dialogue with subtext from the great William Goldman’s The Princess Bride:

Buttercup orders Westley around to do all kinds of things. Westly polishes her horse.

Westly fills a bucket with water. Westly does all kinds of mundane things for Buttercup and always, he ends up saying —

“As you wish.”

Although from the context of the story, you can infer he meant to say “I love you,” as the Grandfather pointed out off-screen.

Here it is on the movie screen:

That also brings us to an important part of screenwriting that’s often affected by on-the-nose dialogue: exposition.

Exposition is often required to provide backstory

In The Princess Bride, these early interactions between Buttercup and Westly establish their strong love for each other.

Further, it’s done without on-the-nose dialogue.

If the exposition is bound to come up later on in conversation after the writer had laid it bare before, then it becomes repetitive.

You’re telling the audience what they already know; it’s in their face, and on their nose, and they won’t appreciate it very much.

For more tips on how to write better subtext in a screenplay, read THIS.

Don’t tell it, show it!

This rule is right up there in the 10 commandments of screenwriting.

Dare I say it’s one of the top three. Always a movie is a sequence of moving images.

🎥🎥 It’s a visual medium. 🎥🎥

Use the power of moving images. Employ the montage technique, or add a little bit of good ‘ol juxtaposition.

On-the-nose dialogue is in sharp contrast to this rule because it does a lot of telling and very little showing. 

With on-the-nose dialogue, you lose a whole lot of valuable suspense that would have added to the excitement of a scene and kept your audience guessing and holding on to their seat.

Let’s illustrate this with an example 👉👉

A movie scene starts with a man rushing out to his front yard, to the amazement of his neighbor.

He grabs a shovel and races back inside but before he does, his confused neighbor asks, “What are you doing” or “what’s wrong.”

If he explains what he is up to and then proceeds to do the same thing he said, then it becomes a little boring for the audience.

Now if he ignores his neighbors’ question and hurries back in, the viewers are left with questions and are eager to see what he’s gotten the shovel for.

Suspense is a writer’s best friend, and you should milk it wherever you can.

Additionally, characters shouldn’t outrightly say how they feel all the time.

That’s how many writers commit on-the-nose dialogue offenses. “I’m so mad at you”, “I feel so happy,” etcetera, are great examples of this.

When the character is happy, let the audience feel it from the person’s behavior, e.g. lots of smiling, joyful little dances etc.

When the character is sad, let’s see some crying as opposed to them saying it.

And with that, I’ll end it with another example of another scene filled with subtext. Here is Tom Hanks in Cast Away. 

In the movie, he plays a character stranded on an island for 90 percent of the movie and his only companion is a volleyball named Wilson.

When he’s finally out to see on a raft, he gets separated from “his friend.” He does all he can to save Wilson even if it means drowning.

😢 Here’s the clip:

It was just Tom Hanks and his volley ball in this clip and most of the movie.

Yet despite these restrictions, the movie weaves a very emotional journey.

If you made it this far in the movie, you can feel this character’s pain, even though it’s just a deflated volleyball.

That’s movie magic.

As much as possible, put it in action when you can avoid explaining it in words. And drop the on-the-nose dialogue!

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