On The Nose Dialogue
You can always tell a writer is an amateur once you read the dialogue of any story and the characters are saying exactly what is on their mind.
This is what is known as “On the Nose Dialogue”.
Imagine a scene between two sibling characters being introduced for the first time in a scene and they greet each other “Hello brother…” and the other replies “Hello sister.” In any serious story this would stand out immediately to the average person in a bad way, because not only is it an unnatural way of speaking, but it’s just a bad way to show the audience how these two characters are related.
To take this example further, if these two characters began a conversation about their abusive father and it continued like this:
So have you seen father?
No, not since last night when he attacked me again.
He attacked you again?
Yes, he came into my bedroom and started up like he always does when he’s drunk….and just started shoving me around and yelling.
Ever since mom left he’s been like this. I don’t know how much longer I can take it.
I have been taking it for two years now by myself.
Because you look just like her. It’s not your fault, but it’s true.
Now, maybe on your first draft this might feel okay to you, because you’re trying to get your ideas out of your head and onto the paper. That is fine, as long as you don’t forget to come back and revise this to be more realistic. What currently makes this dialogue feel unrealistic and on the nose?
- The writer is doing an exposition dump where they’re making the characters tell the audience what is happening and why
- The characters are saying exactly what is in their heads
Aside from the above two points, the conversation is very two-dimensional and flat. It’s boring and if everyone in the story talks like this then your readers will fall asleep pretty fast.
How Can We Improve?
If we wanted to make the above example more compelling we could start with subtext. Subtext is the key to writing great dialogue. It is the art of “what isn’t said” versus just farting out exactly what you want your audience to know. This takes practice, but once you develop this skill it will be the thing actors kill for.
The above example begins:
Have you seen father?
He already knows the father abuses his sister so this could be a chance to express how he feels by showing some emotion. If he is bothered at all by this problem his question should be moreso something like this:
Have you seen him today, yet?
Where is he today?
The sister should automatically know who he is referring to and be repulsed with her reply.
I dunno, maybe God answered my prayer and he died in his sleep last night.
Or something more subtle…she could shrug, show her bruises from the attack and simply say:
He passed out drunk again after he was done with me.
From this we know that it’s a routine thing. They aren’t saying what’s exactly on their mind and we understand they are both not okay with the situation. Now, they haven’t mentioned it’s their father who they are referencing, but that could easily be revealed in a multitude of ways. Just from these two lines we have already given the reader or audience enough information without even saying it.
Show Don’t Tell
You’ve heard it before and that’s for a reason. It is one of the few rules in screenwriting that shouldn’t be broken. I’d go so far as to say it’s the number two rule right after “Don’t be boring”. the main issue with on the nose dialogue is that it TELLS instead of SHOWS. It doesn’t allow us to use our imagination. Let your characters SHOW the audience and reader what’s going on through their actions. A jealous husband could tell his wife that he loves her and sound sincere to us even though he suspects she is cheating. However, if that same husband says this while holding a knife behind his back then it gives the scene an entirely different feeling.