Today’s writing tip comes from Alex Bloom, the founder of Script Reader Pro, a screenplay consultancy and blog based in Los Angeles dedicated to helping aspiring and working screenwriters.
Whether or not you are a screenwriter, Alex’s writing tip applies to narrative writing too.
Eliminating On-The-Nose Dialogue
Have you ever received script coverage back on a screenplay that remarks on how your dialogue is too “on-the-nose”? Or that you’re “spoon feeding the audience”? As you probably know, this means the reader felt the characters were often speaking in an unnatural manner because they were relaying information for the benefit of the reader, rather than engaged in a normal conversation between “real” people.
On-the-nose dialogue is not only unnatural, it’s unexciting. It alienates anyone reading the script, preventing them from engaging wholly with the story because it’s just too unreal and distracting. Ultimately, it signifies to a reader that they’re in the hands of an amateur writer who hasn’t yet mastered the craft of screenwriting.
The solution to on-the-nose dialogue
In most cases, on-the-nose-dialogue is simply a sign that a writer is underestimating the ability of the reader to figure out what’s going on. The truth is, readers don’t need to be told half as much as you think they do, and the secret to eliminating on-the-nose dialogue, therefore, is to simply assume that they get it.
Let’s take a couple of examples of unnatural, expository dialogue and show you just how to eliminate it in each case by assuming the reader knows what’s going on.
Scene 1 — Two guys fresh out of university discuss their futures
INT. POOL HALL – DAY
Jake and Kevin are playing pool.
They want me to take over the business.
And what’s wrong with that?
Everything. I understand they want to keep it in the family but I just finished my Masters at UCLA with highest honors. I want to get a job on my own.
It’s likely here that Kevin would already know Jake’s parents want him to take over the business and that he’s just finished his Masters, but the writer wants the reader to know it too. In this instance, it’s again a case of trusting that the reader will be able to follow what’s going on through much less obvious dialogue, neatly spelling out Jake’s feelings.
Here’s another take on the same scene, this time assuming the reader will be able to infer what’s going on.
INT. POOL HALL – DAY
Kevin looks on as Jake lines up a shot. Jake SMACKS the ball into the top corner with way more force than necessary.
Something on your mind, man?
Three years. Gone. Just like that.
Jake lets rip on another shot. Misses.
At least daddy’s got a nice office lined up for you.
This is saying the exact same thing but letting the reader work out that Jake’s anger hitting the ball, and “Three years. Gone. Just like that” means he’s frustrated at wasting time at university.
Scene 2 — A man runs into his soon to be ex-wife at a funeral
INT. CHURCH LOBBY – DAY
Nathan, dressed in a suit and tie, leaves the chapel frowning and his shoulders hunched.
CAITLIN, late 40’s, Nathan’s soon to be ex-wife, walks up to him.
They look at one another, still and speechless.
Caitlin looks at Nathan’s hand.
You’re still wearing your wedding ring?
We’re not divorced yet.
Caitlin sports an awkward smile, then leaves. Nathan sits down and drops his head into his hands.
In this scene, the writer needs to assume that the reader will understand what’s going on by using more images and less dialogue. Rather than having Caitlin say “You’re still wearing your wedding ring” and Nathan answer “We’re not divorced yet”, which feels stilted, the writer could have Nathan catch Caitlin glancing at his hand. Then he could moodily say “We haven’t signed yet.” Hearing this and seeing Caitlin look at his wedding ring will tell the reader all they need to know about what’s going on.
The truth is readers and audiences love having to figure out what’s going on. But constantly spelling things out so explicitly through on-the-nose dialogue robs them of that chance.
Removing on-the-nose dialogue isn’t easy, but it becomes easier with time the more you write. In most instances, it’s simply a case of first recognizing where character’s are talking for the benefit of the reader, and then replacing that dialogue with images, looks, actions, reactions and subtle hints. Or sometimes cutting the whole scene altogether and replacing with one showing the characters doing the things they’re talking about.
Alex Bloom is the founder of Script Reader Pro, a screenplay consultancy made up of working Hollywood writers, speakers, and consultants that offers actionable script coverage and a hands-on screenwriting course.