First in a series of blogs on screenwriting by Scriptwalk’s script consultant Sara Anne Fox.
What is on-the-nose dialogue and how do you avoid having your characters use it to communicate with each other? Start by remembering that great screen dialogue isn’t realistic in the sense that it duplicates how people talk in real life. Most of normal conversation is expositional and it serves us well, but expositional screen dialogue is boring and banal. It is realistic only when it honestly reflects character and situation. Each character in a screenplay must have a different voice that reveals who they are, what they want and what they are prepared to do to get it. And it must show them in situations where they are in conflict with other characters who often argue against their taking a desired action and try to stand in their way.
Here’s an example from the 1947 film Body and Soul, written by Abraham Polonsky, where a mother and her broke and desperate boxer son have different goals. He is willing to fight someone he is no match for in order to get money and she is against it:
Charlie Davis: (shouting) Shorty! Shorty, get me that fight from Quinn! I want money. Do you understand? Money, money!
Anna Davis: I forbid, I forbid. Better buy a gun and shoot yourself.
Charlie Davis: You need MONEY to buy a gun!
Notice that Anna doesn’t say, “I forbid it, I forbid it. You might as well buy a gun and shoot yourself.” In aiming for economy (always aim for economy), she speaks in frustrated, shortened phrases that emphasize her maternal fear and concern. She has a particular way of speaking, and her sparse but crackling dialogue reflects that.
On-the-nose dialogue has characters saying exactly what they mean. That doesn’t mean your characters can’t say what their intentions are. Both Charlie and Anna say what they mean, but it’s expressed in the most interesting and dramatic ways. Charlie’s comeback line to his mother’s fanciful suggestion about buying a gun knocks both of them (and us) back into the grim reality of the situation.
Screen characters not only don’t always say exactly what they mean, but they misdirect, ignore questions (more about that later), change the subject. All in also service to revealing character, creating conflict and suspense and moving the plot forward. Dialogue that crackles can be direct in its expression and other times aims for nuance and subtext, which is another way of saying “reading between the lines.” Here’s an example of “on-the-nose” dialogue, followed by a rewrite. (Note: John is married to Diane, Bill’s sister.)
John: How are you, Bill?
Bill: I’m fine … Hey, how’s my sister?
John: Why are you asking?
Bill: I saw her with a bruise on her face that I think you gave her.
John: I didn’t hit Diane. I’d never do anything like that.
Bill: Yes, you did. Admit it, she’s difficult.
John: Yes, she is. All right. I gave it to her. She deserved it.
John: How’s it going?
Bill doesn’t answer.
Bill: How’s my sister? She okay?
John: Why wouldn’t she be. I—
Bill: You like hitting her?
John: What are you, nuts?
Bill: So that bruise on her face? (pause) She can be a brat, I know. Sometimes I think I’d like to smack her. She’s—
John: (angry) Yeah, I hit her! Effing bitch. And I’d do it again!
When writing screen dialogue, you are always aiming for economy. The fewest words possible.The smallest change can make a difference. The original line was “She’s an effing bitch,” but I shortened it to “Effing bitch”. Less is more when writing dialogue that seeks to avoid being on-the-nose.
Much of the time in screenplays and teleplays, questions aren’t answered. Answering every question posed can be classified as on-the-nose because it robs characters of their ability to surprise or to mystify or to go on the attack or to deny accountability. Or all of the above!
Here’s an example:
Arthur comes home half-drunk and five hours late. He’s been with another woman, and his wife, Marlene, is suspicious. And furious.
Marlene: It’s two o’clock. Where were you? With her? Who is she?
Arthur looks around at the messy room, then makes a face at Marlene.
Arthur: This place is a dump.
Arthur could have said, “What do you mean? There is no she? You’re imagining things.” But that would have been on-the-nose. And boring. Instead he avoided and misdirected by changing the subject and criticizing Marlene’s housekeeping. He put her on the defensive. The fight that would ensue from this exchange would most certainly keep us glued to the screen wanting to know what every audience wants to know: What happens next?