1. Ryan Elder

    Ryan Elder Banned

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    I'm told my dialogue is too "on the nose"

    Discussion in 'Dialogue Development' started by Ryan Elder, Nov 30, 2015.

    Is their anything I can to do make it sound more natural? Cause other people are using that term to describe it. Here is a sample of a couple of scenes for example. It's a screenplay, in case you are wondering about the format. But the format changes when copying and pasting it here, so I made some adjustments, if that's okay.


    EXT. PARKING LOT, POLICE STATION -- DAY -- LATER

    CHALMERS (40s), leans against his car, having a snack while watching the police station. He's in a suit and tie, with his hair slicked back.

    He sees Manning opens the back door, and peaks out. He makes sure it's safe, and holds the door for Sheila. She comes out while rummaging through her purse.

    MANNING
    I don't think they would have taken
    anything--

    Manning leads her to his car as Chalmers walks over and intercepts them.

    CHALMERS
    Excuse me, I'm John Wray's attorney, Jerry Chalmers.

    Manning becomes alert and leads Sheila to the car.

    CHALMERS
    I just want to ask you some questions about the case, that's all.

    MANNING
    We'll pass.

    SHEILA
    No, I'll answer. What is it?

    CHALMERS
    Okay, thanks. I just want to say I'm sorry for your ordeal.
    But did you say anything to the police?

    MANNING
    Nevermind what she told
    us.

    SHEILA
    No, nothing at all.

    CHALMERS
    I just need to know, because what the police know, could come up.
    (to Sheila)
    What are you going to say in court?

    MANNING
    (opens the car door for her)
    C'mon, let's get going.

    SHEILA
    (to Chalmers)
    I'm not going to say anything.

    She gets in and they drive off.

    CHALMERS
    Okay, thank you Ma'am.

    Chalmers walks back to his car, as Guy exits the police station, holding hands with MARGO. An attractive woman (late 20s), in fashionable dress.

    MARGOT
    They gave me the story and I'm covering it at the trial... Can I come over and pick up some things
    the night before?

    GUY
    Sure. I'm back on the case now.

    MARGOT
    C'mon, just tell me more about it. What do you think I started dating you for?

    GUY
    Well, as I recall...

    EXT. PLAZA -- DAY -- MONTHS EARLIER (FLASHBACK)

    Margo is walking down a pathway with a FEMALE FRIEND (30s), and she sees Guy, on the same bench. He tries to light a large cigar, but the lighter won't work. Margo stops walking, and grabs her friend, gently by the arm.

    MARGOT
    Hey, that guy is cute. Check him out.

    FRIEND
    Well go get him, tiger.

    MARGOT
    Yeah, right.

    FRIEND
    Why not? Just go talk to him.

    MARGOT
    And say what?

    Guy looks up at her, and she turns away.

    FRIEND
    You see? You're going in... Just put your ovaries where your mouth is and go for it!

    The friend pushes Margo, lightly -- Margo walks on down the path, away from him -- She stops, takes a deep breath, and walks over towards him looking shy, but trying to act confident.

    He sees her and she comes over and he stands up off the bench. She comes up to him and snatches his cigar out of his mouth, to him being surprised --

    MARGOT
    Got a light?

    He is intrigued...

    GUY
    Yeah, sure.

    He lights it for her as she tries to smoke it but inhales it and coughs... He sees that she is inhaling, and is amused.

    MARGOT
    (coughing)
    Not bad.

    She takes another inhale and coughs again.

    GUY
    (smirks and shakes his head)
    It's usually not until after a woman has experienced me, that she takes up smoking. But I'm not surprised.

    MARGOT
    (in disbelief)
    Oh really?

    Guy nods. She steps closer and tries to stare him down --

    MARGOT
    Wanna bet?

    They look at each other in attraction...

    EXT. STREET -- DAY (BACK TO PRESENT DAY)

    Margo lights herself cigar, inhaling it, no problem --

    MARGOT
    (to Guy)
    Well, you were right about one thing.

    They smile as he puts her arm around her and they walk off.

    GUY
    You'd have to leave me if you'd wanted to quit.

    What can I do to make the dialogue better and less on the nose? Thanks for reading and thanks for the advice :).
     
    Last edited: Nov 30, 2015
  2. jannert

    jannert Retired Mod Supporter Contributor

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    Not sure exactly what 'on the nose' means. Are they trying to tell you the dialogue is too abrupt?
     
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  3. hilal

    hilal Active Member

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    You can start by reading my amazing script(joking). Truth be told am also new to this. But people have told me that my dialogue works(jannert i'm sure will testify). That being said i honestly didn't find anything wrong with your work, i actually enjoyed it. That being said every writer craves praise just like food and water so you might want to hear what others have to say but as far as i am concerned its a nice job.
     
  4. Ryan Elder

    Ryan Elder Banned

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    Okay thanks. What they mean is, is that they said that the characters over explain too much to each other in the dialogue, and less is more.
     
    Last edited: Nov 30, 2015
  5. R.P. Kraul

    R.P. Kraul Member

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    On the nose means that there's no meaning beneath the surface. The characters say exactly what they mean, and there is nothing hiding below the surface. The problem with this is that people rarely say exactly what they mean. We all have hidden agendas.

    For a beautiful example of indirect dialogue--it's the opposite of on-the-nose dialogue--take a look at Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants." It's in the public domain and is a short read. It's a beautiful example of subtext. Notice how each of the characters tries to redirect the conversation. The conversation has a real topic--and it's a controversial one at that. But neither character mentions the topic directly.
     
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  6. Ryan Elder

    Ryan Elder Banned

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    Oh okay, that's probably what they meant then. How can I write conversations better so their is more beneath the surface. Is their anything I could do with the current examples, to give them more beneath the surface?
     
  7. Sack-a-Doo!

    Sack-a-Doo! Contributor Contributor

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    I did a post-grad class in screenwriting and what I was told about dialogue that's 'on the nose' was this:
    - any dialogue that tells the story (you should be showing it with action)
    - any exchange where a question is asked by one character and answered directly by another (everyone has an agenda and that should be reflected in any response to a question)
     
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  8. Ryan Elder

    Ryan Elder Banned

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    Okay thanks. Those are good points. Do I do any of those two things in the above example I gave?

    The guy asks the woman a couple of questions and she answers them, but that is all there is too it for that situation. Is that bad?
     
  9. Shadowfax

    Shadowfax Contributor Contributor

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    If somebody told me that anything I'd done was "on the nose", I'd understand them to mean that it was exactly right, not that it was a criticism...
     
  10. Ryan Elder

    Ryan Elder Banned

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    But they were telling me as a criticism.
     
  11. hilal

    hilal Active Member

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    Thats cause i'm inducing that you haven't read a book on screen writing. Am I right? Even if you have then you have failed to take the advice which says show with action not dialogue.
     
  12. Ryan Elder

    Ryan Elder Banned

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    I have read one book on screenwriting so far. But even the book says that at times characters have to communicate through dialogue for it to make sense, and that too much action can go too far. So what can I do in the scene example I gave to show action without dialogue?
     
  13. matwoolf

    matwoolf Banned Contributor

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    This section is too 'on the nose,' s'pose...as your example.

    CHALMERS
    I just want to ask you some questions about the case, that's all.

    MANNING
    We'll pass.

    SHEILA
    No, I'll answer. What is it?

    CHALMERS
    Okay, thanks. I just want to say I'm sorry for your ordeal.
    But did you say anything to the police?

    ...

    I see a wild man rushing towards a couple - they approach their own vehicle...in the rain, say...but - for the beginning of a film, for drama, tension, curiosity... you might want to be a little more enigmatic, or mysterious - provoke questions in my mind...

    ...then if it gets to radio...chuck in a load of extra directional... :)

    MANNING: Answer the questions! Answer the questions!

    MANNING RUNS BETWEEN VEHICLES ........ooh, who's the wackjob?'

    CHALMERS: Leave us alone, bastard. 'Good show, thump this nutcase...'

    WILD PUNCH IS THROWN

    MANNING: I am truly sorry for your ordeal. What did you say to the feds? 'Ahhh, but seems he is the hero. Is he a vigilante, a family member, a..a journalist?' Mmm, interesting, I'll have to WORK THIS OUT....(an illusion, etc...)
     
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  14. Ryan Elder

    Ryan Elder Banned

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    Okay thanks. Is this better?

    CHALMERS
    I just want to ask you some questions about the case.

    MANNING
    We'll pass.

    SHEILA
    No, I'll answer.

    CHALMERS
    Okay, thanks. I just want to say I'm sorry for your ordeal.
    But did you say anything to the police?
     
  15. matwoolf

    matwoolf Banned Contributor

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    She doesn't have to say she'll answer - SHE JUST ANSWERS...
     
  16. Sack-a-Doo!

    Sack-a-Doo! Contributor Contributor

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    On the nose dialogue is when a character asks a question and another answers that question directly, to the point and in full. It's obvious that the writer is simply using it to inform the audience.

    Especially in screenplays, seeing is believing... or remembering, in the case of your audience. If you want to get information across and have the audience remember it, show it, don't discuss it.
     
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  17. Ryan Elder

    Ryan Elder Banned

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    Okay thanks. But what about when I have to resort to dialogue. The scene I showed as an example is one where it wouldn't work without dialogue.

    In Die Hard for example, there are several scenes where John McClane is talking to himself, literally talking to himself, just so the audience can tell what he is thinking throughout a lot of the movie.
     
    Last edited: Dec 4, 2015
  18. Sack-a-Doo!

    Sack-a-Doo! Contributor Contributor

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    Well, first off, having an actor talk to himself/herself isn't a great idea, but it helps if you know someone as talented as Bruce Willis will be playing the role... not that that makes it a good idea. :)

    As for dialogue in general, your question cuts right to the heart of fiction writing.

    Keep in mind what each character in a scene wants and shape the dialogue to reflect that. If one or more of your characters doesn't want anything in a particular scene, they shouldn't be speaking... or you could go find something for them to want.

    And as for what the characters want, if they aren't at odds in some way, they shouldn't be in a scene together. Stories are about overcoming obstacles to obtain goals. So, if two characters are butting heads over mutually-exclusive goals or goals that don't quite mesh, you've got a reason for them to be in a scene together as well as reasons for them to talk to one another... in an attempt to achieve their goals.

    So...

    Start with goals for the characters.
    Mismatch the goals for a scene to create conflict.
    Decide what the characters are thinking, but don't want to say out loud.
    Decide what each character can say aloud without making things worse for themselves.
    Have them say those things.
    And during all that, keep in mind that any scene in which your MC is making progress belongs before the catalyst or in the third act. Everywhere else, the MC needs to be failing or going in the wrong direction.

    But don't take my word for it. Go read Snyder or (even better) Dwight V. Swain (Techniques of the Selling Writer).
     
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  19. Ryan Elder

    Ryan Elder Banned

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    Okay thanks. I read some of Snyder so far already. I have also read a lot of John Truby, who writes books on screenwriting. I have already decided on the goals of the characters. What about when readers tell me that they do not believe the goals though or feel the goals are too illogical? Or they do not understand them because they say the characters do not explain them to other characters, so as a result, they cannot tell what's going on in the characters heads, and cannot tell what they are thinking.
     
  20. Sack-a-Doo!

    Sack-a-Doo! Contributor Contributor

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    If your goals are unclear to readers, perhaps you need to rethink them--the goals and maybe even the characters.

    Can you give me an example of a goal one of your readers said is illogical?

    Just as a rule of thumb, you likely know screenplays are about what people do (as opposed to novels which are about what people think and stage plays which are about what people say). With that in mind, if you stick to goals that make sense in the real world for real people, you shouldn't have too much trouble getting that across. If, on the other hand, you have characters with goals that are, you know, kind-of 'out there,' it's possible no one is going to know what you're talking about no matter what you do.

    Anyway, let's start with an example goal from your story and see where it leads.
     
  21. hilal

    hilal Active Member

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    well said.
     
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  22. Sack-a-Doo!

    Sack-a-Doo! Contributor Contributor

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    Thanks. I don't remember where or when I learned that, but it does sum up the differences very well. If I could remember where I learned/read it, I'd give credit.
     
  23. hilal

    hilal Active Member

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    Something a magician would say.
     
  24. mad_hatter

    mad_hatter Active Member

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    Ryan,

    Yes, you’re dialogue is very much ‘On The Nose’. It’s very blunt and not realistic at all. Do you read your dialogue aloud to yourself? If not, you should. You want to convey what’s happening and what the characters are thinking, without having them say what’s happening or what they’re thinking, as that’s not what real people do. The whole “show-don’t-tell” thing comes in to play here too. You need to work on your action lines to convey this information. It’s important to understand that showing sometimes takes more words than telling; that’s fine.


    Here’s the first part of your script, rewritten to how I think it should be:

    EXT. POLICE STATION, PARKING LOT -- DAY -- LATER

    CHALMERS (40-something, clean shaven, hair slicked back) leans against his car. He chomps on a burrito while watching the police station.

    The back door of the police station opens and Manning peaks out. The coast is clear, so he exits the building. He holds the door open for Sheila, who rummages through her purse as she leaves the station.

    MANNING
    Jesus, Sheila. They’re not going to have taken anything.

    SHEILA
    How do you know?

    Manning and Sheila head for their car.

    Chalmers drop the remains of his burrito through the open window, onto the passenger seat. Hurriedly, he crosses the parking lot to intercept them.

    CHALMERS
    Excuse me, Mr. Manning?

    MANNING
    Yeah?

    CHALMERS
    Hi, Mr. Manning. My name is Jerry Chalmers. I'm John Wray's attorney.

    Manning huffs and shakes his head in annoyance. He grabs Sheila by the upper arm and leads her quickly to the car.

    Chalmers follows.

    CHALMERS
    Please. I just want to ask you some questions.

    MANNING
    We'll pass.

    Sheila pulls her arm from Manning’s grip. She shoots him a look before turning to face Chalmers.

    SHEILA
    Ask away, Mr. Chalmers.

    Chalmers offers her a pleasant smile.

    CHALMERS
    Thank you. I really am sorry for your ordeal, but I need to know what you’ve told the police?

    MANNING
    We don’t have to tell you anything.

    Sheila frowns at Manning, before answering Chalmers question.

    SHEILA
    I haven’t told them anything.

    CHALMERS
    What the police know could come up in court. It’d be really nice to know whatever it is that they know.

    SHEILA
    I haven’t told them anything.

    CHALMERS
    Ok. That’s good. Do you have any idea what you plan on saying in court?

    Manning opens the car door and ushers Sheila in.

    MANNING
    (to Sheila)
    C'mon. Let's get going.

    SHEILA
    (to Chalmers)
    I'm not going to say anything.

    CHALMERS
    Okay. Thank you Ma'am.

    Sheila climbs in to the car. Manning rounds the vehicle and climbs into the driver’s seat. Quickly, he fires up the engine and they speed off.

    Chalmers walks back to his car.

    Guy exits the police station. He holds hands with MARGOT (20’s, blonde hair, attractive).

    MARGOT
    So, what do you say? Can I come over and pick up some things the night before the trial?

    GUY
    Sure.

    MARGOT
    Are you sure you can’t tell me any more about it?

    GUY
    I’m sure.

    MARGOT
    (sarcastic)
    So, you’re back on the case, but you can’t tell me anything? That’s just great. What do I even bother dating you for?

    GUY
    Well, as I recall...


    Not saying that it’s perfect, but my dialogue here is far more realistic than yours. To make it more realistic, I’ve cut anything that a person wouldn’t say in a conversation.


    For example, you write:

    MARGOT
    They gave me the story and I'm covering it at the trial... Can I come over and pick up some things the night before?

    GUY
    Sure. I'm back on the case now.

    This reads as though these two people don't know each other at all, and that they haven’t been talking inside the building. I’d be almost certain that they have, based on the everything that follows. So Guy should already know that Margot is covering the case, and Margot should already know that Guy is back on the case. The only reason for them to say these things here is to tell the audience what’s going on. My version is very similar, but it gives the audience the benefit of the doubt that they’re not too stupid to figure things out for themselves. And just in case they are idiots, I still manage to tell them that Guy is 'back on the case' a few lines later, but in a much more natural way.


    Another example:

    CHALMERS
    I just want to ask you some questions about the case, that's all.

    MANNING
    We'll pass.

    SHEILA
    No, I'll answer. What is it?

    CHALMERS
    Okay, thanks. I just want to say I'm sorry for your ordeal. But did you say anything to the police?

    Sheila’s dialogue is just plain and boring. There is no emphasis to it. In my version, her reply is short and sweet (although it's actually only one word shorter than yours). What makes it more realistic though, is the preceding line of action I’ve included. It gives the reader some insight in to how she's feeling. Chalmers last dialogue line here is all wrong too. A real person wouldn’t say “Okay, thanks.” In this situation, they’d just get on with it. He also wouldn’t say “I just want to say...”, as that’s not what he wants to say at all; it’s a pleasantry he’s decided to include, before moving on with his true goal.


    Read your work aloud. Do it sound realistic? If not, change it. Think about what real people say. What would you say in this situation? Sure, your characters may say something different, but if you use yourself as a starting point, it'll be easier to move off from.
     
  25. Ryan Elder

    Ryan Elder Banned

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    Okay thanks, for the input.

    However, you added more dialogue between Guy and Margo when they exit the building. If less is more, then how come they speak in more sentences? It seems that more is covered there, compared to before, where it was less sentences, or I am not understanding the difference in that area. But I understand the differences in the rest. Thanks. When you say that Chalmers drops his burrito, I try not to get too descriptive in the action because I feel it's best to get to the point, and that a character dropping a burrito for example, may not be important, and I should just get to the point.

    But perhaps I am wrong. Also would he drop the burrito, instead of just walk over with it, so he can finish it after?

    Also Sheila is uncomfortable in this situation so would she really say "Ask away Mr. Chalmers"? That sounds kind of enthusiastic, just a little where she is anything but. So would she say that if she is more upset?

    As for characters being blunt, what if I want a character to be blunt? Is this bad, dialogue wise, when wanting to speak bluntly to another character?
     
    Last edited: Dec 8, 2015

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