What Does “On-the-nose” Dialogue Mean?
by Matt Misetich (General Manager)
Professional or beginner, at some point, everyone is going to find themselves having just written a scene that’s on-the-nose.
What does it mean? Essentially, it’s when a character is speaking precisely how they’re feeling or thinking, without room for the reader/audience to fill in the blanks when it comes to a particular character’s emotions, thoughts, and so forth.
Why is this bad? Well, for one, picture the scene playing out on-screen: what’s more interesting, leaving subtlety to a conversation, or having two people explain everything for us? For the vast majority of audiences, the latter of those two options can be uninteresting, dull, cliché, sappy, and a host of other negative results. Not to mention the fact it doesn’t give proper justice to the complexity of your characters.
So for instance, compare these two lines of dialogue:
MARCUS: “Because it’s not totally about you, it’s about me and my own problems. I love you. I’m just really upset because you cheated on me with my best friend, Dave, when I was at work, so I need to move out.”
Or. . . .
MARCUS: “I left a key for you. . . I figure Dave can use the back door, like usual.”
The second option gives away the same amount of information (e.g. he cares enough to leave a key for her, is still bitter about the affair, etc.), but with greater nuance. Though it’s out of context, you can get an idea of what to stay away from when writing dialogue, especially in an emotionally-charged scene.