On-The-Nose Dialogue

by limebirdvanessa

On-the-nose dialogue is a term usually applied to scriptwriting/screenwriting, but it can equally be applied to dialogue within a novel or short story. It refers to dialogue where characters are expressing things exactly as they are, without giving the reader the opportunity to use their imagination to fill in the blanks. A certain amount of on-the-nose dialogue may be useful for clarity, but overuse of it can result in dull, flat dialogue.

As an example, a character could say, “I love you” to another character, as that is exactly what they mean, but it is far more interesting for the reader if they express their love in another way. The show don’t tell mantra very much comes into play here. Dialogue becomes much more engaging if it focuses on the sub-meaning and lets the reader surmise the actual meaning.

I don’t like to criticise other writers, but of course we often learn what not to do in our writing when we see things that don’t work for us in our reading. One thing I have seen a few examples of lately is on-the-nose dialogue being used as a way for the writer to convey some basic background information to the reader, but without considering the fact that characters wouldn’t tell each other things that they already know. I have fabricated an extreme example here to illustrate:

Julie hugged Brian tightly. “I’m so happy living here with you,” she said, ”in our 3 bedroomed house in a nice middle-class area of North London, with our two children, Amy aged 9, and Toby aged 4”.

As I said, that’s an extreme example, and I don’t think anybody would be quite as on-the-nose as that, but I have seen examples that aren’t too far off that.

We all have our own ways of trying to make dialogue sound natural, such as reading it out loud to see how it sounds. Additionally, I think we can all enhance our dialogue writing by really thinking about what the meaning is behind the dialogue, and also whether these are things that characters would actually be saying to each other in real life.

Have you noticed examples of on-the-nose dialogue in your own, or other people’s writing? What other tips do you have for writing realistic and engaging dialogue?

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32 Responses to “On-The-Nose Dialogue”

  1. I hadn’t heard of this term before, I seem to be behind on my lingo! Your example made me laugh, as I’ve definitely seen this being done before, even if it’s not quite this extreme. I need to make sure I don’t do any of this in my nano!!

  2. It’s the old exposition argument I keep having with myself. One character on the phone to another and so the reader knows who they are in relation to the character we’ve already met, they say “hi sis” despite the fact that the character wouldn’t say that. Shows like Family Guy, The Simpsons and American Dad (which I bloody hate) lampoon this and the style of writing dialogue you’re talking about.

    I struggle writing dialogue as it can be so stilted and wooden at times, Grr!

    Fab post, as always 🙂

    • Thanks Cat. Yes the whole “hi sis” thing! On the other hand, it can be just as frustrating for the reader if it’s too subtle, and we can’t work out who is who and what is what! Dialogue is a tricky business indeed.

  3. I absolutely believe in reading your stuff out loud. It’s amazing how often I find myself tripping up on an awkward sentence or phrase, either in dialogue or in text. After all, someone might be listening to an audio version of my inimitable prose one day…

  4. Haha, I love the example. It also made me laugh 😀 I try to keep my dialogue realistic – I often read it out to myself (in the various different pirate voices) and I think this helps to avoid unnecessary description. However, I think there’s a place for on-the-nose dialogue. For example, if one character is more knowledgeable on a particular topic than another then I imagine it’s reasonable for a certain amount of information to be relayed to the reader through dialogue:

    “What the Jones is that?!”
    “That, my bearded companion, is a Mark IV Dream class pleasure cruiser of the Rendokin high parliament. See how the light from that nearby sun glints off the side? This is a result of the diamond-edged viewing galleries. Only three were ever made, you know. After completing construction of the third, the ship-builders went bankrupt as the price of diamonds sky-rocketed.”

    (Note: Not actual dialogue from my NaNo, but it could be…).

    Having said that, I have found myself adding similar unnecessary side-notes (i.e. not really significant to the story), as “footnotes”. This is a habit I’ve always enjoyed when reading Terry Pratchett. It allows me to add “out of character” added value, without impacting too much on the reader’s experience (who could just skip it if they’re not interested). I’m not saying it’s right, and I think I’ve only got three examples in 20,000 words, but as you say; we all have our own ways 😉

    • Yes, there’s definitely a place for that type of dialogue, it’s all about understanding where that place is, and isn’t!

      I’ve been thinking a lot about this while doing NaNo, and I’m definitely going to have to alter a lot of my NaNo dialogue later (if I decide the finished result is worth editing!) because I think it’s mostly on-the-nose! It’s an easy and quick way to write, the other way takes more time.

      I actually find the footnotes a bit irritating in Terry Pratchett, it interrupts the flow of the reading for me, and yet I feel I can’t ignore them in case they are vital! But we can’t all like the same things.

      I’ve noticed that you and me have been pretty close on our NaNo word counts throughout.

      • I was unable to write last night, so I have a bit of catching up to do to get back neck-and-neck with you, m’lady. I see you’re very nearly half-way through the word count – good work! I hope that romantic section hasn’t put you too far off the plot 🙂

        As for whether to edit your NaNo draft – I hope we’re all going to encourage each other to take them further! I’m happy to offer my services as a draft-reader (or maybe daft-reader…?). I’ve got a trip to New Zealand coming up and will have plenty of time to read on the ‘plane.

  5. My standard for judging realistic dialogue is to use the “real life test”. I think about if I or anybody I know would say it out loud. I’ve seen some books where the characters say things I wouldn’t ever say in real life. Ugh.

    I learn what to do and what not to do from reading some of my favorite writers (examples: Janet Evanovich, David Baldacci and Nora Roberts) and observing how they express what’s going on in the minds of their characters.

    • Yes, if dialogue sounds real and natural then it flows right in with the story when you’re reading, but if it’s fake, it makes the story feel that way too.

      Reading with a writer’s eye is the best writing lesson out there!

  6. Good post. I hadn’t heard the term before, and this is something to remember! Thank you.

  7. Being a playwright really helps with this. Before I did the children’s book thing, I wrote for the theatre. Hearing dialogue that doesn’t feel perfectly natural reveals itself immediately on the first cast readthrough.

    The art of subtext is a hard thing to master, but once you get it, it never leaves you.

  8. I keep hearing so many things to watch out for on nano. Others keep posting links to articles on this or that writing thing and tell me to go read this, excellent on the subject of writing etc. the advice is really good and like this post, pretty relevant to what I’m trying to do.

    The problem is that if I spend all my time reading the things they say to read, and checking all the things they say to check I won’t get any new writing done. I think I’ll have to save the checking and reading until January at least, I’m getting way behind!

    • Yes, that’s how I’m working. If I try and over-think every thing on NaNo, then the word count goes up too slowly, so I’m really trying to just write whatever comes into my mind, knowing that I can implement all these things in the editing stage later.

  9. Several scenes in Draft 2 of my WIP were fortunately revised after all-star beta reader Limebird Kate pointed out exactly this problem. 🙂 Reading out loud is great, but so is the keen “ear” of a great beta reader. 🙂

  10. Solid advice, here, Vanessa. I’m guessing many of us allow ourselves a bit of on-the-nose dialogue once in a while. And, you’re right that it’s okay to let it through once in a while. Unfortunately, some trends advise to write for a lowest common denominator. I’m not a supporter of that,though! Because, like anything to do with creating a compelling world and story, the loveliest bits are the ones the reader can ascertain on their own. 😉

  11. This is so true! I see it a lot in television shows, soap operas to be more precise, and I suppose they do it with the idea that viewers migh have missed a few episodes, so they feel the need to catch them up with all this stupid information that could easily be revealed another way.

    I love your example, by the way! 🙂

    • Yes, without wishing to be prejudiced against American soaps, I do think the American ones are particularly bad when it comes to trying to find subtle ways of letting the viewer understand what is happening – A character will be on their own in a room, and they’ll pick up an object, say a framed photograph of someone, hold it to their chest and start talking out loud to themselves “Oh John, I’m so sorry I had to lie to you, but I couldn’t let you find out the truth about…” Haha.

  12. Instructors will tear your work apart if the dialogue is too on the nose!!

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