On-the-nose dialogues…hmm…seems like a heavy term but it isn’t. On-the-nose means something that is straightforward and lacks subtleties and subtext, a dialogue that says exactly what it means. That is the term to serve everything on the platter. Subtlety is the key to perfection. If the dialogues narrate everything without leaving much for the imagination of the reader, it is bound to become on-the-nose.
“To bring out the unsaid is to prove that you are a professional writer.”
I am sure every one of us might have seen one such dialogue exchange and nodded our head in disappointment. This disappointment arises purely because this useless exchange makes the episode dull and predictable.
CID team finds a dead body.
ACP: Daya, iski saansen chal rahi hain ya nahi? (Daya, is he still breathing?)
Daya: Nahin Sir, iski saansen nahi chal rahi hain. Ye mar gaya hai. (No, Sir. He isn’t breathing. He is dead.)
ACP: Mujhe lagta hai ke ye agar yahan mara hai to zarur iska murder hua hai, Daya. (I have a feeling that if he died here, it is definitely a case of murder, Daya.)
Daya: Sir, main iski pocket search karta hu, shayad kuch mil jaye. (Sir, let me check his pockets, maybe we find some clue.)
I have heard a few screenwriters ranting how their editor (or publisher) made them rewrite the whole scenes because they appeared too straightforward.
It is definitely heartbreaking to watch your piece get rejected which was a product of hours of brainstorming and months of writing. That is sad.
Now, how do you avoid it? How do you make your dialogues seem interesting? What do you do next?
Too many questions! Fret not fellow writers. I have thought about it much and have finally come realise that there are many ways to write beautiful dialogues, but here I am including two simple steps that anyone can follow to avoid on-the-nose dialogues.
Step #1 – Identify the problem and it’s trigger.
When you write a script, you want to make sure that the readers understand everything you are trying to convey. In this attempt, we often spoon feed them through dialogues. Scenes which can be best represented through visuals are also spoilt.
Let me give you an example of one such dialogue:
John: I am going to take the coffee from the café and then go to the office to complete May’s file. What are you doing Joseph?
Joseph: I am plucking flowers to make a bouquet for May; I will give it to her in the evening.
This sequence of these characters is not furthering the plot but merely stating the obvious facts of what they are doing right now and what they will do in future. This exchange sequence can be easily eliminated by showing exactly what these two were doing instead of the narrative.
Readers love the suspense, the subtext and the anticipation that the text creates for the forthcoming events. Everyone wants to figure out themselves what the characters mean to say. It makes them participate actively as a reader in the text.
Step #2 – Elimination
Make understatements. Create dialogues that hint to the events and not say them. Our minds are trained such that when something is hinted at, it craves for more. When it craves for more, the reader is bound to read further. The interest is thus created and so your script is accepted.
Discretion is the key. Often when the story calls for a mention of something, rethink of how you could mould it and make it dramatically effective by hinting to it. The subtext is what enriches your writing. Develop a character’s thoughts and feelings in such a way that they ‘act’ on them and not say them blandly. Even we don’t keep narrating what we are feeling!
Replace dialogues with visual scenes. Visuals speak better than dialogues – more subtle, less obvious. Let’s look at this example here:
Remove unnecessary dialogues. Every scene must earn its place in the plot. For every dialogue, ask yourself, “If I take this sequence out, would the script still make sense?” If your answer is yes, hit ‘delete’.
Here’s an example for you:
Katherine: I am so mad at Donna. I wonder how she could even do such a thing.
Lizzie: But you know she is of the kinds who would always throw others’ stuff out to make space for her belongings.
Katherine: She did all of it when I was not at home.
Lizzie: Yes because she knew that no one would stop her then.
Now, instead of these bland dialogues, the writer could have said:
As soon as Katherine drove out of the garage, Donna rushed up to their common room and started turning Katherine’s stuff out of the cupboards. She then laid out her stuff nicely and sat down on the bed, “Now they look better.”
That same evening, Katherine returned with her sister, Lizzie, who stared at the house’s condition. Katherine instantly started folding back her clothes.
“You know she is the kind who would always throw others’ stuff out to make space for her belongings.” remarked Lizzie.
“She did all of it when I was not at home.”
“Yes, because there was no to stop her!”
Another way could be a sequence where Katherine argues with Donna amidst which the behaviour of her roommate is revealed.
Similarly, you could think of more such alternatives over a plain narration.
If you have a script, go through it again and look for on-the-nose dialogues. Eliminate them or modify them. Make them more action-oriented and visually rich.
Let the characters’ actions speak louder than your words!