Theory of "On the Nose" Dialogue

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  • Theory of "On the Nose" Dialogue

    I've been tossing this theory around, want to see what you guys think. I would argue that, if followed, you will NEVER write "on-the-nose" dialogue again.

    1. Human actions always have some motive (save seizures etc).
    2. Speech acts (saying something) is a human action.
    3. If the motive of speech is the semantic equivalent to the speech act, the dialogue is on the nose.

    Example:

    "I love you."

    Is this on the nose? Well, if it's one lover who wants to express his affection for the other, yes. But what if its a quarreling couple and one is trying to say "f*ck you for cheating on me, that hurt?"

    "I wish my mother weren't dead."

    Is this one the nose? If someone's sad about their mother just dying, yes. If you're trying to say "hey dad, mom wouldn't like to see you f*cking the UPS girl" than its not on the nose.

    Statements themselves are not inherently "on the nose." It is only when the motive behind a speech act/statement matches the speech act that we consider it too on-the-nose.

  • #2
    Re: Theory of "On the Nose" Dialogue

    I think we obsess a bit too much with things like subtext; people do say exactly what they think or feel sometimes, even movie characters.

    And I'm not sure there's a way to determine beforehand if dialogue is on the nose or not. I'd say that, like many things in screenwriting, it depends a lot on context and good judgment; sometimes things need to be spelled out for some reason: maybe it's a revelation, maybe it's funnier that way, maybe the audience needs to get some information,...

    It's an interesting topic to discuss, though, and I'm sure some members of the forum will share enlightening comments, as usual. I'd say that on the nose dialogue isn't just dialogue that says exactly what it means, but dialogue that does so poorly.
    Guest
    Guest
    Last edited by Guest; 12-08-2012, 09:34 PM.

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    • #3
      Re: Theory of "On the Nose" Dialogue

      In life people sometimes people make on the nose statements, sometimes not.

      Perhaps it should be the same in screenplays.

      If no characters in an entire script makes on the nose statements, would that feel natural?

      In a script with cops in it, does it sound okay for a cop to say, "don't move. get your hands up" or should they all say something like, "reach for the sky"?

      If dialogue is more closely tied to the individual character traits, it might help gauge how much or how little a character uses on the nose statements, trying to make it feel right for that particular character. But to go through a script and try and remove all the on the nose dialogue doesn't seem logical.

      You can put too much salt in you food or too much pepper, but ideally you season it just right for good flavor. If someone tells you your food is too salty, are you going to go in and try and take out all the salt? A better solution might be to try and balance the seasoning better, but still use some salt.

      So when people say the dialogue is too on the nose, I don't think it's time to panic and try and take out every line of on the nose dialogue, but rather 'season' it better.

      Pulling this off seamlessly is the not so easy part.

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      • #4
        Re: Theory of "On the Nose" Dialogue

        Code:
        BUD
        (approaching the bed)
        Please, Miss Kubelik, you got to promise me you won't do anything foolish.
        
        FRAN
        Who'd care?
        
        BUD
        I would.
        
        FRAN
        (sleepily)
        Why can't I ever fall in love with somebody nice like you?
        
        BUD
        (ruefully)
        Yeah. Well -- that's the way it crumbles, cookie-wise. Go to sleep.
        Do they say pretty much what they mean? Yes.
        Is it on the nose? No.

        It's excellent. Arguably, one of the best American screenplays ever.

        EDIT TO ADD: probably it isn't the best example to bring up, since the strength of the scene comes from Bud's hidden feelings for Fran, which he sort of implies with the "I would" but doesn't really reveal, so there's some subtext going on. But more than about said subtext, what makes the scene work is a sort of pathetic irony in the whole situation, seen from Bud's POV. Anyway, my intention was to bring the focus more on Fran's dialogue and how well it works in the scene despite how obvious it is.
        Guest
        Guest
        Last edited by Guest; 12-09-2012, 05:44 AM.

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        • #5
          Re: Theory of "On the Nose" Dialogue

          I think the subtext for 'on the nose' is don't make your dialogue sound stiff.

          Which I think is really the subtext of HH suggesting he is now dead.
          Seven years dungeon --- no trials!

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          • #6
            Re: Theory of "On the Nose" Dialogue

            Dialogue's tricky. I still struggle with it on every script. When I was a newer writer, I used to worry so much about on-the-nose dialogue that I'd try and make every line metaphorical, cryptic, etc -- anything, just as long as they weren't saying what they were thinking. It took me a little while to dig my way out of that trap and figure out that it's less about avoiding "on-the-nose" dialogue, and more about avoiding dialogue that's unrealistic.

            The truth is, people say what they're thinking all the time. They do this in real life, as well as in some of the best movies ever made. It comes down to a character's motivation and what they would realistically say in a given situation. What do they want? What's in their way? What's the best way for them to get through those obstacles?

            People generally take the path of least resistance. Sometimes, social constraints make it easier for you to tell someone you hate them with subtext. Sometimes it's easier to just flat-out say it. If I'm at dinner with my best friend and his wife, and I just found out he screwed me over, I'm going to say something kind of sly and passive-aggressive so that his wife won't catch it. If she's not there, I'm going to be more blunt.

            This stuff still makes my brain hurt, but I definitely find that asking myself questions about my characters' motivation helps me get to the right line far better than worrying about being on-the-nose.
            QUESTICLES -- It's about balls on a mission.

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            • #7
              Re: Theory of "On the Nose" Dialogue

              Subtext can be overrated - at least in terms of dialogue. You can have an entire script where every character is saying what's on their mind and it could be some of the most dazzling stuff you've read. Read Shakespeare. There are entire plays with characters talking in literal speak. Good dialogue doesn't begin and end with subtext. It's an amalgam of many things, the most important being what the writer is expressing through their characters. Also, love of language, depth, wit, exploring philosophical or psychological ideas, etc. More important than writing with subtext is writing with depth, IMO.

              Another thing is, I don't think you can go back into your scene and put in subtext. Not really. Subtext is the natural result of a scene and characters that you've set up so that subtextual dialogue is the thing thats necessary for what it is you're trying to express.

              Sorkin, at his best, can be dazzling and hypnotizing. He writes his dialogue like action scenes. You can definitely see the Mamet in him, not to mention Chayefsky. But I think he losses his footing when he's exploring something deeper about the human condition or theme. I don't think he worries about subtext. His characters over-express themselves. He's at his best when he's having people arguing in conference rooms. Someone like David Milch is like Sorkin's opposite. You can get utterly lost in the thickets of his cerebrality. Still great though.

              But good dialogue is the key. It can be literal or subtextual. But IMO I really don't think you can do much about it. You either got it or you don't. But you can bet if there's mediocre dialogue, you'll find mediocre characters and a mediocre story.

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              • #8
                Re: Theory of "On the Nose" Dialogue

                You can definitely go back to a scene and change obvious dialogue for something more subtle and loaded with subtext. Not every scene, of course, just as not every scene can or should be funny, but you can take a dull scene and write it in a funnier way.

                Dialogue in theater is a very different thing than dialogue in movies.

                I agree that what matters is that dialogue is good, and that subtext isn't always the way to achieve it, or even necessary.

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                • #9
                  Re: Theory of "On the Nose" Dialogue

                  Dialogue is absolutely my favorite part of writing a screenplay! I think it's where most creativity shines. Creating distinct voices specific to certain characters is fun and in turn, helps to shape those characters.

                  I hate it when someone calls my dialogue "on the nose," but we've all been there before. I think the misunderstanding of OTN dialogue gets jumbled sometimes. I've seen OTN police around here, issuing citations for dialogue that isn't truly OTN.
                  It's not illegal for a character to state exactly how he/she feels, or what ails said character, but it is an issue if the dialogue sounds forced, unnatural, or obvious. Consider this OTN scene:

                  Mark cries a tsunami of tears. Joy approaches, concerned.

                  JOY
                  Mark, you're crying. (OBVIOUS)

                  MARK
                  I'm sad. (OBVIOUS)

                  JOY
                  What happened?

                  MARK
                  I killed Chester.

                  JOY
                  Your cat? Why? (FORCED for purposes of exposition. Usually people don't explore situations that are clearly painful to others - but it does happen)

                  MARK
                  It was an accident. He was hiding in
                  the dryer.

                  JOY
                  Oh no, Mark! You cooked him? (OBVIOUS)

                  MARK
                  A dryer gets to one hundred and
                  fifty degrees Fahrenheit. So yes, he
                  was cooked. (UNNATURAL)

                  JOY
                  That's terrible, Mark. Just terrible. (OBVIOUS)

                  MARK
                  I know. That's why I've been crying. (OBVIOUS)

                  JOY
                  Well listen, you're a good person, Mark.
                  The kennel was going to euthanize
                  Chester anyway. You gave him a longer
                  life. (FORCED exposition)

                  MARK
                  See, that's why I love you, Joy. You
                  always find the positives in a grim
                  situation. (UNNATURAL)

                  JOY
                  It's time for a good deed. Let's go to
                  the kennel and find you another Chester.

                  - FIXES -

                  Mark cries a tsunami of tears. Joy approaches, concerned.

                  JOY
                  Do I wanna know?

                  Mark shakes his head, "no."

                  MARK
                  I'll be alright.

                  JOY
                  Have a shoulder here to cry on
                  if you need it.

                  MARK
                  Thanks.
                  (beat)
                  It's Chester.

                  JOY
                  Your cat?

                  MARK
                  I accidentally killed him.

                  JOY
                  Oh, wow. Sorry to hear.
                  (beat)
                  Well, you know there's other cats
                  at the ken--

                  MARK
                  He was hiding in the dryer.

                  JOY
                  Jesus, Mark.

                  MARK
                  I know.

                  JOY
                  What a way to go.

                  MARK
                  I know.

                  JOY
                  Well, I know what'll make you
                  feel better.

                  MARK
                  A blow job?

                  JOY
                  I'm sure, but no. I'm talking
                  about a good deed. Let's find
                  another Chester at the kennel.
                  Jai Brandon
                  Member
                  Last edited by Jai Brandon; 12-09-2012, 07:25 AM. Reason: Cause it's free.
                  FADE IN:
                  PERSEVERANCE OVERCOMES ADVERSITY
                  NEVER FADE OUT.

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                  • #10
                    Re: Theory of "On the Nose" Dialogue

                    Originally posted by Dr. Vergerus View Post
                    Dialogue in theater is a very different thing than dialogue in movies.
                    It really isn't. There is not one way to write dialogue in screenplays and another way to write it in theater. Some of the best screenwriters come from the theater. Sorkin, Logan, Tony Kushner, Tom Stoppard, Kenneth Lonergan, Mamet. Drama is drama. Screenwriters need to learn what drama is. Working within the visual form of cinema is not the problem, IMO. It's understanding that screenwriting means being a dramatist. People don't really talk about that.

                    Besides that, if you want to work on your dialogue, you could do worse than start with our best playwrights.

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                    • #11
                      Re: Theory of "On the Nose" Dialogue

                      Dialogue in both Sorkin and Mamet is over-stylized; works well if you're Sorkin or Mamet, but I'm not sure they're examples to follow for the average screenwriter. Personally, I find a lot of Mamet's movie dialogue unnerving with all its rhetorical repetitions -- I'm talking of the movies he wrote and directed.

                      Now, Chayefsky is a very different matter, much more natural and very smart. Of the three, I think his dialogue is the most movie-fitting and less self-serving. Another playwright I would consider, to study dialogue, is Tennessee Williams.

                      Theater is drama. Movies rely on dramatic storytelling, but they aren't drama: they are movies. Of course there are two ways to write dialogue for movies and stageplays. Dialogue is the main instrument of theater, you need to handle most information through spoken words; the purer the play, the more it relies on dialogue. Movies have other means of expression that are every bit as effective as dialogue, if not more. If you give movie dialogue the same importance you'd give dialogue in a play, you're necessarily neglecting a lot of the unique strengths of films as a medium, and will result on movies that are stagy and dialogue-driven -- not that such movies can't be good; I love "Inserts", for instance. And when dialogue has to satisfy two different functions (structurally) in theater and cinema, there have to be fundamental differences between both kinds.

                      (Of course, I'm not denying that a lot of stageplays can have a filmic quality or use action over dialogue to great effect, or that some movies can privilege dialogue and do it successfully.)

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                      • #12
                        Re: Theory of "On the Nose" Dialogue

                        Originally posted by wnope View Post
                        I've been tossing this theory around, want to see what you guys think. I would argue that, if followed, you will NEVER write "on-the-nose" dialogue again.

                        1. Human actions always have some motive (save seizures etc).
                        2. Speech acts (saying something) is a human action.
                        3. If the motive of speech is the semantic equivalent to the speech act, the dialogue is on the nose.

                        Example:

                        "I love you."

                        Is this on the nose? Well, if it's one lover who wants to express his affection for the other, yes. But what if its a quarreling couple and one is trying to say "f*ck you for cheating on me, that hurt?"

                        "I wish my mother weren't dead."

                        Is this one the nose? If someone's sad about their mother just dying, yes. If you're trying to say "hey dad, mom wouldn't like to see you f*cking the UPS girl" than its not on the nose.

                        Statements themselves are not inherently "on the nose." It is only when the motive behind a speech act/statement matches the speech act that we consider it too on-the-nose.
                        It all comes down to context, I think. "Yes" and "No" could be on the nose in some situations and not on the nose in others.

                        I must admit I tend to use it practically all the way through a first draft (unless I've already pre-planned a bit of dialogue here 'n' there), due to the fact that I don't want to be stopped in my tracks over-stressing about EXACTLY what a character is going to say. I'd rather fix that stuff later and get the story and plot points puked out ASAFP.
                        It is by will alone I set my mind in motion. It is by the juice of Sapho that thoughts acquire speed, the lips acquire stains, stains become a warning. It is by will alone I set my mind in motion.

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                        • #13
                          Re: Theory of "On the Nose" Dialogue

                          Vergerus, I think you're arguing against a point that I'm not making. Theatre and Film are different - the art of dramatizing is not. Dramatizing is an abstraction and that process is the same for both dramatic mediums. If you don't understand that, then you don't understand where screenwriting fits in the continuum of the dramatic form. There is the reason why Tony Kushner's first script can be MUNICH and have it be amazing. Or Mamet, or Sorkin, or Lillian Hellman, or Ben Hecht, or John Logan. They are taking the full freight of their understanding of the dramatic form and transposing it from theatre to film. The effect may be different but the process is the same.

                          This is my problem with how people talk about screenwriting. Like it's this brand new art form that has it's own rules and laws. That notion is the main reason why there is a snake oil guru culture that exists today.

                          Also - something to chew on: SKYFALL was written and directed by two people who spent the first decade of their career in the theater. One as a playwright, the other as a director. Both have received academy awards.

                          And if you don't think Mamet and Sorkin are good examples that the average screenwriter should follow, then you need to go into every college that has a screenwriting course and tell them to stop teaching THE VERDICT and A FEW GOOD MEN. Mamet's VERDICT is one of the best scripts to learn about screenwriting.

                          Screenwriting means being a dramatist by using the language of cinema. That is the Alpha and Omega of what screenwriting is.

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                          • #14
                            Re: Theory of "On the Nose" Dialogue

                            I sure don't understand many things, and have a lot to learn, but I think we'll have to agree to disagree on this one.

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                            • #15
                              Re: Theory of "On the Nose" Dialogue

                              Fair enough.

                              The only reason I bring up playwrights is, I think it's a great way to "hear" dialogue. Also, it's a simple thing to say, but I think if you want to write good dialogue, you have to love language. Not every screenwriter does. It's obvious Tarantino does. You can hear HIS GIRL FRIDAY in the opening scene of PULP FICTION. Sorkin has spoken about the experience of seeing WHO AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOLF when he was a kid and being transfixed by the dialogue. Monahan talks about Hamlet like it was written yesterday. It's worth putting down screenplays once in a while and broadening one's exposure.

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