In a series of screenwriting classes I took over the last few years, one of the ideas my instructors continually impressed was that most effective dialogue is in fact on the nose (which is to say clear and direct).
So, why are there so many articles advising writers to avoid on-the-nose dialogue? The main reason for the inconsistent advice may be confusion over what is meant by on-the-nose dialogue. By most definitions, on-the-nose dialogue is dialogue in which a character clearly and directly states what they are thinking or feeling.
In other words, on-the-nose dialogue is dialogue that is clear. And you may reasonably wonder why clarity would ever be viewed as a bad thing.
What I think those discouraging on-the-nose dialogue really mean when they refer to on-the-nose dialogue is one of the following:
— colorless dialogue that is not specific to the character;
— dialogue that conveys information that could be better handled with a visual; and
— dialogue that the character would never really say (i.e., “unmotivated dialogue.”)
All three of the above are indeed things to be avoided. But that doesn’t mean if you character clearly expresses his innermost thoughts and feelings in a way that is specific to the character and motivated, you’ve written bad dialogue. In fact, my instructors argued that such dialogue is the lifeblood of most scenes.
While you can find examples of motivated, character-specific on-the-nose dialogue in multiple shows and movies, I’d like to focus on two example scenes from the hit NBC show This is Us to show what great on-the-nose dialogue looks like—and how it is something you should be aiming for, rather than avoiding.
Kevin’s Memorable Introduction in the Pilot Episode
The first scene I’d like to highlight is the scene from Dan Fogelman’s pilot in which we first meet Kevin. This is a scene that accomplishes a couple of related things: it establishes who Kevin is (a successful sitcom star) and reveals that he is in the midst of an existential crisis because of his sitcom stardom.
If we imagine our way into Dan Fogelman’s head before he wrote this scene, we can assume/guess that he had these two goals for the scene. He then had to figure out how to get across these ideas in a memorable and efficient way that also felt natural/realistic.
The last requirement—having the information come out naturally—is worth emphasizing. This is a challenge with nearly all scenes, including this one.
What makes this requirement so challenging is that most characters, like most people, are naturally reticent. They don’t just volunteer information about themselves. Unless you’re writing a character without a filter, like Pat in Silver Linings Playbook, your characters are going to be self-possessed and self-contained when talking to strangers.
So, how did Fogelman get Kevin to reveal his existential crisis in a way that felt motivated and natural?
There’s the obvious choice for how to get out this context naturally: show Kevin talking to his therapist. A therapy session is a context in which it is natural for someone to share their innermost private thoughts. And we’ve seen that kind of therapy scene countless times in television shows and movies.
But, as you might expect from a writer as successful as Fogelman, he makes a much more interesting choice.
In the script, Fogelman first uses visuals to quickly establish Kevin as a sitcom star (and I apologize, but I don’t have Courier font for the below):
We OPEN on a framed POSTER, advertising a TV show called
“THE MAN-NY.” The poster shows a ridiculously handsome
and chiseled MAN-NY (36), shirtless and holding a BABY.
It reads: “Mondays: Where Handsome Happens.”
We PAN DOWN, revealing the same shirtless “Man-ny”
sitting against the headboard of his bed. This is KEVIN.
So, we now know Kevin is an established sitcom star, and Fogelman did this easily with a visual. A lesser writer might have tried to get this information out through dialogue and might have struggled with how to get Kevin to naturally volunteer such information.
By using a visual, Fogelman nullified the risk of unmotivated dialogue.
We then get the setup of the scene itself:
He’s drinking and bored. Which is weird because…
In front of Kevin stand two scantily dressed BOMBSHELL
MODELS. We hear a party going on in the background.
They take in his massive bedroom, suitably impressed.
The key thing to note here is that Kevin has been drinking, which will make us buy his loosened tongue as the scene goes on. Kevin’s drinking makes us accept that he would share his innermost feelings with two strangers.
If there’s any doubt after these first few visuals as to what the girls’ aim is, it becomes clear as the scene goes on that these girls are trying to seduce Kevin.
They first compliment him. Kevin is so bored with being a celebrity and these kinds of vapid girls that he responds sarcastically:
We love your show.
I binge-watch with my mom whenever I
That’s incredibly revealing, thank you.
The girls are the ones with the goal in this scene: to seduce Kevin, and Kevin is in effect resisting. So, this is a conflict scene: in particular a negation conflict, in which one party has a goal, and other party keeps in effect saying no (either through their actual words or, as is the case here, through their actions).
In a conflict scene, the character with the goal, after first failing, will escalate—that is, they will try harder.
The girls escalate in this scene as follows:
He sits there, drinking, as the girls turn on the most
obvious song ever – “Blurred Lines.” They dance
provocatively. Kevin barely pays attention.
Kevin still doesn’t care. He’s in too much existential pain.
So, the girls escalate one step further with an implicit sexual invitation:
And what do you want for your birthday,
Kevin then answers the model’s question with dialogue that expresses his innermost feelings but in a character-specific way.
I don’t know. It’s a fair question. I’d
like to get off the show, I guess. I
hate those babies. I mean, one of them’s
cool. The other two kind of suck. You
know when you can tell a baby’s gonna
just turn out to be a douche. That’s how
I feel about those two babies. Not the
first one, that one’s okay. I wish that
baby was allowed to work more.
The girls stop dancing for a beat, trying to figure out
what he’s talking about. They give up, resume dancing.
Thirty-six. Wow. I wanted to change the
world. Now, I’m the Man-ny.
You know when it all went bad for me?
Second grade. 1986, they were sending
the Challenger into space, do you
remember The Challenger – don’t answer
that. Christa McAuliffe. She was a
teacher. She was going to be the first
teacher in space. It was a huge deal.
First teacher in space. She was going to
change the world – don’t know how, but
you felt that. At least in second grade,
you felt that. Middle of the day in
school, they bring a TV into class, we’re
all watching the launch. Whole class of
eight-year-olds just watching. Then
BOOM! Thing just explodes. Little
pieces of sweet Christa McAuliffe are
raining all over Florida. Our teacher
shut that TV off like it was on fire, she
literally wheeled it out of the room.
Kids were hysterical. It was awful.
I wonder if that was the moment I decided
that changing the world just leads to you
blowing up into pieces all over Florida.
Maybe that’s how I wound up as the Man-ny.
He shakes his head, snaps out of it.
In this long speech, motivated by pain and fueled by booze, Kevin has just said what he’s thinking. It’s on the nose. But it works really well because it’s not colorless. We’ve never before heard a speech in which a character links their existential crisis to the Challenger disaster. This is something that only Kevin could have said; it is specific to his character because he was a child when the disaster occurred.
A lesser writer might have written the speech as follows: “Thirty-six. Wow. How did I get here? I mean . . . I never thought I’d end up as an objectified sitcom star. My dreams for my life were so much bigger. But at some point, everything just went to hell.”
This hypothetical dialogue too is on the nose, but it’s not the emotional clarity of it that makes it bad; the problem with this dialogue is that it’s generic, colorless, and not specific to this character. It also lacks rhythm.
In other words, there is nothing wrong with being on the nose—with having your character clearly express their innermost feelings. The problem is when you do so in a very lazy, generic way.
If you want to read the rest of this scene and the entire pilot, you can find it here.
Season 2, Episode 8: Number One
In this episode from season 2 of This Is Us, there is another negation conflict scene that involves motivated dialogue that is on the nose but effective.
In this episode, Kevin is in the midst of a breakdown that slowly develops over the course of his visit to his high school, where he is being honored with an award.
The scene in which Kevin finally fully breaks down is when he tries to get his father’s necklace back from the woman he has just slept with.
Kevin is the one with the goal in the scene—get the pendant back—and the woman refuses, both in words and through her actions.
Because of her resistance, Kevin is motivated to escalate, which involves revealing his feelings about why the pendant is important and why he needs it back. So, the dialogue is on the nose, but it works because it is motivated.
You can see the scene below:
Notice just how on the nose the last few lines are: “I’m in pain out here.” It doesn’t get more on the nose than that. But because of the great work that the writer did in slowly building to this moment from the episode’s beginning (and building this scene around a conflict), everything works and feels natural and earned. And, of course, Justin Hartley gives a great performance too.
The writers also use a visual flashback to heighten the emotion and to carry some of the weight, so that dialogue is not doing all of the work.
The ending of the scene, with Kevin all alone in the front yard, works especially well because it literally shows the point that the whole episode has been making: people never truly see or hear Kevin. They see only his success and celebrity and assume his life is perfect. Throughout the episode, people fail to recognize what Kevin says as a cry for help, even though it is. So it’s appropriate that, when he literally cries for help at the end, no one sees him or hears him.
Let me sum up my innermost thoughts on the subject of on-the-nose dialogue in way that is as on the nose as possible: don’t fear on-the-nose dialogue. Fear unmotivated dialogue. Fear generic, colorless dialogue. But, if you can motivate your character’s dialogue and make it character specific, on-the-nose dialogue will produce powerful and revealing moments.
One of the easiest ways to give your character the necessary motivation to reveal their thoughts is to give your character a specific goal and then present them with resistance to realizing their goal.
If you want to read about how a negation conflict can drive a whole movie, check out my post on 5 Story Design Lessons in Saving Mr. Banks.