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How to Revise On-The-Nose Dialogue

A Case Study

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Do you feel totally confused about how to actually write better dialogue?

We’ve talked a lot about dialogue over the past few weeks, but you’re probably still looking for those practical, actionable processes and tips. I get it – you want to know what to do right now.

So today let’s try to address that with a look at how you might go from a scene written in a very on-the-nose way (perhaps your first pass on a scene), to a revised version with more subtext and interest.

And, while writing and rewriting a scene isn’t necessarily a linear process, thinking about it in separate, more concrete steps can make the job more manageable. That’s what today’s case study aims to illustrate: breaking the big, somewhat vague target of writing “good dialogue” into smaller targets that are easier to understand and accomplish.

What do we mean by subtext in dialogue?

Subtext is the unspoken, hidden, or concealed meaning of dialogue. Another way to think of it is: a line of dialogue is an interesting delivery for a sentiment that is other than or more than the words themselves.

Dialogue is described as “on the nose” when a character says exactly what he means, without any subtext.

In Version 1 of our example scene you’ll see very on-the-nose dialogue. (Click on the image below to download the full 3 pages.) As you read, notice how the characters say what’s on their minds, there’s no hiding their true thoughts or feelings.

The on-the-nose example:

You might also notice that even though there is conflict in the scene, the scene still feels pretty boring and flat. Everything is right there on the surface. We’re told exactly what’s going on within characters, between the characters, and in the story. And yes – we always want clarity in a script. But without subtext there’s less drama and tension.

If we were going to rewrite this scene, what would we want to change?

Next you’ll see the same scene, Version 2, which addresses each of these points.

The revised example:

As you may have already guessed, this version is the actual scene from the screenplay – a project called Blonde, written by Andrew Dominik and based on the novel by Joyce Carol Oates. (I reverse-engineered the on-the-nose version for this exercise.)

This version is way better, right? Way better.

How does this version avoid on-the-nose dialogue?

Well, we can see some of the things we talked about last week in action:

  • The writer knows the characters well (it’s also based on a novel, so there’s a lot of source material to draw on). He knows their fears, their desires. What they want, what motivates them, what’s at stake, all of which informs the dialogue.
  • The scene utilizes the tension between these two characters. Norma Jeane has always wanted her mother’s love and has never gotten it, but she can’t ask for it directly because the emotional stakes are too high.
  • What are some of the reasons Norma Jeane won’t come out and say exactly what’s on her mind? Fear of further rejection, not wanting to appear desperate to her mother or to bystanders, and keeping some pretty terrible Hollywood-related experiences a secret, to name a few.
  • When she hides the truth, Norma Jeane draws on her defining characteristics (which the writer also has a handle on). She approaches the world with wide-eyed wonder and a desperate desire for approval. Many of her lines of dialogue showcase those traits. We also see a slight stutter, which might seem like a small thing but it’s a detail that makes her dialogue distinctive.

In the revised version, subtext shows up in each of the three common ways:

  • When a character conceals what she means, thinks, or feels
  • When a character subconsciously embeds some truth in her dialogue
  • And when a character conveys meaning through silence

Here’s a bonus exercise for you: compare the scene versions side by side and identify where each of these three things occurs.

What about the scene subtext?

Remember, we also talked about the difference between the subtext in individual lines of dialogue and the scene’s overall subtext.

This screenplay tells a story about Norma Jeane trying to figure out who she needs to be in order to get the love she so desperately wants. She was made to feel unwanted, blamed by her mother for her father abandoning them. In this screenplay, it’s portrayed as a void she tries endlessly to fill with the attention of men.

So that’s what the entire movie is about: who do you make yourself into, in order to be loved. What Norma Jeane learns is that if you’re constantly becoming someone else then you never give the real you a chance to receive the love one needs to survive.

And this scene, as all scenes should, relates to the story’s theme. The subtext of a scene is a piece of the thematic big picture. This scene also turns the plot, as after this encounter Norma Jeane begins her journey in earnest to become the Marilyn Monroe we all recognize.

It’s not a linear process, but it is one you can use

To be clear, I didn’t write this scene and I have no idea what process the writer used to put it together. This exercise is only meant to demonstrate how you might revise an on-the-nose dialogue version of a scene and turn it into something better. The scene becomes more interesting and entertaining thanks to dialogue layered with subtext and characterization.

As always, I encourage you to try these exercises yourself.

Getting a feel for subtext:

  • Take a scene in your script, or in a script you’re reading. For each line of dialogue, ask what the character is hiding, or what they are subconsciously or unintentionally revealing.

Revising on-the-nose and boring dialogue in your own scenes:

  • Look at each character’s dialogue separately. How might that specific character hide what they don’t want to reveal? What might they reveal unintentionally? How can you imbue their dialogue with their defining characteristics? What other mannerisms or style tricks might you add to create interest in the dialogue?

Remember, you can make the big job of writing good dialogue more manageable by creating separate steps, such as writing the on-the-nose version, revising to layer character-specific dialogue over what should be subtext, and finessing the delivery to further bring out each character’s distinct traits. And you don’t have to follow this exact process! Get familiar with all that dialogue can accomplish and then find a way to tackle those layers that works for you.

WRITE SCREENPLAYS THAT GET NOTICED AND OPEN DOORS

Start with my 3-part email series: "The 3 Essential, Fundamental, Don't-Mess-These-Up Screenwriting Rules." After that, you'll get a weekly dose of pro screenwriting tips and industry insights that'll help you get an edge over the competition.

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