Is Fear of Being On-The-Nose Affecting Your Script?


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by Naomi Write + Co. in dialogue, screenplay structure, screenwriting

Sometimes the desire to do things “right” in your screenplay causes an over-correction that creates other problems you didn’t expect. But really understanding the objective (what you’re trying to achieve) rather than just following the “rules” will help you figure out how to tell your story effectively and avoid additional issues.

One “rule” that gets talked about a lot is the need to avoid on-the-nose dialogue. We all know being “on the nose” is bad… or is it?

Speaking with a client recently about her screenplay, the topic of using on-the-nose dialogue at a major plot turn came up. Specifically, she was writing around the Break into Act 2 but hadn’t quite hit it on the head. The turn felt soft, and as a result it wasn’t giving the story a strong sense of direction. As we talked further about why she was approaching the script that way, she expressed wanting to avoid being too on-the-nose.

A valid concern, a worthy guideline, but how hard and fast is this “rule”?

A quick mental scan of your favorite movie examples might show that being on-the-nose at the major plot turns isn’t uncommon. Why is that?

In reality, the big story turning points are places it’s okay to be a little more on-the-nose than usual. The audience is looking for direction at those turning points because those points define the shape of the story and guide us through it. At each one, we need a sense of which direction we’re going next.

This applies to each of the big turning points (again, because they’re the points that define the shape of the story), but let’s look at the Break into Act 2 as our case study.

The function of the Break into Act 2

Also known as Plot Point 1 (if you’re a Syd Field fan), the Break into Act 2 is the turning point between Act 1 and Act 2.

It’s often described as the event that locks the protagonist into the story. What does that actually mean, though? In the script, it usually looks like the protagonist forming the story goal, or the protagonist beginning to pursue the story goal in earnest.

This plot point launches the story into Act 2 by solidifying what the protagonist is going to pursue over the course of this story. This gives the audience something to track. It helps us engage with your story, because it allows us to follow the progress toward the goal.

How on-the-nose can you go?

To be clear, not every major plot point should be conveyed in an on-the-nose way. But you also don’t need to over-correct, which might actually end up obscuring the plot point and doing your story a disservice.

If you start paying attention to the Break into Act 2 as it shows up in the movies you watch, you’ll probably notice a spectrum of on-the-nose-ness.

Every story is different, and for every story there are a million different ways it could be executed. How you execute it comes down to what you think the audience needs to see in order for the plot point to have the desired effect.

And what’s the desired effect, again? For the Break into Act 2, it’s to point your audience in the direction that the story’s headed for the Act 2 Adventure. You want the audience to stay in the car, feeling confident that you know where you’re taking us (even if we’re not meant to know yet exactly where we’re going.)

Let’s look at three general areas of the on-the-nose spectrum where your Break into Act 2 might land:

1. It’s declared

At the most on-the-nose end of the spectrum, the Break into Act 2 comes with a declaration. In this style a character (usually the protagonist) announces exactly what they’re going to do in Act 2. They declare the goal and/or the method so we know where the story’s headed next.

One example is the movie My Best Friend’s Wedding. Protagonist Jules is on the way to the airport. at the end of Act 1, and she tells her friend:

I’m a busy girl. I’ve got exactly four days to break up a wedding, steal the bride’s fella… and I haven’t one clue how to do it.

And with that, she’s off to Chicago for the Act 2 Adventure, in which she pursues that goal. We know exactly where the story’s headed in Act 2 because she’s just told us.

Another example is Disney’s Jungle Cruise. At the Break into Act 2 co-protagonist Lily says:

New deal! You want this? Get me to the Tree and it’s yours, understand?! This cruise just became a race!

That’s a declaration of the goal and the method – from here on in, co-protagonists Lily and Frank are a team, working together to try to beat antagonist Von Hoch to the Tree. That’s the direction that the story and the co-protagonists are headed in Act 2.

2. It’s implied

Somewhere in the middle of the on-the-nose spectrum we have the plot turns that aren’t declared outright but are implied. In these, the direction we’re headed for the Act 2 Adventure is still clear and well-defined, but we’re not hearing it explicitly declared.

A classic example is the movie Legally Blonde. After getting dumped at the Inciting Incident, protagonist Elle figures out what she wants to do – go to Harvard and win back her man, Warner. But she doesn’t know yet if that’s possible.

So then we see Elle trying to get her opportunity to do so: she prepares for and aces her LSATs, and she makes an unusual but appealing video essay which goes before the admissions committee. When we hear the head of the committee say, “Elle Woods. Welcome to Harvard,” we know what the Act 2 Adventure is going to be. Elle want to go to Harvard to embark on her plan and now she has her chance. We can expect to see her go forth and do that in Act 2.

3. It’s a ghost – invisible, but its presence is felt

This type is the least on-the-nose of all. I like to call them “ghost note” examples in reference to the musical term. (Bear with me here.)

I’m not a musician (despite five years of childhood piano lessons), but here’s how the term “ghost note” was explained to me:

A ghost note (also called a “dead note”) is “a note which is only percussive, not melodic. You can play one by muting a string on a guitar for example, and then plucking that string.”

Wikipedia describes it as: “In music, a ghost note is a musical note with a rhythmic value, but no discernible pitch when played.”

As it relates to our on-the-nose story turns discussion, in some movies the turn is not at all on-the-nose. It’s on the opposite end of the spectrum – invisible, there but not there. Conveyed between the scenes, or by the juxtaposition of them. In this type, the “Break into Act 2” note isn’t played at all – it’s a ghost note that we know is there from the rhythm of the story.

Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels is the example that first illuminated this type for me. A Quiet Place comes to mind as another example.

In Lock Stock, protagonist Eddie has entered a high-stakes poker game run by mobster Hatchet Harry. Eddie intends to win a big payout for himself and his friends, who have pooled their money for his entry. What he doesn’t know is that the fix is in; Harry is cheating in order to indebt Eddie to him so Harry can have his own payout. The Act 2 Adventure is Eddie trying to escape Harry’s clutches in one way or another.

The turn from Act 1 to Act 2 is a ghost note in this movie. In one scene Eddie’s winning a hand while, unbeknownst to him, Harry is setting him up. In their next scene the game continues, Harry’s plan is in effect, and Eddie’s downfall begins. He’s in Harry’s trap, he just doesn’t know it yet (though we do). The turn from one act to the next happens between those scenes. Much like a ghost note, we know the turn is there but it doesn’t appear onscreen.

How on-the-nose should you go?

So the Break into Act 2 (or other major plot point) is a place where you can be a little more on-the-nose, but you don’t have to be.

If your character isn’t going to make a declaration that marks the beginning of Act 2, how do you create a clear sense of where we’re headed? Then it’s all about context. Giving us the pieces to put together ourselves. Like in the Legally Blonde example, we know what Elle wants, we see her get the opportunity, and so we anticipate where the story will go.

But how do you know where on the on-the-nose spectrum to aim? There isn’t one “right” answer, of course, but thinking about what you’re trying to accomplish can give you some guidance. Remember, you’re trying to communicate to the audience a sense of direction. You’re giving them something to track, so they can follow it into and through Act 2.

In order to do that effectively, consider:

  • Who is the audience for your movie? For example, if you’re writing for families or young kids, you may need to be a bit more obvious or direct.
  • What is the genre and tone of your movie? Sometimes a declaration can be used for comedic, horror, or other effect (especially when juxtaposed with certain other elements). Or the tone of your movie might be such that you want to leave more open to the audience’s interpretation.
  • How complicated is the plot? If it’s pretty simple, you might not need much declaration or explanation of what the protagonist is about to do. If it’s complex, then the Break into Act 2 is a good place to clarify what the character needs to do, what he’s up against, why he’s doing it, etc.

As with so many of the choices you’ll need to make in your screenplay, there isn’t one way that you must do things. None of these styles of executing the Break into Act 2 is better or worse than the others. What’s important is achieving the purpose of the Break into Act 2 and creating the desired effect on your audience.


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.