The expression comes from hitting something “on the nose,” or getting it exactly right. When referring to dialogue, it generally means that a character says exactly what they’re thinking. My definition of on-the-nose dialogue is broader and includes when characters say exactly what the writer needs them to say for the sake of an audience. The problem with on-the-nose dialogue is threefold: it’s unbelievable, boring, and pulls the audience out of your story.
Let’s look at some types of on-the-nose dialogue and how to avoid them.
The first type is when characters say exactly what’s on their minds. Imagine an older married couple staring at the negative result on a home pregnancy test, and the husband asks the wife, “How do you feel?” And she replies, “Well, I guess I’m mostly relieved, but it’s kind of bittersweet too because while our lives won’t be completely upended, I’m a little sad not to have another baby since our children are all grown up.” Do real people talk like that? Was her speech interesting? Did it make you engage at all as a reader? Most of the time, people don’t say exactly what they mean. Look for the subtext, or the indirect meaning, in a scene. Can characters express themselves by what they don’t say or by something they do instead? Suggesting by showing rather than telling is more believable and makes the audience invest in figuring out the characters.
Another type of on-the-nose dialogue results from the dreaded data dump, or exposition that the audience needs. Too often, writers have characters tell each other things they already know just for the sake of the audience. For example, two crime scene technicians already know how luminol works; it’s unbelievable that one would explain to the other the science behind it. And at Thanksgiving dinner, the relatives already know that Uncle Bill is a serial cheater who always marries the other woman; no one would likely announce to the others that he’s on his third, fourth, or fifth wife. A character might, however, crack a joke based on that unsaid, shared knowledge. To avoid a data dump of expository dialogue, find another source for the information.
On-the-nose dialogue also can result when the writer uses a character to restate the story’s theme. The fix? Just don’t. Don’t do it. If you’ve crafted a sound story with believable characters, your audience already gets your theme; you don’t need dialogue to hammer it home. Instead, if you want to echo the theme, look for an image, action, sound, or music that can do the same thing. You’re showing rather than telling, and since it’s more subtle, the audience will work harder and delight in their discovery.
What if you’re stuck and don’t know how else to get the needed information down on the page? That’s what first drafts are for. It’s okay to write on-the-nose dialogue at first to make sure the scene is complete. Just make sure to go back with your editor’s red pen and revise, looking for places to use subtext, other sources for exposition, and different ways to make your theme resonate.