Dialogue, The Art of Verbal Action for the Page, Stage, and Screen
by Robert McKee
Book Review and Commentary July 26, 2017
The art of dialogue. How does a writer get it just right to be effective, yet original, dramatic but not too dramatic, captivating and satisfying, and most important of all convincing? Nothing marks a writer faster as a rank amateur than a story full of bad dialogue. Robert McKee is probably the No. 1 expert on the craft of storytelling (Story, Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting, 1997, and even though Story is written for screenwriters, those of us who are novelists will benefit greatly from this comprehensive manual of wisdom. No one has a better understanding of story process and design than McKee.)
In Dialogue, yes, there’s plenty of instruction and guidance about how to write great dialogue (also examples of bad dialogue), but this book is also an inspiration about characterization and story. The real thrust of this book is how McKee spends time on characterizations and the art of the subtext—vital to thrilling and effective dialogue. There are plenty of blogs and books out there on tips for writing subtext (many of them are vague and useless advice), but McKee explains how subtext works, the thinking behind it, shows you its most effective moments, why it works well or poorly, and gives you the tools to make it work. The result: amazingly clear insight. No kidding, if you want to fully understand subtext and sharpen your skills, this is the writing book to get.
What is the unsaid in a conversation? What is the unsayable? This is the inner self of the character not speaking, yet revealing truths—what a delicate skill to master, right? This is truly an art and it will take study and practice. One has to understand the transparencies of human nature. Honestly, I’ve had a time getting subtext to work naturally in some of my scenes. In my novel Greylock, the main character Alexei gave me no problems, but his wife Carole Anne (a manipulative controlling dancer) made me want to slap my computer screen to figure what her underside was all about. After much struggle to identify it, it turned out she liked tempting danger and ended up being murdered.
I’ve learned that subtext is not something you can just add in like a cake recipe needing more sugar. It happens more subliminally. It happens when you’ve developed your character deeply and you, the writer, are living at the core of that character’s thinking and feeling, protecting, confessing, even mocking. McKee advocates less writing on the nose and more subtext. (Don’t know what writing on the nose is? Page 117 explains it.)
All the writing standards are fleshed out in the chapters: the inciting incident, story values, protagonist desires, motivation, forces of antagonism, action and turning points. Here’s the best part of this book. Examples of dialogue and the conflicts and the characters’ interior issues. Asymmetric conflict is illustrated from Breaking Bad. Indirect conflict through The Great Gatsby. Balanced conflict, The Sopranos. Minimal conflict, Lost in Translation. Nothing works better for me than reading an example of dialogue and then rereading the dialogue with the breakdown analysis mapping the action/reaction/subtext.
Conflict in dialogue. Turning points. Do your scenes have it? Maybe you need to know more about better sentence design techniques. McKee describes the “suspense sentence” and the “periodic sentence.” Because prose is a natural medium for storytelling, you will learn how Charles Dickens used counter pointing exposition and its effectiveness for the reader. I hadn’t seen this kind of hook in writing before, hadn’t heard this term before. Very powerful technique; of course none of us writes like Dickens, but what an example on how to swoop the reader in.
Creative writing, well, this book would be incomplete without exploring that. If you are confused about story talent vs. literary talent, here’s where you’ll discover how those creative juices flow. I like how McKee respects the creative process as a zigzag trial-and-error draft after draft after draft. Voice? Not something you can just add into the mix. McKee says “Voice is not a choice; it’s a result.” Evolution going on here so be patient.
What’s the most profound takeaway in Dialogue by Robert McKee? He emphasizes that quality storytelling inspires quality dialogue. Work from the inside out, from the story, from the bottom up. This is— and this won’t surprise many of you—working from deep within the character. Write in-character. I found this last chapter to be so precise in the analysis, I read it twice to be sure to get it all. Because some of this belongs in the realm of the unexplainable.
So, here it is. McKee’s secret to thrilling dialogue and spell-binding storytelling: Ask yourself, where do you find your characters? Where do you go to meet them and listen to them speak in their own unique way?
Ahhh, you thought I was going to tell you the secret of where to find your characters? On page 91, McKee makes a winning case for … silence … and how it invites you inside.
Robert McKee is a Fulbright Scholar. He has mentored screenwriters and novelists, playwrights and poets. McKee’s alumni include over 60 Academy Award winners, 200 Academy Award nominees, 200 Emmy Award winners, 1000 Emmy Award nominees, 100 Writers Guild of America Award winners.
“Anxious writers obey rules; Rebellious writers break rules; Artists master the form.” Robert McKee.
I highly recommend Dialogue, The Art of Verbal Action for the Page, Stage, and Screen. Here is a review by Steven Pressfield, author of The Legend of Bagger Vance, The War of Art, and Gates of Fire.
“McKee’s Dialogue is a mother lode of insight and inspiration for any writer.
His teachings have changed my career and changed my life. Robert McKee is in a category of one.”
Come meet Robert McKee in this short 3-minute video.
How Do We Live a Better Story in Our Lives?
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My Recommended List of the Best Writing Books I’ve Read.
The Annotated Dracula (Bram Stoker), Annotated by Mort Castle (book review here)
(Also The Annotated Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte) Annotated by K.M. Weiland)
How to Write Like Chekhov, Advice and Inspiration, Editor Piero Brunello and Lena Lencek (book review here)
Steering the Craft, A 21st-Century Guide to Sailing
the Sea of Story, Ursula K. Le Guin (book review here)
Writing Wild, Tina Welling (book review here)
Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg (book review here)
Method Writing, Jack Grapes (book review here)
Zen in the Art of Writing, Ray Bradbury (book review here)
On Writing, A Memoir, Stephen King (book review here)
Writing Fiction, A Guide to Narrative Craft, by Janet Burroway. All the basics of how to write: the writing process, show vs. tell, characterization, fictional atmosphere and place, story structure and plot, point of view, theme, and revision.
Story, Robert McKee
Story Trumps Structure, Steven James
The Fire in Fiction, Donald Maass
The Art of Fiction, John Gardner (I reread this book once a year, it’s that good)
Making Shapely Fiction, Jerome Stern
The Art of Character, David Corbett
Getting into Character, Brandilyn Collins
The Secret Miracle, the Novelist’s Handbook, edited by Daniel Alarcon
Becoming a Writer, Dorothea Brande
The Faith of a Writer, Life, Craft, Art, Joyce Carole Oates
If You Want to Write, Brenda Ueland
Reading like a Writer, Francine Prose
Elements of Style, Strunk & White
Best Editing Books for Writers:
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Renni Browne & Dave King
A Dash of Style, Noah Lukeman
The Grammar Bible, Michael Strumpf & Auriel Douglas
Line by Line, Claire Kehrwald Cook
The Careful Writer, Theodore M. Bernstein
Fowler’s Modern English Usage, Second Edition, Ernest Gowers
Chicago Manual of Style
Words Into Type, Third Edition, Skillin & Gay
NEXT WRITING CRAFT BOOK ON MY LIST TO REVIEW IS
Creating Characters, from the editors of Writer’s Digest.