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The Art of Verbal Action for Page, Stage, and Screen
By Robert Mckee
Read by Robert Mckee
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Robert McKee’s popular writing workshops have earned him an international reputation. The list of alumni with Oscars runs off the page. The cornerstone of his program is his singular book, Story, which has defined how we talk about the art of story creation.
Now, in Dialogue, McKee offers the same in-depth analysis for how characters speak on the screen, on the stage, and on the page in believable and engaging ways. From Macbeth to Breaking Bad, McKee deconstructs key scenes to illustrate the strategies and techniques of dialogue. Dialogue applies a framework of incisive thinking to instruct the prospective writer on how to craft artful, impactful speech. Famous McKee alumni include Peter Jackson, Jane Campion, Geoffrey Rush, Paul Haggis, the writing team for Pixar, and many others.
Table of Contents
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PREFACE: IN PRAISE OF DIALOGUE
Talk, more than any other trait, expresses our humanity. We whisper to lovers, curse enemies, argue with plumbers, praise the dog, swear on our mother's grave. Human relationships are in essence long, long talks into, around, through, and out of the entanglements that stress or bless our days. Face-to-face talk between family and friends may go on for decades, while self-to-self talk never ends: A guilt-ridden conscience scolds unconscionable desires, ignorance ridicules wisdom, hope consoles despair, impulse mocks caution, and wit laughs at it all as the inner voices of our best and worst selves argue to our last breath.
Over decades, this downpour of talk can drain words of their meaning, and when meaning erodes, our days shallow out. But what time dilutes, story condenses.
Authors concentrate meaning by first eliminating the banalities, minutia, and repetitious chatter of daily life. They then build their tellings to a crisis of complex, conflicting desires. Under pressure, words fill with connotation and nuance. What a character says in the face of conflict radiates the meanings hidden beneath her words. Expressive dialogue becomes a translucency through which readers and audiences perceive thoughts and feelings shadowed in the silence behind a character's eyes.
Fine writing turns audiences and readers into virtual psychics. Dramatized dialogue has the power to unite two unspoken realms: the inner life of a character and the inner life of the reader/audience. Like radio transmitters, one subconscious tunes to another as our instincts sense the churnings within characters. As Kenneth Burke put it, stories equip us to live in the world, in intimacy with others, and, most importantly, in intimacy with ourselves.
Authors give us this power through a series of steps: First, they create those metaphors for human nature we call characters. Next, they dig into the characters' psychologies to unearth conscious wishes and subconscious desires, those longings that impel inner and outer selves. With this insight in hand, writers clash the characters' most compelling desires into flashpoints of conflict. Scene after scene, they interlace their characters' actions and reactions around turning points of change. In a last step, authors let their characters speak, but not in the repetitious monotones of the everyday, rather in the demi-poetry known as dialogue. Like an alchemist, a writer mixes and molds concoctions of character, conflict, and change, and then gilds them with dialogue, transforming the base metal of existence into the burnished gold of story.
Once spoken, dialogue carries us on waves of sensation and substance that reverberate through the said to the unsaid and the unsayable. The said are those ideas and emotions a character chooses to express to others; the unsaid are those thoughts and feelings a character expresses in an inner voice but only to himself; the unsayable are those subconscious urges and desires a character cannot express in words, even to himself, because they are mute and beyond awareness.
No matter how lavish a play's production, how vivid a novel's descriptions, how lush a film's photography, character talk shapes the deepest complexities, ironies, and innerness of story. Without expressive dialogue, events lack depth, characters lose dimension, and story flattens. More than any other technique of characterization (gender, age, dress, class, casting), dialogue has the power to pull a story up through life's multilayered strata, thus lifting a merely complicated telling into the full array of complexity.
Do you, like me, memorize favorite lines? I think we learn dialogue passages by heart because reciting them again and again not only re-inspires the vivid word-pictures they paint, but in the echoes of the character's thoughts we hear our own:
Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.
—Macbeth in The Tragedy of Macbeth
Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world she walks into mine.
—Rick in CASABLANCA
Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell's heart I stab at thee; for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee.
—Ahab in Moby Dick
Not that there's anything wrong with that.
—Jerry in SEINFELD
Like these four characters, each of us has suffered the scald of irony, that flash of insight into what the world has done to us, or worst yet, what we have done to ourselves, that double-edged moment when life's joke is on us and we don't know whether to grin or groan. But without writers to marinate these ironies in words, how could we savor their delicious distaste? Without the mnemonics of dialogue, how could we hold these paradoxes in memory?
I love the art of dialogue in all its variety. Moved by that amity, I have written Dialogue: The Art of Verbal Action on Page, Stage, Screen to explore the crowning act of story-making: giving voice to your characters.
Part One: The Art of Dialogue radically expands the definition of dialogue and multiplies its usage. Chapters Two through Five look at the functions, contents, forms, and techniques of character talk across the four major storytelling media.
Part Two: Flaws and Fixes pinpoints maladies from incredibility and clichés to writing on-the-nose and repetitiousness, seeks their causes, then prescribes cures. To illustrate the varied techniques of crafting dialogue, I cite examples from novels, plays, films, and television.
Part Three: Creating Dialogue examines the writer's final step—finding the words that create the text. When we say an author has an "ear for dialogue," we mean he writes character-specific talk. Each of his characters speaks with a syntax, rhythm, tonality, and, most importantly, word choices that no one but that character would use. Ideally, every character is a walking dictionary of his or her unique collection of words. Dialogue originality, therefore, begins with vocabulary.
To illustrate the power of character-specific dialogue, we will look at scenes from Shakespeare's play The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, Elmore Leonard's novel Out of Sight, Tina Fey's television series 30 ROCK, and Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor's film SIDEWAYS.
Part Four: Dialogue Design opens with a study of the components of story and scene design. Chapter Twelve shows how these forms determine what characters say. Six case studies follow using scenes of balanced conflict from the cable series THE SOPRANOS, comic conflict from the network series FRASIER, asymmetric conflict from the play A Raisin in the Sun, indirect conflict from the novel The Great Gatsby, reflexive conflict from the novels Fräulein Else and The Museum of Innocence, and implied conflict from the film LOST IN TRANSLATION.
In these scansions, we look at the two primary principles of effective dialogue: First, each exchange of dialogue creates an action/reaction that progresses the scene. Second, although these actions find expression in the outer behavior of talk, the wellspring of character action flows invisibly from the subtext.
Like a GPS for writers, Dialogue: The Art of Verbal Action offers guidance to the aspirant and redirection to the perplexed. If you recently ventured into this art and find yourself backed into a creative cul-de-sac, Dialogue will put you on the path to excellence; if you write for a living but have lost your bearings, this book will guide you home.
THE ART OF DIALOGUE
THE FULL DEFINITION OF DIALOGUE
Dialogue: Any words said by any character to anyone.
Tradition defines dialogue as talk between characters. I believe, however, that an all-encompassing, in-depth study of dialogue begins by stepping back to the widest possible view of storytelling. From that angle, the first thing I notice is that character talk runs along three distinctly different tracks: said to others, said to oneself, and said to the reader or audience.
I place these three modes of talk under the term "dialogue" for two reasons: First, no matter when, where, and to whom a character speaks, the writer must personalize the role with a unique, character-specific voice worded in the text. Second, whether mental or vocal, whether thought inside the mind or said out into the world, all speech is an outward execution of an inner action. All talk responds to a need, engages a purpose, and performs an action. No matter how seemingly vague and airy a speech may be, no character ever talks to anyone, even to himself, for no reason, to do nothing. Therefore, beneath every line of character talk, the writer must create a desire, intent, and action. That action then becomes the verbal tactic we call dialogue.
Let's survey the three tracks of dialogue:
One, talk to others. The accurate term for two-way talk is duologue. Three characters in conversation would generate a trialogue. A family of a dozen souls gathered for Thanksgiving Day dinner might be called a multilogue, if such a term existed.
Two, talk within oneself. Screenwriters seldom ask characters to talk to themselves; playwrights, on the other hand, often do. As for prose writers, mental talk is the stuff and substance of their art. Prose has the power to invade a character's mind and project inner conflict across the landscape of thought. Whenever an author tells his story in a first-person or second-person voice, that voice belongs to a character. Prose, therefore, often fills with reflexive, self-to-self dialogue that the reader, as it were, overhears.
Three, talk to readers and audiences. In the theatre, the conventions of soliloquy and aside allow characters to turn directly to the audience and talk in confidence. In television and film, this convention usually puts the character offscreen to talk voice-over, but occasionally calls for the character to turn to the camera in direct address. In prose, this is the essence of first-person prose—the character tells his tale to the reader.
The etymology of the word "dialogue" traces back to two Greek terms: dia-, meaning "through," and legein, referring to "speech." These two terms translated directly into English become the compound noun "through-speech"—an action taken through words as opposed to deeds. Every line a character speaks, whether spoken aloud to others or silently in the mind, is, in J. L. Austin's term, a performative: words that perform a task.1
To say something is to do something, and for that reason, I have expanded my redefinition of dialogue to name any and all words said by a character to herself, to others, or to the reader/audience as an action taken to satisfy a need or desire. In all three cases, when a character speaks, she acts verbally as opposed to physically, and each of her through-speech actions moves the scene she's in from one beat to the next, while at the same time, it dynamically propels her closer to (positive) or further from (negative) the satisfaction of her core desire. Dialogue-as-action is the foundation principle of this book.
Dialogue carries out its actions in one of two ways: dramatized or narratized.
Dramatized means acted out in scenes. Whether the tone is comic or tragic, dramatized dialogue sends lines back and forth between characters in conflict. Each line contains an action with a specific intention and causes a reaction somewhere within the scene.
This is true even in one-character scenes. When someone says, "I'm mad at myself," who is mad at whom? Just as you see your image in a mirror, you can see yourself in your imagination. To argue within yourself, your mind creates a second self and talks to it as if it were another person. A character's inner dialogue becomes a dynamically dramatized scene between two conflicted selves of the same person, one of which may or may not win the argument. Therefore, strictly defined, all monologues are in fact dialogues. Whenever a character talks, she is always talking to someone, even if it's her other side.
Narratized means spoken outside the scene. In these cases, the so-called fourth wall of realism vanishes, and a character steps out of the story's dramatizations. Once again, strictly speaking, narratized speeches are not monologues but dialogues in which the character takes vocal action to talk directly to the reader, audience, or self.
In terms of desire, a first-person narrator in prose or a character narrating from the stage or screen may simply want to bring the reader/audience up to date on past events and arouse their curiosity about future events. She may use narratized dialogue to act out this straightforward ambition and no more.
In more complex situations, however, she might, for example, use words to arm-twist the reader/audience into forgiving her past misdeeds while prejudicing them to see her enemies from her biased point of view. From story to story, the possible desires that might move a character to action and the tactics she uses while talking to the reader/audience seem unlimited.
The same applies to a character who turns inside her mind to talk to herself. She may be pursuing any purpose: rerunning a memory for pleasure, puzzling out whether or not she can trust her lover's love, building her hopes by fantasizing about life to come, and so on, as her thoughts roam the past, present, and possible futures, real and imagined.
To demonstrate how the same content could be expressed in the three different modes of dialogue, I'll work with a passage from the novel Doctor Glas, written in 1905 by the Swedish author Hjalmar Söderberg.
The book takes the form of a diary kept by the eponymous protagonist. A real-life diary records the closet conversations of a diarist talking to himself; a fictional diary, therefore, must be written so the reader feels that he somehow overhears these secret inner dialogues.
In Söderberg's novel, Dr. Glas wants to save one of his patients (a woman he secretly loves) from her sexually abusive husband. Day after day his mind wages moral arguments for and against killing the man; in nightmare after nightmare he commits the murder. (Later in the book he in fact poisons the husband.) In an entry dated August 7, a nightmare wakes him in a cold sweat. Listen in on his rambling narratized dialogue as Glas tries to convince himself that his horrid dream is not a prophecy:
"Dreams run like streams." Hoary proverbial wisdom, I know you well. And in reality most of what one dreams is not worth a second thought—loose fragments of experience, often the silliest and most indifferent fragments of those things consciousness has judged unworthy of preservation but which, even so, go on living a shadow life of their own in the attics and box-rooms of the mind. But there are other dreams. As a lad I remember sitting a whole afternoon pondering a geometrical problem, and in the end having to go to bed with it still unresolved: asleep, my brain went on working of its own accord and a dream gave me the solution. And it was correct. Dreams there are, too, like bubbles from the depths. And now I come to think of it more clearly—many a time has a dream taught me something about myself, often revealed to me wishes I did not wish to wish, desires of which I did not wish to take daylight cognizance. These wishes, these dreams, I've afterward weighed and tested in bright sunlight. But rarely have they stood up to daylight, and more often than not I've flung them back into the foul depths where they belong. In the night they might assail me anew, but I recognized them and, even in dreams, laughed them to scorn, until they relinquished all claim to arise and live in reality and the light of day.2
In the first line, Glas speaks to a proverb floating in his mind as if the idea had a mind of its own. Then he turns to argue with his silent, dark immoral side, a self that roils with murderous desire. By the last sentence, Glas thinks his better self has won the argument… at least for the moment. Notice how the sentences roll out in the lengthy, cumulative shapes of rumination.
Now suppose Söderberg had written this passage as narratized dialogue said by Dr. Glas directly to the reader. To write in a voice Glas might use when talking to another person, Söderberg might give Glas that authoritative voice that doctors often use when prescribing to a patient. The sentences might shorten and turn into imperatives. Do's, don'ts, and buts might be added to give ideas a sharp twist:
"Dreams run like streams." A proverb I know you've heard. Don't believe it. Most of what we dream isn't worth a second thought. These fragments of experience are the silly, indifferent things our consciousness judges unworthy. Even so, in the attic of your mind they go on living a shadow life. That's unhealthy. But some dreams are useful. When I was a boy, I sat a whole afternoon pondering a geometrical problem. I went to bed with it unresolved. But in sleep, my brain went on working and a dream gave me the solution. Then there are dangerous dreams that rise like bubbles from the depths. If you dare think about them, they seem to teach you something about yourself—a wish you didn't think you wished, a desire you didn't dare say out loud. Don't believe them. When weighed and tested, these dreams do not stand up to bright daylight. So do what a healthy person would do. Fling them back into the foul depths where they belong. If at night they assail you anew, laugh at them until they relinquish all claim on your reality.
As a third choice, Söderberg, who also wrote plays, may have chosen to dramatize these ideas onstage. He could have split the doctor into two characters: Glas and Markel. In the novel, the journalist Markel is Glas's best friend. In a play, Markel might personify the morally righteous side of Glas, while Glas could play the tormented side that's tempted toward murder.
In the subtext of the scene below, Glas seeks Markel's help to cure his troubling dreams. Sensing this, Markel makes positive moral statements in answer to the doctor's questions. The text retains the novel's imagery (the theatre in fact encourages figurative language), but it changes line design from cumulative to periodic to aid the actors' cueing. (See Chapter Five for studies in line design.)
Glas and Markel sit in a café. As dusk turns to night, they sip after-dinner brandies.
GLAS: Do you know the proverb "Dreams run like streams"?
MARKEL: Yes, my grandmother always said that, but in reality, most dreams are just fragments of the day, not worth keeping.
GLAS: Worthless as they are, they live shadow lives in the attic of the mind.
MARKEL: In your mind, Doctor, not mine.
GLAS: But don't you think dreams give us insights?
MARKEL: At times. When I was a lad, I spent a whole afternoon pondering a geometrical problem and went to bed with it unsolved. But my brain went on working and a dream gave me a solution. Next morning I checked and damned if it wasn't correct.
GLAS: No, I mean something hidden, insights into oneself, bubbles of truth from the depths, those dark desires one wouldn't dare admit over breakfast.
MARKEL: If I ever had such, and I'm not saying I ever have, I'd fling them back into the foul depths where they belong.
GLAS: And what if these desires came back, night after night?
MARKEL: Then I'd dream a dream of ridicule and laugh them out of my thoughts.
These three versions contain the same essential content, but when what's said changes direction from told to self, to told to the reader, to told to another character, language radically changes shape, diction, tonality, and texture. The three fundamental dialogue modes require three sharply contrasted writing styles.
DIALOGUE AND THE MAJOR MEDIA
All dialogue, dramatized and narratized, performs in the grand symphony of story, but from stage to screen to page, its instruments and arrangements vary considerably. For that reason, a writer's choice of medium greatly influences the composition of dialogue—its quantities and qualities.
The theatre, for example, is primarily an auditory medium. It prompts audience members to listen more intently than they watch. As a result, the stage favors voice over image.
Cinema reverses that. Film is primarily a visual medium. It prompts the audience to watch more intently than it listens. For that reason, screenplays favor image over voice.
The aesthetics of television float between the theatre and cinema. Teleplays tend to balance voice and image, inviting us to look and listen more or less equally.
Prose is a mental medium. Whereas stories performed onstage and onscreen strike the audience's ears and eyes directly, literature takes an indirect path through the reader's mind. The reader must first interpret the language, then imagine the sights and sounds it describes (every reader's imaginings are her own), and, finally, allow herself to react to what she envisions. What's more, because literary characters are actorless, their author is free to use as much or as little dialogue, as dramatized or narratized, as he sees fit.
So let's look at how a story's medium shapes its dialogue.
The scene is the basic unit of story structure in all four major story media. In the theatre, the majority of talk plays out as dramatized dialogue, performed by characters in scenes with other characters.
The one-character play is no exception. When a lone character paces the stage, he creates scenes of inner dramatized dialogue by splitting himself in two, as it were, and pitting his warring selves against each other. If the character sits back to air his thoughts, these memories, fantasies, and philosophies play best as inner actions, motivated by a desire and taken with a purpose. No matter how passive and aimless such musings may seem on the surface, they are in fact dramatized dialogue, said within a scene by a conflicted character struggling within himself to understand himself or forget the past or sell himself on a lie—or any other inner action a playwright might invent. Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape stands as a brilliant example of dramatized dialogue in the one-character play.
In keeping with the theatre's ancient conventions, a playwright may employ narratized dialogue by stepping his character out of the flux of scenes and turning him to the audience to speak in soliloquy, or if very brief, in an aside.3 What's revealed is often a confession, a secret, or a revelation of what a character genuinely thinks, feels, or wants to do but could never say aloud to another character. For example, the painful contritions of Tom Wingfield in Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie.
In one-person performances like The Year of Magical Thinking, Mark Twain Tonight, and I Am My Own Wife, the soliloquy becomes an entire play. These works often stage adaptations of biographies or autobiographies, and so the actor plays a well-known contemporary (Joan Didion) or a personage from the past (Mark Twain). In the course of the evening, the actor may use all three forms of character talk. For the most part, however, he will confess his story to the audience in narratized dialogue. Now and then, he might impersonate other characters and act out scenes from the past in dramatized dialogue.
Modern stand-up comedy came of age when comics moved from joke telling to narratized dialogue. A stand-up comedian must either invent a character to play (Stephen Colbert) or perform a selected, characterized version of himself (Louis C.K.) for this reason: No one can step onstage as the exact same self that got out of bed that morning. It takes a persona to perform.
Onstage, the line between dramatized and narratized dialogue can shift, depending on the actor's interpretation. When Hamlet, for example, questions his continued existence, does he aim the phrase "To be or not to be" at the audience or at himself? It's the actor's choice.
On those occasions when a play's story encompasses a large cast over decades of time, a playwright may stand a narrator at the side of the stage. These non-characters perform any number of tasks: They relate historical exposition, introduce characters, or counterpoint the action with ideas or interpretations that could not be directly dramatized in scenes.
Examples: In Donald Hall's An Evening's Frost (an enactment of the life of poet Robert Frost) and Erwin Piscator's epic theatre adaptation of Tolstoy's War and Peace, onstage narrators bring a godlike knowledge of history and personae to the audience, but they have no personal desires. They stand above the drama, facilitating the storytelling. By contrast, in Our Town, playwright Thornton Wilder's narrator, known as the Stage Manager, mixes functions. He narrates exposition, guides the audience's attitudes, but from time to time, he steps into dramatized scenes to play some small parts.
Like the theatre, the majority of onscreen talk is dramatized dialogue, spoken in-character on-camera in live action or voiced off-camera in animation.
Screen characters narratize dialogue in one of two modes: either off-camera voice-over over the images, or direct to camera in cinematic soliloquy.
- "Writing dialogue is a challenging art. McKee's book DIALOGUE is a great tool for writers."—John Lasseter, chief creative officer, Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios
- "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."—Steven Pressfield, bestselling author of The Legend of Baggar Vance, The War of Art, and Gates of Fire
- "McKee teaches what is not yet taught. He shines his unwavering analytical light on the structure and invisible substructure of dialogue. He takes a craft that is often considered instinctual or magical and reveals its chemical secrets."—Terry Johnson, writer/director, winner of the Olivier Award, Critics' Circle Theater Award, WGA, and BAFTA
- "DIALOGUE is a masterwork. There's nothing harder to teach. Now this book exists. McKee has written an essential book akin to The Elements of Style for all writers."—Margaret Nagle, winner of the Writer's Guild Award, Emmy, NAACP, Golden Globe, and Pen
- "I used to think great dialogue couldn't be taught. You either had an ear for it or you didn't. That was before I read McKee's DIALOGUE. He's a wizard at explaining the unexplainable."—Sarah Treem, writer/producer, co-creator and showrunner of Golden Globe-winning TV Series The Affair, winner of the Writers Guild of America Award and Emmy Award nominee
- "Bob McKee's approach to writing dialogue, as with every other aspect of storytelling he has taught, reflects his great breadth of experience and mastery of his craft. Clear, precise, ad rich in insight, it will prove indispensable to both the aspiring writer and the seasoned professional."—Patrick McGrath, author of Asylum and Spider
- "An essential purchase destined to be replaced over the years as generations of aspiring writers wear out the copies with extensive study."—Library Journal (Starred Review)
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