Robert McKee on Dialogue
Robert McKee on his first new book in almost 20 years, the importance of learning to act, and why there’s no such thing as writing a screenplay without form.
Few teachers of screenwriting are as renowned as Robert McKee. In the early 1980s, the actor-turned-writer-turned-teacher launched his famed 3-day, 30-hour screenwriter courses, which he has since taught all over the world to over 50,000 students.
He supplemented his course with his 1997 book Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting, which remains one of the must-have bibles of screenwriting. Countless writers we have interviewed at Creative Screenwriting have cited McKee’s course or methods as an influence on their work.
Nearly 20 years since the release of Story, McKee has published a follow-up, Dialogue: The Art of Verbal Action for Page, Stage, and Screen. Like its predecessor, Dialogue focuses on the craft of writing, but as the title implies it focuses entirely on writing effective, believable dialogue for characters in all media.
In Dialogue, McKee delves into the concepts of what makes what characters say necessary or unnecessary, and it uses copious examples to demonstrate masterful ways of composing eloquent dialogue for characters, and, more importantly, audiences.
Creative Screenwriting spoke to McKee about what made Dialogue a necessary addition to McKee’s oeuvre, what role improvisation should – and shouldn’t – play in crafting dialogue, and why there’s no such thing as writing a screenplay without form.
Over the last 20 years, your book Story has been incredibly successful and influential. What made now the right time to write Dialogue?
These things just happen organically. The second book that I was writing – and I still am writing – is actually on character. My third book was going to be dialogue.
We created a website, and I put lessons on the website. The lessons in dialogue just seemed to evolve faster than the lessons on character.
I think talking about character requires a good deal of research into human nature, psychology, and relationships, so that kind of in-depth research slowed that subject down. Dialogue went a lot faster. Having taught dialogue in these online lessons and having answered questions from students, I got to a point where I felt that Dialogue was ready to go.
My method is that I teach it first, I hear a lot of questions, and I research the answers to those questions, until I reach a point where I feel like I’ve heard every conceivable question and found the answers for them. Then I am ready to write.
One aspect that sets Dialogue apart is it differentiates dialogue written for a screenplay, television and theater. How is writing dialogue for these forms different?
From now on, I am no longer writing simply for screenwriters and television writers. Everything I do from now on will be equally for storytelling in all these media.
In fact, when I wrote Story I had an argument with my publisher about the title. She wanted to call it Screenwriting. I said “No, let’s put ‘screenwriting’ in the subtitle, but I’m going to call it Story.” I was hoping to get playwrights and novelists to understand that all the principles of story apply equally to them.
I grew up in the theater. For half of my professional life I was a director and actor in the theater. Of course, like anybody else I’ve always read fiction. But screenwriting was the hot topic twenty years ago.
To answer your question, the amount of dialogue and the quality of dialogue varies from medium to medium. In film, the ideal balance of image versus dialogue – and of course, this varies enormously – would be like 80/20.
Eighty percent of the impact of the film you get through the eye, and twenty percent for the ear. That twenty percent is divided into sound effects, dialogue and music.
In the theater, it’s ideally the other way around – with plenty of exceptions. The ideal for Shakespeare is 80/20 for the ear.
In television, it’s 50/50. I would think in something like Breaking Bad, where the characters often went outdoors, that it would be about 60/40 for the eye, but then an indoor series like Mad Men would be 60/40 for the ear.
My definition of dialogue in the novel is anything said by any character to anyone. Therefore, a first person novel is tens of thousands of words of dialogue. If the whole book is dialogue because you have the character talking to the reader telling the story or at times you have the character talking to himself or herself, the character is still talking to somebody. In that case, you have all the problems of dialogue – it has to be in that character’s voice and in that character’s vocabulary. You have to use dialogue to characterize the character, and in a first-person novel the whole book is dialogue.
In the theater, you have a license to write dialogue in a way in which no human being has ever spoken. In the theater, you’re not just allowed to write poetic dialogue, but if you wish you could use poetry and dialogue like Shakespeare, or the example I use in Dialogue, Federico Garcia Lorca. You can elevate language to the highest possible expressivity in the theater, but when you put that in front of a camera it just sounds phony. The dialogue in film has to strike a note of realism.
Somebody like Quentin Tarantino can write very inflated dialogue, but he creates a consistent world in which we feel that all the characters speak like that. It’s a world where people have a certain heightened style, but it doesn’t become poetry.
As you go from medium to medium, there are great changes in terms of quantity and quality. In musical theater, lyrics to a song are dialogue. That’s a character talking – so to speak – to another character or to the audience. So, the differences are considerable.
Dialogue focuses quite a bit on the role actors play in delivering a writer’s dialogue. You advise “When writing for the screen, even within the most fantasied genres, always write for the actor.” Why is that so important?
You’re also writing for the actor when you’re writing for the stage, but the difference is on the stage you hope that your play will become a huge success and therefore be done on Broadway, go on tour, be done in repertory companies, university theaters, and amateur theaters, and it will be revived for decades.
There have been thousands of productions of Death of a Salesman, with a hundred thousand different actors. In that case, you have to write actor-proof. You have to write a play in such a way that no matter the quality of the performance, if the actor just manages to spit out the words somehow the play will still work.
In television and film, there is only one performance fixed forever for your character. That dialogue will only be said once by one actor. Therefore, you have to do the opposite. You have to leave room for the actor’s creativity and you have to encourage the best possible performance out of the only actor who will ever speak that dialogue.
When you watch very fine actors work, you realize how much they can do with how little. You do not want to stuff that actor’s mouth full of long sentences with relative clauses, you don’t want to stifle the performance, and you don’t want to write on the nose with the characters saying out loud exactly what they’re thinking with no subtext to it.
You have to let the actor bring the subtext to life and write as economically as possible so that the actor’s facial expressions, gestures, and inner life is expressive underneath and around the dialogue. You want to get the maximum expressivity out of the actor to support that dialogue. Whereas in the theater, an actor could just stand with a piece of Shakespeare and speak straight to the audience and the dialogue will carry the day.
The tendency in bad dialogue for the screen is to overwrite – create very explanatory dialogue and to stuff the actor’s mouth with a lot of on-the-nose explanations of thought and feeling and destroy the actor’s performance. You have to leave room for the actor.
Speaking of actors, something I thought was very interesting is that you point out that many great writers – Shakespeare, Pinter, Dickens – began their careers as actors. What do you think a writer can learn about dialogue from acting?
Acting is the best preparation I know to become a writer. Not necessarily for prose writers, though Dickens is an exception, but if you’re going to write for the stage or the screen having acted is an enormous asset for two reasons.
First, when you’re sitting at your desk creating dialogue you are an actor. The writer is a character’s first actor. You are improvising the character’s dialogue. If you’re going to do that privately at your desk, and you feel like you’re blocked, the best way I know to go get unstuck is to go take an improv class. Because if you can improvise in front of a class, how hard is to improvise when you’re alone at home?
When you improvise in front of people, you get an immediate sense of whether or not it is working, whether or not it’s repetitious, or whether or not it’s on the nose. You can just tell by the way people are reacting in the room. Having to do it front of a class teaches you enormously about what standard you need to set for yourself when you’re writing.
Second, if you take scene study classes you’re acting in scenes written by excellent writers. Memorizing that dialogue and bringing it to life on the stage as an actor in front of a class is going to teach you what superb writing is. It will help you set a standard for your own writing.
Taking both types of acting classes is a great multiplier of a writer’s talents. It’s very useful.
You wrote about the importance of “dialogue credibility” and list a number of faults that damage the credibility of dialogue, including “empty talk” and “overly emoted talk.” Which of these faults do you think is most prevalent in screenwriting?
The most common mistake is explanation. You just don’t trust the moment to imply the life of the scene or the tactics that characters are taking underneath what they’re saying and doing – the real thoughts and feelings that are underneath what the characters are outwardly saying or doing.
The characters start talking like no human being talks about what they’re really thinking and feeling with exposition explaining their motivations. Explanation takes over the dialogue and it just grinds to a halt because people don’t talk like that. Even when we’re explaining things, it’s only a tactic to get something else – it’s not actually an explanation for explanation’s sake. There’s something going on underneath that’s the real scene.
Bad writing is often the result of a lack of trust on the writer’s part that people will get it. The only way to solve that if that’s a tendency in someone’s writing is to listen to other people. If you sit at a table with people, keep your mouth shut and pay attention to not what they’re saying but what they’re doing when they say it – what they really are after or what reaction they’re trying to get.
If you listen to people talk in-depth, you realize that behind that talk this person is actually doing something deeper than what they say. It may simply be what they say is just a tactic to call attention to themselves, dominate the conversation, and impress people. When people say things, they’re not explaining, they’re doing something. A scene lives in the actions that a character takes underneath what they say.
The highest quality of realistic dialogue is transparency. When a character is speaking, the mind of the reader or the audience goes through the speech and words and we can see the inner life of the human being. The ear doesn’t stop at what is being said, it travels through what’s being said to the subconscious underneath that. When the dialogue is transparent to the subtext of the inner life of the character, that’s when we believe in the scene and become absorbed.
Of course, that applies to realism. When you write fantasy, animation, or sci-fi, then subtext starts to get eliminated and the characters are allegorical. They are symbols of heroism, villainy, or whatever. The dialogue is a bit more on the nose and less transparent.
Of course, there are balances for all that. Game of Thrones is a fantasy, but it’s done in about as realistic of a way that fantasy could ever be done. There’s always subtext in Game of Thrones. Nobody in Game of Thrones is ever saying out loud what they’re really thinking. There’s always another level. It’s one of the reasons why Game of Thrones is so loved.
But Lord of the Rings is different. Characters are symbols and they speak on the nose. But the hallmark of credible dialogue is realism in its transparency.
You praise William Goldman as “perhaps the finest writer of dialogue in film history.” What does Goldman do with writing dialogue that you think other writers can learn from?
He understands how people use words as weapons. Study William Goldman and you start to see how specific every line of dialogue is in terms of the action underneath. People are always talking in such a way that you immediately see what the character is doing. The clarity of the subtext in Goldman’s scripts just pulls you through the scene so fast.
Watch The Princess Bride or Misery and if you study his dialogue you’ll see how precise actions are and how easy it brings you in contact with the characters’ inner lives. The best part of Goldman’s dialogue is its transparency.
Also, what is so admirable about Goldman’s dialogue is that every single character in a Goldman screenplay has a unique and personal speech style. Everybody has their own vocabulary, sentence structure, grammar, rhythm, and tone. He makes his characters unique in the way in which they talk. Everybody is remarkably specific in terms of their characterization.
When you watch a William Goldman scene, you are fascinated by the dialogue because it’s so true to that character and so your mind travels to what the character is really doing. You have the double pleasure of meeting a character who talks in a way that no other character you’ve ever heard talks, and yet they’re a human being and you can see what they’re really up to. He’s a genius at bringing characters to life in the way in which they talk, and that talk is transparent in what they’re thinking, feeling, and doing.
Misery is a great example of a film that has a character who speaks so unique to the character. It came out nearly thirty years ago, but everyone remembers Annie Wilkes’ manner of speaking.
She uses words like “yucky,” but you know what she really wants to say is “shitty.” She’s trying to be polite, the way her mother taught her. Until it hits the fan and she calls him, “You lying cocksucker!” Finally, it’s out.
I don’t think Goldman invented Annie Wilkes’ euphemisms – I’m sure that’s from Stephen King in the book – but Goldman did a wonderful adaptation. But Annie Wilkes is a pathological liar and one of those people who uses those god-awful euphemisms, like when somebody says, “Oh, shucks!” they really mean, “Oh, shit!”
You wonder what’s worse – actually using the profanity, or a word that substitutes for profanity. It gets into the consciousness of the people who are listening. People use the euphemism instead and it’s an annoying trait, which is perfect for Annie Wilkes. Between specific characterization in the text and brilliant action and reactions in the subtext, you bring characters to life.
Most of the screenwriters we’ve interviewed are passionate about form. However, others aren’t. In Dialogue, you write “Form does not limit expression, it inspires it.” Can you explain what you mean by that?
If you have the feeling as a writer that anything that comes through your head belongs on the paper – if you think that just spewing it out is creativity – you end up with formlessness and the material just sprawls. You have no way to judge whether or not what just spewed out of your imagination works.
I’ve had this experience with writers often – what they put in their script is more or less spewed out, and they have no discipline and it has no shape to it. Then they get pissed off when you say, “Well, this is boring.” They think, “How can it be boring? It came out of my most creative moments!” They think that when they’re inspired and they’re just pouring it all out that they’re being creative. How dare anyone criticize their creativity?
It’s not complicated: human beings pursue their desires at every moment. They want something as a step towards their greatest desire at the heart of the story. As they pursue that desire, they take action and get reactions from the world, other people, and themselves.
The form underneath is a matter of action-reaction, action-reaction, action-reaction. It is progressive so each action and reaction somehow tops the previous beat by putting the character in greater jeopardy, which demands greater capacity and willpower from them. Then somewhere there is a turning point in the scene where the value that’s at stake in the scene moves to negative to positive or positive to negative. That’s form, and I demonstrate form in about half a dozen examples in the last third of Dialogue.
The form is not that rigid. It’s very flexible, but there’s a form. Knowing that there is a structure to a scene, when ideas come to your imagination it makes you think how they are going to work in the actual scene. It keeps you from repetitiousness, writing on the nose, and bad writing by shaping the scene into a form that will capture the audience’s attention, hold it, and move them when things change.
The form inspires you to come up with material that you would never come up with if you just opened up your head and let it pour out. It demands excellence from you. As a result, you will have to be very creative.
You just can’t write down everything that comes to your head. Ninety percent of what comes to your head is not your best writing. You have to eliminate all that mediocrity and get to your best writing, and the way to get to your best writing is by making a scene come to life, and to have a shape and a form to it to be really effective.
Form inspires you to come up with ideas that you wouldn’t come up with if you just allowed anything that passes through your head find its way on paper. It inspires you to bring these characters to life in the most effective way.
People who think they’re writing without form believe in the Vesuvius school of writing, where you’re just a volcano erupting and you let it all pour out. They think they are anti-form. What they’re really doing is copying.
How do they judge whether or not what they’ve written is good enough? The way they judge is to compare it to everything they’ve ever seen. They think it’s good if it looks and sounds like whatever their favorite movie is.
People who argue against form believe they’re avant-garde, minimalist, or anti-structure, and they mistakenly believe minimalism and anti-structuralism has no structure. They compare it to their favorite auteur director, and if it matches up to their experience then it must be good.
So though they say that they’re not following the form, they are. But they’re simply copying their favorite writer. They won’t admit to it because much of this is subconscious, but they think they’re formless when they are in fact copying other people’s form. So people who say that they don’t believe in form are – and I hate to say it – delusional.
What I teach is once you master the form you are genuinely liberated. You are free to let your characters come to life to whatever way you want them to because you’re in control and you understand the shape of things that has to go on underneath. That gives you freedom to be creative and not copy other people. You will find ingenious ways that you and you alone will bring this story to life.
If you don’t understand the form, the only resort you have is to copy other people. It’s really a question of whether you are in control of the form or not. If there’s no form, it’s incoherent even to you, let alone other people. To me, this whole argument over structure versus not, form versus not, is all boring, delusional bullshit. I urge people to grow up, be professional, and recognize that it’s an art form.
You have both positive and negative things to say about improvisation. What are your thoughts on the tendency of many modern comedies – and even dramatic movies like those of Mark and Jay Duplass and Joe Swanberg – that rely heavily on improvised dialogue?
It’s a risk. It tends to be lazy. Once again, they think they’re form-less and that it would be more authentic, more true-to-life if they let the actors improvise than if they wrote dialogue for them.
When you look at something really superb like Breaking Bad, everything is scripted to the word. Those actors bring this marvelous writing to life, and it seems improvisational because it looks like that character is doing what they’re doing in the immediate moment without any kind of forethought because it’s credible.
If it’s really well-written and you have a wonderful cast, the whole thing looks like spontaneous improvisation. You don’t question it because you totally believe in it. The notion that by letting actors improvise that you’re going to achieve a quality of reality or realism that you could not have achieved by writing it is nonsense. If you write it well and the actors act it beautifully, it will be deep and expressive.
Now sometimes when you let actors improvise the actor will rise to the occasion and do something that is so wonderfully off-the-wall and yet is so true to character that you would’ve never thought to write that. An example I give in Dialogue is that famous scene in Forrest Gump when the actor playing Bubba does this incredible improvisation on all the things you can do with shrimp. It’s one of the most brilliant moments in the film and it’s an improvisation.
Write the scene as beautifully as you can knowing that if the actors don’t add anything to this – if they just act it as written – it will be perfectly fine. Then with that scene in hand and the actors having learned their lines, as you direct the scene if something pops up that actually makes the scene better, use it! You have a foolproof scene at the heart of it so that if the improvisations fail the scene will work.
But to go on a set and just say to the actor, “Here’s the situation, just go for it,” you end up with that awful kind of scene where the actors are semi-embarrassed. The hallmark of bad improv is repetitiousness. One actor says, “If you don’t stop doing this, I’m leaving!” and the other actor says, “So, you’re gonna leave if I don’t stop doing this, huh?” They’re stuck because they don’t have a line.
I’m not against improvisation by any means on screen because it’s a very different process for a movie than it is for a play. There’s a process in the theater where the playwright – under the influence of various actors – goes through a creative process with different audiences that allows a playwright to constantly rewrite, polish, and revise until the time it reaches Broadway as perfect as it can possibly be.
There is no such process in film or television. Therefore, you have a script and it’s got to play. If when the actors get together certain things stick in their throats, there’s going to be improvisation. Hopefully, that improv improves it.
Instead, people take a camera and actors to a location and say, “In this scene, he wants this and she wants that. Go for it!” What Mike Leigh does is that he processes his characters and their stories for a year, and he’s going to get his actors into a room and they’re going to improvise and improvise over months. He is editing these improvisations with the actors – this is a writing process, and Leigh is the editor of all these improvisations. By the time they get done with months of improvising and they shoot it, they have a script that was developed over months of improvisation. Everything was done a hundred times, and then they made the best choices.
One of my favorite television shows is Whose Line Is It Anyway? There’s just no limit to what great improvisers like Wayne Brady, Colin Mochrie, and Ryan Stiles can do. But the bottom line is if you can make it work, it doesn’t matter. How you get there is not important, as long as you get there.
There’s nothing right or wrong about any of this, but there are dangers and it gets treacherous. What do you do if you have actors improvising a scene and it’s shit? If you weren’t lazy and actually wrote a scene that would work, that’s what you fall back on.
As you point out, some screenwriters like Richard Linklater write dialogue so well that people think it’s improvised, even though it isn’t.
When I was an actor my mother would come to my plays and thought I was making up what I said. I didn’t want to have to explain it to her, but at one point I just said, “Mom, I memorized it.” Then her next question was, “How can you remember all of that?”
From the audience’s point of view, let them think the actors make it up. What difference does it make? If the story captures them and they’re moved and enlightened by it, great.