New Book for Writers Talks the Talk

mckeedialogueThe reigning guru of scriptwriters – a throne that attracts many pretenders – has long been Robert McKee. His 1997 book Story is the industry’s bible (as I watch myself mangle religious metaphors). My own well-thumbed copy sits within arm-reach of my desk.

For readers unfamiliar with McKee, there’s no more entertaining introduction than this 90-second clip from the 2002 Oscar-nominated film Adaptation (written by Charlie Kaufman, directed by Spike Jonze, starring Nicolas Cage). Brian Cox’s portrayal of McKee in this scene is over the top but not off the mark. A McKee workshop is as much passionate performance as pedagogy. Even for those familiar with McKee and the movie, this clip is a hoot to watch. McKee was profiled in the New Yorker in 2003 and has been interviewed countless times.

Finally after 20 years McKee has come out with a new book, Dialogue: The Art of Verbal Action for Page, Stage, and Screen, published this summer. Not that the man hasn’t been busy the past two decades. According to McKee’s website, more than 100,000 students have taken his workshops in various cities around the world. Students include over 60 Academy Award Winners, 200 Academy Award Nominees, 200 Emmy Award Winners, 1,000 Emmy Award Nominees, 100 WGA (Writers Guild of America) Award Winners, and 50 DGA (Directors Guild of America) Award Winners.

Those some hundred thousand students include me. I took McKee’s course in Seattle in 2001 and repeated it in 2003 in San Francisco. He has been an important influence on my writing career. In one way or another – though not dogmatically – I use his principles every day.

McKee holds that dialogue is the last phase of writing a script. What must come first is deep knowledge of characters and story design (the “once upon a time” narrative). McKee observes that “we have all waded through badly told stories with dreadful dialogue, but we rarely encounter a superbly told story ruined by lousy dialogue. And the reason is simple: Quality story-telling inspires quality dialogue.” This reminds me of something Alfred Hitchcock once said: “When the screenplay has been written and the dialogue has been added, we’re ready to shoot.”

One way the book Dialogue improves on its older sibling Story is that McKee’s earlier book and the workshops based on it were targeted at screenwriters; their relevance to writers for the stage and page was largely implicit. At the workshops I took 15 years ago I think I only met one other playwright and one novelist; everyone else was writing movies. But in Dialogue McKee explicitly addresses the full gamut of fiction writing – movies, stage, page and TV. He even goes so far as to explicate narrator perspective in novel-writing, a thorny subject with not all that much relevance to scriptwriting.

He now also illustrates his points with examples across fictional media. One of the best parts of the new book is a granular analysis of scenes from The Sopranos cable TV series, the network TV series Frasier, Lorraine Hansberry’s great play A Raisin in the Sun (which Seattle Repertory Theatre happens to be producing next month), the novel The Great Gatsby, and the movie Lost in Translation.

The new book also conveniently provides a concise refresher course for the principles presented in Story. Because he sees dialogue as the final layer of story creation, McKee couldn’t very well delve into dialogue without also addressing the foundation it is built on – character and story.

McKee’s Dialogue is a worthy follow-on to his book Story and deserves to be part of any fiction writer’s reference library. I can also imagine a minority portion of general readers and audiences for whom reading Dialogue would deepen their enjoyment of fictional creations. For others it would be too much like the unappetizing view of sausage-making; those folks are content to just slap on the mustard and enjoy the finished product without thinking about how it was made.

P.S. A few years ago McKee launched a “Storylogue” feature on his website. Writers can subscribe for free and receive a weekly three-minute-or-so video of McKee discussing some element of story writing. You can sign up here. I generally find these useful and they don’t take up much time.

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