Legendary Screenwriting Guru Robert McKee On Creating Incredible Dialogue

The author of screenwriting bible, Story, returns with a tome devoted to Dialogue, and reams of advice for aspiring writers.

Legendary Screenwriting Guru Robert McKee On Creating Incredible Dialogue
Breaking Bad season 3, episode 6 [Photo: courtesy of AMC Networks]

Look on the coffee-stained, Post-it strewn desk of most aspiring screenwriters and you’re bound to find the same mighty tome. Robert McKee’s Story has been hailed like ancient scrolls handed down unto the mountain. It is the alpha and omega of three-act structure; the (type)face that launched 1,000 laptops into San Fernando Valley coffee shops. McKee’s Academy Award-winning acolytes are populous enough to fill a modest-sized concert venue. He has positioned himself as such an authority on screenwriting, in fact, that he had an extended cameo in the form of Brian Cox’s portrayal in Adaptation, one of Charlie Kaufman’s lauded treatises on the frustrations of the creative process. While McKee explored just about every facet of storytelling in his first groundbreaking book, he felt compelled to delve much deeper into one aspect: Dialogue.

Robert McKee

McKee had always planned on authoring a trilogy of books: Story, Character, and Dialogue. After Story became a phenomenon, he began researching character, and also developing Storylogue as an online research for eager writers. While creating new lessons for the website, McKee realized that writing about dialogue had captured his fascination for the moment, in a larger way than character. Although he got about halfway through writing Character, and still plans on finishing it soon, the author’s latest work is Dialogue: The Art of Verbal Action For The Page, Stage, and Screen. What separates this book from its predecessor beyond the tighter focus, however, is the range of media McKee covers in it. The don dada of screenwriting gurus is now doling out advice for playwrights, novelists, and TV writers as well–an entire spectrum of scribes–and teaching them all the ins and outs of verbal sparring.

Co.Create caught up with the author recently to talk about writing for the kinds of characters you’ve never met, The Magic ‘If,’ and what you can learn from bad screenwriting.

Steven Spielberg on set of the film Jaws, 1975.Photo: Universal, Getty Images

Think You Can’t Write Great Dialogue? Try Another Medium

“There’s always an element of natural talent and some people have it more than others, but the ability to write great dialogue depends on the genre and medium you’re writing in,” McKee says. “If you’re writing for the screen especially, having a great poetic touch helps. If you’re writing a novel, you can write without any explicit quotable dialogue. The whole thing could be implicit. But if you’re writing for the screen, it’s amazing how far you can get with a mastery of technique. When people say that they don’t have a natural instinct for dialogue, it’s often not a reality—it’s just a doubt.”

Good Will Hunting, 1997Photo: courtesy of Miramax

Be a Thoughtful, Constant Listener

“Most good writers are quiet when they’re in conversation, they are there to sponge up life,” McKee says. “And if they are talkative, aggressive, socially extraverted, they tend not to hear people and consequently they can only write dialogue the way they speak. Good writers are usually patient people who are always recording; there’s a little tape recorder in the mind of any good writer who’s watching life around them. They’re involved as people in the situation, but there’s always a part of their mentality that’s always watching and recording.”

Dialogue: The Art of Verbal Action for Page, Stage, and Screen

Study Bad Dialogue

“Bad writing can be more helpful to read than good writing,” McKee says. “Because the first draft of anything you write is not going to be your best work. So you have to figure out how to rewrite yourself to make it better. One of the best ways I know to rewrite yourself is to get bad writing and rewrite it. Rewriting other writers and making their scenes better teaches you the techniques of what you need to do with your own writing to make it the best it can be. So you listen and you watch onscreen and then when you see something that’s either particularly bad or particularly good, stop and reread it. Find out why you responded to it. In the book, I do a scene from Gladiator, which is a superb example of on-the-nose writing–subtext into the text–and it is just amazing. You don’t have to look far, though, for examples.”

Marlon Brando and Robert Duvall in The Godfather, 1972Photo: Paramount Studios, Courtesy of Getty Images

Character Transparency

“The character’s first actor is the writer,” McKee says. “You’ve got to be able to put yourself in the mind of the character you’re creating, and imagine yourself in that situation as if you were the character yourself. So you’re writing inside out. The starting point of dialogue is desire, what does my character want overall and what does this character want in this scene, and given that, what would my character do to take a step toward their desire at that specific moment? What they would do is use language to cause a reaction in another character, or the world around them. And they would realize that they cannot just say out loud ‘I want you to stop doing this, and do that instead.’ They’re not going to say exactly what they’re thinking and feeling. They’re going to say something that will be effective, they feel, in persuading somebody to change their behavior. People never say out loud exactly what they think and feel. There’s always a subtext.”

Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting

“The hallmark of beautiful dialogue is transparency, you see characters saying whatever they say, and you go right through those words to what they’re thinking and feeling, even down to the subconscious level,” McKee says. “Bad dialogue is opaque, bad dialogue stops the eye of the audience at the screen, stage, or page, and explains outwardly, blatantly, and falsely what the character’s thinking or feeling. When you write from the inside out, then the dialogue becomes actual good dialogue.”

The Magic “If”

“Anyone can write different kinds of characters who they’ve never met before. This is why we have imagination,” McKee says. “You gather all the research you can, and then use your imagination to bring the character to life. You have to say to yourself, ‘If I was this character in this circumstance, what would I want, why would I want it, and how would I go about trying to get it?’ That ‘if’ is called The Magic ‘if’–if I were this character–and that’s imagination. And beyond that verbal tactic of just saying ‘If I were,’ there’s no way to just take somebody by the hand and put them in character. When you’re sitting at your desk, hands at the keyboard, you know the difference between using your imagination to see the world from the character’s point of view and seeing the world from your own point of view. It’s a powerful distinction.”

Jesse Plemons, Laura Fraser, and Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad, Season 5, Episode 16Photo: Ursula Coyote, courtesy of AMC

The Key Word Is The Final Word

“One of the keys to writing good dialogue is, as you’re writing a line of dialogue, look at each line and ask yourself, ‘What is the key word in that line? What word completes the meaning?'” McKee says. “Generally speaking, that word or phrase should end the sentence, because there’s an actor who has to respond to that line once they understand the meaning. If the meaning comes first, and there are words after that meaning, the other actor has to artificially delay a reaction. In life, what’ll happen is you just get cut off–people talk over each other. But in acting, people tend to let the other actor say the full line, even though they know the meaning, because it was there at the beginning of the sentence. Immediately your dialogue gets better when you can reread what you’ve written and time the key words so that they cue the other characters back and forth in a nice rhythmic way. That doesn’t take poetic genius. It just takes good thoughtful analysis.”