Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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On learning to write dialogue

Here’s a post by Joe Berkowitz: Legendary Screenwriting Guru Robert McKee On Creating Incredible Dialogue.

Evidently Berkowitz wrote a book about writing for the screen, Story; and now has written on on dialogue: Dialogue: The Art of Verbal Action For The Page, Stage, and Screen.

Here’s his advice — in boiled-down form; click through to read the whole thing, of course:

1. If you think you can’t write dialogue, try switching media — from screen to print or the other way around.

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.”

Hmm. I would like to see McKee identify a scene in a novel that involves dialogue but not “explicit quotable dialogue.” What does he mean by that, I wonder?

2. Be a listener. That seems self-explanatory. Not that you ever copy the way someone speaks. Just the feel for how it seems they speak.

3. Study bad dialogue

This is the one where I was like: YES. McKee suggests re-writing bad dialogue to make it good. I have never done writing exercises as such, but that sounds like it might be useful or fun or both.

4. Write dialogue with subtext.

McKee says: “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 … 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.”

That’s very interesting. I’m going to have to think about that the next time I see what I think is bad dialogue. For me, “bad dialogue” usually means predictable, boring, clunky, or dialogue that doesn’t sound like something people would really say. I do notice that dialogue more — but would I say that it “explains falsely what the character is thinking or feeling?” I’m not sure about that.

5. Write from the character’s pov, not from your own. A trifle on the obvious side. This reminds me of Marie Brennen commenting about how much of a stretch it was for her to write an extroverted character.

6. Identify the key words in each character’s speech.

I didn’t understand what was meant by “key words,” so here is an explanation: [A]sk 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.

I think that is very interesting. Key words, end on the word that complete’s the meaning … hmm. Another feature I want to look at in good dialogue.

Lois McMaster Bujold has great dialogue. Maybe I will pull one of her books off the shelf and take a look at it with this in mind.

Or Sunshine by McKinley. That’s another one with particularly great dialogue.

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7 Comments On learning to write dialogue

  1. Elaine T

    The Teen just pulled Sunshine off the shelf to read, so I think I’ll take my own look at the dialogue while the book is unburied.

    I’m rereading Deerskin at the Teen’s request so we can poke at how McKinley got across the absolute wrongness of the king and queen while apparently praising them. (gave me the creeps from page 1.) I was comparing it to how the author handled things in Sunshine and we discovered the Teen had overlooked that McKinley.

    There’s very little dialogue in this book (so far), which is my memory of McKinley’s writing in general. I would not have thought of looking at her for how to handle dialogue.

  2. Rachel

    You’re right, come to think of it. But the protagonist’s internal speech is *like* dialogue. And after all there is some dialogue, and it always feels just right. I trust The Teen will love Sunshine! It’s one of my favorites of McKinley’s.

    And yes about Deerskin creepiness. Me, when I re-read that, I read the first little bit and then skip riiiight on over to the cabin in the mountains.

  3. Elaine T

    The Teen blazed through Sunshine and says it was interesting, but doesn’t expect to revisit. Was very intrigued by the ‘goddess of pain’ character and would have liked more info about her. Says the only McKinley she really loves in Deerskin , and can’t articulate why. (I asked, as it seems an odd favorite.) Maybe the dogs.

  4. Rachel

    Elaine, Deerskin would not have been my guess for anybody’s favorite McKinley. Not that we don’t all love those dogs.

  5. Elaine T

    On Deerskin the Teen came back yesterday and added Lissar’s perseverance. She just kept going. Given the Teen’s medical history I’m not surprised that caught attention.

    On Sunshine thought Sunny fretted too much. Not quite whining, but irritating enough.

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