I recently read “Dialogue: The Art of Verbal Action for the Page, Stage and Screen” by Robert McKee. Below are the quotes I found most interesting. If you like the quotes, buy the book here.
“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.” (3)
“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.” (10)
“When characters look down the camera lens and whisper something secret and personal, it’s usually a self-serving tactic to win us to their side (HOUSE OF CARDS).” (13)
“In a separate file, list every fact in your story, and then rank them in order of importance to the reader/audience. As you rewrite and polish your work, you may realize that certain facts need to be stressed and repeated in more than one scene to guarantee that the reader/audience remembers them at a critical future turning point. Other less important facts need only a single hint or gesture.” (24)
“Somehow the writer must send the reader/audience’s attention in one direction while he smuggles a fact in from another.” (26)
“The moment a story-goer recognizes a shared humanity between herself and your characters, she not only identifies with them but also transfers her real-life desires onto their fictional desires.” (28)
“The scene is false and its dialogue tinny because the writing is dishonest. The characters are not doing what they seem to be doing. They seem to be reminiscing, but in fact they’re mouthing exposition so the eavesdropping audience can overhear it.” (39)
“The most important trait of all: talk. She speaks like no one we have ever met before. Her language style not only sets her apart from all other cast members but also, if the writing is masterful, from all other fictional characters.” (41)
“The greater the pressure in the scene (the more he stands to lose or gain in that moment), the more his actions tell us who he really is.” (42)
“The greatest difference between the screen versus stage and page, therefore, is not the quantity of dialogue but the quality. The camera and microphone so magnify and amplify behavior, that every phony glance, every false gesture, every affected line looks and sounds more amateur than the worst dinner party charade. Screen acting calls for a naturalistic, believable, and seemingly offhanded technique. To make this possible, screen dialogue must feel spontaneous. When forced to deliver ornamented dialogue, even the finest actors sound ludicrous, cueing the audience to react with “People don’t talk like that.” This holds true in all genres, realistic and nonrealistic, in television and film.” (62)
“Suspense, simply put, is curiosity charged with empathy.” (81)
“Challenge yourself with this question: How could I write this scene in a purely visual way, doing all that needs to be done for character and story without resorting to a single line of dialogue?” (91)
“Effective dialogue executes six tasks simultaneously:
Each verbal expression takes an inner action.
Each beat of action/reaction intensifies the scene, building to and around its turning point.
Statements and allusions within the lines convey exposition.
A unique verbal style characterizes each role.
The flow of progressive beats captivates the reader/audience, carrying them on a wave of narrative drive, unaware of the passage of time.
The language strikes the reader/audience as authentic in its setting and true to character, thus maintaining belief in the story’s fictional reality.” (97)
“Dialogue concentrates meaning; conversation dilutes it.” (98)
“Authors set traps for themselves when they create characters with excessive, unconvincing self-awareness.” (100)
“The problem of melodrama, therefore, is not over-expression but under-motivation.” (103)
“1) The more emotional people become, the shorter the words and sentences they use; the more rational people become, the longer the words and sentences they use.
2) The more active and direct people become, the shorter the words and sentences they use; the more passive and reflective people become, the longer the words and sentences they use.
3) The more intelligent the person, the more complex his sentences; the less intelligent, the briefer his sentences.
4) The more well read the person, the larger hsi vocabulary and the longer his words; the less read, the smaller his vocabulary and the shorter his words.” (111)
“When conflict builds and risk soards, people get emotional, active, direct, monosyllabic, and dumb.” (111)
“Badly written dialogue tends to be literal; it means what it says and no more. Well-written dialogue, on the other hand, implies more than it says; it puts a subtext under every text.” (116)
“If your dialogue does not suggest unsaid thoughts and feelings below its surface, either enrich it or cut it.” (116)
“With rare exceptions, a scene should never be outwardly and entirely about what it seems to be about. Dialogue should imply, not explain, its subtext.” (120)
“Aristotle argues that the deepest pleasure of theatregoing is learning, the sensation of seeing through the surface of behavior to the human truth beneath.” (127)
“When scenes fail, the fault is rarely in the words; the solution will be found deep within even and character design. Dialogue problems are story problems.” (144)
“The more complex the psychology of a character, the more distinctive hsi dialogue must become. In other words, originality in character design finds its final expression in character-specific dialogue.” (148)
“A distinctive writing style pays off when a creative personality embraces a broad and deep knowledge of the human condition.” (150)
“Language is the medium of conscious thought; image is the medium of subconscious thought.” (152)
“When you write off the top of your head, all characters sound alike and the sounds they make irritate like fingernails on a blackboard. Their grating voices fake life and then fill the sham with irredeemably false dialogue – out of character, out of scene, void of feeling, void of truth.” (152)
“The guiding tenet of public speaking is, “Think as a wise man but speak as a common man.”” (160)
“As a dramatic character pursues his quest, he has sense enough to step back and realize that his struggle could get him killed. Not the comic character: His core desire blinds him. His self-deluded mind fixates on his desire and pursues it, wildly unaware. This lifelong mania influences, if not controls, his every choice.” (170)
“All stories dramatize the human struggle to move life from chaos to order, from imbalance to equilibrium.” (183)
“Character talk is the final result of everything that went before, a surface manifestation of the layers of life beneath the words. The stronger the inner scene, the more powerful the dialogue.” (198)
“What makes a comic character comic is mental rigidity. He pursues his all-absorbing desire as if myopic to any choice beyond it.” (213)
“Desire intensifies in the comic character to the point of obsession. This fixation holds the character so tightly in its grip he cannot deviate from it. All aspects of his identity are bound to it; without it he is no longer comic. What’s more, this obsession blinds him. He is driven to pursue it but cannot see the mania in himself. To us, he’s a crazed neurotic; to him,his obsession is normalcy.” (214)
“A few comic protagonists, such as Woody Allen’s Alvy Singer in ANNIE HALL and Larry David’s Larry David in CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM, constantly dissect their obsession, phobically alert to any sign of neuroses. But what they do not gasp is that addictive self-analysis is itself a blind obsession. The more seriously and persistently these two guys self-psychoanalyze, the more hysterical they become – in both sense of the word.” (214)
“The comic protagonist’s blind obsession usually comes nested inside otherwise normal traits that anoint him with believability, dimensionalize his personality, and make him one of a kind. The art of comedy, however, imposes certain limitations on dimensionality, for this reason: Jokes require objectivity. Laughter explodes the moment two incongruous ideas suddenly clash in the mind. If their illogicality is not instantly recognized, the gag sputters in confusion. Therefore, the mind of the reader/audience must be kept sharply focused and uncluttered by compassion.” (215)
“We welcome feelings in drama, but in comedy, empathy and compassion kill the laughs. For this reason, comic protagonists, almost without exception, have fewer dimensions than their dramatic counterparts and virtually none at the subconscious level of conflicted inner selves. Instead, comic dimensions pit appearance against reality, the man the character thinks he is versue the fool we know him in fact to be.” (215)
“Comic energy comes from three primary sources: defensive emotions, aggressive emotions, and sex.” (220)
“To the comic writer, empathy spells death. Compassion kills laughs. Therefore, comic technique must keep the reader/audience cool, critical, unempathetic – on the safe side of pain.” (227)
“The writer must clearly establish the character at the positive or negative of a value early in the story, so that the audience can understand and feel the arc of change.” (243)
“When the balance favors content over form, when minimal words express maximal meaning, dialogue gains its greatest credibility and power.” (269)
“As Philip Yorder put it: “Do not drown your script with endless dialogue and long speeches. Every question does not call for a response. Whenever you can express an emotion with a silent gesture, do so. Once you pose the question, permit it to linger before you get a reply. Or better yet, perhaps the character cannot reply; he or she has no answer. This permits the unspoken response to hang in midair.”” (280)
“Rewriting bad dialogue is the fastest, most efficient way I know to train your talents.” (291)
“Ask, “If I were my character in this situation, what would I do?” Create out of your own being, but not as yourself, as your characters.” (292)
“Whenever you are stuck, get back on track by posing the questions below from each and every character’s point of view: Background desires, objects of desire, super-intention, scene intentions, motivation, scene driver, forces of antagonism, scene value(s), subtext, beats, progression, tactics, turning point, deep character, scene progression, text, exposition, characterization.” (294-295)
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