Book Review: Dialogue: The Art of Verbal Action for the Page, Stage, and Screen by Robert McKee

When I read books on writing, I don’t expect to agree with everything the author says.  There are as many theories on writing as there are writers, and that’s as it should be.  Still, the opinions and advice of others can help me sharpen my own tools of the trade.  Robert McKee is renowned as a writing teacher, especially of screenwriting.  I read his book Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting years ago, and though I have never attempted to write a script, I found it valuable in planning the structure of some of my novels.  This new book, Dialogue, takes a wider approach than Story, and encompasses not only writing dialogue for the screen, but also for plays and novels.

As I was reading the book, I came across a discussion of it on a blog focusing on indie writing that I frequently peruse.  Those who contribute to the discussion boards have a tendency to be very opinionated, and this thread was no exception.  There was a lot of criticism of McKee’s ideas, which is fine, but I think that some of the commentators missed the point.  They are under no obligation, when they read a work like this, to take or leave the entire work as a whole.  Some parts of it may be relevant or useful to them, while other parts may not.  For me, McKee’s credentials and opinions are solid enough for me to at least listen to what he has to say.

The book starts slowly, with explanations of the basics of what constitutes dialog and what its functions are.  Because I am so familiar with the concepts McKee presents in these chapters, I almost lost interest.  I persisted, however, and was rewarded in later chapters when McKee analyzes specific scripts, plays, and novels to illustrate the principles he propounds.

There’s no harm in having a keener appreciation and understanding of the tools that a writer uses to bring about desired effects in his work.  The danger comes in over-analysis of technique to the detriment of creativity.  Dean Wesley Smith differentiates the creative side of a writer with the critical side, and stresses that if you overemphasize the critical, you can stifle the creative.  He has a good point, of course, but there is a difference between over-analyzing your work so that it becomes a mass of disparate parts rather than a coherent whole, and being familiar with the tools of the trade with which you work.

In my opinion, McKee does fall into the trap of over-analyzing.  He acknowledges that there is a difference between the creation of a work and analyzing it in aftermath.  For writers, the best way to approach a book like this is to consider it a sharpening and fine-tuning of some of the tools that they use, and if there is any advice with which they disagree, they should feel free to completely ignore it.  This book considers many nuances of dialogue, and it may be that after you have read it, you may be able to use some of its principles to bring the dialogue that you give the characters in your own works into sharper focus.

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