My Lunch with the 'God of Story'
We caught up with screenwriting guru Robert McKee, whose new book, 'Dialogue,' proves he should be required reading for storytellers of any kind.
Photos by Julian Master
It's hard to write anything about screenwriting sage Robert McKee without mentioning Adaptation. The Spike Jonze–directed, Charlie Kaufman–penned movie may have come out 14 years ago, but it's still the go-to reference to teach the uninitiated about the influence McKee wields in Hollywood. Robert McKee's writing seminars, and his book Story have been staples of Hollywood screenwriters for decades. Everyone from Peter Jackson to Paul Haggis to the Pixar team sing his praises.
In Adaptation, Nic Cage plays a fictionalized version of Charlie Kaufman who, struggling to write his new script, winds up at a McKee seminar in search of something that'll get him through his third act. Cage-as-Kaufman bristles at the lessons, worried that McKee is ushering in a homogenization of screenwriting, a kind of formulaic "chicken in every pot, point of no return at every midpoint"–style of writing that will turn all movies into paint-by-numbers.
It's a complaint about McKee that isn't unique to Adaptation, or even to McKee himself. Each book promising to teach movie writing from Syd Field's Screenplay to Save the Cat has been met with doomsdayers who say the art form is going to be spoiled by screenwriting teachers forever.
But Robert McKee isn't a screenwriting teacher. Sure, his seminars primarily focus on narrative in film and Story's subtitle promises the "principles of screenwriting," but there's a reason it is simply called Story. The book isn't interested in teaching readers how to write a successful screenplay. McKee's main focus is dissecting well-told stories, unpacking them piece by piece, and figuring out how they do what they do. He may be best known in Hollywood, but his close study of narrative should be required reading for storytellers of any kind.
Robert McKee released Story's long-awaited follow-up, Dialogue, last summer. The similarly bluntly titled book is an exhaustive breakdown of the different ways speech can be used in novels, theater, and cinema; it's one that trains you to look at dialogue in different ways as you read. It's the book that will solidify McKee's place as more than just a screenwriting guru—he's an anthropologist of narrative, more Aristotle than Syd Field.
I sat down with McKee for lunch on Manhattan's Upper East Side to talk to him about Dialogue, the future of storytelling, and why his Hollywood script guru reputation needs to change.
VICE: Although you're best known in the screenwriting world, Dialogue isn't really a book fits on a shelf next to Save the Cat or How to Write a Movie in 21 Days. It's a different animal.
Robert McKee: When I wrote Story, my publisher and I had a bit of an argument about the title. She wanted it to be called Screenwriting, but I said, "No. We can put that in a subtitle, but I'm going to call it Story to encourage playwrights and novelists to read it. Everything I say about stories and say about film in fact is true for them." She agreed. Writing is writing.
When I got to write Dialogue—along with the books I'll write in the future, like the next one I'll write will be on character—I wrote about page, stage, and screen. One of the reasons why people have trouble with Dialogue is that they assume it's for screenwriting, but when they pick it up, they realize they've got to think like novelists and playwrights.
First-person novels are 50,000 words of nonstop dialogue.
Yeah, I think that's what is really exceptional about the book. It teaches me how to think critically about modes of dialogue. I've been listening to the audiobook, as well...
What do you think of it?
The Story audiobook feels like an abridged version of your seminars. It goes down easy. The Dialogue audiobook requires more of my attention because it's advanced content. You have me thinking about dialogue in a way I've never considered it before.
You're absolutely right. The book is radical because I redefine dialogue. The conventional definition of dialogue is two characters talking to one another. I define dialogue as anything said by any character to anyone. If that's the definition, then first-person novels are 50,000 words of nonstop dialogue. The writer of the first-person novel has all the typical problems that writers have when writing a particular scene, but 50,000 words of it.
I've been waiting for the professors of English literature to start throwing stones at me, because this is not how literature is normally taught.
How do you even start looking at dialogue in this granular way? I have a mental image of you sitting in a leather chair, staring out a window, solemnly contemplating narration.
Well, I don't think critically about everything. It has to get my attention and satisfaction first. If it's something that catches my eye and attention and makes me wonder how they did it, then I sit back and think. I'm always learning.
When I was talking to HBO recently, I told them about a big learning experience I had thanks to the finale of The Sopranos. A lot of people didn't like the ending, but I thought it worked. It's not just that it was anti-climactic. It was anti-conventional. It played against expectations, but it worked in a sense that was satisfying.
There are four classic endings to a story: purely positive, purely tragic, positive with irony where the character gets what he wants but pays a big price, and tragic with irony where he loses everything but he learns something. Those are the classic tonalities of endings.
But The Sopranos ending isn't really any of those, and it's still satisfying.
Right. I thought about the ending with them sitting in this restaurant, and I realized there was a fifth possible ending, which is what I came to call "exhaustion." That means that the characters have been emptied out completely, and the writer has exhausted their humanity. There's nothing you don't know about them. Everything is known, including their dreams. That was it.
All those characters in The Sopranos were exhausted, and it was satisfying. You realize you know everything. You got to know these characters like you never have with somebody in your own life. That's exhaustion in the strict sense of the word.
The Sopranos taught me the fifth ending, which is only possible in the long form—long novels or a hundred-episode series. Exhausting characters takes a lot of storytelling. If a film exhausts somebody, then the character wasn't that complex to begin with.
What about The Wire, which didn't try to do that so much with characters, but with Baltimore?
That would be another way of looking at exhaustion, which is that you emptied out the potential of the setting. I think those characters from The Wire still have lives to live after that and have potential for change, but you've come to know that world so much that Baltimore is exhausted.
A classic example of writers not knowing that they reached the level of exhaustion is Dexter, because he was emptied out and wasn't going to change by the end of season four or so. But it was making money, so they made new serial killers and put the emphasis on the antagonists, but Dexter was an exhausted character, and it got stupid.
Right. You mentioned your next book, Character, a little bit ago. Have you started on that?
Yes, I have.
Were you working on that in parallel with Dialogue?
No, what happened was I was working on Character first and we developed while I was doing that. The research for Character was enormous—you could also call the book Human Nature. It's a rather generous subject, for obvious reasons.
I was working on it while creating lessons for my website, McKee Story. One lesson was about dialogue, and I reached the point where I realized that I was actually ready to write a book on dialogue right then, while I still had much more to learn and study to finish the book on character. I just shifted gears to do that.
You said the literature professors might come knocking soon. That might be right. The trilogy of Story, Dialogue, and Character could probably be adopted as something like Elements of Style for storytelling. How would you like people to think of you and your work, since it's larger than screenwriting?
I would like just to be thought of as someone who did their best to keep the storytelling art forms alive. I want to keep theater alive. And keep the novel, of course, but I don't think the novel is in danger. Theater is. Cinema, as well.
Certainly by 2050, all the movie houses will be closed. There will be no television; no broadcasting or cable. What we'll have is great stories for the screen, but the screen will be in your pocket or on the wall at the foot of your bed or your computer. There will always be the screen and the stage, but the traditional methods of distribution are changing.
In the 90s, I was living in England, and I was looking toward the 21st century and wondering if story itself was exhausted. By the 1990s, we'd had a hundred years of mass media.
In the 19th century, you maybe spent an hour a day reading a novel, two hours a month watching a play. That was all the storytelling done by professionals for you. People now see that much storytelling every day. Theater became Broadway, then radio, movies, and TV. It all happened in the 20th century.
All the arts in the 20th century exhausted themselves technically. By the time Ad Reinhardt painted a canvas black from edge to edge and said it's a painting, the form was over. Music had been explored down to noise. Every technical possibility had been explored. All possible techniques.
So I was thinking, Since all the arts have reached the black canvas, what was going to become of story? Where would writers go in the 21st century?
I realized there is one aspect of human nature that really hasn't been exploited and explored: evil. You have dark characters like Iago, great villains who are diabolical and evil, but it's a pure evil. Human beings are very rarely pure evil, and storytelling hadn't truly explored the complexity of realistic evil.
And then, a few years later, came all these great long-form series, which opened an exploration of evil. There was The Wire and The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, even Mad Men. With all these great series, you get complex, good/evil characters.
It's interesting because it's always a chicken and egg question: Does content create form, or does form generate content? They're always going on side-by-side, simultaneously.
In order to keep a show interesting for 100 hours, you need dense and complex characters. That means exploring the good and evil inside them.
Yes, you have to have complexity and multidimensional characters. I don't know whatever part I played in that, but I know that many people who are writing these great long forms are my former students.
So, that's the answer to your question: I would like to be thought of as a person who did his best to take story to the next level.
Follow River Donaghey on Twitter.