By Brandon Walker
At the end of October, 2016, I was in New York City learning the fundamentals of storytelling from Robert McKee, a legendary script doctor/guru.
McKee offers a three-day workshop based on his book Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting that is definitely worth the time and money. He teaches the form, not formula, for writing a good story.
You may have heard of McKee and not realized it. The film Adaptation (2002) starring Nicholas Cage had a character inspired by McKee (played by Brian Cox), and McKee helped fix the third act of that script (please excuse the language).
In my opinion, one of the most important lessons in this workshop was how you use subtext in dialogue. At the end of the second day, McKee talked about exposition – the history of your characters’ lives, the setting, and other important details you want to convey to the audience.
“Exposition should be invisible. Show, don’t tell,” McKee said.
Too often dialogue is written “on the nose,” meaning it directly expresses the characters’ thoughts and feelings. “It’s bad writing. If you write what the scene is really about then you’re in deep doo-doo. That scene will die like a squashed dog in the road,” he said.
On the nose writing to convey that two people have known each other for years might be something like this: “I’m so glad we’ve kept in touch all this time. Gosh, we’ve known each other since high school. What has it been? 20 years?”
Instead of that or “table dusting” – a scene with two maids dusting while chatting to pass exposition to the audience – McKee said you should use that information as ammunition.
One friend should say to the other: “You’re the same immature ass that you were in high school.”
Now you know they have been friends for years, and this presents the necessary conflict to keep the audience’s attention and keep the story interesting.
McKee recommends bringing in exposition only when necessary, when the audience needs to know, including with flashbacks. Don’t be in a hurry, he said. Keep the audience in the dark a bit.
At the start of the third day, McKee spoke more specifically about subtext.
He described text as the sensory surface of a work of art. In this case, it’s the words on the page – what you see, hear, what the characters do.
On the other hand, subtext is the inner life, thoughts and feelings of characters that are unexpressed, and their subconscious thoughts, too.
“It’s impossible for humans to say and do what they’re thinking and feeling. The only time subtext should go into text is when you’re with a therapist, and even then the therapist is taking down what you’re not saying. Only crazy people speak the subtext,” McKee said.
“Subtext is the stuff of acting. On the nose writing leaves nothing for the actors to do. Remember, the scene is not about what it seems to be about. As the audience, you become a mind reader, an emotion reader. You see the characters’ deep thoughts and feelings,” he said.
This applies to writing short stories, novels, plays, TV shows and films, although McKee said stories and novels can allow the reader to hear the characters’ thoughts directly.
So, what should characters say if they can’t speak their thoughts?
McKee said the key is determining what characters want in the scene. For many characters, it’s conscious – they can name what they want. For instance, James Bond wants to kill the villain.
“Dialogue must be economical – the maximum amount of content in the fewest words possible, with no repetition of language,” McKee said.
Think of dialogue in terms of different beats of action and reaction. Beats are the strategies used by the character to try getting what he/she wants, and beats are also how the other characters react. Every scene should be a battle between at least two characters. As McKee said, progress can’t be made in a story except through conflict.
He suggested working from the inside out by creating what is called a treatment. For each scene, write out the text and subtext without the dialogue – including the character’s thoughts and what they talk about – but don’t put words in their mouths yet.
“Every scene must be perfect before you begin converting from scene description into screenplay. Then when you write the dialogue the characters won’t sound the same . . . and the dialogue will come out easily,” McKee said.
I highly recommend McKee’s books Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting, and Dialogue: The Art of Verbal Action for the Page, Stage, and Screen.
If you ever have a chance to attend one of McKee’s workshops, definitely go. There’s a reason why John Cleese, Julia Roberts, Kirk Douglas , David Bowie, and many other famous actors and writers have attended his Story workshop – he knows what he’s talking about.
By Jean E. Pendziwol
I attended elementary school in the 1970’s, when Thunder Bay schools were bursting at the seams, where St. Vincent on Redwood Avenue had portables in the playground and two grade six classes sharing the gymnasium. Our librarian was the enthusiastic Mr. Christie, who always managed to make our weekly trips to borrow books an adventure, offering suggestions for great alternatives to the standby favourites, helping students find the most recent Nancy Drew book, and demonstrating how to use the Dewey Decimal System. He recognized that the awkward gangly-legged child checking out stacks of books each week had a particular interest in playing with words, in creating character, and weaving story, and offered to publish my very first work of fiction. What a proud moment seeing my story, bound with a piece of scrap orange wool and illustrated with crayon drawings, tucked on the shelf next to all the other “real” authors in the St. Vincent school library. I even had an entry in the card catalog.
It was some years before I again had that thrill of seeing my work on a library bookshelf. My early career as an editorial coordinator and writer for commercial magazines allowed me the opportunity to craft with words, but I didn’t pursue fiction again until after my children were born. It was then that I fell in love with picture books, enjoying the challenge of writing in a genre that necessitated a constraint of words; that demanded excellence while simultaneously requiring a story that was engaging and entertaining for both my reader and my audience (not the same in the picture book world, but that’s another blog.) And although by this time I was comfortable with the commodification of my writing, it was different when I viewed that writing as art.
It is interesting to examine our responses to the business of being published – when a work of art becomes a product. It’s something many people struggle with. Does commercial success somehow diminish artistic merit? Is it because our work – our writing – is so tied up in our sense of identity? Can we separate our “self” from our “product” or book? How do we respond professionally as we journey the road to publication? These were all questions that I grappled with as a newly published author.
When I finished writing my debut novel, The Lightkeeper’s Daughters, and decided to pursue publication, I was faced with additional challenges I hadn’t experienced previously, in spite of successfully publishing numerous picture books with two different houses. I waded into the world of beta readers, agents, international book deals, foreign rights, and the need to build a “platform.” And I became aware of some minor differences between the commercially driven US market and the Arts Council funded, awards-driven, literary Canadian market. It became important for me to keep the art – to keep my story – at the heart of every decision I made, while at the same time recognizing that in choosing to follow the publishing route, my story was becoming a book, and a book is a product.
In the words of Nicholas Sparks, “Writing a great novel is the most important thing you can do to become a success, but sometimes it's not enough.” That’s where a community of writers can help. Heather Dickson and I are looking forward to co-facilitating the upcoming NOWW workshop on The Business of Writing. We don’t have all the answers, but we are happy to share our own journeys in the ever-evolving world of book publishing. It is our hope that by understanding the business aspect of being an author, you will have the confidence to make informed decisions about your work and where you’d like to see it end up, whether that be in your private collection, on a bookstore shelf or in the eager hands of a child, waiting to check it out of a school library.
Every book is a different story; every writer has a unique journey. Publishing is the intersection where art becomes business and poetry becomes a pitch. Sometimes harsh, rarely lucrative, always complex, we welcome you to grab your pens, roll up your sleeves and prepare to get down to business. The Business of Writing.
Jean E. Pendziwol