Personal Growth - How Much is Good for You

For all you film-makers and film-viewers out there - I hope you'll link up and share your thoughts.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

To McKee or not to McKee, that is the question.

So here's the thing.  Has Robert McKee (McKee, R, Story, Methuen, 1999) and all his work made one bad writer a good one?  Or, indeed, a good writer a better one?

Has his work helped one film script, one movie, to be better than it would have been without his influence?

I'm a huge admirer of McKee’s scholarship.  I don't think that there is a single individual out there who has done a better job of describing the mechanics of how dramatic tension works.  And you might include Aristotle in this line-up.  If you can understand the practical use of Poetics then you're doing better than me.  And, more than this, McKee identifies many of the best techniques for maintaining dramatic tension and using it to develop theme - what that great old timer Lajos Egri would call "premise" (Egri, Lajos, The Art of Dramatic Writing, Touchstone 2004).  If you attend the McKee long-weekend course or read his book "Story" there is no question you'll come out with a better conscious understanding of the algebra of narrative.  And there’s the rub. 

For when in the history of great tales (on screen or off) did the great storytellers rely predominantly on the conscious, editorial, part of their brain?  Never... Surely... NEVER.

Rewriting does without question require a conscious shaping and reshaping of all aspects of a script.  Rewriting.  But even then, the necessity for thinking outside of the clicheed box has to be paramount, surely, for a piece of work to rise above the simply “well structured”.

So has McKee, and script gurus like him, got completely the wrong end of the stick when it comes to helping writers/film-makers make the most of their talent?

For me its “yes” AND “no”.

“Yes”, because the McKee course, in essence, is a list.  A list of principles, not rules, of what he calls “classical” story structure.  99% of the list is impossible to argue with – it is a pretty accurate analysis of how the structure of a story hooks an audience and keeps them hooked.  But… it’s a list.  And, for a practical film-maker, lists are (in my opinion) almost useless.  Great examples (in other words, great individual movies) are incredibly useful.

Why is a list such a problem?  Well, for one, it makes an artist jumpy that he/she has got to hit these golden principles or they’ll be, in some way, failing.  So, the artist is always glancing over at the list to ask “have I got it right”?   A certain type of confidence is essential for a flow of creative work and feeling that you need to check yourself against someone else’s list certainly does not help you to go with the flow.  Secondly, a list is reductive – it reduces narrative form to a linear process.  One idea literally follows another.  A creative brain, when it’s firing on all cylinders, is very often operating in a graphic rather than a literary way.  It is building through a collage of overlapping ideas – lists are like a sergeant major telling everyone to get in line and, if you don’t, you’re out.

In the early gestation of a movie idea it is, in my opinion, essential for an artist to have a license to daydream, to free associate.  We all, or nearly all, have an innate ability to appreciate good story structure when we are an audience or a reader – we groan when something is clichéd or implausible or when cheap coincidence is used to progress plot.  If we have this basic instinct for structure is the priority to become consciously aware of it? 

I’m not sure.  If we aspire to being good film-makers then we need to develop the ability to become great story tellers – and the challenge of this is not, simply, to structure a great story (there’s a strong argument that the stories are already out there).  No, our greatest challenge is how to spin that story.  We punters buying our £10/$10 ticket to the movies get a visceral thrill of excitement when, in the first ten minutes of a movie, we sense that we are in the hands of a master storyteller, don’t we?  The planting of clues, questions, the withholding of information, the twist, the sudden revelation, the witty pay-off – it is the innate mastery of these rhythmic skills that defines a good storyteller.  Can these be learnt from digesting a list of principles?  Not a chance.  It would be like teaching someone to ride a bike by handing them a manual on the laws of physics and gravitational pull.

Part of McKee’s massive appeal (and I include myself in this experience) is the very fact that his analysis IS finite and rational.  It talks to the organized professional in many/most aspiring film-makers.  His book and his course make such good sense, and are so easy to digest that it holds out promise of getting a movie “right” – as if there was a simple learning curve to ascend.  Very very appealing.  Very very misleading.

So, there, I’ve put the boot in, but… Does McKee and his work really have no practical value?  No, I think he does... has.  If nothing else, he has repeated a hundred thousand times to, perhaps, a hundred thousand storytellers, “What does your protagonist want?”.  He has, I think, been a highly necessary blast across the bows of many a would-be auteur who thought that showing attractive young people talking about how they feel, having sex, and smoking cigarettes was a substitute for a tale about someone wanting something REALLY badly and finding it f***ing difficult to get.

I suppose you could summarize my reservations about his value as a mentor/guru as my concern about the way his wisdom is disseminated rather than the wisdom itself.  Here's a different approach: Watch one of your favourite movies four times back to back with the remote in your hand.  Each time you feel something, anything – hit PAUSE.  Ask yourself, “What am I feeling?”, then “How the hell did they make me feel that?”.   When you’ve got an angle on those questions, hit PLAY.  When you feel something else, hit PAUSE again.  You get the picture.  For me, this is one of the most valuable ways to develop as a film-maker.  Great movies will teach you through specific illustration, through a type of osmosis.  They support and further develop the story instinct of a talented film-maker rather than dictate an algebra.

For me, the best thing that McKee has done is his “introduction” to Story.  It is a great piece of inspiring prose and I’d recommend it to you all.  But before you dive into the rest of his book or go on his course, I’d ask you, “How many movies have you written?  How many movies have you made?”  If you’ve written/made four or five and you’re still curious what the guru might be saying, then why not.  But if you’ve written/made less than that – why do you want to go?  If you want to learn from the true masters – watch movies.  And if you want to get good, don't study... do.

To Robert McKee, if you’re not poking pins in a small doll of me, I say, “Forgive me.  And if you ever want to talk movies and how to help develop good ones.  Write me.”


  1. I'm with you, Steve! Best, Rafaela

  2. When giving a choice of two doors to enter,
    one marked "Heaven"
    and the other marked "Lecture on Heaven",
    90 per cent of the world


    the second option

  3. I am in agreement with Stephen May’s perspective on structure. Ernest Hemingway was once asked if you should write from an outline. His reply was, “That’s horse shit! If you use an outline, the reader can tell it. The story is forced and unnatural.” We might not all be as natural a storyteller as Ernest Hemingway, but he certainly has a point.