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Robert McKee Part Three – Unfold the Story

Writing.ie | Magazine | Special Guests | Stage & Screen

By Kristi Thompson

Robert McKee, a Fulbright Scholar, is the author of the international bestseller STORYSTORY won the International Moving Image Book Award and has been translated into 20 languages. STORY is a required reading in the creative writing courses at Harvard, Yale and major universities around the world. McKee’s UK Television programs have been twice nominated for the BAFTA, winning it for J’accuse Citizen Kane.

McKee lectures world-wide on the art of writing for page, stage and screen and is the most sought after story consultant in Hollywood, NY and all other film making centers of the world. McKee was portrayed by Emmy Award winning actor Brian Cox in the Colombia Pictures, 4 time Oscar nominated film ADAPTATION.  McKee alumni have won 35 Academy Awards, 164 Nominations, Emmys, Pulitzer & Whitebread Awards

In 2011 alone, McKee Alumni won 7 Oscar Nominations & 2 Oscar wins (Toy Story 3 & Inside Job).  For over 25 years, Robert McKee’s Story Seminar has been the world’s ultimate writing class for over 50,000 screenwriters, filmmakers, TV writers, novelists, industry executives, actors, producers, directors and playwrights. He spoke to Kristy Thompson for writing.ie, revealing both how a story should unfold, and how his own story  has developed.

If you still cannot fully grasp the legendary aspect of Robert McKee, or even if you can, please take a look at this famous clip from the movie “Adaptation”, written by renowned screenwriter Charlie Kaufman.

I asked Robert McKee about story telling, about how he thought a story should develop. He replied,

“Children tell stories by saying, “and then, and then, and then”. And then I went to the store, and then I got an ice cream, and then…  Great storytellers unfold the story in a dramatized way that shows what people are thinking.

The danger of writing off the top of your head, thinking you’re being inspired by the Muse, is it becomes “And then and then, and then…”

Writers come to me after having polished their book, because no one likes it. They can’t get it published and they don’t know why.

I tell them to go through their novel, and in a series of one-sentence statements, tell me the event design—what happens—and the reaction to what happens, because the reaction is what spurs on the next action.

This sentence might be an entire chapter:

“Man goes into the dining room, finds note, wife has left him.”

Then I want you to read the event design of your novel. I want you to tell me that you know what happens in your novel. Because that’s what I’m going to do.

After the novelist sets out an event outline, they often call me and tell me they don’t have to send me their novel, they now realize the inner life of their novel is weak. Nothing happens.

Many great novelists, write from Outline to Treatment to Text. In the middle stage the Treatment is where you expand your ideas. Treatments are often much bigger than a novel, to get all your ideas on the page.

One thing I try to do for writers is to end their mental bullshit. To get them to stop thinking they’ve written more than they have. Treatment gets it on page, so you stop thinking you know what you don’t know.

Then reduce the very expanded treatment down to the novel. It takes taste and judgment to say what you intend to say, leaving out what’s unnecessary.

I teach novelists to stop focusing on actions. Focus on reactions. The number of actions a human can make are limited. Meet a woman, fall in love, get married, get divorced, go to med school, go to work, etc. The same things happen to everyone, they are remarkably similar from one person to the next.

What REALLY matters in your story are reactionsThose are infinitely variable. That is where the real writing comes in.

“Man goes into dining room, finds note, wife has left him.”

Infinite Possible Reactions:      Man breaks down and cries; Man picks up phone and calls Mistress, delighted; Man turns note over, sees it’s the dry cleaning receipt he’d lost, leaves to get his dry cleaning…

Out of a character’s reaction comes the motivating factor to take the next action, then see how characters react to that action, and so on.”

Though McKee today is a kinder, gentler version of his former self — thanks in great part, he will attest, to his gracious wife and business manager Mia – his beliefs remain as powerful as they are profound. If you have ever questioned the value of being a writer, please keep reading. Then review the previous three parts of this series, and keep working…

 So what fuels the legend that is McKee? He told me,

“To me the theatre, the novel, the film is a church. It’s a holy place where we go for what Kenneth Burke called our ‘equipment for living’, to enrich our lives virtually as if our art were spiritual. The difference between a civilized person and an uncivilized person is their culture. I’m trying to teach people to tell their stories in an effective, rich way.

‘The young’, if I may, have a very flippant attitude towards writing: it’s a game, or they do it to call attention to themselves, to get rich and famous. To them it’s not an art form, it’s a career move.

Some, who aren’t professionals, can be goofy or disrespectful because they’ve been taught at their universities that works of art are not important, that works of art are commodities to be bought and sold.

They’ve been taught, from their university professor’s point of view, that creativity is not important, but criticism is, that the professor’s explanation of the work of art is more important than the work of art itself. When professors take this attitude, they’re disrespectful of the arts, so why shouldn’t the student be? I’ve had to fight over the years against this cynical smart-ass attitude toward the arts. They have lost respect, and I trace it back to their education.

I studied Shakespeare under Professor G. B. Harrison, a renowned Shakespeare scholar, and Oxford Don, who was teaching at the University of Michigan in the 60s. A kid in class kept raising her hand, asking Aren’t I Important sort of questions, criticizing Hamlet on what she thought were holes. G. B. Harrison said, “You do not judge Shakespeare, Shakespeare judges you. You should read Shakespeare every birthday to see how much you have grown.”

That was the attitude back then, that the artist is something we aspire to. That attitude has been reversed. This is why people can provoke my ire when they are disrespectful in class. It isn’t only to me, or to their fellow students, it demonstrates their whole attitude toward art, towards Story as an art form. I set a tone in my lectures. ‘This is the difference between civilized and uncivilized.’ If the story-telling of our culture goes wrong the result is decadence.

My famous outbursts, like in the movie Adaptation, are rooted in my belief that we have art–in my atheist view, of course—[art] is what we have instead of religion.

It’s no accident that art came out of religion. Comedy came out of a great religious festival celebrating Bacchus.

There’s a wonderful book written 100 years ago, called The Secret of Crete, written by a German geologist named Wunderlich, who went to what was thought to be the Palace of the Minos, about 4,000 years ago when Crete was a high civilization.  Wunderlich noticed that these beautiful white steps were made of a soft stone. He wondered why this Palace would have soft stones for steps. Wunderlich came to realize this was an acropolis, not a Palace. It was a tomb. Then he began to study about the Cretans. The Cretans taught the Egyptians embalming, had an embalming industry. The Egyptians were into pyramid building, tombs. All over the Mediterranean world the focus was Life After Death. The Greeks came and decided this tomb building was expensive, so the Greeks had poets write poems, sing songs, dance and praise the dead. The Greeks celebrated life, not the after-life. This became theatre. This all grew out of the religious impulse, and the worship of gods.

When you study the history of it, you realize art is an expression of the human spirit and the ideals that all the gods represented.

It’s a long-winded way of saying, this is Serious Shit. It’s important. If we don’t do it well we will be swallowed up by our own ugly human natures.

I was fortunate. I grew up in the high tide of theatre, cinema, and the novel of the English-speaking world. Tennessee Williams, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Hemmingway, Fitzgerald, Lillian Hellman, then came the avant-garde Becket, and theatre of the absurd guys.

Then came great film, European, Asian, best of Hollywood. Every two weeks you’d come out of a film floored, by Bergman, John Ford, Corisara, Hitchcock, and the rest of time it was pretty good. A couple dozen times a year you’ll be knocked flat.

Now…? Once. If you’re lucky. In a good year. So I say I worry cause I’ve known a better time.”

About the author

© Kristi Thompson, January 2011.

Kristi Thompson has three music degrees, and performed opera internationally for fifteen years before motherhood. A Texas native who has recently relocated with her family to London, Kristi enjoyed the last 6 years living in Dublin, Ireland, amongst its exciting writing community. While there she wrote interviews for Dublin Writer’s Festival, her own blog, and enjoyed her duties as webmaster for the Irish PEN.


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