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Advice for Writers from the Legendary Robert McKee

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Article by Site Editor © 1 November 2011 Kristi Thompson .
Posted in the Magazine ( · Stage & Screen ).

Everything I know about Story Structure, I learned it from Robert McKee. End of Story” 

Two time Oscar winning Writer/ Director Paul Haggis  (Crash, Million Dollar Baby… )

“McKee’s teachings are the law of the land at Pixar”  The Pixar Touch

We have all had blow your mind experiences – some hilarious, some *awesome*, some take your breath away, and others so profound it’s hard to express in words. My opportunity to sit one-on-one with the legendary Robert McKee was all. Strike that. It was more.

My brain had to create new pathways in order to absorb even one fully loaded sentence during our two-hour interview. Like tasting a rich spoonful of a 5 Michelin star chef’s finest French bullion, perfected after days of reducing, and decades of learning, hearing McKee speak about the craft of writing shocks the palette with his flavour and subtlety. His broth has been reducing over a lifetime of research and thought. It will explode your senses.

I sat on an elegant cream sofa in McKee’s London flat, across a low coffee table from the man, listening. As you see below, to interrupt McKee with paltry questions felt akin to questioning Homer mid-Odyssey. Because of this, I have broken up the interview into four parts, to be published separately: ‘Subtext vs. Description’, ‘Characters’, ‘Unfolding the Story’ and a surprising angle on ‘History’.

I’m confident you writers are looking for wisdom, thus will forgive my lack of personal descriptions – it’s enough to say that he grabbed a handful of salted nuts from a small ceramic bowl on the coffee table and munched hungrily while he talked; that he wore tan slacks; that his elegant wife Mia sat at their glass dining table at her laptop, preparing the business end of an unending series of lectures 32-hour one-man-shows McKee conducts worldwide, to filled lecture halls everywhere from LA to London to Bejing to Moscow. ( Story Seminar, London: Nov 3-6, Genre Seminar Nov. 19-21)

Robert McKee on Subtext vs. Description

What would you say to a novelist who is certain the gods have dictated to them their story, they’ve written it, edited out 10%, but cannot get it published?

McKee: “Never accept the 1st idea off the top of your head. Improvise. Create ten or twenty times more material. Every book, film, and TV show are sitting on the top of your head waiting for you to write every cliché you’ve seen.

Novelists work in a medium where they are allowed to describe too much. Playwrights can’t do this. They know that dialogue is the distillation of conflicts essential between people. There is almost no description in a play. It is all dialogue. No audience is going to sit and watch actors talk about nothing.

Novelists believe their words, all these descriptions, are literary. If the novelist had to write the entire novel in dialogue they’d be scared to death.

If a novelist could lift the images to a poetic level, fine, as long as the writer knows what’s going on underneath this flow of descriptive work. When novelists get in trouble is when that flow of imagery is literal, there’s no subtext, no secrets, no depth. It’s shallow. Nothing going on underneath.

For example: The English Patient has a 3-page description of shadows on walls. It won a Booker Prize. What does this make young writers think? There’s no need to create in depth if describing the surface wins prizes.

On the other side of the coin is Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. As Mrs. Dalloway is preparing for a dinner party, her whole life is going through her mind. Underneath this ordinary preparation is the depth of this woman’s life, it’s meaningful without Woolf ever telling you. What’s ultimately important is what Woolf does NOT say. The reader arrives at this through the workings of the woman’s mind.

In comedy the essence of the comic character is their blind obsession. There’s something they want obsessively. This is immediate subtext. You know Archie Bunker is a bigot, but he doesn’t. You know Inspector Clouseau is a clutz, but he doesn’t.

Always have the subtext–that deeper force or context–that the reader discovers, even if the novelist doesn’t say it.

Over reliance on descriptive talent, on language itself with nothing left unexpressed, unsaid, believing that the language itself is sufficient to draw the reader, is a fault that young writers have. As a result they write a glitter text devoid of subtext and I’m asleep.

It annoys me when a novelist thinks complicated language is complex. A story isn’t complex just because the language is complicated.

No subtext, and your prose will be flat, boring.”

For more McKee wisdom check out the next part of this interview ‘Character’.


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