6 Writing Tips from our Interview with Screenwriting Guru Robert McKee

By Valerie Kalfrin · October 3, 2017

There are no secrets to crafting a good story, though it sure feels that way at times. Venerable screenwriting instructor Robert McKee can sympathize.

For some people, the words seem to flow as if the writer tapped into a stream—or a high-speed wireless download from the Muse. Darren Aronofsky reportedly banged out the script of Mother! in five days (audiences are divided on the quality) while others wrestle with a project for months. Even years. They struggle to find a signal, let alone a fountain of inspiration.

“A lot of people think they already know how to write because they’ve seen movies all their life. How hard can that be? They’re very naïve,” said McKee, 76, by phone recently. “That empty space on the page is the problem. … You have to use a minimum of words and expression to do what a novelist can do with the maximum of words.”

A BAFTA-award-winning writer whom writer-director Peter Jackson (The Hobbit, the Lord of the Rings trilogy) calls “the guru of gurus,” McKee has taught his three-day STORY seminar for roughly 35 years. He typically brings STORY to New York City and Los Angeles, as well as other cities worldwide. In September, he taught the substance, structure, style, and principles of story design in Boston. This month, he visits Austin, Texas (Oct. 6 to 8), then London in November.

A celebrity among academics, thanks to Brian Cox’s portrayal of him in 2002’s Adaptation, McKee also is the author of Dialogue: The Art of Verbal Action for Page, Stage, and Screen, the follow-up to his seminal 1997 book, Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting.

An actor in his youth, he calls his seminars “a decent educational theater.” He loves teaching writers of all media because he truly believes that stories feed the soul.

“Stories give us models of experience—why we do what we do, and the probable consequences of all that,” he said. “I give them [storytellers] equipment for writing so they can give us equipment for living.” Plus, he adds, “I have tremendous fun.”

McKee is an engaging conversationalist and filmgoer who loves 2014’s The LEGO Movie and Guardians of the Galaxy as much as 2015’s 45 Years, a type of “anti-love story” where a long-married wife (Charlotte Rampling) discovers her husband (Tom Courtenay) has always been in love with someone else.

“I just love good stuff,” he says.

But what makes something good? That’s the rub. Here, we have six tips on how to stoke your creative fire from this master craftsman who has spent decades dissecting what makes stories tick.

1) Know what your characters want

Generally, people lose interest in a story once they don’t know what the characters want. “That’s because the writer doesn’t know what they want,” McKee says. “They don’t even have to know why the person wants it. If you grab the audience’s curiosity, they will follow along.”

The tricky part is to imply desire, even if it’s not immediate, he said. One way to do that is to make every scene have a specific intention. “The character is in a scene to get something,” he said. “The payoff in that scene is a setup for something else.”

2) Know when to introduce your protagonist

McKee notes that an audience gets hooked in the first 20 pages of a script, or roughly the first 20 minutes of a movie. But he’s not particular about introducing the protagonist on a particular page. Some people advocate bringing the protagonist in on the first page, but that can be a mistake if you haven’t first grabbed your audience’s interest, he said.

“The first impression that an audience has of a character is a critical moment,” McKee said. “There’s a balance you have to strike so that when the protagonist enters, it really hooks people.” Rick (Humphrey Bogart) arrives on page 15 of Casablanca and has tremendous impact, he says. The Killing Fields (1984) doesn’t focus on translator and New York Times photojournalist Dith Pran (Oscar-winner Haing S. Ngor) as a protagonist until about halfway through the film.

3) Assess your story honestly

“Often young writers aren’t a good audience of their own work,” McKee said. So don’t hold back from asking your story questions. He noted how brothers Peter and Bobby Farrelly (writer-directors of There’s Something About Mary, Dumb and Dumber, and the upcoming TV series Loudermilk with Ron Livingston) would stop and ask themselves every ten pages: What does the audience know at this point? What will they need to know?

4) Study a classic

McKee’s favorite writing guide is Aristotle’s Poetics. “My book is not the be-all, end-all,” he said. “Aristotle is as germane today, is as true today as it ever was. … He knew human nature.”

5) Know why you want to write

The twentysomething screenwriter who becomes an overnight success is a myth, McKee said. Hollywood loves stories about young up-and-comers, like Shane Black and Quentin Tarantino, each in his twenties when he broke in to the industry with scripts for Lethal Weapon and Reservoir Dogs. But these writers are more an exception than the norm.

“If you look into the careers of the best writers in Hollywood, there were always ten years of failure. It’s common,” McKee said. “It’s a reality that most people don’t want to face.”

Some people love the idea of being in Hollywood, what McKee calls “yourself in the art,” more than the creative process, expressing yourself or your insights. So ask yourself: Am I willing to fail ten times over? Am I willing to write a major work a year for the next ten years that nobody wants, so that by the eleventh script, I’ve become a better writer?

“See, if you love the art in yourself, you have to write. There’s no choice. You will persevere.”

6) Acknowledge the work

“Mastering the art form is a lifetime struggle,” McKee said. “You never know everything. Every time you write a screenplay, it’s all new—new characters and new story.”

Contests are a great way to break yourself out of creative paralysis and procrastination, plus receive validation of your work. But don’t get caught up over the long haul in comparing yourself to other people. “There’s only one person you’re competing with: yourself as an artist. Your taste, your judgment, struggling to make sense of the world.”

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