Robert McKee on Why Formulaic Screenwriting is Destructive

Why is formulaic screenwriting destructive? Robert McKee has some explanation that all screenwriters should consider.

Welcome to our ongoing Learning from the Masters and Industry Insiders series where we seek out and feature excellent videos, interviews, and discussions of the art, craft, and business of screenwriting and pull the best words of wisdom, writing tips, and screenwriting advice.

Here we feature the Big Think video The Destructiveness of Formulaic Screenwriting as Screenwriting Guru Robert McKee explains why you shouldn’t try to put plot points on specific page numbers, according to beat sheets and story structure formulas found in books. We pull his best quotes and elaborate on those points.

“Many, many books say that certain events must happen at certain pages in a screenplay. That is the most destructive possible thing to say to a young writer.”

Beat sheets and formulas are false concepts that books sell to screenwriters. They are applied in hindsight to existing films as examples, which is always 20/20.

But…

“There is a rhythm. In order to reach a satisfying limit of experience for [your] characters, generally, a minimum of three reversals.”  

He goes on to say that there could be four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, or more — using movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Speed as examples of movies that have multiple reversals within seven to nine act structures.

Download the screenplay for Raiders of the Lost Ark here for free.

If you spread at least three reversals of fortune out throughout a screenplay, you are obviously going to have one towards the beginning, one in the middle, and one before the climax of the story — or whatever variance. And these reversals that are spread out through the story obviously create some sort of rhythm throughout the screenplay.

However…

“Exactly what that rhythm is, is so idiosyncratic to the nature of the story that’s being told, that you cannot predict or demand that they happen on certain pages. But you can point out to the writer that there is a rhythm. That you have to hook the audience’s interest, hold it, and progress it up to 120 minutes…to do that, you’ll need at least three major reversals. Then you have to work out how to distribute them. So there are certain forms. But by the page is a formula. And that formula kind of thinking is very destructive.”

Read: Screenwriting Wisdom From Robert McKee’s TSL 360 Interview

Watch the whole video for McKee’s elaboration on these points.


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