Here we highlight some amazing screenwriting wisdom from Robert McKee — the guru of all screenwriting gurus that has coached over 60 Academy Award winners, 170 Emmy Award winners, as well as over 100,000 writers that have attended his seminars — through the lens of TSL 360, the largest screenwriting education content library.
We’ve pulled some of his best nuggets of advice and perspective and elaborate on how those points can be best applied to your own screenwriting journey. Watch the full video through an exclusive TSL 360 Membership for an even more in-depth look into McKee’s renowned perspective.
1. Learn to Analyze Screenplays
Mckee tells the story of how his father would punish him as a child if he had done something wrong or broken some household rule.
His father would make home read one of Aesop’s Fables, which was a collection of fables credited to Aesop, a slave and story-teller believed to have lived in ancient Greece between 620 and 564 BCE. McKee would then be tasked with rewriting the fable in excellent penmanship, along with detailing Aesop’s moral of the story, accompanied by McKee’s own interpretation of that moral. He impressed his father with his analysis enough that he went on to analyze the whole collection of fables.
McKee prides himself on the ability to determine what a story means, and how the author executes that meaning. That’s the core of any great screenplay analysis.
It really comes down to being able to look at a story through an objective lens. This is the pinnacle ability that every great screenwriter should strive to attain. When you can see your own stories and characters through that type of objective lens, your writing will prove to be better with subsequent drafts. And you can nurture this skillset by becoming a script reader yourself.
Being a script reader and writing coverage on other people’s scripts is the best education you can receive.
2. Write in Character
McKee states that during the writing process, the writer is the first improvisational actor that tackles the character being written.
You can accomplish this with fingers on the keyboard using your imagination or do as Charles Dickens did; pace around the room improvising dialogue and then rush to a pen and paper or typewriter (laptop or computer in your case) to document the best lines.
But when you’re writing dialogue and actions for your character, you have to become that character. You have to write as that character.
Too many screenwriters make the mistake of using dialogue merely as a way to communicate inner thoughts and move the plot along. The result is always wooden characters that have little to no depth. When you write in character and feel the emotions, actions, and reactions that they’d feel in any given situation, you’ll have characters that read so much better.
3. Create Reactions the Characters Will Not Expect
When you inject yourself into that character’s mindset, the next part is taking yourself out of that character and finding different ways to create the opposite of what that character is expecting to happen.
“[The character] knocks on the door and the door opens? No. The roof caves in,” McKee explains.
That’s what creates major conflict in your stories. That’s what creates masterful turning points.
“So the writer goes into character, creates a moment, comes out of character because they are the God of the universe they create… and they explore it from various angles, other characters’ points of view, the physical world, the subconscious of the character themselves…”
4. Every Writer Starts in a Different Place
McKee points out that all writers start in a different place. Some writers start with a character. Others begin with an event. There is no single answer to how your process of development should start as a writer.
Starting with an event often stems from a “What Would Happen If…” question. If you’re looking for a high concept feature or series, these are great questions to seek inspiration from.
Read The Script Lab’s The Secret to Understanding What High Concept Means in Hollywood!
What would happen if a Great White shark made its way into resort island and began to feed off of vacationers? (Jaws)
What would happen if a wife walked out on her working husband and left their child with him? (Kramer vs. Kramer)
That’s how you start your development process of story selection if you want to start with an event. The next question you ask is, “To whom?” And that is where the character comes into play.
5. 90% of What You Create in Your Head Is Useless
McKee makes a bold, but true, statement, “Ninety percent of what you create in your head is useless.”
Our imaginations are so broad, and they are often fed by story aspects and character types that we’ve seen before in books, film, and television. Most of what we initially conjure during the developmental phase is cliche, over-used, or just not right for the story or characters we’ve chosen.
Great writers are those that make great choices, as far as what is discarded and what is used.
“Whatever starts your writing, need not stay in the writing,” McKee says.
Your concepts, stories, and characters are always evolving. Sometimes you’ll have to kill your darlings because they just don’t fit within the framework of the story you ended up writing. Sometimes the genre you intended to write under doesn’t fit the concept and character that you later discovered.
There’s nothing wrong with that.
These are just a few of the nuggets of screenwriting wisdom that Robert McKee has shared in his TSL 360 video. He goes on to offer this inspiring quote.
“The problem is not inspiration. There’s a lot of talk in the world of writing about inspiration. That it’s all about inspiration, blah, blah, blah. Inspiration is like standing on the steps of Carnegie Hall humming. Wondering why all of those people going in and out of that great building don’t recognize your talent. You have to take your humming and turn it into a symphony. The problem is not getting started. The problem is finishing. And finishing beautifully.”
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Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures. Make sure to read his growing archive of posts at ScreenCraft for more inspiration.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies