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November 14, 2009 9:26 AM   Subscribe

Robert McKee’s Unconvincing Story
posted by Artw (78 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
The emperor here is not naked, but he is showing some skin through his loosely tied robe, and when the subject turns to horror, the silky-smooth garment collapses around his ankles.

Dear God, it's McKee slash!
posted by Horace Rumpole at 9:33 AM on November 14, 2009 [10 favorites]


Synopsis:
I entered the course genuinely hoping to learn about screenwriting, but also, as a critic—and a specialist of horror movies—with a professional interest in McKee’s theories about genre and narrative.

By the end of the day, I had learned some valuable lessons about show business, the art of persuasion, and the tricky relationship between truth and fiction. I’d also learned that Robert McKee often has no idea what he’s talking about. Some people believe that no course can teach you how to write a screenplay, that it just comes out of you, but in my opinion that’s not true. A good teacher can really help writers, and McKee surely has had some success. He’s been criticized for turning the creative process into a series of rules, but this misses the real problem with his course, namely that the rules themselves are often banal and arbitrary.


About McKee:
Robert McKee, born 1941, is a creative writing instructor who is widely known for his popular "Story Seminar", which he developed when he was a professor at the University of Southern California. McKee is the author of a "screenwriters' bible" called Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting. Many of Hollywood's active screenwriters claim him as an inspiration.

About writers in general, including the author of this VF article:
Writers are all bitches.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:33 AM on November 14, 2009 [5 favorites]


So... someone who focuses on the horror genre almost exclusively feels that he has a better feel for the nuances of the genre than someone who doesn't? Well, now, that's a twist I didn't see coming.
posted by Halloween Jack at 9:49 AM on November 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


Well, if someones proposing universal absolutes you kind of expect them to be... universal?
posted by Artw at 10:02 AM on November 14, 2009


No questions designed to impress me, please, and do not engage me in conversation.

Oh - so you wrote an article instead to impress us.
posted by forallmankind at 10:06 AM on November 14, 2009


I perfer my Altnerate Universe Absolutes, thankuverymuch.
posted by The Whelk at 10:09 AM on November 14, 2009


...he has a better feel for the nuances of the genre than someone who doesn't? Well, now, that's a twist I didn't see coming.

The best part is that just when you think he's hammered a point flat into the ground, you turn your back... and a single shaking claw reaches up from the bloody mess.

"Banal and arbitrary" definitely describes McKee's rulebook. Of course, that's not always a bad thing. Sometimes any arbitrary decision or rule is better than nothing at all. A great many screenplays, IME/O, seem to get stuck in the second act, as if their writers were unable to choose just one way to go with this, and instead do some half-measured muddle of three ideas at once.
posted by rokusan at 10:15 AM on November 14, 2009


McKee seems to have difficulty translating his screenwriting genius into, you know, screenplays.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 10:18 AM on November 14, 2009 [10 favorites]


Did you know that there is no word in German for "entertainment"?
posted by betweenthebars at 10:24 AM on November 14, 2009


I read this article yesterday and had to sort of smile along. I finally read McKee's THE STORY last year after years of purposefully NOT reading it ... and would be lying if I said I didn't find it at least slightly helpful, specifically with regard for helping me to get "outside" my writing for a while (read the book if you want to know the McKee difference between outside/inside).

But McKee's also full of shit in terms of knowing what good writing truly requires; simply because he's such an awful writer.

Exhibit A: THE STORY itself. What a long-winded, self-important, unnecessarily vague (at times) tome!

Exhibit B: McKee himself. What a long-winded, self-important, unnecessarily vague (at times) clown! I use these adjectives because that's exactly how it was put to me by a recent acquaintance who had the "misfortune" of teaching alongside McKee for a few years. For the record, this guy also worked with Syd Field who he simply referred to as an asshole.

Exhibit C: McKee's own screenplays suck. If they didn't, we'd all know and cherish them. I haven't read any of them myself but I've had in depth discussions with a few who have. As it was put to me, if they didn't suck, the guy wouldn't be in the "guru" business, he'd be out there writing movies.

Finally, again from the guy who had to work with him, the secret to understanding McKee is that he's first and foremost a performer. His weekend seminars are scripted performances, no more, no less. Not a complete waste of time (and money) but they've got way more to do with feeding his bank account (and ego) than they do with making anyone a better writer.
posted by philip-random at 10:24 AM on November 14, 2009 [4 favorites]


"Banal and arbitrary" definitely describes McKee's rulebook. Of course, that's not always a bad thing.

Especially not if you want to succeed in Hollywood, where 90% of big budget movies are banal and arbitrary.
posted by dersins at 10:27 AM on November 14, 2009 [2 favorites]


As it was put to me, if they didn't suck, the guy wouldn't be in the "guru" business, he'd be out there writing movies.

Those who can, do. Those who can't, guru.
posted by nevercalm at 10:29 AM on November 14, 2009 [4 favorites]


Did you know that there is no word in German for "entertainment"?
posted by betweenthebars at 10:24 AM on November 14


Schadenfreude?
posted by The otter lady at 10:29 AM on November 14, 2009 [15 favorites]


Let me say specifically that I mean no defense of McKee (because I have no strong opinions about him one way or the other, beyond finding his book not all that helpful) when I say this writer strikes me as a real douchebag.
posted by Naberius at 10:30 AM on November 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


Especially not if you want to succeed in Hollywood, where 90% of big budget movies are banal and arbitrary.

Yup, that too.

Formulas exist because they work, and "work" doesn't mean "create great art", it means "generate reliable box office."
posted by rokusan at 10:31 AM on November 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


a pretty good interview with Mr. McKee if you can stomach the interviewer's smugness ... and I'm not just talking about his hair.
posted by philip-random at 10:33 AM on November 14, 2009


Did you know that there is no word in German for "entertainment"?


This is a misrepresentation. There is a word in German for entertainment, but it's so long, so complex, so full of meaning to express every concept and aspect of "entertainment" that the speaker would collapse of starvation and want before finishing.

So, it's easier just to use English. Less language-related deaths that way.
posted by The Whelk at 10:33 AM on November 14, 2009 [9 favorites]


My favorite McKee story is only tangentially about him. (And may or not be true, as it's all hearsay by the time it gets to me.) So, I have a friend who worked for a certain animation company, which produces a lot of direct to video movies for a certain toy company, involving a certain highly successful intellectual property.

Supposedly, at the behest of certain toy company which wants the best and is willing to pay for it, each of the scripts for these movies is run past Robert McKee for his input before it is produced. The first time, because they're paying him like $10,000 for this, he took his assignment rather seriously and returned copious notes about how to improve the story. These apparently were picked to death within the corridors of certain toy company, where everyone had a good reason why some particular note would not be appropriate to the brand image of the highly successful intellectual property. So when the movie was finished, none of McKee's notes were anywhere to be seen.

Now they still do one or two of these a year, and they supposedly still send every script to Robert McKee during pre-production, and McKee always responds that it's spot on and he wouldn't change a thing, pockets his $10,000 and everyone is happy.
posted by Naberius at 10:39 AM on November 14, 2009 [4 favorites]


I don't think you'll learn anything from McKee that you won't learn from any number of How To Write books. That said I've not ponied up for one of his seminars - I'm just basing that on reading his Rules (which are all stating the bleeding obvious) and flicking through Story

Of course it would be nice if films nowadays actually had plots rather than a few set pieces strung together via character arcs onto the three act structure / hero's journey
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 10:42 AM on November 14, 2009


A little surprised that the majority of posts seem to be antagonistic toward the writer. The general feeling seems to be that the writer somehow feels slighted by McKee's smug superiority and basically wrote this "smug" piece of his own to take the guy down a peg or two. I didn't get that at all. It may not be the most in depth deconstruction we could have asked for but I'm not sure McKee's stripped down approach warrants a more robust rebuttal. One may not get much more out of the article than a warning not to spend $645 on this guy's seminars, but when you boil it down I think that was more or less the author's intention. I certainly don't find this to be easily dismissed as mere revenge journalism.
posted by squeakyfromme at 10:47 AM on November 14, 2009 [6 favorites]


Of course it would be nice if films nowadays actually had plots rather than a few set pieces strung together via character arcs onto the three act structure / hero's journey

I'm pretty sure those are the work of producers who could quote you Story chapter and verse. As are the above mentioned having-your-cake-and-eating-it endings.
posted by Artw at 10:52 AM on November 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


squeakyfromme - Yeah, it's some kind of Metafilter snark dynamics thing. I'm pretty sure we'd see the opposite if there were an article wildly praising McKee.
posted by Artw at 10:53 AM on November 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


Did you know that there is no word in German for "entertainment"?

What about "Lassen Sie uns eindringen Polen"?
posted by orthogonality at 10:53 AM on November 14, 2009


squeakyfromme - Yeah, it's some kind of Metafilter snark dynamics thing. I'm pretty sure we'd see the opposite if there were an article wildly praising McKee.
posted by Artw at 10:53 AM on November 14 [+] [!]


I was trying to give the benefit of the doubt and not so readily dismiss multiple opinions as snark, but when I read "oh, so you wrote a story to impress us?" my first thought was "oh, so you posted snark to impress us?"
posted by squeakyfromme at 10:59 AM on November 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


Well I read the article and it seemed to make a pretty good case. Not much about that experience motivates me to make a comment. Now, on the other hand, if something about the style or content of the article had rubbed me the wrong way or offended my sensibilities, I may still not have much to offer the discussion, but I would have much more motivation to post a comment just to voice my disapproval. It's the whole silence implying consent thing or somesuch.
posted by idiopath at 11:07 AM on November 14, 2009


I've seen this a couple of times - I think that theres a certain tone that just sets MeFites off. Generally one thats a bit snarky and possibly a little playfull or hyperbolic with it, which you'd think MeFi would be all about given most comments threads. I think it's like putting two dogs in a room.
posted by Artw at 11:10 AM on November 14, 2009 [2 favorites]


Also: Probably not much to be done about it except ignore it.
posted by Artw at 11:11 AM on November 14, 2009


What a strange read.
posted by nola at 11:11 AM on November 14, 2009


(of course, it could be that MeFites are all a bunch of aspiring screenwriters tightly clutching Story to their chests in the hope that it's totemic powers will get them somewhere)
posted by Artw at 11:13 AM on November 14, 2009


Critic writer gets critical, writes about it.
posted by furtive at 11:13 AM on November 14, 2009


I am afraid of both of these douchebags.

And Let the Right One In is the best horror movie evar.
posted by bardic at 11:20 AM on November 14, 2009


squeaky, the internet is merely a succession of individuals exerting tremendous effort to appear unimpressed by the efforts of the previous individual to exert tremendous effort to appear unimpressed. Snark grows exponentially.
posted by hifiparasol at 11:20 AM on November 14, 2009 [2 favorites]


"Nothing happens in the world? Are you out of your fucking mind? People are murdered every day. There's genocide, war, corruption. Every fucking day, somewhere in the world, somebody sacrifices his life to save someone else. Every fucking day, someone, somewhere takes a conscious decision to destroy someone else. People find love, people lose it. For Christ's sake, a child watches her mother beaten to death on the steps of a church. Someone goes hungry. Somebody else betrays his best friend for a woman. If you can't find that stuff in life, then you, my friend, don't know crap about life! And why the FUCK are you wasting my two precious hours with your movie? I don't have any use for it! I don't have any bloody use for it!"

(Brian Cox is my favorite Robert McKee.)
posted by The Deej at 11:24 AM on November 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


What about "Lassen Sie uns eindringen Polen"?

はい!
posted by betweenthebars at 11:26 AM on November 14, 2009


Well, if someones proposing universal absolutes you kind of expect them to be... universal?

Except that McKee doesn't actually do that. STORY (there's no definite, or for that matter indefinite, article) isn't designed as a formula. It's like a book of Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio's Wordplayer columns - not telling you what to do but rather helping you think up solutions to problems you might be running into.

I know it's hip to dis McKee, and I'm sure he deserves it to an extent, but there's a reason why Charlie Kaufman can't get anywhere until he finally relents and checks out the seminar - it might feel dirty, but it's actually useful as fuck.
posted by Navelgazer at 11:28 AM on November 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


I've seen this a couple of times - I think that theres a certain tone that just sets MeFites off. Generally one thats a bit snarky and possibly a little playfull or hyperbolic with it, which you'd think MeFi would be all about given most comments threads. I think it's like putting two dogs in a room.
posted by Artw at 11:10 AM on November 14 [+] [!]


I think there are also conformity/approval issues involved, because the opposite often happens as well: somebody will post something breathlessly positive, like "omg thank you for posting this link I don't know how I've lived without this blessing it's like manna from Heaven!" or some such effusive gushing, and the next several comments will also be full of gushing praise.

Sure, eventually the naysayers swoop in and add their .02 cents but it can be downright bizarre how MeFi threads so often start with near unanimous agreement, sometimes taking a few dozen posts to start splintering into individual viewpoints.

But then from a snarker's point of view it appears that I'm just snarking about their snark.

Getting back to the article, I can see why it might have triggered some backlash even if it expressed valid points if the writer did so in an obnoxious manner, but it seemed kind of dry to me. Not great writing, really, and nothing overly offensive, except that the author missed out on a golden opportunity to title his work "Me and Bobby McKee".
posted by squeakyfromme at 11:29 AM on November 14, 2009


I certainly don't find this to be easily dismissed as mere revenge journalism.

Not revenge so much as envy and disappointment. A journalist would like to be able to assert things and never have them questioned. Jason Zinoman would like to learn how to do this too, but ends up not understanding how McKee gets away with it. As philip-random says, the secret to understanding McKee is that he's first and foremost a performer. He plays a character who is always right no matter what he says and he does it convincingly. Jason Zinoman is wrong, even when he argues his points because he's playing against a character who is always right. He can't get out of this role any more than the Japanese woman could.
posted by Obscure Reference at 11:29 AM on November 14, 2009 [2 favorites]


The problem here (in terms of the writer's tone, etc) is surely just that Jason Zinoman is clearly a horror-movie bore. That doesn't mean he can't write a good takedown of Robert McKee, and indeed I think he has achieved that — but in spite of, not because of, his horror-movie bore qualifications.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 11:35 AM on November 14, 2009


A little surprised that the majority of posts seem to be antagonistic toward the writer.

Yes, but I think you're missing why. First, Zinoman is a terrible writer. Fully half the article seems to be parenthetical asides. It was a slog to get through. And second, it's steeped in irony, basically saying, "McKee deliberately tries to impress you," while essentially doing the same thing itself ("Look how much I know about horror"). Is the article intended to tear down McKee in the reader's mind, or to pump up Zinoman? Equal parts, I'd say.

I certainly don't find this to be easily dismissed as mere revenge journalism.

It's not really "journalism." That's a constant problem with critics. Many know their subject (whether horror films, rock music, modern art, gourmet restaurants, etc.) but not their trade.
posted by cribcage at 11:38 AM on November 14, 2009 [2 favorites]


the secret to understanding McKee is that he's first and foremost a performer. He plays a character who is always right no matter what he says and he does it convincingly. Jason Zinoman is wrong, even when he argues his points because he's playing against a character who is always right. He can't get out of this role any more than the Japanese woman could.

Obviously this was meant as a defense of McKee's objectives, but I'm not sure what you're implying he accomplishes by convincingly playing a guy that's always right, aside from duping people into paying large sums for his "performances".

It reminds me in a way of musician friends that have related anecdotes of taking guitar lessons from truly talented players... the punch line is usually that the instructor is far more interested in having his student watch in awe while he shreds on his own guitar for an hour than he is in imparting any kind of useful knowledge.
posted by squeakyfromme at 11:44 AM on November 14, 2009


Charlie Kaufman can't get anywhere until he finally relents and checks out the seminar

Well that whole film is, among other things, an exercise in breaking all of McKee's precious rules and still having a film that works.

And the real life McKee told the real life Kaufmen to cut out Bigfoot turning up at the end of the film. Which is stupid, I mean what film could not benefit from Bigfoot turning up at the end?
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 11:45 AM on November 14, 2009 [2 favorites]


Obviously this was meant as a defense of McKee's objectives, but I'm not sure what you're implying he accomplishes by convincingly playing a guy that's always right, aside from duping people into paying large sums for his "performances".

He's demonstrating the product. He is convincing and convincing trumps accurate. His big ideas are right and he communicates it better this way than by dealing with the exceptions. Did Shakespeare deal with childhood? The "all the world's a stage" speech references childhood but that's really tangential to what the speech is about. Is there a Japanese word for "yes?" What does an accurate answer to this question have to do with McKee's point? It reminds me of the "story" that "People such as scientist Stephen Hawking wouldn't have a chance in the UK, where the National Health Service would say the life of this brilliant man, because of his physical handicaps, is essentially worthless." The accuracy of the story is irrelevant to the author's point and correcting it with the facts convinced nobody.
posted by Obscure Reference at 12:27 PM on November 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


Here we reach the climax of the scene in which the hero faces an adversary who seems to have the upper hand. Every great thriller, McKee teaches, must have this showdown.

I don't care if you guys think the writer has done a hatchet job on McKee. If he is teaching this then he is in large part responsible for much of what I hate about movies these days, the utter sameness of them all. Stuff like this, and a rigorous adherence to a three-act structure, have just about made me sick of movies. It's often good to have, but slavish adherence to it infuriates me. It seems to me that they have become the ultimate aim of a screenplay, instead of a means of reaching that end.
posted by JHarris at 12:31 PM on November 14, 2009 [4 favorites]


Here's the thing about Robert McKee.

He has parlayed two things into a boatload of cash: a Blinding Grasp of the Obvious and a Race to the Middle. He's the Dr. Phil of screenwriting.

Robert McKee isn't the problem--it's the people who take Robert McKee seriously who are the problem.
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:43 PM on November 14, 2009 [4 favorites]


Demonstrating the product? I thought he was supposed to be teaching people to write scripts and not to become a charismatic public speaker? In a tossed off fashion you mention "his big ideas are right" without really qualifying that at all, but it doesn't really matter because your larger point seems to be "good on him for building a convincing facade of authority for which people are willing to shell out hundreds of dollars".

Again, regardless of the quality of Zinoman's writing, unless everything in his story is a fabrication it seems to me that McKee is far more responsible for churning out cookier cutter Hollywood hacks than he is for building up quality writers.
posted by squeakyfromme at 12:43 PM on November 14, 2009


McKee is far more responsible for churning out cookier cutter Hollywood hacks than he is for building up quality writers

I don't think anyone would argue with that, except maybe McKee. (And you could probably put it in diplomatic enough language that he would agree with it, too.)

McKee's stuff is a crutch. It's useful for people who need a crutch, people who are floundering around writing 200-page screenplays about some suburban kid whose parents don't understand him and who enchants Manic Pixie Girl by playing his tuba, etc.

The thing is that if you're running in the Olympics, you shouldn't need crutches. And if you're training the Olympic track team, you shouldn't insist that they use crutches. As I said upthread, McKee's not the problem--it's the suits with money who insist that McKee's shit isn't a crutch. Which is why Hollywood is like "Harrison Bergeron".
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:46 PM on November 14, 2009 [3 favorites]


Is there a Japanese word for "yes?" What does an accurate answer to this question have to do with McKee's point? It reminds me of the "story" that "People such as scientist Stephen Hawking wouldn't have a chance in the UK, where the National Health Service would say the life of this brilliant man, because of his physical handicaps, is essentially worthless." The accuracy of the story is irrelevant to the author's point and correcting it with the facts convinced nobody.

I'm not sure where you're going with this. Is the author's point that they are an ignorant blowhard?
posted by Sparx at 12:48 PM on November 14, 2009


A journalist would like to be able to assert things and never have them questioned.

I know a lot of journalists. Dozens. I married one. I can tell you that, at least in my experience, this is universally bullshit. The ones I've met generally welcome questions, as long as they're not stupid ones.

Now, editors on the other hand...
posted by middleclasstool at 12:49 PM on November 14, 2009 [2 favorites]


I'm not sure where you're going with this.

You're not alone. Obscure Reference (I hate the term "eponysterical" and besides, it's just too easy here) seems to be having a debate in his own mind about Machiavellian business practices and wants to drag this completely unrelated topic into the discussion. There's no question he's contributed a great deal of verbiage defending McKee, but none of it has really said anything about the quality of McKee's actual instruction. I almost feel baited: as if Obscure is flatly stating "his big ideas are right" and hoping we'll accept him at his word, which would indeed prove his point... although that point would still have nothing to do with the discussion at hand.
posted by squeakyfromme at 12:58 PM on November 14, 2009


I went to one of McKee's seminars. It's largely a performance of his book, so much so that I'd advise spending your time and money on the book and some DVDs and screenplays, and analyzing them yourself. I want to stress that I mean this as praise of the book, not as dissing the seminar. McKee's an outstanding speaker, but his performance doesn't add hundreds of dollars of value to his ideas, which are perfectly well presented in the book. (And you also get to avoid his self-aggrandizement and irritating pronouncements unrelated to writing.)

I've probably read a stack of writing books taller than I am, and Story is on my short list of ones that are indispensable.

fearfulsymmetry: Well that whole film is, among other things, an exercise in breaking all of McKee's precious rules

Y'know, the McKee of "Adaptation" isn't the real McKee (any more than the Kaufman is.) Here are his precious rules. There's room for argument about the first, but I'd say "Adaptation" follows the other nine. Which you'd pretty much expect a good film to, since they're somewhat sui generis exhortations against lazy hackery, not some cynical encouragement of following formula. They're not the interesting part of Story; its discussion of plot is the good part, but that doesn't lend itself to being expressed in punchy bullet points.
posted by Zed at 1:07 PM on November 14, 2009


Is there a Japanese word for "yes?"

はい.
posted by SPrintF at 1:13 PM on November 14, 2009


Innacurate mockery of foreigners based on stereotypes probably is a great way to make a ton of money in the movie industry, so he has that.
posted by Artw at 1:26 PM on November 14, 2009


"Thou shalt seek the end of the line, the negation of the negation, taking characters to the farthest reaches and depth of conflict imaginable within the story's own realm of probability."

what
posted by jokeefe at 1:38 PM on November 14, 2009


And Let the Right One In is the best horror movie evar.

The director's first horror movie (even if he's described it as a love story with elements of suspense), and the screenwriter's first feature-length script (he's written sitcoms before, and the novel the film is based on, of course). I hope you're not saying that McKee was involved in some way, right? :)
posted by effbot at 1:47 PM on November 14, 2009


Snark Dynamics sounds like a company I could invest in.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 2:28 PM on November 14, 2009


It's wholey owned by Tony Snark.
posted by Artw at 2:31 PM on November 14, 2009 [4 favorites]


That's a constant problem with critics. Many know their subject (whether horror films, rock music, modern art, gourmet restaurants, etc.) but not their trade.

Bulls-eye. Beautiful.
posted by rokusan at 2:57 PM on November 14, 2009


I AM IRONY MAN
posted by Potomac Avenue at 3:33 PM on November 14, 2009 [4 favorites]


McKee is far more responsible for churning out cookier cutter Hollywood hacks than he is for building up quality writers

I don't think anyone would argue with that, except maybe McKee.


I would argue it. I'm not going to speak about the seminars; haven't been to one and see no need to when the book is $20. But the book deals with storytelling principles, and does an excellent job of it.

To be clear, these are principles of what makes a good story human beings can relate to- the same ones laid out by Aristotle in Poetics, more or less. THIS IS HOW TO TELL A STORY. Now of course, these principles can be applied to create a great story, or they can be applied to create a hacky, cliched story. But to blame storytelling principles for bad stories is like blaming notes and chords for bad music. It's nonsense.

Every screenwriting 100 student goes through that phase of "not wanting to follow the rules, man." Everybody believes at first that the principles that were good enough for Shakespeare, Kubrick, and dudes painting on the walls of caves are somehow beneath him and will constrain his "creativity." Then, if you want to be a real writer, you get over it. You come to understand that making a story out of these basic principles is what writing *is*, in the same way making a song out of notes is what music is. Any asshole can be vague- a real story needs to concretely be a story, and it needs to be interesting and original on top of that. Using the building blocks of story principles to make something uniquely your own is creativity. Refusing to learn the basics and "just writing naturally" is never much better than vomit on a page.
posted by drjimmy11 at 3:39 PM on November 14, 2009 [3 favorites]


Oh and anyone who thinks Charlie Kaufman disagrees with McKee needs to watch the movie a little more carefully. The whole movie is an affirmation of storytelling principles, but the "NOTHING HAPPENS IN LIFE??" speech in particular is as good a smackdown of wrongheaded thinking about writing as you'll find.
posted by drjimmy11 at 3:43 PM on November 14, 2009


There is a difference between understanding the art of storytelling and cranking out formulaic crap.

Yeah, you don't blame basic music theory for treacly pop nonsense but if there is someone out there telling you that the reason that treacly pop nonsense is the only commercially successful music is because the formula for treacly pop nonsense is the only way to do music right they deserve to be told to fuck off.

Nobody here is advocating for naive "I don't need any rules" artistic naivety, but, to use your "notes and chords" metaphor, I would rather listen to some Xenakis or early laptop era Merzbow than the Jonas Brothers or Tyler Sparrow, despite the fact that the latter two artists follow the step by step of music theory and the former two violate it egregiously (and their violation of it displays a better mastery and understanding of it than the pop crap that follows it by the numbers).
posted by idiopath at 4:04 PM on November 14, 2009 [2 favorites]


I took McKee's seminar a long time ago, but I remember he was up front that his technique would teach you to write classically constructed stories -- the ones that could get a big audience. He talked about how, if you took out this element or that element, you'd get this or that other kind of movie -- which might be great art, but not a story the way our caveman brains expect them.

You might be able to self-fund that kind of movie, or get an art-house budget to make it, but you wouldn't be able to sell it to a studio. Which, he said, would be fine, if you're OK with that. But that's not what most people are looking to learn -- especially people who are laying down hundreds of dollars for a weekend screenwriting seminar.
posted by PlusDistance at 4:11 PM on November 14, 2009


THIS IS HOW TO TELL A STORY.

An extremely narrow minded viewpoint. Bet you're not much into abstract painting either, eh? Let's just throw out everything but the still lifes and Norman Rockwell.
posted by squeakyfromme at 4:24 PM on November 14, 2009


You come to understand that making a story out of these basic principles is what writing *is*

It's part of what writing is.

Rules and principles are part of art. They are not the whole of art.

Not if you're Aristotle, and not if you're Robert McKee.

So, yeah, lots of people with nothing but crap need McKee (as I said upthread). But McKee's principles are not enough to move a screenplay from "competent" to "great" and that's where the problem is--the problem is with people in the industry who use McKee's criteria as a terminus ad quem, not a terminus a quo.

Picasso could draw better than anybody, but there were a lot of people who nonetheless critiqued Picasso for not making faces symmetrical or whatever. The thing is that yes, everyone has to learn the rules, but great art has to transcend the rules.

And that's the problem with how people use McKee's work: he teaches rules, which is great. But "following the rules" is not the measure of how good a work of art is.
posted by Sidhedevil at 4:51 PM on November 14, 2009 [5 favorites]


As I said upthread, McKee's not the problem--it's the suits with money who insist that McKee's shit isn't a crutch. Which is why Hollywood is like "Harrison Bergeron".

Yeah. It's not so much that they think McKee's shit isn't a crutch. It's that business looks at film as a product, and they can only extract certain qualities to analyze in terms of business. Such as, x-y-z type of plot, written by so-and-so screenwriter, this director, combined with [names], or A, B or C list talent, gets us this return, and we base this on past returns with x-y-z plot with so-and-so screenwriter and that director, with [names] on the bill, during the [release season], so here's the budget, now make it happen, because this is an investment, and we expect a return on a known quantity.
posted by krinklyfig at 5:37 PM on November 14, 2009


I don't think storytelling can be taught. You have an instinct for it or you don't. I think it can be sharpened, however, and people can have a good sense of what makes a story tick even when they themselves are not great storytellers. Hollywood does have a tendency to try and formulate these things into rules -- when I lived in Los Angeles, studios were regularly passing scripts by self-styled doctors who had conceived a set of rules based on The Power of Myth, and stories had to conform to those rules. Movies cost a lot of money and producers want to imagine that there is some set of principals that can be applied to guarantee this. There isn't, of course. Perfectly terrible films will make fortunes, masterful films will go broke, and oddities like Napoleon Dynamite will, out of the blue, become epochal. And there should be a rather simple rule in Hollywood: Trust talent. But a lot of producers are incapable of recognizing talent, and are so obsessed with the bottom line that they try to insure against crapping out, even though every movie is a roll of the dice. At least if you let talent do what it does, you'll wind up with an interesting failure, rather than the multitude of tough-guys-become-babysitters that Hollywood churns out on a weekly basis, and whatever other garbage they're stuffing down our throat.

There are a lot of people working in Hollywood who don't know how to tell a story, and don't know one when they see it. These people might line the pockets of self-styled screenwriting gurus, but they will never make a good movie, although they may make a profitable one.
posted by Astro Zombie at 6:02 PM on November 14, 2009 [2 favorites]


It's not so much that they think McKee's shit isn't a crutch

I have encountered people who take McKee's shit as absolute gospel and who say "There is no other way to tell a story that works."

And this was my point about "if you worded this more diplomatically (the cookie-cutter thing), McKee would probably agree."

McKee's stuff is fine as far as it goes. It lays out some basic frameworks that are the minimum daily requirement for a competent screenplay in the current US filmmaking culture. That's immensely helpful to lots of people. I think that, if you caught him when he wasn't feeling defensive, McKee would think of this as a very fair description of his work.

But there are people--seriously, I've encountered them--who don't get that this what it is. There are people who don't think "This screenplay doesn't really match current market needs" or "This screenplay is not a saleable product," but who think "this screenplay is crap unless it fits neatly into the Story-shaped box."

And a lot of those people are people who teach screenwriting for a living.

Let's take another field. So, macaroni and cheese needs to have macaroni, cheese, butter, salt, and cream in it or it's not likely to be very good, yes? And if you were teaching "Cooking 101" you would tell people "Your macaroni and cheese needs to have macaroni, cheese, butter, salt, and cream in it" and that would really be helpful to the people who were trying to make it without salt or without butter, let alone to the people who are trying to make it without either macaroni or cheese, but instead relying on Suburban Angst and Fantasies of Manic Pixie Dream Girl, neither of which make for a delicious dinner.

So where does, say, Ferran Adrià come in? Or Thomas Keller? Or anyone else who has already mastered the basics so thoroughly that they're trying to take the product in new and innovative directions?
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:06 PM on November 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


Well that whole film is, among other things, an exercise in breaking all of McKee's precious rules and still having a film that works.

And still, this conversation frustrates me because it shows a great deal of ignorance about what McKee has written about. Adaptation is probably in part to blame for this, because before Charlie meets McKee and figures out what to do with his screenplay, McKee has been firmly built up in the audience's mind as a vapid philistine because we've heard Donald spouting catchphrases from his seminar and book the whole movie up to that point with nothing of his own experience or credentials behind them. McKee is supposed to sound like a hack until we see him in the flesh.

I was much like the Charlie character when I first relented and read the book - frustrated working on a screenplay that was supposed to be different and with which I was running into a thousand different problems. It felt wrong, at first, delving into it. Especially with the cheesy opening bit, quoted by Donald earlier in the film:

"STORY is principles, not rules. Rules say, "Do this." A Principle says, "This works, and has throughout all established time."

I thought, naturally, hoseshit. That's a way to then lay out a lot of rules and formulae and claim that's not what you're doing. But in actuality, he doesn't. For each principle he trots out, even the so-called "ten commandments," he mentions great movies he loves which have broken it to great effect.

Don't take the crisis/climax out of the protagonist's hands? Well, in general, he's right. Deus ex machina sucks, is easy, and way too many people rely on it. It also works when a skilled writer uses it, as he notes by mentioning things like After Hours and The Gold Rush, where he explains that, particularly in comedy, deus ex machina can work just fine and also be dramatically powerful if the audience thinks the protagonist has suffered enough for his reward.

Or number four: Thou shalt not use false mystery or cheap surprise. Don't conceal anything important that the protagonist KNOWS. Keep us in step with the hero. We know what he/she knows. Well this certainly seems unnecessarily restrictive. That's because it's inaccurately boiled down from a much longer discussion of the uses of mystery, suspense, and dramatic irony, where he warns against uses that will feel like cheap cop-outs to the audience, but also mentions - and I think this is telling given the original article - that breaking this rule is part and parcel of the horror genre, and "part of the fun" there.

The sad truth of McKee is that, in his introduction to STORY, he states that he's been seeing a decline in the quality of screenplays, and that he hopes that his book will help "win the war on cliche." And his book is fantastic for jogging the creative mind to come up with new ideas - provided that you've got a creative mind to begin with. A lot of people here are laboring under a kind of shitty delusion that screenwriting can't be taught, that either you've got the talent for it or you don't. I'm not sure about the second half, but I know damn sure that the first half of that is wrong. I'd like to think that I have a great talent for screenwriting (for marketing myself, well... that's another question) but I know for a fact that I wouldn't be able to use that talent without being taught how to best do so. And McKee's book is maybe the best resource I've had for learning that.

I regularly discard his "principles" of course, but that doesn't mean I disregard them - quite the opposite in fact. Because I know what purposes certain tropes serve, I know what will happen if I use them or not. I know the common pitfalls to avoid. I know how to recognize cliche and sometimes I even know how to fix it. The book (and, I'd imagine, seminar) isn't teaching anyone how to write a ground-breakingly creative screenplay, because how could it? But it teaches one how to take that new idea and not botch it.

To put it another way, I'll steal the intro from another great book on the subject, "How NOT to Write a Screenplay," by Denny Flinn: "All good screenplays are unique. All bad screenplays are the same." Both Flinn and McKee cut their teeth as readers, and as such no better than almost anyone the common elements and mistakes of shitty scripts.

What this means, of course, is that for every great screenwriter who needed to overcome a bad habit or understand a basic principle that was eluding them, there are a thousand who have learned how to make their shitty cliche ideas passable. But I don't think McKee deserves the blame for that. He's only teaching the craft.
posted by Navelgazer at 11:05 PM on November 14, 2009 [3 favorites]


To put it another way, McKee is treating the subject as a descriptivist, and too many people looking for an easy way about it all read it as prescriptive. I still submit that as their mistake and not his.
posted by Navelgazer at 11:19 PM on November 14, 2009


"They're not really rules! But if you don't obey them your movie is some kind of weirdo arthouse movie that deserves to fail!"
posted by Artw at 12:43 AM on November 15, 2009 [2 favorites]


"They're not really rules! But if you don't obey them your movie is some kind of weirdo arthouse movie that deserves to fail!"

Has anyone ever done a breakdown of Stanley Kubrick's movies with relation to McKee's "rules" (particularly everything from 2001 onward)? I'm guessing there's a lot of FAIL.

If so, long live FAILure
posted by philip-random at 12:50 AM on November 15, 2009


Artw, phillip-random, have you actually read the book? Because (1.) As I said above, that's really not what it's about, and (2.) he tends to mention Kubrick a lot. In good ways.

The music theory analogy mentioned above really is apt. He's not telling people to write blockbusters - in fact he discourages it, spending a good deal of time bitching about people who try to write the next big commercial thing instead of something new and interesting.

If someone wrote a comprehensive, easily accessible book on music theory (and someone must have, in fact many people must have) then it would allow a lot of people with idiosyncratic, cool ideas the ability to bring them to more accomplished completion. It would also allow a lot of people who cherry-picked from it the ability to write simple-pop-friendly treacle, because it's all a part of the same theory. That's what's happened here. Jesus.
posted by Navelgazer at 1:12 AM on November 15, 2009


Frankly, I think Chris Hunt's "Story Mind" concept behind "Dramatica" provides far better tools for examining story dynamics than McKee, Truby, Field, & Seger combined. Unfortunately, its sufficiently arcane and complex that most people will never bother with it.
posted by RavinDave at 3:47 AM on November 15, 2009


Yeah I've read his book. I would characterise his claim that they aren't rules and subsequent dismissal of everything that doesn't follow them exactly as I do above.
posted by Artw at 7:05 AM on November 15, 2009


Navelgazer, as I related above, I read STORY about a year ago, and it was definitely NOT a complete waste of time, yet time was wasted (the man does tend to go on). Yes, it was effective at getting me thinking about screenplays (narrative in general) in a few fresh ways, and has inspired any number of useful discussions with fellow writers (this thread is a good example), but it's hardly become my new Bible.

In fact, in terms of functional, applicable "lessons learned", I got a lot more out of Blake Snyder's Save The Cat. Not that I'm proud of it, because as the following suggests, Mr. Snyder (R.I.P. - he died recently) seems to go out of his way to provide really banal examples when he needs to prove his points:

There was not one reference in the entire book on ONE film I have liked, with the exception of a passing reference to Crimes and Misdemeanours. Where are the Coen Brothers, Charlie Kaufman, Steven Soderberg, Michael Mann, Alexander Payne or anyone else that reminds you that Hollywood isnt always that brutal?


Which brings it back to my Kubrick line above. 2001, Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, The Shining, Full Metal Jacket, Eyes Wide Shut -- correct me if I'm wrong but my gut tells me that none of these films sticks to any kind of grand theory of narrative structure, particularly the inordinately detailed kind of stuff that McKee, Snyder et al tend to throw at us. It's just a master making movies that, though they are in fact structured around narratives, don't necessarily allow those narratives to drive the entire experience.
posted by philip-random at 9:44 AM on November 15, 2009


Artw, phillip-random, thanks for responding, and responding respectfully. I disagree with your assessment of his "rules", Artw, but I definitely see where your opinion is coming from, and one's mileage may vary, of course.

phillip-random, with you I'd disagree that Kubrick's films don't come from a grand theory of narrative structure. I'm not saying that structure belongs to McKee, or that he's perfectly articulated it by any means, but I think that if story works, and is effective, as the examples you gave clearly exemplify, then they are part of whatever grand theory of narrative could best be created. I sincerely do believe that storytelling is like music, and that it isn't philistinism to try to make sense of it that one might pass along that knowledge to others.
posted by Navelgazer at 8:23 PM on November 15, 2009


Tbh I'd lean more to people taking him literally and unquestioningly being the problem, rather than the man himself, but he really doesn't do much to dissuade people from that.
posted by Artw at 8:25 PM on November 15, 2009


no word in japanese, no word in german, 10 bucks for a phone going off .. sounds like an ethnically challenged money grabber to me.
posted by bolexboy at 3:16 AM on November 17, 2009


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