Because Robert McKee Said So: Notes from the Master

I recently participated in a free teleconference put on by the ISA with the legend himself, Robert McKee. Robert had a proliferation of valuable advice to dispense over the hour-long Q&A session, and I did my best to take notes on what I found to be his most interesting points. Here are some highlights:

  • Robert was repeatedly annoyed by questions about the “biggest” mistakes or the “best” way to do something because he doesn’t believe in pre-packaged writing tools. (However, he did indulge the group with some examples of “big” mistakes, “better” ways, etc.)
  • One major mistake that beginning writers tend to make is being impatient. Don’t put an explosion on the first page and then go back and explain what happened in subsequent pages. It’s sloppy storytelling and experienced readers won’t be impressed. Take the time to establish your characters and your world in a beautiful way.
  • On the topic of mixing genres, Robert said that mixing genres can help dimensionalize characters – if all they do is fall in love, they’re not going to be an interesting character. We also mix genres to try to create a film that hasn’t been seen before. Everything has been done – no one is going to invent an entirely new genre. Robert thinks that innovative films of the future will come from writers merging genres.
  • Write the truth. The other way to say this is ‘Don’t lie.’ Read what you’ve written, Robert suggests that you ask yourself, “Is this an honest expression of what I believe it is to be a human being? Is this the truth from my point of view?” If you don’t write what you believe, you’ll never convince anyone. People are great lie detectors, Robert noted. Many people write films that they don’t believe in because they believe the masses will. This type of thinking leads to terrible filmmaking. Robert added that lying in order to make money should be left to lawyers, not writers. Never write what you think people want to hear – write what people need to hear.
  • When asked why we shouldn’t write about life as it really is, Robert responded, “Reality is not factuality.” Our memories take us down to the essence of experiences. The mind tells itself stories, throws out moments of tedium, and focuses in on moments of change, moments of conflict. If you don’t want to write about conflict, he suggested, then you should write poetry. Poetry creates images; it shares moments, mundane or not. Film isn’t the medium for depicting a single image, a changeless life. Poetry can enter into drama, but it’s not usually enough to sustain a full story. (Robert gave the example of one film that was more akin to a moving poem, Tree of Life.) He went on, life isn’t static. If you think it is, you don’t have insight into your own life. Try to meditate: try to focus on your breathing for five minutes and nothing else, and watch your mind wander. There’s always conflict, even if it’s only internal.
  • Robert was asked how to get over the second act slump and push forward into the third act. He responded that thinking in three acts only is limiting – three acts is the minimum, not the only option. Raiders of the Lost Ark is seven acts. Shakespeare’s plays are in five acts. Robert acknowledged that the question behind the question is actually “What do you do when it gets boring?” Boring means repetitious – the progressions are too miniscule, nothing is really changing. He suggested two ways to deal with this: The first option is to build to a powerful turning point at the midpoint. Now you have a four act design. The second option is to add a subplot or two. Subplots can be a one, two, or three  act story within the main story. Subplots help add tension throughout the long stretch of the second act.
  • Robert noted that one of the most overlooked elements in a screenplay is wit. A little sarcasm, a little farce. If nothing else, get a laugh every once in a while. Your reader will thank you.

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