Inside Story: A Review of Robert McKee’s STORY Seminar

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by Angela Bourassa

I walk into the conference hall at about 8:50 – the first lecture is supposed to start at 9:00 – and almost every seat is already taken. Two hundred or so attendants chatter in subdued voices, set up their laptops, get out their notepads, and cradle their Starbucks in their chilly hands. McKee likes the room brisk.

Then, a few minutes before nine, Robert McKee walks onto the stage, and a hush falls over the room. It’s clear that everyone here knows exactly who this man is. Some are curious to see what he will have to teach them. Others already revere him and will regardless of how the weekend progresses.

McKee’s first act is to insist that everyone show up promptly each morning and not dally during the breaks. He emphasizes this (and many other rules) numerous times over the weekend. On the second day, he berates two people who walk in at 9:05, asking his staff to close the doors and not let anyone else disturb his concentration by coming in late.

These harsh admonishments are balanced by a surprising amount of humor. As McKee shares his well-known principles of story, he mixes in a number of humorous anecdotes, some classic screenwriter jokes, and no shortage of personal observations about gender, sex, race, politics, religion, and virtually every other subject that’s considered impolite in mixed company.

Over the course of the weekend, I find most of his musings harmless, a few right on the mark, and a few others patently wrong. But I have to give him credit for knowing that no one in this room is going to walk out on him and using that fact to his full advantage.


McKee begins his long series of lectures – five two-hour sessions each day for three days – by explaining that he will share with us the principles of storytelling. “There are no rules, there are principles,” he roars, and he remains true to this statement throughout the seminar. The weekend is devoted to explaining the principles of story, why they work, sharing examples, and then – almost like clockwork – giving an example of a film that did the exact opposite.

He doesn’t do this to undercut the importance of the principles but rather to make clear in each of our minds that story has no formula, only form.

(Note: If you plan to attend the seminar, be sure to watch and/or read Kramer vs. Kramer and Tender Mercies. These are the two films he references the most by a wide margin.)


As he goes through each of the pieces of story, from beat to scene to sequence to act, he gives no advice on how to actually apply the principles to our own story development process – that’s our job, and it can’t be taught.

He explains it this way: western music takes the form of twelve notes on a scale. A musician can – and should – study those notes, how they work together and form chords, but ultimately it’s up to the musician to write their own song.

Actually, McKee does give us one piece of advice on how to tell the best stories possible: don’t be f*cking lazy.

(He may not have put it exactly that way, though it is very possible. Many, many f-bombs were dropped over the course of the weekend.)

As writers it is our responsibility, McKee intones, to never be satisfied with the first idea that pops into our head. We must always be looking beyond our initial instincts (which are inevitably clichéd) to find new methods of sharing information, new traits that can make a character more human, new ways of giving the audience exactly what they want in a way they would never expect.


Looking around the room, it seems that the gender breakdown is about 60% male / 40% female. About half of the people seem to be in their late 20s or in their 30s. The rest are in their 40s, 50s, or 60s. A few might even be in their 70s. One or two people appear to be college age, but they might just have young faces. Clearly the $865 registration fee makes this event less accessible to younger writers.

So who does attend?

I met an older man who had written his first TV pilot. He informed me that the script is now being sent around, and he decided to attend on the recommendation of a working writer friend as a way to bolster his experience.

One woman told me that she is starting a production company in Mexico and came to improve her story skills from the production side. Evidently quite a few executives from studios and production companies attend to learn how to give better notes. I believe I spotted a posse from Blumhouse Productions, but I can’t be sure.

Another woman who works on a current network show told me that she attended precisely because she reports to execs who give story notes using McKee’s principles and lingo. She wanted to better understand the feedback they give her and have the tools to respond appropriately.

photo credit: mckeestory.comThere were a number of novelists in attendance who – despite the fact that the lectures focus specifically on screenwriting – felt strongly that the lessons applied to their craft, as well. At least one career salesperson in the crowd felt the same way.

Many of the people in attendance were certainly Robert McKee zealots, eating up everything he said and laughing uproariously at all his jokes, both the excellent and the mediocre ones.

As for myself, I was certainly impressed with McKee’s stamina and his teaching ability. The man knows how to captivate an audience and how to get his theories across quickly and clearly.

That said, the vast majority of what was covered in the lectures is also covered in McKee’s book, STORY. The lectures were an excellent refresher, and I walked away with new ideas and enthusiasm for my own writing projects.

$865 worth of ideas and enthusiasm? Maybe, maybe not. How can a writer quantify just how valuable a given lecture or set of feedback or writing retreat is to their career? Only hindsight can tell.

But consider this: Pixar, the most consistently brilliant storytellers on the planet today, bring Robert McKee in-house to give his STORY seminar to their writers and directors.

In other words, McKee knows his sh*t.

From my perspective, if you have the money and time and dedication to move your career as a writer forward, buy Robert McKee’s book. Read it, study it, then read lots of other books. And scripts. And write A LOT.

If you’ve already done all of that and feel your sense of story is still lacking, or you simply want to invest seriously in your craft, Robert McKee’s STORY Seminar may just be the jolt you need.

Just don’t show up late. And for God’s sake remember to silence your phone.

To check McKee’s upcoming seminar dates, click here.


Angela Bourassa is the founder and Editor in Chief of LA Screenwriter.

4 thoughts on “Inside Story: A Review of Robert McKee’s STORY Seminar

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  1. I recently attended McKee’s “Story” LECTURE and found him to be a bombastic bore. His book was very enlightening and I knew it by heart so his presentation in my opinion was a LAZY way to deliver the exact same materials, same stories, same points, and all. Robert is pompous and OVERRATED as a workshop host—he only wants to hear himself talk. As adults only retain 10% of what they hear, he’s 90% ineffective. Lastly, his guiding students away from using plot structure is an injustice and he should be discredited for his close-mindedness. He has never had a movie made yet boasts how he got optioned a bazillion times—he doesn’t have a creative bone in his body so I’m not surprised he can’t create anything himself. Those who can DO, those who can’t TEACH. Someone smarter please come along and take his throne—he has no competitions and would be so easy to top…just try interacting with the audience one beat and you’ve got him, well…beat.

    Bottom line—save yourself $895 and a whole lot of boring wasted time listening to him pontificate how he’s right, you’re wrong, cuz his Shit doesn’t stink—it does and so does his lecture. Just buy the book— it’s the exact same thing coz he’s too lazy and too perfect in his mind to change and grow. Not a fan of his personal style, teaching, or human character traits, but he does know story…

  2. Sorry, had to correct–people only retain 20% of what they hear so McKee would benefit from interacting with his audience somewhere in those long 10-hour days–he might even learn something to enlighten new audiences. I know watching/analyzing Casablanca for 6 hours helps give variety, but gosh, as a corporate trainer, I think, what an easy, cheap way to not have to produce 6 hours of content for a pricey seminar. Just read any script side by side with the movie yourself and you’ll find it immensely helpful.

    Mckee should also refrain from sharing his ill-informed political views–we’re a “held-captive” audience to his mocking our president’s IQ (which he doesn’t realize is 153–genius level) and his other nonsensical, expletive-filled rants which only serve to reveal his dark, negative inside energy. Was he not “rocked as a baby?”

    Mckee is brilliant at knowing the CRAFT of storytelling and it wasn’t fair to say he likely has no creative bones as directing plays and writing books is a creative process. It’s just that I assess one’s NARRATIVE screenwriting ability on how masterfully and naturally people “dialogue” in real life. I don’t see how a writer can be authentically good at expressing dialogue or capturing nuances in human relationships when in real life they are retarded in those areas. I don’t mean rehearsed stories or dark sarcasm meant to demean–I mean real, spontaneous dialogue that is relevant, witty, and mutually satisfying–that’s what shows me the character of a person…and their screenwriting ability.

    No one calls McKee out on his arrogant behavior even though its clearly disdainful. What he needs is fresh competition to “incite” him to move from his “old-world” into a kinder, gentler world. Where’s Blake Snyder when you need him to “save this cat?” I can only imagine how many 20 something’s he’s intimidated. His distaste for plot structure results in student’s writing meandering stories that miss the psychological journey a properly structured story follows. If you’re a CREATIVE, structure is your best friend–your job is to use the tools to make it fresh and engaging. “Give me the same, but different.”

  3. Al almost made a convincing argument till “our president’s IQ (which he doesn’t realize is 153–genius level)”.

  4. Let’s not argue over the jackass nut case in the White House please. His IQ statement is pure invented bull ***t as everyone but Al knows. The guy’s a moron, and a textbook sociopath to boot. That aside, I find it hard to justify paying Mr. McKee $173,000 for a weekend’s work, if all he’s going to do is reiterate his book, no matter how charming and entertaining he is. McKee has valuable lessons to teach but his prices are outrageous. The seminar should cost maybe $250, tops.

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