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An Interview with Robert McKee

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Robert McKee

Debra Eckerling

Q: Are there basic components to what makes for a compelling story?

Robert McKee: This question literally takes 500 pages of my book Story to answer. It is the equivalent of asking a question such as, "What are the basic components of music?" or "What are the basic components of painting?" Trying to determine what is basic is very difficult. Some people, for example, think dialogue is a basic component of story. But not in a silent film. Not in ballet. There are various forms of story told beautifully in various media that have no common elements with other forms. So determining exactly what elements are basic depends on the medium of expression.

But let me try to answer that question by making a simple and clear definition of story itself. Story begins when an event, either by human decision or accident in the universe, radically upsets the balance of forces in the protagonist's life, arousing in that character the need to restore the balance of life. To do so, that character will conceive of what is known as an "Object of Desire," that which they feel they need to put life back into balance. They will then go off into their world, into themselves, in the various dimensions of their existence, seeking that Object of Desire, trying to restore the balance of life, and they will struggle against forces of antagonism that will come from their own inner natures as human beings, their relationships with other human beings, their personal and/or social life, and the physical environment itself. They may or may not achieve that Object of Desire; they may or may not finally be able to restore their life to a satisfying balance. That, in the simplest possible way, defines the elements of story - an event that throws life out of balance, the need and desire to restore the balance, and the Object of Desire the character conceives of consciously or unconsciously that they can pursue against the forces of antagonism from all of the levels of their life that they may or may not achieve.

Q: How important is the process of rewriting?

Robert McKee: It's absolutely critical. I quote Hemingway in my book who said, "The first draft of anything is shit." What's difficult for writers to come to terms with is to recognize that 90% of what we all do, no matter our talent, is not our best work. We are only capable of excellence maybe 10% of the time. So, how are you going to fill a screenplay with 100% of excellence? Everything has to have been experimented with, improvised, played with, ten times over. Ninety percent of our work must be thrown away in order to ultimately end up with the precious 10% of excellence. If, for example, you write a 120-page screenplay with 40 to 60 scenes, if you keep every single scene you write, and your so-called rewriting is just paraphrasing and re-paraphrasing dialogue, that's not rewriting, that's just polishing. Rewriting means deep structural change in character and story. THAT'S rewriting. If you keep the first draft of your 40 to 60 scenes, you can be sure that, at best, four to six of those scenes are of real quality. The rest is crap. Rewriting doesn't mean drudgery. Rewriting means re-imagining, recreating, improvising and trying all kinds of crazy ideas. That's rewriting.

Q: Quentin Tarantino once said, "The thing that distinguishes an American artist is his capacity to tell a good story." Would you agree?

Robert McKee: I generally would agree with Tarantino, but only in a limited way. First of all, it isn't just Americans; it's the whole English language tradition. Anywhere that English is the dominant language, from America to Britain, Australia to India, the English language has a grand tradition of storytelling that is very rich, and a world view, as a result of this tradition, that inspires stories that we consider are well told. On the other hand, I would argue that the most impressive and creative film culture in the world right now is in Asia, and they are telling stories out of their great traditions and cultures that are just as compelling, comic and/or tragic, as anything coming out of the English-speaking world. But Quentin Tarantino is overstating it, because every great language tradition, certainly the Spanish language, has magnificent storytellers, but there is a tendency outside of the English language, especially in the romance languages, the cultures rooted in the romance languages, to put more emphasis on mood than emotion. Or they put more emphasis on static moments of life rather than dynamic moments of life, and consequently the storytelling on the continent of Europe is often more open, more moody, more contemplative, more intellectual perhaps, than the stories that are told in the Anglo-American tradition. But those are broad generalities, and one could argue that many writers outside of the English language tradition are trying to use story to explore aspects of life that the English language tradition tends to ignore, and those aspects of life are more static and more contemplative, more mood than emotion. But no matter what, the tradition of every great culture in the world produces master works. So Tarantino's statement tends to imply that stories told in the English-language tradition are better than stories told outside of that tradition, and that's simply not true. They're just different, not necessarily better.

Q: Is good storytelling a lost art?

Robert McKee: No, I don't think it's a lost art, but I think it has lost energy. The ability to tell great stories today is alive and well. It's just that due to certain restraints, the tendency today is toward spectacle over substance. It's not just in film, but it holds true with the theatre, the most extravagant forms of theatre, and the often vastly overwritten novels that are published today. There's a tendency today in all media to substitute spectacle for substance. But storytelling has gone through bad periods like this in the past. As was true 100 years ago in both the novel and the theatre, we're going through another period again where the storytelling is atrophying underneath the effort of too many writers being drawn to the surface and not the substance of their work, and they produce works that are dazzling on the surface but often hollow. For this reason, I think the best storytelling in the world today tends to be on television, because the television screen does not lend itself to spectacle. It's small, and so the most expressive shot tends to be the close-up, and when you move the camera in those heads start to talk. In the best of television today, and especially in America where we're experiencing a golden age of television, the dramas that are created are long, and rich, and deep and very complex and fascinating. I think one of the reasons television is growing in its influence everywhere in the world is because in television there is no point in trying to be spectacular, and writers are forced to go back into the substance of human conflict in relationships and within human beings, and, as a result, they are producing, overall, the finest work. So it's not lost, it's just changed its address and moved over to television

Q: You use the words "story design" frequently. What does that mean?

Robert McKee: An event comes along in life we call the "Inciting Incident." Either by choice, accident, or both - life is thrown out of balance. That imbalance arouses in the protagonist a desire to put life back on an even keel. To do that, they conceive of something that they need, an object of desire so to speak, that they feel would restore life's balance. It could be justice, it could be putting the bad guy in jail, or, as in the film About Schmidt, it could be a reason for living. Whatever it is, they pursue that desire. The design of the story is built from that inciting incident, when life went out of balance, to the climax when balance is restored for better or worse. Events must be shaped in a progressive way to hold the emotional and intellectual interest of the audience for two hours without interruption and deliver them a satisfying experience. Exactly how that works, film to film, story to story, is infinitely variable. The task of a good design is to hook, hold and payoff the audience's interest. If that works, then the story can be in one act or ten acts; it can be mono-plot or multi-plot in any genre.

Q: Are there "ground rules" for creating the inciting incident?

Robert McKee: The term "ground rules" is inappropriate when talking about any aspect of writing, Inciting Incident included. As I've said many times: Art forms have no rules; all art is guided by principles. Rules are rigid. They say, "You must do it this way!" Principles are flexible. They say, "This form underlies the nature of the art and is conventional in practice. However, it may be bent, broken, hidden or turned upside down to serve unconventional uses that may enhance the telling." Rules are objective applications that require no feeling for the story's characters or events; their use is justified by their traditional function and their comfortable familiarity to the audience/readers. Principles require a deeply subjective understanding of a technique's effect forward and backward along the timeline of a story's events. A principle guides the writer's use of his materials - motivations, characterizations, coincidences, settings, flash-backs/flash-forwards, set-ups/pay-offs and the like - in terms of their effect on both characters and audience/readers. A rule is microscopic; a principle is macroscopic.

In terms of Inciting Incident, to name just two of its many principles, Placement and Effect are interrelated, mutually influential, and dependent on the writer's subjective sense of function.

One, Placement: The Inciting Incident radically upsets the life of an empathetic protagonist. Therefore, do not waste the audience/reader's time. Bring the Inciting Incident into the story as soon as possible.

Two, Effect: But do not introduce the Inciting Incident until it will have its full emotional and intellectual effect on the audience/reader.

When is that moment? Who can say? In every story it is different. How much understanding of setting, history and character does an audience/reader need to know prior to the Inciting Incident so that when it arrives it will have its full effect? In some stories nothing; in some stories a lot. How and when will an audience/reader fall into empathy with a protagonist? In some stories immediately; in some stories never; in some stories somewhere along the way. The answers to all these questions require the writer to develop a rich intellectual understanding of their story world and its characters as well as a deep subjective sense of the feelings, textures and emotions flowing within the story and outward to its audience/reader. There are no rules. All artists who wish to write must stop thinking that way.

Q: What are the key essentials in defining the plot of the story?

Robert McKee: By "defining," do you mean by genre or by creation? A plot could be defined by genre, which is to say defining the story by elements it shares with other stories, or a plot could be defined by elements within itself. I'll take your question to mean the latter, but again point out the phrase "key essentials" is inappropriate in art, because all the elements of an art form are mutually essential. It's not as if, let's say, a writer could render every element of his story exquisitely, except for his dialogue, which rakes on the audience/reader's ear like fingernails on a blackboard, and then expect the world to forgive him because everything else he did was of quality. So I'll give you a very short list of three elements of plot that come to mind, in no particular order of importance, leaving out dozens more: Hook, Hold, Pay Off. These elements come in the form of questions the writer asks him- or herself as they work:

Hook: Does my Inciting Incident hook, or engage, the curiosity of the audience/reader and raise in their minds the Major Dramatic Question: "How will this turn out?"

Hold: Does the protagonist's constant pursuit of his or her desire hold the audience/reader's interest without interruption?

Pay-Off: Does the Story Climax close all of the audience/reader's open emotions and answer all of the audience/reader's questions of cause and effect, of why and how?

Q: What are the critical questions that a writer should be asking prior to crafting a story?

Robert McKee: Beyond imagination and insight, the most important component of talent is perseverance - the will to write and rewrite in pursuit of perfection. Therefore, when inspiration sparks the desire to write, the artist immediately asks: Is this idea so fascinating, so rich in possibility, that I want to spend months, perhaps years, of my life in pursuit of its fulfillment? Is this concept so exciting that I will get up each morning with the hunger to write? Will this inspiration compel me to sacrifice all of life's other pleasures in my quest to perfect its telling? If the answer is no, find another idea. Talent and time are a writer's only assets. Why give your life to an idea that's not worth your life?

Q: How do you feel trends affect the story and the craft?

Robert McKee: People come up to me all the time talking about movie trends and how the future of story is going to be in 3D technology and virtual reality, the young especially, because they're always fascinated with new technology. But not me. I know that no matter what the technology is, if they don't have anything to say, and they don't know how to say whatever it is they have to say, it really doesn't matter what medium or technology they're using. All I'm concerned with is the quality of the storytelling that inspires the work. The medium they choose or the technology they use after that is their problem, because in the grand scheme of things it doesn't matter. If the future of story is in chalking out pictures on the sidewalk, it really doesn't matter. What matters is the form, the content and the inspiration and talent of the artist.

Q: You've recently expanded the Story Seminar from three days to four days. What can students expect?

Robert McKee: The new four day, 32-hour format does four important things: One, it adds important subjects to the lecture such as the adaptation of novels and plays to the screen, the key differences in writing for television vs. film, the theory of titles, irony in plotting and the like. Two, it gives me time to go into far more depth on conventional subjects. Three, it allows far more time for Q & A, face-to-face, between me and my students. Four, it is more civilized in terms of its breaks within the lecture and its evening break for dinner and sleep.

Q: Does a story always need to be believable? What makes it believable?

Robert McKee: Yes. The audience/reader must believe in the world of your story. Or, more precisely, in Samuel Taylor Coleridge's famous phrase, the audience/reader must willingly suspend its disbelief. This act allows the audience/reader to temporarily believe in your story world as if it were real. The magic of as if transports the reader/audience from their private world to your fictional world. Indeed, all the beautiful and satisfying effects of story - suspense and empathy, tears and laughter, meaning and emotion - are rooted in the great as if. But when audiences or readers cannot believe as if, when they argue with the authenticity of your tale, they break out of the telling. In one case people sit in a theatre, sullen with anger, soaked in boredom; in the other, they simply toss your novel in the trash. In both cases, audiences and readers bad mouth you and your writing, inflicting the obvious damage on your career.

Bear in mind, however, that believability does not mean actuality.

The genres of non-realism, such as Fantasy, Sci-fi, Animation and the Musical, invent story worlds that could never actually exist. Instead, works such as THE PRINCESS BRIDE, THE MATRIX, FINDING NEMO and SOUTH PACIFIC create their own special versions of reality. No matter how bizarre some of these story worlds may be, they are internally true to themselves. Each story establishes its own one-of-a-kind rules for how things happen, its principles of time and space, of physical action and personal behavior. This is true even for works of avant-garde, postmodern ambition that deliberately call attention to the artificiality of their art. No matter what your story's unique fictional laws may be, once you establish them, the audience/reader will freely follow your telling as if it were real - so long as your laws of action and behavior are never broken.

Therefore, the key to believability is unified internal consistency. Whatever the genre, no matter your story's specific brand of realism or non-realism, your setting must be self-validating. You must give your story's setting in time, place and society enough detail to satisfy the audience/reader's natural curiosity about how things work in your world, and then your telling of the tale must stay true to its own rules of cause and effect. Once you have seduced the audience/reader into believing in the credibility of your story's setting as if it were actuality, you must not violate your own rules. Never give the audience/reader a reason to question the truth of your events, nor to doubt the motivations of your characters.

Q: How do you design an ending that keeps people talking?

Robert McKee: By "an ending that keeps people talking" do you mean the hook at the end of a series episode that keeps people wondering so that they'll tune in the following week? Or do you mean a Story Climax that sends the reader/audience into the world praising your brilliant story to their friends and family?

If the former, I know two methods to hook and hold the audience's curiosity over a span of time.

A. Create a Cliffhanger. Start a scene of high action, cut in the middle, put the audience into high suspense, then finish the action in the head of the next episode. 24 does this brilliantly week after week.

B. Create a turning point with the power and impact of an Act Climax. A major reversal naturally raises the question "What's going to happen next?" in the audience's mind and will hold interest over the commercials of a single episode (for example, Law and Order), or over the week between episodes (for example, The Sopranos).

If the latter, the most satisfying, and therefore talked about, Story Climaxes tend to be those in which the writer has saved one last rush of insight that sends the audience's mind back through the entire story. In a sudden flash of insight the audience realizes a profound truth that was buried under the surface of character, world and event. The whole reality of the story is instantly reconfigured. This insight not only brings a flood of new understanding, but with that, a deeply satisfying emotion. As a recent example: the superb Climax of Gran Torino.

Q: What are the typical weaknesses you find in scripts?

Robert McKee: Three that jump to mind:

Dull scenes. For reasons of weak conflict or perhaps the poor shaping of beats of behavior, the scene falls flat. The value-charged condition of the characters' lives at the tale of the scene is exactly what it was at the head of the scene. Activity never becomes story action. In short, nothing actually happens, nothing changes.

Awkward exposition. To convenience the writer, characters tell each other what they all already know so the eavesdropping reader/audience can gather in the information. This false behavior causes the reader/audience to lose empathy.

Clichés. The writer recycle the same events and characters we have seen countless times before, thinking that if he or she writes like other writers have, they too will find success.

Q: In the Story Seminar you say the best way to succeed in Hollywood is by writing a script of surpassing quality. If you have a great script, how do you get past the Hollywood system so that your script ends up in the right hands?

Robert McKee: If you write a lousy script, you haven't a prayer. But if you create a work of surpassing quality, Hollywood is still a motherfucker. Because unless you can network a back pathway to an A-list actor or top-shelf director, you must sign with an agent. And the first thing to understand about literary agents is that although they may or may not have taste, they all have careers. Selling scripts is how they put gas in their BMWs. What's more, like everybody else, they want their gas money today. So they have little or no patience for spending months or even years submitting your work, one submission at a time, to dozens of production companies, and then waiting forever to hear back. They want to read work they can sell and sell fast. So the quality of the writing absolutely matters, but what any particular agent feels is fresh vs. clichéd, arty vs. commercial, hot or cold, who can say? Luck is a big part of a writer's life.

[But] to get started, first rent every recent film and television show that is somehow like your script. Write down the names on the writing credits. Call the WGA, ask for the representation office and find out who agents these writers. This creates a list of agents who have actually made money selling scripts very much like the one you've written. Next, go to Amazon.com and buy The Hollywood Creative Directory and find the addresses of these agents. Do not call them. Instead, write an intriguing letter about you and your story and send it to every agent on your list. Wait, God knows how long, to hear back. If your letter captivates curiosity, and if you send out enough of them, the odds are that a few agents will actually want to read what you've written. When that happens, pray that your work is of surpassing quality.

Q: As a beginning fiction writer, the greatest challenge always seems to be the start. What advice would you give?

Robert McKee: By "start" do you mean writing the opening chapter or just getting into your pit and hitting keys? If the latter, you're blocked by fear. I suggest you read Steven Pressfield's The War of Art. He'll help you find the courage to face the blank page. If the former is your problem, first scenes or opening chapters are usually discovered after you have conceived of your Inciting Incident.

If you feel that your Inciting Incident, without any prior knowledge of your characters' biographies or sociologies, will immediately grip the reader, then use the Inciting Incident to launch the story. For example, the Inciting Incidents SHARK EATS SWIMMER/SHERIFF DISCOVERS CORPSE in Peter Benchley's Jaws, or MRS. KRAMER WALKS OUT ON MR. KRAMER AND HER LITTLE BOY in Avery Corman's Kramer Vs. Kramer, dramatize Chapter One of each of these novels respectively.

If, conversely, you feel that you need to provide your readers with exposition about history, characters and setting in order for them to grasp the importance of your Inciting Incident, then this exposition - well-dramatized, of course, perhaps even building into a set-up subplot - must start the telling.

The principle is: Bring the Inciting Incident into your story as soon as possible, but not until it will hook reader empathy and arouse curiosity. Finding the perfect placement of the Inciting Incident is the key to starting any story.