McKee on Story The telling

by francine Hardaway on April 13, 2003

McKee on Story
The telling of story is the primary way in which we civilize society. Story
makes us understand what it is to be a human being. Story is the way we get
meaning and messages about life. We go to the storyteller for the answer to
the question “how should a human being lead his/her life?”

Over the ages, we have asked this question of playwrights, novelists, and
now of filmmakers.

If the storytelling is honest, we live in a civilized way. When the
storytelling is false, just look around. and see what happens to the world.
So says Robert McKee, pre-eminent guru to would-be screenwriters.

McKee travels the world teaching seminars on how to write for the screen.
What makes a good film is “a good story well told,” thinks McKee, and he
believes that we are in a crisis of story right now, in which most films
(example “The Gangs of New York”) don’t tell a story at all, or don’t tell
it well enough. During the golden age of story in the 20th century– the
20’s, 30’s 40’s– the nature of story was well understood. The nature of
story, which used to be common knowledge, seems known today only by Asian
filmmakers and TV writers. (McKee thinks all the good writers are writing
for TV, where you can still tell a story.)

To tell a good story, according to McKee, you must have wit, taste, extreme
insight into what happens below the surface of life, tremendous knowledge of
your subject, understanding of personality, passion for perfection and
talent. McKee believes that some of these characteristics are teachable,
though talent and taste are probably genetic. As Norman Mailer once said, “a
good writer has to be able to smell his own shit.”

All the characteristics above, if you are lucky enough to have them, help
you boil down events from life, which contains far more material than you
can ever use. Story structure is a matter of selecting events from the life
story of a character and composing them into a strategic sequence of events
in order to arouse specific emotions and communicate a controlling idea.

In the language of filmmaking, an “event” causes a change. When an event
takes place, the world of the character changes for better or worse. In the
typical feature film, there will be 40-60 such events, every one of which
must create meaningful life change in the life of a character. The changes
can be expressed in terms of a “value”– a shift from one pole to the other:
life to death, poor to rich, from negative to positive, positive to
negative. In a well-constructed film, you can plot the changes-the character
is on an ascending or descending roller coaster of value changes.

Meaningful change in the value charge of a character’s life is always
achieved through conflict. Conflict motivates the character to change. The
cinematic unit during which an event produces change in a character is what
we call a “scene.”

A smaller unit within the scene is the beat. The beat is change in behavior.
Beats of behavior build the scene, scenes make up a sequence, or a series of
scenes that culminates in change more powerful than any simple scene could
have accomplished. Scenes are aggregated into acts, culminating in even
greater change.

A series of acts builds to the story climax, the climax of the last act.
This change is absolute and irreversible. The character has gone to the
limit of what he can do.

The great sweep of change in terms of the deepest value of the character’s
life from the beginning to end of a movie is called the “arc.” The arcs of
stories take place in the minds of the characters as their attitudes change
from positive to negative or the opposite.

In a well-constructed story, these units of truth are assembled
tongue-in-groove until they form an edifice of authenticity. Now go to a
movie and try to apply these principles.

Despite McKee and his seminar, over a billion dollars are wasted every year
making films that lack the principles of story. Five hundred films a year
are distributed by Hollywood studios, although over a thousand feature films
are completed. Another seven or eight hundred films are made by Europe’s
film industry and not distributed. Countless films never even get finished,
and half of the finished films aren’t seen. Many films that are seen are not

That’s a fifty per cent defective product rate. If Hollywood were a true
manufacturing business, this percentage of defects would be unacceptable.
Time to make changes in the supply chain.

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