A creative writing lesson from the ‘God of Story’
Robert McKee, has taught creative writing for 30 years. His seminars have attracted more than 60 Oscar winners, but are treated with suspicion by many novelists – including Tim Lott. Can he be won over?
‘Thou shalt not make life easy for thine protagonist’ … Robert McKee
Tim Lott Saturday 10 September 2016 09.00 BST
One of the main differences between humans and animals is that we compulsively tell stories – to ourselves and to others. The question of why this should be remains a mystery. Did our need to create narratives simply arise out of our facility for language? Is it nothing more than a form of rarefied entertainment? And do all the global and historical stories, in their multitude of forms, have anything in common – some fundamental strand of shared DNA that endures to this day?
Many thinkers, writers and critics have tried to identify the underlying meaning, origin and structure of stories, from Kipling, Goethe and Joseph Campbell right back to the original dramatic theorist, Aristotle, who in Poetics came up with the still extant three-act structure, along with catharsis, denouement, reversal (peripeteia) and much more besides.
The closest we have in the contemporary world to Poetics may be the classic text Story by Robert McKee. The so-called “God of Story” (as Vice magazine dubbed him) has been explaining his theory of how and why dramatic narratives emerge for 35 years, to the fascination of playwrights and screenwriters – his alumni have so far mustered 60 Oscar wins, including, among many others, William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) Paul Haggis, Peter Jackson, John Cleese (who has attended the story seminar three times) and the entire writing staff of Pixar. However, McKee receives a more sceptical response from most novelists, at least, most non-genre novelists like myself.
Jonathan Coe, for instance, straightforwardly rejects McKee’s approach to storytelling: “For me, the essence of creative writing – whether it’s in the form of a novel, a play or a screenplay – is absolute freedom. So I have an instinctive horror of all systems which try to reduce writing to a series of rules to do with three-act structures and narrative arcs. It’s a sure recipe for formulaic writing.”
‘He has struck terror into my heart’: Esther Freud.
Esther Freud agrees. “McKee has always struck terror into my heart with the idea that something important and gripping has to happen on page 27,” she says. “Actors and writers I knew were always going to his courses, but my reality is that there are no real rules with writing – you just have to get on with it, and trust your instincts.”
Sadie Jones, who attempted for several years to make it as a screenwriter before she turned to novels, was the only writer I talked to who showed some sympathy for McKee. “When I was younger I entirely rejected the notion of being taught to write, and McKee’s name made me run in horror,” she says. “I later realised we can reject or accept the teachings of others as we choose. It’s a question of confidence. Insecurity doesn’t want to be lectured, but if we want to break the rules we can do it more thoroughly if we master them first.”
It is instructive that all three writers use the words “horror” or “terror” when talking about the “rules” of storytelling. It seems to indicate that novelists don’t merely dislike McKee, they fear him.
An intensive inquiry into the nature and structure of narrative, McKee’s “Story seminar” has been running in one form or another since he first gave the lecture at the University of Southern California in 1983.
McKee credits himself as inventing the language of Hollywood – it is not an empty boast
McKee credits himself with inventing the language of Hollywood – with its talk of the “mid-point climax”, the “inciting incident” and the “negation of the negation”, a phrase that originated with Hegel, but in movies means something like “the ultimate negative”: a fallen hero who is not merely defeated but wants to die, or a character who doesn’t simply lose faith in God but begins to hate God.
His claim is not an empty boast. So prominent is McKee in film-making circles that he had the rare honour, for a writing teacher, to be depicted at some length – satirically, but not without tenderness – by Brian Cox in the Charlie Kaufman-written film Adaptation. Kaufman, not incidentally, also distrusts “craft”. At a 2011 lecture at the BFI, he said: “I think craft is a dangerous thing,” suggesting that, at heart, it was “very hard to separate … from marketing”.
Sitting among something like 200 would-be writers, directors, producers and editors in the audience of a three-day story seminar at Regent’s College in London, I intend to find out if this scepticism is justified. A teacher of story myself, formerly with the Faber Academy and now for the Guardian Masterclasses, I do not have the same deep aversion to “craft” as some of my peers. But McKee is the most pure – perhaps even puritanical – of all modern story theorists, and I don’t expect to find his fundamentalism to my taste.
The audience has come from all over the world – from Australia, Thailand, Italy, Barcelona, even Siberia. They are mostly in their 20s and 30s. McKee, 75, shambles about the stage cradling a cup of coffee. A heavy brow embroidered with impressive eyebrows and a full head of hair give him a prophetic aspect. He reminds me of Charlton Heston playing Moses – a similarity underlined by his course literature offering his “Ten Commandments of Storytelling”, which include “Thou shalt not make life easy for thine protagonist” and “Thou shalt take thine story into the depth and breadth of human experience”.
McKee is a tartar about maintaining order and timekeeping. He makes it clear that if you turn up late, you will not be admitted. If you use a mobile phone, you will be fined. If you use it more than once you will be excluded. There’s a £10 fine for talking.
He reiterates these amiable threats sitting on a high stool, legs dangling in front of him like late-period Sinatra or the Irish comic Dave Allen. He does, in fact, consider himself a comic – “a comic says the world is shit. And you have to destroy it.”
He begins by making some fairly grandiose statements: “What we do as storytellers is crucial to the success of our species on the planet”… “All stories say how and why life changes. They equip us to live.” He poses crucial questions at the start of his lectures: “What is a story? What do all the story cultures and genres have in common?”, and spends the next three days trying to answer them, beginning with this suggestion: “All stories have same universal form. Not formula. There is no formula. But it’s like saying the form of music is remarkably simple – just 12 notes on a scale.”
Having started exactly on time the lecture continues from 9am in the morning to 8pm, with only three short breaks per day, two of which McKee works through, taking questions from individuals. His fundamental insight concerns the relationship between storytelling and the human psyche – how a story is structured basically reflects how a human mind, and a human life, is structured.
Every lived moment is an event taking place at a number of levels – interpersonal, internal, societal, institutional
Drama, for him, arises when we make “value-laden choices under pressure”. It is through these choices that we find out who we are – since all of us live under the cover of masks, which hide our selves from others, and even ourselves. Every lived moment of human life is a multilayered event taking place at a number of different levels – interpersonal, internal, societal, institutional. Story, then, is the sea in which all of us swim, and dramatists, screenwriters and novelists create “story” with the boring bits of life cut out. In story nothing moves forward except through conflict, and stories are metaphors for life – because to be alive is to be in perpetual conflict.
To grasp how McKee actually talks it is necessary to use italics extensively, as he constantly emphasises – in his slightly abrasive Detroit drawl – the key words in any passage of speech.
“Story design means choices – boiling down from life, far more material [than] you could ever use. A story is a series of events that have been chosen then composed. Like composing music.
“An event is a meaningful choice; that is, a choice with a value at stake. Values are at the heart of storytelling. A binary of human experience, positive or negative, truth and lies, love and hate, war and peace – all are binaries. They shift charge constantly. An event – in story terms – equals meaningful change in the value-charged condition of a character’s life, achieved through conflict.”
McKee doesn’t confine himself to talking about writing: he wanders off-piste frequently. The course literature warns the audience to be aware that “Mr McKee has strong opinions on religion, politics and society and uses strong language.” This is not an understatement. What follows is a selection of quotes from the lecture, all of which are extracts from larger anecdotal reflections.
“People are not equal. If you’re a liberal at 30 you have no brain.”
“If you show your woman your inner crybaby she’s out the door. Never say what you deeply feel and think to your woman.”
“A lot of women’s films just say, ‘All men are shit’ – can you imagine a man writing something the same?”
If McKee’s tongue is in his cheek – and it may well be – he conceals it well. But his predilection for winding up his audience does little to dilute what I am beginning to realise is the strength and clarity of his teaching.
At the conclusion of the third day, when he has finished his scene-by-scene deconstruction of Casablanca, he sings, in a slightly quavery voice, the theme tune of the movie, “As Time Goes By”. This song, he believes, points to the underlying message of the film, the tension between Being and Becoming – that is, the idea of holding on to what is permanent within you while you are forced into incessant change by circumstance.
“You can have both – if you learn to love. And that is what I wish you all.”
With these words, the three-day seminar is concluded. He promptly receives a standing ovation from the entire audience.
When we meet, after the course, in McKee’s sparsely furnished rented flat in Chelsea, I ask first about the element of his lecture I found particularly fascinating – the relationship of life as it is lived to the scene-by-scene dramatic structure of a story.
“In film, there’s this constant irony of expectation not meeting result. Out of this turning point comes the opposite – a turning point for the better. Then the positive shifts to the negative almost automatically. No wonder primitives believed in the unseen hand, because this dynamic is so relentless,” McKee says. “We focus in story on moments when life is interesting … when the world reacts in a way which, in retrospect, you think you should have seen coming. Human beings have imagination and that makes the shit really hit the fan. Because you also have animal instincts. Therefore you have inner conflicts. It’s not only the world that doesn’t react the way you expect: you don’t react the way you expect.”
Story, for McKee, is a consolatory refraction of reality. By witnessing our own true inner dilemmas realistically on screen or page we receive a form of relief. But it is also, at some level, an exercise in denial. “Denial makes the world go round,” he says. “If you live in unvarnished reality for one minute you have to fantasise … it’s just too awful. You have to deny it. Story mediates the contradictions that make life unlivable. It is an evolutionary adaptation to consciousness.”
Is this element of denial – in many Hollywood films in particular – the reason so many fiction writers are nervous about the dynamics, or even existence, of story structure? McKee looks scornful – an expression that comes easily to him. “That’s because they think ‘art is instinctive’. Which is fucking nonsense. You don’t want constipation from analysis, you don’t want to get in your own way; but you have to learn your craft. ‘It won’t stop you being a genius’ as Delacroix said.”
Is that also true for literary, non-genre novelists?
“Every writer is a genre writer. If you don’t know the genre, the audience does. There’s no such thing as non-generic story; if you think that, your head is up your ass.”
When I suggest there are elements of his lecture with which many people might not agree, feminists in particular, his voice rises several decibels.
“Really? You think I’m not a feminist? I say just as many critical things about male behaviour, but it goes unnoticed. I treat people in a universal way. Women are just as fucked up as men, but you’re not allowed to say that. Once you say it you’re perceived as an anti-feminist. Women cannot be criticised. Well, guess what …”
He leaves the sentence unfinished.
Does he really believe that if you’re liberal at 30 you have no brain?
Anything that puts meaning and beauty into the world in the form of story helps people live with more peace and purpose
“My attitude is, they’re both wrong. If liberalism becomes extreme and sentimental and unthinking it’s a dead end – same with the right wing. I hate them all. I hate institutions.
He has spent so much of his life doing these lectures, rather than actually writing screenplays. What’s his motivation?
“Life is absurd. But there is one meaningful thing, one inarguable thing, and that is that there is suffering. Fine writing helps alleviate that suffering – and anything that puts meaning and beauty into the world in the form of story, helps people to live with more peace and purpose and balance, is deeply worthwhile.”
McKee’s political opinions may certainly appear overripe to most contemporary readers, but he doesn’t give a damn, which is perhaps one of the things that makes him a good teacher. At the end of his seminar I was handed a piece of paper on which I was asked to write the most important thing I learned on his course. A great number of possibilities crossed my mind – particularly how a narrative only progresses through conflict and meaningful change (with a value at stake), or how to show deep character (“choice of action in pursuit of a desire under the pressure of life”); but in the end I decided very quickly. “Everything is subtext,” I wrote. This is really what McKee teaches above all else – that the best drama always happens below the surface.
As I hack away at my eighth novel, his voice is now in my head much of the time. If McKee is the God of Story, then I am no longer an agnostic – I am a convert.
• Tim Lott offers mentoring for writers at theguardian.com/masterclasses. Robert McKee’s new book, Dialogue, is published by Twelve.