The most famous thing a screenwriter ever said about Hollywood came from William Goldman: “Nobody knows anything. Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess and, if you’re lucky, an educated one …”
Often this is reduced to “Nobody knows anything”, expressing the notion that creativity is indefinable and mysterious, like fog.
Robert McKee has tried to see through the fog. Decades ago upon arriving in Los Angeles he worked as a screenplay reader for NBC and UA (United Artists). Over and over, he saw screenplays sinking under the weight of the same technical flaws. He began to teach a weekend course on writing, which led him to write the book Story, published in 1997. Today McKee’s principles guide a far-flung legion of aspiring scriptwriters. They move creativity from nebulous to concrete. Story’s key ideas, useful for several kinds of writing, are:
1-Use words sparingly. Show, don’t tell: in a visual medium you can let the image speak, through setting, gesture and expression.
2-The stakes must be very high for the main character, and he or she must pursue them to the end of the line.
3-Conflict drives a story forward. Acts and scenes should constantly oscillate between positive, negative and neutral. A loss is followed by a bigger gain is followed by a bigger loss, etc.
4-When you boil it down, McKee’s biggest lesson is: Think before you write. Have a plan. Know the instigating incident, the mid-act climax, and the ending. You should probably write these scenes before any others, along with a sketch of your act/scene structure. This is useful advice for any longer writing project. Authors from Agatha Christie to Margaret Mitchell to John Irving have started books by writing the ending first.
McKee’s ideas, spread through his book and lectures, have become so orthodox as to invite a backlash. The need to constantly ramp up tension is very hard to sustain for 90 minutes. A lot of TV shows and movies cheat, and halfway through the show we discover that the bad guys from the first half are not the ultimate bad guys: Ohmigod, it’s not the Russians, it’s their alien overlords! And then the second half is just a repeat of the first half but with the new bad guys as the antagonists, and the initial antagonists now aligned with the good guys (or dead). Or else the mission in the first half culminates with Oh no it’s a trap!, and in the second half they repeat the quest but avoid the trap.
Still, McKee’s advice is sound. His ideas are tested against decades of experience and thousands of scripts. Read Story in combination with a book that provides nuts-and-bolts structures for screenwriters, such as The Screenwriter’s Workbook by Syd Field.
LEARN: Read the Story chapter “The Structure of Story”, with its analysis of a turning point in the taut, twisting Chinatown script.
USE: Imagine a basic romantic comedy. Using McKee’s principles, outline any or all of these scenes: the instigating incident (they meet), the mid-act climax (their crisis), and the ending (their resolution). This is not easy to do well. Think, then write. Perhaps reflect on your own experience for ideas…