August 21, 2009

Robert McKee's "Story"

If you haven't got the time to plow through Robert McKee's five-hundred page monograph on the art of storytelling, he sums it up nicely here. And I also agree with him that "[the art of storytelling] is not lost, it's just changed its address and moved over to television."

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.

Or as Philip Pullman notes about Y/A literature: "You can't put the plot on hold while you cut artistic capers for the amusement of your sophisticated readers, because, thank God, your readers are not sophisticated."

Michael Blowhard praises McKee and gets right to the essence of the argument:

It's idiotic to think that most people's interest in fiction will ever extend too far beyond storytelling, subject matter, hook, and character. An art form that divorces itself from its roots is taking a foolhardy chance.

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# posted by Blogger Joe
8/21/2009 10:49 PM   
I found "Story" to be rather overrated. McKee seems a little too fascinated with his theories and gets rather repetitive. He does a little too much name dropping with the tacit suggestion that he was instrumental in these film maker's successes. This wouldn't be so bad except his examples sometimes actually contradict his theory, not support it. In short, even as shown in the interview, McKee has a tendency to say in 100 words what could be said in 50. (I think Pullman gets a bit too verbose as well, which is unfortunate for both since they do have good ideas that are at least worth considering.)

(I had more specific complaints, but it's been a while since I plowed [yes, plowed] through Story. I keep telling myself to read it again, but can't muster the energy.)

I actually found Syd Field and William Goldman's first book more informative in practical ways.
# posted by Blogger Joe
8/21/2009 10:58 PM   
Incidentally, Syd Field is often criticized for reducing screenplays to a formula. Except he's right and McKee actually builds on much of Field's basic ideas, though does in a much more analytical way (for better and for worse.)

Goldman is the most cynical. His basic theory is that "nobody knows anything" and if you tell a good story, you've told a good story and that's about all there is. That aside, his advice of starting a scene as late as possible but no later is extremely incisive, even if vague to those people who love back story and long, drawn out, wordy, emoting scenes (the kind that make 90 minute movies three hours long.)

I also fall back to my stage directing teacher in college who simply said that first you must entertain, everything else is secondary. Most my other teachers in film school said pretty much the same thing (though their favorite saying was "if you want to preach, become a preacher.")
# posted by Blogger Eugene
8/22/2009 8:51 AM   
I basically see McKee in literary criticism terms: not prescriptive but descriptive. He's a screenplay paleontologist describing the fossilized remains of successful Hollywood species.

What bogs down Story is all the digging through the movie strata, which really isn't necessary because you either buy into the thesis or you don't. The rest is bullet points.

Essentially he comes to the same conclusions as Joseph Campbell, except more pragmatically and with fewer pretensions. George Lucas should have listened to McKee instead of Campbell.
# posted by Blogger Joe
8/22/2009 9:04 PM   
The dissent from Blowhard's blog entry is perversely hilarious: Green inadvertently supports Blowhard's thesis so completely it's rather scary. The contempt is so thorough, Green even sneers at all those pathetic souls who like "story." Granted, he is questioning readers who don't question their "reflexive demand for "story"", but it's a distinction without a difference. I'd turn the question around and ask why intellectuals like Green have such a reflexive aversion to "story". Is it partly because they are talentless hacks who are incapable of telling a story?
# posted by Blogger Kate Woodbury
8/23/2009 7:43 PM   
I agree with the advice from McKee? Goldman? that the inciting incident should come as soon as possible but not too soon; this is what story-telling hinges on--plus who tells the story. Everything else works from those two decisions.

As for the reason people start dumping on "story": I think one reason is that MFA Creative Writing programs have to justify their existence. Shoot, creative writing professors have to justify their existence! Bitter Guy where I work is partly bitter because the person teaching creative writing at our school is some guy who had a book published in, like, 1974 while Bitter Guy continually sells throw-away paperbacks but has never been asked to teach the course. His stuff may not be "literary," but he does make a kind of a living. (I could support myself on what he makes from his writing; he can't cause he has two kids with student loans and an ex.)

All this is a long-winded beginning to say, I'm not sure Creative Writing programs can justify themselves in the same way that art programs can (although my creative writing teachers WERE active published authors, and one of them thought Creative Writing should be moved over to the art department; personally, I think all writing programs should be moved into Media & Communications).

But if the creative writing instructor spends his or her time focused on teaching what it means to be a writer rather than on critiquing and encouraging the production of material, after awhile, that instructor has to come up with NEW things to say about what being a writer means and what it ought to mean, etc. etc. etc. And it gets really cliquey--good writers know what it means to be the right kind of writer (rather than "good writers make money"). So, for instance, I was in a writing group with a chick who got her MFA in Creative Writing, and she would say things like, "Well, in our program, we decided that using perfect tense--" (he has gone)--"is something only writers do who don't know any better." (She was the same chick who tried to tell me that white people couldn't write "magical realism"; "magical realism" is "literary talk" for "writers" who don't want to use the word "fantasy" because, then, *gasp* people might think they read that kind of stuff!)

She sort of had a point (about perfect tense), but the other day, I was trying to get a passage to work smoothly and realized that I'd internalized her comment, and that it was stupid. All that really matters is that the story is communicated clearly. Sure, I'm not crazy about perfect tense or adverbs (Stephen King IS right about adverbs), but after awhile, worrying about being the "right" kind of writer can really cramp your style. And you start believing, as I started to believe in college, that "stories shouldn't end because, like, you know, life doesn't end!" And then you produce stories without pay-offs that go on and on and on, and they DON'T sell.