Story guru Robert McKee: 'This is not a hobby, this is an art form'

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Robert McKee is a legend among storytellers. Famous writers journey thousands of miles to sit at his feet. I'd really like to know why. Let's find out more about this storytelling oracle.

Who is this man?

McKee started as an actor, then turned film director and writer. He won a Fulbright Scholarship, and started teaching storytelling at the University of Southern California back in the 80s.

Since then, he's taught 100,000 people the art of story face-to-face, as well as countless others online.

Peter Jackson, who masterminded The Lord of the Rings on film, calls him 'the guru of gurus'.

But other people think he's a miserable old grouch with just one message to peddle.

Both are kind of true.

How so?

Well, there's no denying his success. According to his website, McKee alumni have won a casual 200 Emmys and 60 Academy Awards between them.

They include the people who wrote The Sopranos, Sex and the City, Ugly Betty, Game of Thrones, and the brains behind Forrest Gump, Erin Brockovich, Gandhi and Monty Python.

Half of Pixar has attended, along with pretty much anyone who's anyone in Hollywood.

He's been teaching his world-renowned Story Seminar for 30 years. Alongside it, he's now delivering two offshoots: Genre (which does what it says on the tin) and Storynomics (storytelling for business).

Thousands of novelists, poets, musicians, comics, and business leaders sit rapt for over 30 hours of McKee lecturing – one man at a microphone – across four long days.

So what's not to like?

McKee may fill every seat with an eager disciple, but you go to Story at your peril.

In the Academy Award-winning film Adaptation, Charlie Kaufman (played by Nicholas Cage) suffers from serious writer's block.

Kaufman goes to one of McKee's seminars and dares to ask a question:

Sir, what if a writer is attempting to create a story where nothing much happens? Where people don't change?

McKee (played by the brilliant Brian Cox) eats him for breakfast. You really get the sense he enjoys letting loose.

Yeah, OK, he might be a real sweetheart in person. Go to Story, ask a naive question, and you be the judge. Go on, I dare you.

What does he have to say about story?

McKee has written a go-to writer's bible – Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting.

As the title suggests, the man loves a good principle. But he is adamant that this is totally different to obeying an elaborate set of rules.

'A principle', he says, just 'works, and has through all remembered time'. You need to understand these principles to write truly great stories.

In my favourite McKeeism, he explains:

Anxious, inexperienced writers obey rules. Rebellious, unschooled writers break rules. An artist masters the form.

McKee is evangelistic about sharing the principles you need to master.

He talks a lot about the idea of an 'inciting incident'. The moment or event that sparks a story. It's essential, he says.

For better or for worse, an event throws a character's life out of balance, arousing in him the conscious and/or unconscious desire for that which he feels will restore balance, launching him on a quest for his object of desire against the forces of antagonism (inner, personal, extra-personal). He may or may not achieve it. This is story in a nutshell.

You must admit, that's pretty all-encompassing. You can see how it distills the essence of so many classic storytelling techniques.

Ffion wrote a great post on the seven universal story plots. All of them – overcoming the monster, rags to riches, tragedy – fall within McKee's über-definition.

He can't have all the answers... can he?

Some people take issue with McKee's principles – and his manner. They say he's formulaic and twists examples to make them fit the mould. They say he's narrow-minded and won’t engage with criticism. They say he's harsh.

Well, yes, he doesn't mince his words. That much is true. He once told a journalist from The New Yorker:

And if you've got only one story, get the fuck out of here. Writers are people with stories to tell.

So, is he the real deal?

Decide for yourself if you want to swallow his approach in one swift gulp, or be a little bit more pick-and-mix about the whole thing.

It's like my dad always says, 'Be open-minded, but not so open-minded that your brain falls out.'

I really like this video of Russell Brand, a McKee convert. He gently rips it out of McKee's style, but sees that he is 'motivated by a great love of what he does and a great love of story'.

I think he's right that Robert McKee is someone who sees the true value of story and humanity's desperate need for it.

I've come to the conclusion that – beyond the principles he's so very fond of – this must be the reason people flock to see him year after year. He once said:

The only meaningful thing is that human beings suffer and anything a human being can do to alleviate the suffering of others is meaningful. Art softens the sharp edges of life, and helps us get through our lives.

For that statement alone, he's OK by me.

Find out more about Robert McKee at mckeestory.com

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