Last spring for my April birthday I celebrated with a gift to myself: I signed up for Robert McKee’s Story Seminar in New York City, described as a “three-day ‘rite of passage’ seminar” in which, McKee “teaches the substance, structure, style, and principles of story. Past students include Peter Jackson, Russell Brand, Jimmy Fallon, Julia Roberts, Geoffrey Rush, Kirk Douglas, David Bowie, Meg Ryan, John Cleese, and many more.” McKee is the godfather of storytelling, drawing from and repackaging classic story structure ideas that date back to Aristotle. His course has become essential curriculum not only for screenwriters and playwrights, but for Hollywood executives, producers and brand marketers who want to understand how to speak the language of story, and brand storytelling.
Over the last year, I’ve found myself thinking about, implementing and using these fundamentals of storytelling in a range of projects—from brand videos to pitch decks and even the nonfiction novel I’m working on. The basic rules of narrative apply across any genre, category or medium. Just like Western music has 12 notes on a scale but can be arranged in endless patterns, McKee explained, there is a universal form to all stories, but not a formula. “All great films, TV, novels, stories, at heart are the same thing, the same essential form, articulated in an utterly unique way,” McKee says. “A story is a series of events, selected from the life story, composed in a strategic sequence, to express and arouse specific emotions and to communicate a meaning.”
Held at the French Institute Alliance Francaise, the workshop featured 75-year-old McKee lecturing passionately from the stage to an international crowd from 9:00am to 8:00pm for three consecutive days, pausing only for brief lunch and snack breaks. People had flown in from all over the world to hear the renowned seminar, and McKee's energy, humor and depth of knowledge was astounding; he delivered each idea with the articulateness and punch of a standup comic.
Some of the most useful information McKee shared that I continue to consider when creating stories in a variety of mediums:
Stories should have a story arc of beginning, middle and end. This three-act structure can also be broken down into 1) setup, 2) confrontation and 3) resolution.
Every story has a core value that examines a binary of human existence (ie. honesty/dishonesty, good/evil, right/wrong, meaningful/meaningless, justice/injustice) that can (and must!) shift its charge from positive to negative and back again. The story value must change in value from scene to scene in order to drive action. No one will watch/read/listen to a one-value story.
A story must contain an inciting incident, aka the “big hook” or major event that radically upsets life’s balance (the incident can be a coincidence or a decision). All stories are the pursuit to put life back into balance.
Conflict drives action across four levels: inner, personal, social, physical.
Stories must progress in cycles of rising intensity and action, building to the story climax; by the end of the story there should be absolute, irreversible change.
The best characters are multidimensional, and have complex desires and goals (both conscious and unconscious).
What is a character willing to risk to get their object of desire? True character can only be expressed through choice under pressure. We can reveal different aspects of their character through interactions with other supporting characters.
The audience must empathize with the protagonist, so give them a reason, early on, to root for this character by showing their humanity. (This idea is often referred to by screenwriter Blake Snyder and others in the movie making business as "Save the cat," which means the protagonist does something nice, like rescuing a kitten, which makes the audience empathize and like him/her.)
No two characters should have the same attitude toward anything that happens; maximize the opportunity for conflict by giving each character a different belief system and background.
Learn the conventions of genres to understand the audience’s expectations; choose a title that prepares them for the story they’re about to encounter (should they plan to laugh, cry, or be scared?)
A great way to get inspired about ideas for writing a new story is to pose a hypothetical; the magic ‘if’ opens up the imagination: “What would happen if a shark ate a vacationer?” (and there you have the plot of JAWS).
All stories are either idealistic, pessimistic, or ironic (both idealistic and pessimistic at the same time).
Dramatize the exposition! Introduce facts slowly, through conflict; never stop a story just to introduce a fact.
Design image systems in the story’s physical world and setting that have symbolic meaning to deepen emotion.
Every story must follow the rules of the universe in which it exists, so make wise creative choices when setting up the world in which the story is set.
A story should feel inevitable (without being predictable): because the inciting incident happened, the climax has to happen. Give the audience what they want, but not what they expect!
Here are a few films I watched to prep for the course (we’d been told ahead of time would be heavily referenced):
On the final day, McKee conducted a scene by scene analysis of Casablanca, what he calls “the ultimate Hollywood movie,” to illustrate the craft, form of the acts and scenes and climaxes, the story’s core value, the weaving of the main plot and subplots, genre conventions, relationships and roles of protagonists and antagonists, and value changes and turning point as the story progresses. I walked away with a head full of ideas, a notebook packed with quotes and diagrams, and a genuine newfound love of story and a deeper understanding of how compelling narratives are created.
A few favorite quotes that McKee said over the course of three days that I scribbled down:
“Inspiration is like humming on the steps of Carnegie Hall. You have to turn your humming into a symphony if you want to be recognized for your talent.”
“Everything is fiction, even documentary or biography. You only capture a fraction, always.”
“Writing is the exploration of life, the search for meaning and truth.”
“Storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into society.”
“Audiences want surprise. Pry open the gap between expectation and result.”
“Cut ideas that suck. Destroy mediocrity.”
“If everything is trying to be major, it all becomes minor. If everyone is screaming, we go deaf.”
- “Talent is like a cat. It will not come when you call it.”