7 min read
THE STORY DOCTOR
Reflecting on Robert McKee's 'Story' Seminar
I had my eye on attending for a while, solely based on word-of-mouth. Everyone Who Is Someone kept vouching for McKee as the “guru of gurus,” saying his story structure philosophy is mandatory learning whether you go to the seminar or not.
But the class is like a thousand bucks, and that’s just tuition for four days, not including the hotel, the flight, the food and the time. That’s a huge expense to foot for those working in a profession notorious for credit card debt.
I wanted to know more about it before going. I couldn’t find much. I wished someone would write an honest piece about everything they observed. Someone like me, preferably.
Well, this is me attempting to write that piece.
This is everything I remember from those 4 days with McKee. Writing this all down (again) has helped me internalize, and I hope it can help others in some way.
About $2,100. That’s like $850 for tuition and $1200 for room, books and food. However, my price does not include flight. I was lucky enough to live close enough to drive. If you’re flying, plan for a $2,500 trip, maybe more.
That’s ridiculous, you’re saying. It might be. If you can’t afford it, don’t. But it’s got at least the value of a full-semester course at an elite institution – I argue it’s got more – so it’s probably smarter to gauge it by what a typical 3-hour class costs a college student.
And it’s a tax writeoff!
Can’t afford that?
This is where most of us fall. I decided that many times before. If that’s where you’re at, then read his book. Read about him. Read this. Read his other books. Read things other authors write about him. You could get the basics of the seminar just doing that.
The majority of the attendees weren’t exactly who I expected. I sat by a retired surgeon from Harvard, a lawyer from Yale and some actor who didn’t graduate high school. And there were seasoned professional screenwriters in the crowd, too. They seemed to already know each other.
Where was it?
I attended in Los Angeles in October of 2014. McKee does seminars in New York, LA and London, I think.
What can I expect?
It’s intense. It’s invaluable. It took up two workdays and an entire weekend. It’s all day, every day, 9am to 7pm, Thursday to Sunday. You’re not allowed in late. In LA, that means waking up around 6:30. You won’t have time to go out drinking. You’ll be lucky if you have time to network during the class.
That said, I’m more than happy I went. Now that I’ve been, I’m not sure you could talk me into giving back what I learned for any amount of money (thinking…), it was that good. I also advise you don’t go straight back to work on Monday. You’ll be drained. It is incredibly difficult. I’d recommend taking at least a day off, if you can. Let it simmer.
Here’s the real value in actually attending the class. McKee said so many things in person that were just so completely soaked in value that I often physically couldn’t write them down fast enough. I always came pretty close, though.
McKee is extremely passionate about his teaching, so if you have thin skin, like to show up late or can’t hear brash opinions different from yours without being offended, you might want to stay home. I firmly believe being “offended” is a glaring sign of intellectual weakness. We don’t want the master diluting his words to please the crowd. It’d make the whole thing far less raw, which is specifically why it was so good. So, he might rip on the Catholic Church and the school you went to. So what? He’s old.
Here are some of the more wisdom-packed things McKee said during that long weekend. While I can’t promise each quote is 100% word-for-word, I’m willing to wager I’m at least 90% accurate.
Also, for good measure, here’s a piece by some dude who isn’t a fan. I can’t say which one of us is right, but I can say I actually know what the fuck I'm talking about.
A few weeks ago, I attended Robert McKee’s intense, four-day seminar on the fundamentals of what makes a great story.
"Write the truth."
- Robert McKee
Robert McKee Quotes
“Write the truth.”
“Sometimes we write to understand the truth, as much as we write to expose it.”
“Life’s not a journey. A road trip to Indiana is a journey. Life’s a fuckin’ struggle.”
“Don’t bullshit yourself. Call it what it is and be brave, or you will fail.”
“There are almost 300 of you here, and I’d be pleased if three of you write one great film in your life.”
“Language and words are not the stuff at the heart of a good story. Nothing that superficial can drive a story. It’s something far more substantive than that.”
“Don’t write fancy shot descriptions or heavy dialogue and lengthy scene descriptions. When people read your story, they should see a movie, not a movie being made.”
“There is incredible demand for good storytellers. Make no mistake, if you’re good, it’s a seller’s market.”
“All you need is a good story, well told.”
“There are three kinds of bad art in the world: Beach, Mountain and Desert.”
“I say to write the truth. I don’t say to write facts. Truth is not what happened. It’s why and how.”
“All writing is fiction. Autobiography is fantasy.”
“When you decide to change something in your story, make it meaningful or don’t change it.”
“True character is exposed through choice under pressure.”
“No human being is the same on the outside as they are on the inside.”
“Revelation of true character in contradiction to characterization: this is when a character gets good. They do something that completely contradicts their stereotype.”
“Sociopaths are the nicest human beings you’ll ever meet.”
“Story, like all art, is non-intellectual. Art itself is non-intellectual. In real life, idea and emotion come separately, with emotions as responses to thoughts. But in art, we’re in the epiphany business. We serve you both at once.”
“Story is living proof of meaning without explanation.”
“The protagonist must prove the positive or negative of an idea, and this moment of revelation is the climax. Don’t let your story implode by giving away the answer too soon.”
“Always maintain tension between characters.”
“Do not end your story on coincidence.” (Deus Ex Machina or God From Machine)
“Nature is not your friend. If Nature had a choice, we’d be dead.”
“I know the meaning of life. Ready? Plastic. Mother Nature couldn’t create plastic on her own, so she created us to do it.”
“An audience doesn’t come to a storyteller to learn something they already know. An audience wants to be convinced and have expectations reversed. An audience comes with a prayer.”
“When a character is a joke, when they have no shot at achieving what they want, the audience won’t care about them because people don’t think this way.”
“If life goes back to normal after a story ends, it wasn’t a very good story.”
“Don’t ask yourself what your character would do. Ask yourself what you would do in those exact circumstances. Then, write that.”
“The essence of reality is scarcity. There isn’t enough food, love, time or oil. To live a good life, both in story and in reality, you have to attack conflict bravely to obtain these scarce resources.”
“Very few people are capable of love or self-sacrifice, which are two sides of the same coin.”
“You cannot become the best-ever version of yourself, or transform into someone else. You can return to a previous version of yourself that was better, but you cannot create a new one.”
“There’s an asteroid the size of Belgium headed for earth. But there’s no guarantee it will hit Belgium.”
“Telling a story as a professional artist is the hardest work a human can take up. Just ask all the doctors in the room.”
“The amount of money you may make some day isn’t going to make up for the shit you’ll have to eat. Do it for love of the work, or you’ll be miserable.”
“Evil isn’t defined by deliberately hurting people. It’s required that an evil character takes pleasure in it.”
“Any time a film’s title is about nature or seasons, get the fuck away from that piece of garbage before it’s too late.”
“Even bad people consider themselves good. A character without a conscience is one-dimensional. Even the mafia called themselves The Goodfellas.”
“You can get an audience to empathize with an evil character by creating a world around them that’s even darker.”
“Secrets are way better than facts.”
“Pressure must squeeze the secret out. Don’t write ‘California Scenes’ where people over share for no reason.”
“Human beings aren’t allowed to do or say what they’re really thinking. If your character’s words match their inner intentions exactly, you got yourself a boring story.”
“Like people, all institutions wear masks and hire agencies to keep the subtext in place.”
“Characters are not human beings. They’re metaphors for human beings.”
“Leave room for the actor to interpret their role.”
“Actors have all the power in this business. They decide what gets made.”
“Leave the scene before it ends.”
“Half of humanity has an IQ below 100. Doesn’t that explain what goes on at department stores?”
“Telling stories for people with IQs above 100 is an entirely different medium in itself.”
“The creative process hurts. Find ways to make it more enjoyable so you’ll do it more often.”