Everybody’s an Expert

In an earlier blog I grumbled about ‘The Curse of Robert McKee’.  McKee is a well-known screenwriting guru who does a great two-day lecture on the structure of the classic Hollywood screenplay.  The session I attended, a few years back, was based on Casablanca and the first Alien movie.  Nothing wrong with that – two of my favourite films, undisputed classics, and McKee knows his stuff.  He expertly exposes the mechanics of the script, exploring the way the writers use visual and mythic themes to create unity, and illustrating how they structure the narratives to create a series of climaxes building to a resolution. The way he explains it, it all makes perfect sense.

The problem is that memorising these principles does not per se make you a great writer.  McKee’s own screenwriting credits are pretty modest.  However his lectures are always packed, not so much by up-and-coming screenwriters (they can rarely afford the course fees) but by producers and executives, many of them there because they’re desperate to sound as if they know what they are talking about when giving notes to writers.

A writer starts with an idea for a story.   You develop the ideas and try to explore them to the full, dramatically and visually, employing classic structure or ignoring it as necessary, in order to create the maximum emotional impact.  You can’t start with a structure and graft ideas on to it; the outcome will feel formulaic and even cynical.

If you’re ever developing a script with a production company and you get a note asking ‘Where’s the Act Three Climax?’ or complaining the opening ‘didn’t have an inciting incident’, you’ll recognise the voice of a parrot who’s been on a McKee course.  These remarks always sound very technical and authoritative, and they almost never help to improve the scripts.  But the approach allows some clueless people think that creating and structuring a screenplay is simply painting by numbers, and that’s the Curse of Robert McKee.

Creating a good story is art.  Analysing it is science.  Let’s not mix them up.

The other thing I’ve know insecure executives to do is hire a ‘focus group’.  A panel of ‘typical viewers’ would be asked what they liked and disliked about a TV series.  In broad terms no-one could object to the principle of listening to the audience, but these executives would always take it too far, and start asking focus groups how the series should develop.  They would then tell the writers that ‘the focus group doesn’t like that sort of thing’ or ‘the focus group really loved that idea.’  To which the self-respecting writer should reply, ‘Well then, get the f**king focus group to write it.’

A good storyteller doesn’t stop to ask the audience where the story goes next – a good storyteller feels his or her way to the right ending.  It’s scary and risky, because you cannot be sure the audience will like where you take them.  If you love the story and are excited and entertained by it – well, at least one person’s happy.  If you are bored and frustrated by it, it’s a good bet the audience will feel the same way.  And if you try to second-guess your audience, and write to a formula ‘guaranteed’ to please, the audience will know they’re being sold a product, not listening to a tale that came from someone’s heart.  There’s no joy in that.

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