top of page

Notes From Robert McKee's "Story" class for screenwriting                          Page 1

Robert McKee: Notes from Seminar 3-2-01

Reviewed: 4-18-02- five scripts later

It doesn’t matter how many people want to do what you do, what matters is how well you do what you do.    Bob Roe

“How the Jews invented Hollywood”

Find time to write-alone-lock yourself away from the phone and the world

THE PROBLEM: Decline of story
Best writing in on Television; “Traffic” not a good story
Definitions: call something by its ‘name’ as a writer
What is the stuff of writing…what makes it tick…its not words
Writing-dipping your pen into that sticky thing known as human emotion
Not a hobby, not an art form, but a profession
Scriptcity- where you can buy a film- rent the movie- study, it scene by scene
What was added? What was cut?  6 months, you will be great!
Why this course?
The story sucks..It doesn’t go anywhere…
A great story, a great story, a great story, a great story, a great story,
Those who can do it have a sellers market…
“No smog in LA just the smell of bad scripts”
40 and 50 thousand titles registered in WGA
750 million spent on the search for material, 25% goes to readers,75% for options for screenplays not produced-
Tell story! Tell story! Tell story! American Beauty, Being John Malcolvitch
Tender Mercies, Hannah and her sister, what about Mary, Short Cuts, Parenthood,
Men in Black, Gods and Monsters, The red violin, Afterlife, Groundhog Day,
Wow, what a great story….
Not everything is a good story!
At heart all good stories are the same thing…form to story telling, just like an essential form to music,
Power is in the form of the art!
The form is not ‘format’ but STORY, WELL TOLD
You must have the idea, a fresh insight into life, a tremendous knowledge of the world of characters that you create, some wit, passion for perfection, passion to rewrite and rewrite, and must hate being in the medium
Talent is a gift, taste is a talent, born with it,
Innate the ability to see, analogical talent, hidden connection that fuses them by a third new thing…. real insight into humanity…plus a mastery of the craft!!!!!!!
Craft: a mastery of the art form
Craft takes your story to where it must go, a concept is not good alone
The unlived life is not worth examining….a concept is like standing on the steps of Carnegie hall humming”
Personal story bad script…follow person around in life
Commercial script -the thing that will end civilization, as we know it
Personal story: under told, writing just like life (verisimilitude)
Com script- over done, stimulate the audience

A life poem, enough like life that people understand, but not boringly obvious, a meta

Some things that facts are the truth, but facts are neutral- it has no meaning until someone gives it a meaning- homeless people are a fact- some will say it’s the homeless persons fault- bad choice- others: our fault- now, what’s the truth?
Truth is not what happens, but what we think about what happens…
The writer interrupts what he thinks is the truth

Com script- in love with abstract possibilities-story is a metaphor for life
Sensory ability vs. imagination
Facts vs. imagination
Writer- without politics
“What I live for”….male mind, Joyce C. Oates
A writer is a female, male creature- both are essential- find balance
Two talents, as well as two powers, literary talent- lift language to something really powerful- common talent-
Second talent-creative talent to take life and reshape it into something expressive
Pure untutored story talent is rare
Most earn it by study- greatest moments in film can be the best
A screenplay is not literature, but a blueprint for a film
Chaplin wrote a step outline- on one piece of paper
One-sentence scenes that spoke the point-
A person could make a movie with just an outline-
Triv. Brilliantly told vs. something profound badly told?
Independents say that the audience just doesn’t get it
Modest amount of story talent with a maximum amount of craft
Enter your imagination- see character-write a page- then read it- critique it
Does this work? Is it real? 10 to one critiquing
Quality: leads you into better writing- you must understand-
Talent without craft is like an engine just bur

Story: a banquet of ideas that are created by making a character- creating a character-
         Thousands of living hours- multi-layered- can have many antagonist-against all 
          You choose just two hours that express everything you have left out- “put story         inside the story” , example is TENDER MERCIES (

STRUCTURE: choices that the writer makes…it does not just spring out of the mind- a real artist generates far more material than he can use- screenplays are about events

EVENTS: things that happen to the character, produces story, structure is event choices-
A series of events composed into specific events- specific view of reality, emotions, 40 to 60 events. Event means change! If streets were dry this morning, then wet this evening, we know that what happened was rain. Rain happened to the character.
Value: the very living blood of the story- not in moral issue, but qualities and experiences that can be either positive or negative-shift their charge-

Value: life and death by a famine…rain: event: powerful event (coincidence),
          Meaningful chance achieved by conflict-
The Rainmaker is a perfect example of conflict-(Richard Nash)

Scene: every scene is a true event, a meaningful change for the character
1. What value or values are at stake in the lives of this scene
2. Positive or negative , beginning or end, nothing happens if values the same
3. “Remains of the Day”- every single scene an event-
4. Action through conflict that turn from positive to negative, value
5. From love to hate in a single scene- be clear-
6. Continuous time and space
7. Beat: not a scene( nor pause) but is change in human behavior-
8. Love-tease-insult-ridicule-violence-“its over” (slams the door)
9. Six beats of behavior-changing moments of human behavior
10. Ideally every single scene is a turning point-
11. Sequence. Is a series of scenes: act (creates great change)
12. Act- climax is last scene has the turning point
13. Scenes turn in relative to minor, last act is greater
14. Climax of last act, story climax, an invent is irreversible
15. Prior to climax any change can happen, but in final climax it is absolute
16. “Which lie did I tell”
17. Beats-scenes-sec-acts
18. Dialogue is action!!!! Something is happening!
19. Value: she needs self-confidence at beginning of scene, but ends up getting it
20. Have a value for each scene:
21. Each scene turns on its own value….why a sequence? The job was the goal of the three scenes- deep value is integrity
22. Arc of the film- the great sweep of change expressed in the characters life- what is the deepest values from one end of the film to the other-
23. Plot, used as a verb, to make choice, to go from this point to that point, is a perfectly good word
24. Tender Mercies- a very difficult genre to write-educational to the protagonist, where he has a changing attitude, CHOICES is the key,
25. SWEAT out the details, its what happens that is the hard part! How are you going to get a character to change
26. ACTION: the hard part is the characters, not the chase scenes, who’s doing this and why?
27. Design, structure, plot…things that happen by purpose
28. Instinct can be habit,
29. Every movie you have scene is on the top of your head- writing is made of better stuff
30. You have to shape it into something that works, “Judoe” classical tragedy
31. Classical design, minimalism(maintains enough of the classic design to work)
32. Anti-structure : classic is reversed, opposite of classical design “bad time”, “snatch” “Search for the holy Grail”
33. Classic ending: has a closed ending. All questions answers
34. Minimalism has an open ending, not all things are answered, left to audience
35. “Fab. Baker Boys” is good example, two stories answered, one left open
36. Classical design: great external conflict on the protagonist, mim: is internal conflict (arc of film is change of character )
37. min. No central plot, but a number of mini-plots, none dominant, but weaved together
38. “Parenthood” is an example
39. “Meet the Parents” one classical story
40. “Harry and Sally” is anti-structure
41. Classical design: single protagonist as active
42. Passive protagonist is minm. (substitute inner conflict)
43. Is life just wondering around passive- no!
44. Classical design the story is told in continuous time- audience will understand the time element
45. anti-structure time is tossed like a salad-(destiny is your character is a genry)
48. Causality: how one cause affects an action- writers need to have a greater understanding to what’s going on
49. anti-structure- coincidence –three stories(Run Lolla Run)
50. Classical: consistent reality-cartoons have it! Once rules are established cannot
51. Groundhog day- day repeats but only the protagonist is aware of it!!
52. Value: learns to love in an unconditional way
53. It took years for him to learn
54. Anti-structure-inconsistent realities –“The Weekend”
55. beg ,mid, end, but not necessarily in that order
56. “One true thing” good film
57. This course is about classical design!  Audience shrinks down the pyramid
58. Classical mind is a mirror of the human mind
59. Bottom of triangle has a shrunken audience, budget shrinks
60. Mark of an intellectual is to recognize quality when you see it, Terminator is a quality,( There’s Something About Mary)

61. You have got to repay those investors- don’t loose money!
62. Classical creates the other forms which live in the shadow of the classical, and exist because of classical
63. Teacher character-“Leaving Las Vegas” mind of audience is what makes it work, he said “I’m going to Las Vegas to drink myself to death”, the audience says ‘no’
64. why want? Not Hollywood, that’s why. Want to be the ‘artist’ so make an art film

1. Where, time,
2. All stories take place in a small little world! ( Dr. Strangelove)(three sets)
3. Must be small enough that the mind of actor will grasp it- a godlike knowledge of the character- if world is too big, too much space, too many characters, is a mistake-you will write cliché – I’ve seen this film before
4. Become the god of the universe you create
5. Writers block- do research-yellow legal pads only
6. What do I know from my personal life that will help with this character- write it down- always write it done- don’t daydream-remember from your own life
7. Recall fears- recall loves-hates-
8. Plan B- what could it be like?  Imagination is from your memory, not from what you do not know-
9. Ignorant people cannot write- no depth- no power
10.  Imagination will bring events from your whole life and put it together
11. Trip to library- half of what you know is from reading
12. Families are global-
13. Write what you know, you will have an audience- the whole world will get it because they are all the same-
14. “A River Runs Through It”- the truth is that you can not help the people close to you
15. Advice: subtext for “us” is you are messing up my life, the family, are they going to do it? No!
16. Hard, facts- real research!! Reach the saturation point of research and then the writing will pour out- producing choices-
17. Generates 10 times more than he can use- then make good choices
18. Actors rehearse a scene many, many times
19. Using every choice you come up with not work-
20. a good writer destroys scenes- 90%  of what we create is not our best work
21. Do not have to write out it ten different ways- but a dozen ways they might meet
22. Which possible scene is truest to this character- singles bar?-do research-

2. You must somehow work within these genres
3. The American Beauty- “beauty was what he discovered that made life worth living”
4. Crime story: make it personal for the cop- the murderer- don’t use a cliché by kidnapping his child or killing his partner-
5. Edge over from professional to personal- push the button- prosecutors start professional then it becomes personal-“Law and Order”
6. In comedy- nobody gets hurt- that is real comedy- it doesn’t really hurt
7. Black comedy- where the audience feels the pain
8. Black farce,” Snatch”,” a fish named wanda – Klease the writer-
9. What would happen if a man who loved animals couldn’t stop killing them?
10. You cannot think that you know what’s going on simply because you have gone to the movies- do your homework- study-
11. What do films of this kind ALWAYS DO?
12. Self discovery lights the fire of a writer- all on your own- sets a fire inside the writer

bottom of page