Video: Robert McKee On Formulaic Writing

When McKee speaks, many listen because he likes to be blunt. Here he seems to go against the likes of Michael Hauge, who place certain turning points at certain pages or percentages of the script. But the Queen Bee Guru gets it wrong, too…

At some point during this video, McKee says

“Raiders of the Lost Ark” was in seven acts.
It could be seven, eight, nine acts structures,
in “Speed,” if you counted the major reversals
in a chase film like “Speed” it’s probably nine.”

Thereby he ignores the difference between a sequence and an act. This is not helpful. As a matter of fact, the more I hear McKee, the more I wonder whether he actually has much practical advice to offer for screenwriters.

What do you think?

With thanks to Louise Lee Mei and Niels Abercrombie.


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8 thoughts on “Video: Robert McKee On Formulaic Writing”

  1. “As a matter of fact, the more I hear McKee, the more I wonder whether he actually has much practical advice to offer for screenwriters.

    “What do you think?”

    You’ve only just worked that out??? Stay tuned for the next episode.

  2. Most script writing “teachers/gurus” can’t write. That’s why they all preach nearly the same thing with their own spin on it – then pontificate like they have discovered some amazing new secret that will revolutionise the industry.

    Honestly the best way to learn to is to hook up with a successful writer (and by successful, I mean someone who gets paid to write) and learn from them. Don’t waste your money on courses or books on any of these so called experts…

    • Thanks for your comment, Billy.
      I think McKee’s contribution primarily lies in the fact that he inspires screenwriters and forces them to think about the craft rather than offering them practical tools. Ironically his forte is NOT in story, contrary to what his entire marketing profile might suggest.

      Hey David, it’s also ironic that both Billy and I are teachers with a loyal following of people who believe we have been able to teach them something of value.

      Many of my clients are successful filmmakers (and by successful, I mean someone who gets paid to write – AND WHOSE WORK REACHES AN AUDIENCE THAT PAYS TO SEE WHAT THEY’VE WRITTEN) who keep coming back because they find I help them improve their work. Yet I haven’t sold a single script myself.

      It’s true that many teachers can’t write but I dare say that even more writers can’t teach. They’re different skills altogether. And different students like different approaches.

      I also agree that if you want to stand out from the crowd, you won’t find the answer in the books. You’ll need to find out what your own strengths and weaknesses are. This, you may only figure out through working directly with a co-writer – or us, ‘so called experts’ – LOL.

      I think you’re right in that people tend to put Mr McKee on a pedestal undeservedly. In my view, other teachers deserve a lot more credit in terms of helping writers grow towards a profitable career.

      And ultimately, the key decisions are not handed over by the gurus. It’s the writers themselves that will need to take responsibility and decide when to stick to the rules and when to break them, when to leave their jobs to take up writing full-time, when to leave their home town and settle in L.A…

      • Comparing screenwriting with a technical defect is a way far fetched in my opinion. It’s like comparing arts to scienes.

        I have already learned a lot about the craft and thus I do not believe in everything being told from teachers who apply their own methods; e.g. when considering German screenwriting, as there is for example no 100% valid format to stick to; but it’s a good way to keep the study alive.

        What I’m looking for in those books is motivation rather than the perfect answer to all of my prayers, because eventually I have to figure out the story myself.

      • Hey Karel,
        As they say all sweeping statements are false ;)

        I must rephrase that yes there is much to be learnt from those that know how to teach. But there are very few that can teach – as in give “instruction” on screen writing.

        I believe it is a matter of coaching out the best in people, rather than indoctrinating them – which is what most of these “gurus” are doing.

        In terms of getting paid for writing. Well there are so many ways to get paid, and if you are willing to to do any old writing you can pull in a buck. BUT to get a spec script made or to be commissioned for a film script, well then it boils down to your political savvy as well – and most script writers never leans how to play the political game unfortunately.

        Maybe an idea for a future post? “How to schmooze your way in” LOL

        Take care,

  3. Strangely, McKee himself has turned screenwriting into a Mathemathical science. Just a short look into his book “Story” reveals that it is full of confusing diagrams and tabels in order to apply a certain structure to your script. Does that leave enough freedom for the writer? I don’t think so. Isn’t McKee the guru of formulaic writing then? Perhaps.

  4. Sarah, you probably just take this short look on Story. Those diagrams aren’t formulas. They are there to express things in a visual way. One of them is about major reversal and is used to show that the plots must be “stronger” as the movie goes on. There is no mistery on this, but whit the graphics it is easier for people to follow the classes. Look here:

    Karel, i’ve been on the mckee seminar and also read Story. It’s the best teacher, best book i have ever had. Of course there are small mistakes. But you cant compare any other book to his.
    Tell you other thing, he is also script doctour in hollywood and have worked on lots of movies. He have also helped the script of Adaptation, resolving the last act.

    I would like to see more articles about the problems on mckee theory, its a good way do evolve.

  5. The fundamental principles of story are 3,000 years old or more. And, they’ve been filtered through some pretty awesome minds over that time. McKee doesn’t do a great deal more than elucidate them, and the principals deriving from and implied by them. Burt Bacharach says that you have to master the basics of any artform before you can venture outside of them. Ultimately, when learned, story principles are pretty simple. Creativity is mainly about finding space within the principles, not outside them, to soar imaginatively.


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