Monday, January 12, 2009

Story by Robert McKee

Rereading Story by Robert McKee here's my notes so far.

Talented people write poorly when they are blinded by an idea they must prove, or driven by an emotion they must express. They write well when they are moved by a desire to touch the audience.

"Traditionally humankind has sought the answer to Aristotle's question (how should a human being lead his life?) from the four wisdoms-philosphy, science, religion, art-taking insight from each to bolt together a liveable meaning. But today who reads Hegel or Kant without an exam to pass? Science, once the great explicator, garbles life with complexity and perplexity. Who can listen without cynicism to economists, sociologists, politicians? religion, for many, has become an empty ritual that masks hypocrisy. As our faith in traditional ideologies diminishes, we turn to the source we still believe in: the art of story." Our appetite for story is a reflection of the profound human need to grasp the pattern of living, intellectually and emotionally.

Weak storytelling is forced to substitute flashiness for substance.

Experience is over-rated, in itself it's not enough. Self knowledge is the key- life plus deep reflection on our reactions to life.

Unschooled writers call "instinct" their unconscious comparison of their stuff with everything they've absorbed, which leads to cliche's either commercial if they embrace it or, avante-garde if they 'rebel' against it.

Early last century a story was considered a craft like music that could be taught. Some authors of the time: William Archer, Kenneth Rowe, and John Howard Lawson, their method was intrinsic, movements of desire, forces of antagonism, turning points, spine, progression, crisis, climax.

"Values, the positive/negative charges of life, are at the soul of our art. The writer shapes story around a perception of what's worth living for, what's worth dying for, what's foolish to pursue, the meaning of justice, truth-the essential values. in decades past, writer and society more or less agreed on these questions, but more and more ours has become an age of moral and ethical cynicism, relatives and subjectivism-a great confusion of values. As the family disintegrates and sexual antagonisms rise, who, for example, feels he understands the nature of love? And how, if you do have a conviction, do you express it to an ever more skeptical audience?
This erosion of values has brought with it a corresponding erosion of story. unlike writers in the past, we can assume nothing. First we must dig deeply into life to uncover new insights, new refinements of value and meaning, then create a story vehicle that expresses our interpretation to an increasingly agnostic world. No small task."

Fancy dialogue won't save a weak story.

Hallie and Whit Burnett also wrote well on the subject of story

Focus on the craft of writing, the building blocks discussed later, so that you don't focus on whether what you are writing is good or not and get blocked.

A story event/turning point is the basic building block of story. It is a meaningful change in the life situation of a character expressed and experienced in terms of value and achieved through conflict(ie. things were good, now they're bad)

beat-exchange of action/reaction

scene - an exchange of beats that results in a Story Event (if it could be re-written to all happen in the same room it counts as a scene (an argument starting from waking up and ending at the end of the morning commute is a single scene))

sequence - a series of scenes (usually 2-5) ending with an even bigger Story Event

act - a series of sequences climaxing in a major reversal of values

story - a series of acts that builds to a final irrevocable climatic story event

don't write a scene that doesn't have a turning point

"Let every phrase of dialogue or line of description either turn behavior and action or set up the conditions for change." Building blocks starting with beats to build scenes etc.

Turning points should be surprising, make the audience curious about why they happened when they expected something else, give insight (make previous clues fit into place in a new way), and move things in a new direction.

everyone always takes the minimum amount of effort to achieve anything, so you have to keep poking your characters until the minimum amount of effort is to open up their soul and put it all on the line

the GAP - the characters (and therefore the audience) when doing an action expect a certain result, when the result is way unexpected it creates a gap between action and expectation that sucks the audience in and causes the character to risk more on their next action which of course has another unexpected result and another GAP

Compelling writing makes the GAP big. "What's expected? What's the opposite of that?"

What's the worst thing that happens to the character if he fails? It has to matter, the character's taking risks to get what he wants, it has to matter what he might lose.

so a minor, medium, or major GAP is the turning point of scenes sequences and acts, where the character has to risk more and more to achieve their goal and the results are not expected and changes the playing board requiring more risk until the climax which is a last irrevocable change

if we empathize with the character, know what tehy want and want them to have it, understand the values at stake in their world, then a change in values moves our emotions.

An open ending leaves the last bit of storytelling up to the audience. "Will it work out? Will they stay together?"

McKee goes on about the different kinds of story and plot "arch plot" "minimilist" "Hollywood" vs "Art film" okay if you want to write specific kinds of stories there's a little advice

Cliche comes from the writer not knowing thoroughly their stories world. An honest story is at home in one, and only one, place and time. You can't have "a story about divorce, in Everywhere, USA" because breakup in the bayou bears little resemblance to a multimillion-dollar Park Avenue litigation.

Mine your memory, find a memory with the feelings you want to capture, write the memory down, rewrite that feeling into your story.

Research wins the war on cliche by giving your world authenticity, it also breaks writers block.

the first idea is the sum of everything you've ever absorbed, so brainstorm a list of possibilities and ask which is truest to my characters and their world?

genre gives you boundaries for you to work within, a framework of possibilities for you and expectations for the audience. the challenge is to keep to convention while avoiding cliche.

A characters true nature is revealed under pressure. Even under identical situations unconscious decisions can reveal different characters (the high power lawyer and the illegal immigrant both rushed into a burning school bus, one rescues the white kid, one rescues the little girl, revealing their lifelong unconscious programming)

Characters whose outside and inside match are boring

The finest writing not only reveals true character, but arcs or changes that inner nature over the course of the telling.

the function of structure is to provide progressively building pressure to force characters into more and more difficult dilemmas where they must make more and more difficult risk-taking choices and actions, revealing their true nature down to the unconscious self.

Adventure and Farce demand simplicity of character because complexity would distract us from the derring-fo or pratfalls necessary for those genres.

Movies are about their last 20 minutes, for a film to have a chance the last act and it's climax must be the most satisfying.

Climax is the keystone, once you have that rewrite the rest of the story to support it

idea and emotion are separate in life, (if you see a body you'll react emotionally and then later reflect on mortality) Both happen together so rarely it feels like an religious epiphany. Story is an instrument that you create epiphanies at will, called aesthetic emotion, which help you understand life

story is an argument made through invoking emotional proof, don't just have a character say it unless you want to suck.

controlling idea - what the films about - a single sentence describing how and why life is like it is. value (how things work out, ie love fails)+ cause (why they work out because men and women can't understand each other)

once you've written your climax, figure out what your controlling idea is, then go back through and rewrite the rest of the movie to emphasize it. Once you have the controlling idea you can avoid intriguing irrelevance and make sure each scene forwards the debate

progressions build by moving dynamically between the positive and negative charges of the values at stake in the story.

have to argue both sides well to be convincing

good films say "life is like this" they give lucidity and understanding to how life works, they don't give solutions "you should do this"

ironic films tend to last longer in posterity because life is complicated, what you are pursuing may wind up destroying you, or you give up on your object of desire and find yourself fulfilled

storytellers are not responsible for curing the world, are only responsible for telling the truth as they see it

If I were this character, with their background, in this position, how would I react. Write emotionally true, get inside and write from the inside

what's the setting, politics of the characters world, values of their world, genre, backstory (significant and relevant events of the past), and cast design (1st rule is polarization)

the inciting incident radically upsets the balance of a characters life, instigating a quest to reright it, the big hook that the audience wants to know if it can be re-

the audience anticipates that the forces of antagonism provoked at the inciting incident will build to the limit of human experience and the telling can't end until the hero is face to face with the forces at their most powerful

rule of thumb is that the inciting incident must occur within the first 25% (so 1st 1/2 hour in a feature)

if the inciting incident is archetypal, it can be the opening scene, if not you can use subplots to introduce and warm up the characters until the audience cares what'll happen to them after the inciting incident

subplots are a possible way to keep the long 2nd act interesting, can deemphasize them by not having all of their story elements/turning points happen on screen

what's the worst thing that could happen to my character? how could that actually be the best thing? and vice versa

a feature is usually 40-60 scenes balled into 12-18 sequences that ball into 3 or more acts, if it's dragging in the middle the scenes are probably not getting progressively harder for the characters

and then the library called back the book. Up to chapter 11 Scene Analysis


Ratul Sarna said...

I really hope that you could get the book again and continue after chapter11.
Thanx for this!!

Alonso said...

I probably will sooner or later, but I may leave it at the library for a while in case someone else does want to check it out, no need to be greedy :) glad you found the notes useful, it really is a strong book, probably worth buying, I just don't want it taking up space in my small house.