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McKee & me

One marvellous thing I did for myself recently was buy membership of Robert McKee’s one-day Thriller seminar in Melbourne. As far back as – I think – 2004 I did a similar trip, heading to Melbourne for McKee’s Horror seminar. It was the most invigorating day of story I had that year and for possibly several years after because, when you think about it, not many people are doing advanced seminars on writing. I mean, there are diplomas & PhDs & such, but there’s a gap there for people like me who are looking for a day or weekend of intense theory. And relatively few people have given their lives over to the *analysis* of the creation of story – rather than the actual writing/editing/critiquing of it.

In Horror, I learned about destruction of God & the mother, the power of the antagonist, the survival of the most reasonable character (not the most brave, the most intelligent, or the most funny – they will all die; only the moderates will survive). In Thriller I learned about the shortcomings of bureaucracy, the ‘speech in praise of the bad guy’, and how to plant clues that are ‘chronologically and causally out of sequence’. It was, frankly, a blast.

Also in these 2 seminars I watched Alien & Se7en respectively, & if there was a (legal) way to capture McKee chatting through a film, giving his analysis from the podium or the couch beside you & make those hours available for sale, I would be broke. I’ve never looked at those films the same way again, & that also goes for Casablanca, which I saw him present two years ago during his Story seminar in Sydney (which was an alarming example of physical challenge on the part of an audience trapped in a cinema with migraine-inducing spotlights & no air conditioning for a day).

Rjurick Davidson writes at Overland about his experiences with McKee & it got me thinking that, yes, one of the appeals of McKee is his assuredness. His certainty about everything he’s saying, from the meaning of a story to the meaningfulness of storytelling. Especially given the vagaries of the average writing career, it’s no wonder McKee can be like a drug to an uncertain writer.

But it also made me think about the application of McKee’s moral structure – because his theory & his film interpretations are indeed moral interpretations – to the novel. It occurred to me, listening to him, that he’s right, more than right, for film. I expect the ‘right’ moral outcomes from film. I expect the good guys to win or if they don’t win, I expect them to lose in meaningful & instructive ways. I expect the best conclusions to be made by the best characters. Or, if none of this happens, I expect my expectations to be ‘handled’.

For novels, well, it’s a different story. In novels I expect anything can happen. Including any moral thing. Am I just being hypocritical here? Maybe. But I also find myself pulling towards McKee’s moral certitude. And I don’t even feel bad about that.

Anything you can do as a human being that somehow helps diminish the amount of suffering in the world is a good thing and a meaningful thing. I believe that the telling of story, beautifully and truthfully and powerfully, helps human beings understand how and why life changes and therefore they suffer less by having some sense of meaning. And so one way you can overcome the meaninglessness of life is to express meaning in a beautiful way in your story and as a result human beings live more beautifully having experienced your story than they did without it. And that’s meaningful.”

– Robert McKee, transcribed from a video chat at storylogue.com