November 30, 2007
Cloudy and warm. Supposed to rain today. Sprinkled on the way into work. Finally finished Robert McKee's excellent book on Story, which I highly recommend to anyone who wants to learn the craft of storytelling. Here are just a few of the highlights:
• When emotional experience repeats, the power of the second event is cut in half. And if the power of the Story Climax is halved, the power of the film is halved.
• A character is not a human being. A character is a work of art, a metaphor for human nature. We relate to characters as if they were real, but they’re superior to reality. Their aspects are designed to be clear and knowable; whereas our fellow humans are difficult to understand, if not enigmatic. We know characters better than we know our friends beacuase a character is eternal and unchanging, while people are shifty. In fact, McKee claims, “I know Rick Blaine in 'Casablanca' better than I know myself.” And, as William Faulkner observed, human nature is the only subject that doesn’t date.
• A character comes to life the moment we glimpse a clear understanding of his desire. Ask: What does this character want? Now? Soon? Overall? Knowingly? Unknowingly? With clear, true answers comes your command of the role.
• The root of all fine character writing is self-knowledge. Or, as Chekov put it, “Everything I learned about human nature, I learned from me.” How would we react, or what would we do, is the guiding question.
• Regarding dialogue: “Speak as common people do,” Aristotle advised, “but think as wise men do.”
• Movies are a visual medium: never write a line of dialogue when you can create a visual experience. The more dialogue you write, the less effect dialogue has. The first attack on every scene should be: How could I write this in a purely visual way and not have to resort to a single line of dialogue? (a cartoonist’s wet dream, but perhaps a writer’s nightmare?)
• Ninety percent of verbal expression has no filmic equivalent. “He’s been sitting there for a long time” can’t be photographed. So we have to revert to visual tricks: he stubs out his tenth cigarette, or, he tries to stay awake and looks at his watch.
• In script writing avoid generic nouns and verbs with adjectives and adverbs attatched and seek the name of the thing: Not: “the carpenter uses a big nail,” but “The carpenter hammers a spike.” “Nail” is a generic noun, “big” an adjective (and begs the question: “How big?”).
• Write dialogue with the “periodic sentence”: “If you didn’t want me to do it, why’d you give me. . . “ Look? Gun? Kiss? The periodic sentence is the “suspense sentence.” Its meaning is delayed until the very last word, forcing both actor and audience to listen to the end of the line. McKee claims script readers, directors and movie people look for the dangling prepositional phrases in screenplay dialogue, with the meaning somewhere in the middle, as a sign someone doesn’t know what he's doing.
• "A story must not retreat to actions of lesser quality, but move progressively forward to a final action beyond which the audience cannot imagine another."
• “Generally, a feature-length Archplot is designed around forty to sixty scenes that conspire into twelve to eighteen sequences that build into three or more acts that top one another continuously to the end of the line. To create forty to sixty scenes and not repeat yourself, you need to invent hundreds. After sketching this mountain of material, tunnel to find those few gems that will build sequences and acts into memorable and moving points of no return. For if you devise only the forty to sixty scenes needed to fill the 120 pages of a screenplay, your work is almost certain to be antiprogressive and repetitious.”
• "The Climax of the last act is far and away the most difficult scene to create: It's the soul of the telling. If it doesn't work, the story doesn't work. But the second most difficult scene to write is the Central Plot's Inciting Incident. We rewrite this scene more than any other."
• Here is the question to ask: "What is the worst possible thing that could happen to my protagonist? How could that turn out to be the best possible thing that could happen to him?"
• Stanislavski’s “Magic if”: If I were this character in these circumstances, what would I do?”
•You don’t keep the audience’s interest by giving it information, but by withholding information, except that which is absolutely necessary for comprehension.
• Pace exposition (details about characters and backstory): the least important facts come in early, the next most important later, the critical facts last. And what are the critical pieces of exposition? Secrets. The painful truths characters do not want known.
• What does the protagonist stand to lose if he does not get what he wants?
• In order to progress a scene, after your protagonist makes an actionable move, you ask, “What is the opposite of that?” We must seek the opposite of the obvious.
• The Controlling Idea has two components: Value plus Cause. “It identifies the positive or negative charge of the story’s critical value at the last act’s climax, and it identifies the chief reason that this value has changed to its final state. The sentence composed from these two elements, Value plus Cause, expresses the core meaning of the story.”
• And then, building on The Controlling Idea as your guide, he says, “If a plot works out exactly as you first planned, you’re not working loosely enough to give room to your imagination and instincts. Your story should surprise you again and again. Beautiful story design is a combination of the subject found, the imagination at work, and the mind loosely but wisely executing the craft.”
• The writer, Paddy Chayefsky (Network) would work on The Controling Idea, and "when he found the 'story’s meaning' he’d scratch it out on a scrap of paper and tape it to his typewriter, so that nothing going through the machine wouldn’t in one way or another express his central theme.”
• “If your finished screenplay contains every scene you’ve ever written, if you’ve never thrown an idea away, if your rewriting is little more than tinkering with dialogue, your work will almost certainly fail. No matter our talent, we all know in the midnight of our souls that 90 percent of what we do is less than our best. If, however, research inspires a pace of ten to one, even twenty to one, and if you then make brilliant choices to find that 10 perent of excellence and burn the rest, every scene will fascinate and the world will sit in awe of your genius.”
• “Genius consists not only of the power to create expressive beats and scenes, but of the taste, judgement, and will to weed out and destroy banalities, conceits, false notes, and lies.”
• “History is an inexhaustible source of story material and embraces every type of story imaginable. The treasure chest of history, however, is sealed with this warning: What is past must be present. . .you must find an audience today. The best use of history. . .is to use it as a clear glass through which you show us the present.”
“Historical Drama polishes the past into a mirror of the present, making clear and bearable the painful problems of racism in GLORY and violence against women in UNFORGIVEN.”
• “Facts are neutral: The weakest possible excuse to include anything in a story is: ‘But it actually happened.’ Everything happens; everything imaginable happens. Indeed, the unimaginable happens. But story is not life in actuality. Mere occurence brings us nowhere near the truth. What happens is fact, not truth. Truth is what we think about what happens.”
• "Stories and movies are our best effort to make sense out of the anarchy of existence."
• “Talent without craft is like fuel without an engine. It burns wildly but accomplishes nothing.”
• When McKee first came out to Hollywood he read scripts, analyzing screenplays for NBC and UA. He said after reading a couple hundred screeplays, he could have written up in advance the report and then just filled in the title and writer. But, instead, here’s the report he wrote over and over:
“Nice description, actable dialogue. Some amusing moments; some sensitive moments. All in all, a script of well-chosen words. The story, however, sucks. The first thirty pages crawl on a fat belly of exposition; the rest never get to their feet. The main plot, what there is of it, is riddled with conveneint coincidence and weak motivation. No discerible protagonist. Unrelated tensions that could shape into subplots never do. Characters are never revealed to be more than they seem. Not a moment’s insight into the inner lives of these people or their society. It’s a lifeless collection of predictable, ill-told, and cliched episodes that wander off in a pointless haze. PASS ON IT.”
• “Of the total creative effort represented in a finished work, 75 percent or more of a writer’s labor goes into designing
story.” This is what we spent four days in Prescott doing.
• “Nothing moves forward in a story except through conflict. Conflict is to storytelling what sound is to music," and "The music of story is conflict.” McKee makes the point that if we were at a concert and the musicians stopped playing for three minutes, how we would start hearing the clock ticking, wonder about our roof repair, mull problems at work. This is exactly what happens in a story when we don't have conflict. The audience goes away. And this isn't some made-up rule, this is trial and error by story tellers going all the way back four thousand years to the caves. Stop with the conflict and the listener goes away.
• “The essence of reality is scarcity, a universal and eternal lacking. There isn’t enough of anything in this world to go around. Not enough food, not enough love, not enough justice, and never enough time. Time is the basic category of existence. We live in its ever-shrinking shadow.”
• McKee is even a good philosopher: "The quantity of conflict in life is constant. Something is always lacking. Like squezing a balloon, the volume of conflict never changes, it just bulges in another direction. When we remove conflict form one level of life, it amplifies ten times on another level.”
• “Serenity turns to boredom. Now Satre’s 'scarcity' is the absence of conflict itself. Boredom is the inner conflict we suffer when we lose desire, when we lack a lacking.”
"Serenity and boredom are not the same thing: although they both share a room."
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