kortina.nyc / notes
6 Dec 2021 | by kortina

McKee // Story

Robert McKee’s Story has been recommended to me many times, but one of my buddies recommended waiting a bit to get into it – and I think I can see why.

Some of the other more ‘primer’ / 101 style texts on screenwriting (Save the Cat, eg) feel a bit more useful on the basics of structure – how to take an idea into some sort of fully formed arc (vs just a bunch of scenes about the same characters).

McKee really hammers home the connection between great stories and great characters – for him, for a story to be great, it needs a great character arc. Otherwise it remains just a premise or a flat story.

Notes and quotes…

Every scene must turn.

425 No scene that doesn’t turn. This is our ideal. We work to round every scene from beginning to end by turning a value at stake in a character’s life from the positive to the negative or the negative to the positive. Adherence to this principle may be difficult, but it’s by no means impossible.


Regardless of genre, the principle is universal: If a scene is not a true event, cut it.

And it’s not sufficient for a scene to intensify behavior – it MUST change “values” / motives / wants / needs / tactics for characters:

431 The four shifts of place—bedroom to kitchen to garage to highway—are camera setups but not true scenes. Although they intensify behavior and make the critical moment credible, they do not change the values at stake. As the argument moves through the morning, the couple is still together and presumably in love. But when the action reaches its Turning Point—a slamming car door and Andy’s declaration, “It’s over!”—life turns upside down for the lovers, activity changes to action, and the sketch becomes a complete scene, a Story Event.

Structure IS character:

1227 We cannot ask which is more important, structure or character, because structure is character; character is structure. They’re the same thing, and therefore one cannot be more important than the other. Yet the argument goes on because of a widely held confusion over two crucial aspects of the fictional role—the difference between Character and Characterization.

True character = choices under pressure:

1241 Beneath the surface of characterization, regardless of appearances, who is this person? At the heart of his humanity, what will we find? Is he loving or cruel? Generous or selfish? Strong or weak? Truthful or a liar? Courageous or cowardly? The only way to know the truth is to witness him make choices under pressure to take one action or another in the pursuit of his desire. As he chooses, he is.

Pressure is essential. Choices made when nothing is at risk mean little. If a character chooses to tell the truth in a situation where telling a lie would gain him nothing, the choice is trivial, the moment expresses nothing. But if the same character insists on telling the truth when a lie would save his life, then we sense that honesty is at the core of his nature.

Digging the Controlling Idea out of the ending and the cause that leads to it:

1423 How do you find your story’s Controlling Idea? The creative process may begin anywhere. You might be prompted by a Premise, a “What would happen if. ..,” or a bit of character, or an image. You might start in the middle, the beginning, near the end. As your fictional world and characters grow, events interlink and the story builds. Then comes that crucial moment when you take the leap and create the Story Climax. This climax of the last act is a final action that excites and moves you, that feels complete and satisfying. The Controlling Idea is now at hand.

1425 Looking at your ending, ask: As a result of this climatic action, what value, positively or negatively charged, is brought into the world of my protagonist? Next, tracing backward from this climax, digging to the bedrock, ask: What is the chief cause, force, or means by which this value is brought into his world? The sentence you compose from the answers to those two questions becomes your Controlling Idea.

Stories that end in irony tend to last the longest, draw the greatest love and respect:

1599 The effect of irony on an audience is that wonderful reaction, “Ah, life is just like that.” We recognize that idealism and pessimism are at the extremes of experience, that life is rarely all sunshine and strawberries, nor is it all doom and drek; it is both. From the worst of experiences something positive can be gained; for the richest of experiences a great price must be paid. No matter how we try to plot a straight passage through life, we sail on the tides of irony. Reality is relentlessly ironic, and this is why stories that end in irony tend to last the longest through time, travel the widest in the world, and draw the greatest love and respect from audiences.

This is also why, of the three possible emotional charges at climax, irony is by far the most difficult to write. It demands the deepest wisdom and the highest craft for three reasons.

Setups and payoffs:

3481 To express our vision scene by scene we crack open the surface of our fictional reality and send the audience back to gain insight. These insights, therefore, must be shaped into Setups and Payoffs. To set up means to layer in knowledge; to pay off means to close the gap by delivering that knowledge to the audience. When the gap between expectation and result propels the audience back through the story seeking answers, it can only find them if the writer has prepared or planted these insights in the work.

The average scene should be 2.5 minutes or so – a single scene can’t be visually interesting for much longer than this:

Most directors’ cameras drink up whatever is visually expressive in one location within two or three minutes. If a scene goes on longer, shots become redundant. The editor keeps coming back to the same establishing shot, same two-shot, close-up. When shots repeat, expressivity drains away; the film becomes visually dull and the eye loses interest and wanders from the screen. Do this enough and you’ll lose the audience for good. The average scene length of two to three minutes is a reaction to the nature of cinema and the audience’s hunger for a stream of expressive moments.

There are only 2 ways to turn a scene – action and revelation. One of these (ideally more) should happen in a scene – otherwise nothing happens and the scene can be cut:

5091 We can turn scenes only one of two ways: on action or on revelation. There are no other means. If, for example, we have a couple in a positive relationship, in love and together, and want to turn it to the negative, in hate and apart, we could do it on action: She slaps him across the face and says, “I’m not taking this anymore. It’s over.” Or on revelation: He looks at her and says, “I’ve been having an affair with your sister for the last three years. What are you going to do about it?”

Rounded, 3-dimensional, not-flat characters = characters that embody contradictions:

5533 Dimension means contradiction: either within deep character (guilt-ridden ambition) or between characterization and deep character (a charming thief). These contradictions must be consistent. It doesn’t add dimension to portray a guy as nice throughout a film, then in one scene have him kick a cat.

Dialog should not be more than a few lines – the eye absorbs everything visually expressive about a face in 10 or 15 seconds:

5661 The essence of screen dialogue is what was known in Classical Greek theatre as stikomythia—the rapid exchange of short speeches. Long speeches are antithetical with the aesthetics of cinema. A column of dialogue from top to bottom of a page asks the camera to dwell on an actor’s face for a talking minute. Watch a second hand crawl around the face of a clock for a full sixty seconds and you’ll realize that a minute is a long time. Within ten or fifteen seconds the audience’s eye absorbs everything visually expressive and the shot becomes redundant. It’s the same effect as a stuck record repeating the same note over and over. When the eye is bored, it leaves the screen; when it leaves the screen, you lose the audience.

Use strong verbs (in lieu of adjectives, adverbs, and as ifs):

5731 On the page vividness springs from the names of the things. Nouns are the names of objects; verbs the names of actions. To write vividly, avoid generic nouns and verbs with adjectives and adverbs attached 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. The solid, Anglo-Saxon “spike” pops a vivid image in the reader’s mind, “nail” a blur. How big?

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