to see Robert McKee…

storyLast weekend I had the fortunate experience to attend Robert McKee’s three-day Story seminar in Paddington, Sydney.   For those of you in the know, Robert McKee is a minor god in Hollywood and screenwriting circles.  His bestselling book, Story, is a must-read for directors, novelists, screenwriters and actors.   I’ve had it for years but neglected to read it (those hardbacks look so daunting!)   But after three days, 9am until 8.30pm (yes, it was that long!) I’ve been devouring it.

Yes, the seminar is an auditory version of the book, but it also put heaps of things into perspective.  And yes, the man is crotchety, verbal, opinionated (well, who isn’t?) and doesn’t suffer fools.  If he’s spent 10 minutes telling you to turn off your phone otherwise he’ll fine you, why the devil would you leave it on??  He also had a few rants (Michael Jackson,  the direction of Hollywood, appalling scripts, corporate fatcats etc) and lost patience a few times, but 30+ hours of performance is extremely tiring for anyone, let alone a 70 year old.    For me, the experience was amazing – he was entertaining, full of stories and chock full of knowledge.  And he’s one of the most passionate advocates of storytelling I’ve ever heard.

So Friday started.  Kerri (my Story buddy for the weekend) and I decided to stay in the city the night before, which was a good thing, because there’s no way I could’ve dragged myself onto a train at 7am and made it on time at Paddington’s uber-hip Chauvel Cinema.

We registered, met a few friends and settled in for what would be an amazing weekend.  With breaks every two hours, copious amounts of long black and pages of notes, my head was spinning… but I still managed to decipher what I’d written.  So here goes:

  • readers want to share some kind of shared humanity – ‘he’s just like me’, which will then make them empathetic to your characters
  • the difference between amateur writers and professional writers is amateurs love everything they write.  Professionals hate everything they write
  • writers have to learn how to smell their own shit
  • the most important truths are the bitter ones.
  • A scene or event = change (and have this change be of value to the character)
  • values are the lifeblood of story
  • in every scene, ask yourself  ‘what values are played out for the character in this scene?  Negative or positive?’
  • if the value of the scene at the end is the same as at the beginning, then remove it.  If a scene doesn’t have a turning point, then it’s useless.  Each scene must have change.
  • a turning point is a choice a character makes in the pursuit of his goal
  • the effect a turning point has on the audience:  surprise, curiosity, insight, new direction
  • Setting impacts on how a story is told – a divorcing couple will act differently in the Idaho potato fields than the multi-million dollar battles of Park Avenue.
  • “formula” = conventions.  It is not cliche.  For e.g. a crime story must include a body, clues and an investigation.  In a romance there must be two people who overcome obstacles and fall in love.
  • Good characterisation must be unique, credible (a person we can believe in), intriguing (who is this person really?), and show choice under pressure,  How they decide to react under pressure expresses who they really are.
  • True character: characters DON’T change throughout the story, their characters are merely revealed to the reader.  The reader’s understanding of the character changes and the writer reveals the nature of the character to them.
  • The events of the story move when the character makes choices e.g. Star Wars.
  • emotion leads you to think, then the thinking shapes your actions and moves you to do something.

Whew!  So, Friday was over.   The next day we got to the venue early to save our awesome seats – and a good thing too, because people wanted those seats!  I finally met the two nice guys sitting next to us, Tim (a finance dude who wanted to write a novel) and Avi, a screenwriter/director who was a finalist in this year’s TropFest.  (I loved it – check it out but DO NOT read the comments first – it spoils the twist!).

Notes from Saturday:

  • creating your story – what is the arrangement of power?  There is always an uneven distribution of power when people gather and live in groups.  What are the politics of power in a family?
  • every action people take in life are to achieve one of two basic things – the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain.
  • what are the rituals?  Everything in life is ritualistic – designed to get through the day without conflict.  How does your character act to get them through without conflict?
  • What are the laws and ethics?  What’s the difference between ‘legal’ and ‘right’?
  • What are your characters’ backstories?  What are the previous significant events in their biographies that you can use to tell the story?
  • What is your cast like?  What are their designs?  Create a bunch of characters with polar reactions – no two characters should react or act the same way.
  • To create and sustain reader involvement, create empathy and authenticity (the reader must believe that the world is believable).
  • Start your story with an inciting incident.  It must radically upset the balance of your character’s life.  They must react… and refusing to react is still a reaction!
  • The effect of the inciting incident throws a character’s balance and they will strive to restore that balance.  They will pursue a conscious desire to fix it.  It’s their “Object of Desire”.  And with a conscious desire, comes a subconscious desire, which will always contradict each other.
  • Their subconscious desire drives the spine of action, therefore, the story.   If there is no subconscious desire, then the conscious desire drives it.  e.g. while James Bond doesn’t have a subconscious desire, Mrs Soffel is driven by her subconscious desire (unconditional love).
  • ask yourself – what does your character want?
  • how much does the reader need to know before you introduce the inciting incident?  Have maximum impact.  You need to have your reader emotionally invested by this time while they’re waiting e.g. Life Is Beautiful’s inciting incident is when the family is taken to the death camps, which occurs around 30mins into the story.
  • ask ‘what’s the worst that can happen to my character?’  How does this turn out to be his salvation and damnation?
  • nothing moves forward in a story without conflict.  It holds a reader’s interest/  Even stages of life have conflict: to be living is to be in conflict.
  • Ever decision a character makes, every action they take, must include a point of no return – a moment where the character cannot go back to their previous life/beliefs.
  • people are only capable of acting towards the positive – as they see it e.g. Killers believe what they’re doing is right.  They will rationalize it’s God’s work, therefore it’s the right thing to do to kill another race or opposing group/person.
  • Real choice is dilemma – when your character has to chose between two positives or two evils.
  • the strength of the story lies in how strong the opposition is.  Your character rises to the occasion when the odds are stacked against them.

empireMcKee talked a lot about co-incidence and revealing secrets, and if/when’s the best time to do this.  Generally, if a co-0incidence has to happen, make it occur early (e.g. as the inciting incident), then you have the whole story to build meaning.   Never use co-oincidence to end your story (and he went on a mini-rant about War of the Worlds and Jurassic Park).   When do you reveal a secret?  When it’s the lesser of two evils – e.g. Darth Vader revealing ‘I’m your father’ instead of Luke killing him (although, having seen Empire Strikes Back a billion times, I seem to recall Luke was in no position to kill him at that point 😕 )

He also touched on the Act Structure, which I kinda sorta knew but needed more info on.  Generally speaking, a story or movie can be broken down into ‘acts’, the most common being three.  This article (complete with helpful diagram) summarises it into Act I – the set up of the story, Act II – confrontation, and Act III – resolution.  McKee said that Act II can include subplots because it’s so long, and subplots enrich and improve the main plot.  Use them to contradict the main plot e.g. if the main plot is romance, the subplot can be love on the rocks or unrequited love.

Saturday over, we dragged our asses back to our hotel, ate a yummy pizza and dragged our asses back for the last and final day…


  • Subtext – if you write a scene about what a scene’s actually about, they you’re in deep shit (don’t you love this ? 😀 )
  • characters are metaphors for human beings
  • what does my character want that, if they get it, would stop the story?
  • when you over-explain motivation, you push the audience away.  Leave a little mystery to your characters.
  • what other characters say about your character reveals character.
  • don’t dimensionalise a character you don’t intend to use again e.g. giving a cabdriver a name and a speaking part.

At this point, McKee devoted a lot of time to helping a stalled story.  I really can’t improve on his book, so I suggest you grab a copy and read it.

He also talked about the writing process.  Kerri and I both got the feeling that he was implying that plotting is far superior to writing by the seat of your pants (fellow writers will have read oodles of discussion about this topic!).  But McKee’s process makes absolute sense to me, for someone who has to write a synopsis and know the bones of my story so I can pitch it to my editor.  So here goes:

Writing Process (which puts the emphasis on the creation of story)

  • have 1 sheet of paper ( or 3 x 5 cards) per act
  • work on a step outline (a story told with one sentence per event).  Include inciting incident setup, inciting incident, resolution.
  • Remember that 90% of writing is not your best work
  • create character bios and research sheets for your world.


  • write the treatment (expand each sentence into 2-3 sentences, moment-by-moment (minus dialogue), subtext, real and full, what’s going on internally with the character.  This is a way of getting you into the story and making it vivid.


  • you write your story by adding dialogue.  Inevitably your characters will be individual and will sing.  Here, you make changes and polish – add or cut.
  • if you’re writing a story to fit dialogue, then your story won’t flow naturally or be true to your characters

McKee also gave an excellent explanation about hero and anti-hero.  A hero embraces and embodies the rules of society, whereas  an anti-hero won’t obey the rules and will break them if he has to to further his agenda or cause (e.g. Rick in Casablanca).  He benefits for his own personal reaons and actively defies society’s conventions.    Who was drawn more to Han Solo (anti-hero) than Luke Skywalker? (hero) 😀

casablancaAt this point, we watched a full screening of Casablanca.  I hadn’t  seen it before so it was a real eye-opener, especially accompanied with  McKee’s explanations into character, subtext and scene.

So, with my book of notes and a brand-new paperback of Robert McKee’s story, I came home full of ideas and exciting new insights into my stories.  What a weekend!  I’d love to see him again, but apparently it was his last visit to Australia.  :sob:


11 comments on “to see Robert McKee…

  1. Thanks for sharing this awesome weekend, room-buddy! 🙂

    To everyone else, I agree with everything Paula said – and have loudly proclaimed it was probably the most valuable gift I could give myself as a writer. I *do* think though, that novices in the room would probably be completely brain-fried. I made the comment that if I hadn’t been writing for 18+ years and have 60 some books under my belt, I’d probably go home and consider a simpler career – like brain surgery!

    But the main point I wanted to make here was to give the amazing Paula a huge cheer for summarising such a complex weekend so brilliantly. I’m printing this out for future use – and I was there and took 50 pages of notes!!! (And that was *after* I’d listened to the CDs of the book and read some of the book. )

    Paula – congrats and thankyou. This is a work of art.


  2. Hi Rachel! yep, there was masses of info and I got a bit overwhelmed at times. He did diagrams and charts etc that are all in his book, which did a lot to explain many things.

    Hey Kaz, my sweet 😉 was mind-blowing, right? And such a worthwhile experience.

    Nic – I would totally recommend his book… it’s surpassed Donald Maass’ Writing The Breakout Novel for me! And if audiobooks are your thing, iTunes has it. And you can buy the CDs of McKee giving the actual seminar from Amazon, too. Guess what I’m off to do? 😀

  3. Paula, thank you for so generously sharing your notes. I ploughed through the book years ago but your notes really encapsulate the essence of this and are very useful.
    Love that short film, so moving and clever. And what gorgeous models for hero and heroine!
    Thanks again. Kandy xx

  4. an amendment to my previous post – the CDs are just audiobooks, as far as I can see. But the narrator is McKee himself, which counts for something.

    Kandy – glad I could help. And the hero in the short is actually the director’s brother-in-law 🙂

  5. Thanks Paula. So generous of you to share your notes with us. And when you’re sick! Hope you’re feeling better soon.

  6. Hi Eleni – it was such an amazing experience! I took heaps more notes but most of them are in the book – especially the diagrams and charts he used.

  7. Pingback: Craft and How-To Books «

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