6 Ingredients to Make Your Story Great (from the Mighty Robert McKee)

A caption would only be superfluous.

A caption would only be superfluous.

Robert McKee’s legendary seminar on Story, which I took last weekend, has changed my life. I am so turned on by the power of great writing to move and enlighten us that I feel like I have been plugged into a generator. I also have some sharp new tools in my editing toolbox and a lot of inspiration to help writers as they reach, revise, ponder, throw out and revise again. The course is 4 days long, so this blog post just scratches the surface, but I wanted to share a bit of the course anyway.  Think of it as an amuse bouche.

And if you haven’t heard of McKee’s seminar, do check it out. It’s the seminar every writer, artist, and executive at Pixar takes, a course I first heard about from Bruce Coville 19 years ago. It's also the fabled class where McKee spends the last day deconstructing Casablanca scene by scene, and sometimes line by line.  

And now, on with our tips.

A deep focus shot from Citizen Kane. Check out McKee's  DVD  where he rips the movie apart. 

A deep focus shot from Citizen Kane. Check out McKee's DVD where he rips the movie apart. 

Tip #1)  McKee famously hates Citizen Kane. He even won a BAFTA Award for his half-hour TV special that eviscerates the film.  To quote McKee, “The film has no heart. It’s interesting.” Later in the show he puts it another way.  “Citizen Kane? From the first moment of the first viewing style jumps off the screen and applauds itself.”

Ok, I’m a Citizen Kane fan. But the point is that we read books, and children read books, to see our own journey  reflected back at us, to be moved by what we read or to take comfort from it.  Don’t be flashy for the sake of showing what a gifted wordsmith you are—that just stops us from engaging with your story.  And children’s fiction writers, pay special attention to not instructing as you tell your story. That’s not what kids are reading your book for.

Tip #2) What kind of a book are we reading? We need to know early on. I’ve read realistic, contemporary middle grade novels into which, 75 pages into the story, a character suddenly appears from the 23rd century.  We don’t buy it, as readers, because we haven’t seen even a hint of a fantastical world before that.

McKee says, “Establish the colors of your palette early in the movie.  You can’t have 40 minutes of dead serious drama then bring in a comedy scene.”  Exactly!

Conrad Veidt as Major Strausser in  Casablanca

Conrad Veidt as Major Strausser in Casablanca

Tip #3) Even if you have totally unlikable characters in your book,  such as neglectful parents or spoiled brats, you need to understand every one of your characters and where they are coming from. McKee told a moving anecdote to illustrate this.  In Casablanca, Major Strausser, the Nazi, is portrayed with dignity and even understatement by Conrad Veidt, a German film star.   Veidt doesn’t make the role a caricature, though Veidt himself had fled Germany because he was not only Jewish but also bisexual.

McKee said, “You can imagine the feelings of this great actor.  Here he is at the end of his career, giving his last performance, in Hollywood, as a Gestapo officer.   But the integrity with which he plays the role is a testament to his acting. The major thought he was right, so Veidt gives the major his humanity.” Yup.  And what does this mean for you, a writer? If you don’t know what makes your characters tick, they won’t come across as real.

Tip #4) Picture book authors, trust the process. Reading Julius and Philip Epstein’s screenplay of Casablanca while watching the movie, I saw structure, pace, and superb dialog on the page.  I also saw some of the incalculable contribution the movie’s direction, acting, music and editing brought to the finished product. The take away for you is this: write a carefully-crafted, spare text, but don’t try to control what the artist and art director will bring to their jobs by including lots of notes or description. Let each professional play his or her role to the fullest.

A great book to study for the power of reaction!

A great book to study for the power of reaction!

Tip #5)  “Characters are the choices they make under pressure. The choices they make are more important than the actions they take.” This is a screenplay rule, of course. In a novel, you can tell us a character’s internal thoughts or do many things to create your character.

But what McKee is pointing to here is the power of reaction.  It’s not that your fifth grade character sits down promptly to do her homework, it’s how she responds when the boy next to her crushes the papier maché project she brought to school so carefully.  It’s what your teen protagonist does after the guy she likes asks her best friend out.  It’s your picture book character in the moment the new baby comes home from the hospital.  Reactions are golden, golden for showing us your character.  And for setting your story in motion.

Tip #6)  Emotional truth is everything, what “really” occurred is nothing.  My number one pet peeve as an editor is hearing “But it actually happened,” or “This character is my daughter.” So what? Are you going to personally travel with every copy of your book and explain that?  Your reader has to be able to understand, and be satisfied by, what he reads on the page. If it doesn’t make sense, or convince him, he doesn't care whether it’s true.

McKee had a tip you can use here. “Logic is retroactive!” I love that.  If you go back and set it up, you can get anything to work.  If really want to tell the story of how your daughter ended up selling more cookies than the bossy kid who had sold the most 3 years in a row, set up the rivalry, build to the climax, make us think your character is going to fail, and then show her triumph.  In other words, sell it. Don’t count on the fact that something really happened to make it enough to persuade us on the page.

Sydney Greenstreet as Signor Ferrari in  Casablanca

Sydney Greenstreet as Signor Ferrari in Casablanca

BONUS TIP (a fun one):  If you have a plot hole, or something that strains credulity, but you really need it in the story, own it! You need to hold the Prom in March? Then just acknowledge how ridiculous that is. “The banquet hall where our high school had held prom for the past ten years was about to close for renovation so we were all going to shiver in our dresses in March.”  Or you need a rule in your futuristic tale that you really can’t explain? “No one understood why the Galactic Council’s decree prohibited baseball, but the ban had been in effect for so long that nobody questioned it.”  You get the point.  In Casablanca, Victor Laszlo has to learn about the letters of transit that are so crucial to the plot.  So the writers have Signor Ferrari, owner of the rival bar The Blue Parrot, tell Laszlo about them, even though it’s completely out of character that he do so. Ferrari says, “I am moved to make one more suggestion, why, I do not know, because it cannot possibly profit me. But have you heard about the letters of transit?” I’m telling you, that solution is brilliant.

And finally, as McKee kept reminding us, WRITING IS HARD. IT'S DAMN HARD. Brain Surgeons who had achieved great success in their careers and now wanted to write a book would take his course and walk out at the end shaking their heads. NOTHING is harder than writing, and gang, it takes a lot of time to become really good.  You can't expect to become proficient after a class or two and a year of drafts.  I'm sorry, but it's going to take time and revision and lots of throwing out and starting again.  

Robert McKee

Robert McKee

And there you have it. I hope these tips and aphorisms are useful, or better yet, that they inspire you to take McKee’s class, or read his book.  Special thanks to Allen Zadoff, a writer who knows a lot about creating emotional truth in unusual settings, because it was his exhilaration after the course last year that got me eager to take it myself.  And I’m so glad I did.

Elizabeth Law is available for consultation and editing on your manuscript, and for your questions on the publishing process.