Wednesday, November 11, 2009


Mystery Man recently link this article on why McKee is not worth the ridiculous price he charges. I've been thinking about it since I read it.

I like sitting in on seminars with good teachers. The times I went to Expo I got some great ideas from some of the classes I took, and of course I believe a good teacher can make a huge difference in your education on any subject.

That said, I've never trusted gurus. I think the big problem here is the same problem you always have with teaching art - it's completely subjective. One of the first things I say on the first day of a new class is "I am not here to teach you to write like me. I'm here to teach you to figure out how you write." There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all writing method.

Sure, I read Syd Field just like everybody else. I think all new writers need some kind of format to start with, just like a kid who's never written an essay needs to be introduced to the five-paragraph format. But at some point in every kid's education they need to upgrade from five paragraph to something more fluid, just like all writers need to learn to adapt their screenplays to their personal style. The problem in both cases is that teachers often get so caught up in the rules for beginners that they forget to allow for growth and creativity. And this is a creative business.

I've never read McKee. By the time I began writing screenplays I already had a masters degree in creative writing, so I'd read just about all the storytelling textbooks I can handle. And lord knows I'd never tell anyone to avoid using one of those guys - there are certainly people who swear by McKee, Field and Snyder. I was about to say you shouldn't pay $600 for a weekend seminar, but then I thought about how much my year-and-a-half in grad school cost me and, well I can't really talk, can I? I don't regret going for the second degree. However, I do believe that any teacher who refuses to take questions is not a teacher I want to learn from.

But I do admit I've learned more about storytelling as a teacher and from blog posts and articles and just writing screenplays than I did in school.

So I suppose I think new writers should listen to McKee if they feel they're getting something out of it, but none of these guys are all-knowing. In the end you have to be able to trust your own instinct and listen to your own voice.


  1. I got the book, for ten bucks, at Illiad Bookshop. Lovely place, BTW.

    I'm told the book is his lecture, minus the updating, so I'll skip the lecture.

    I don't disagree with what I've read in the book, but I don't see much difference between McKee and Lajos Egri. If you've read your Egri, you probably know 80% of what McKee's putting out.

    John Gardner will always be my one writing guru. I don't take anyone's word as gospel, but "vivid waking dream" is my ideal for good writing.

  2. Good post. Truth is, there's a big problem in Hollywood for the writer. The people who count - those that give your script the red or green light - are BUSINESS people, not creative ones!

    Well, in my experience, business people love, LOVE gurus. Major corporations pay flash-in-the-pan con men millions a year to preach to their flocks.

    And there's the rub.

    That person who can green light your script is going to grow mighty suspicious if you haven't followed the rules of an esteemed screenwriting guru to the letter.
    He or she can't appreciate artistic originality because he or she simply wasn't built to be artistic. Sad, really.

  3. Good topic.

    I read the article, quite a character. Having been a professional art instructor at my own seminars for $1500 a whack, the only reason I mention that is because I'd rather jump off a bridge than be such a conceited _____ as Mr. McKee is to his own paying students. I guess if people need to pay for that, he's available -- sadistic.

    No instructor or lecturer has the right to talk down to anyone. Questions, or those deemed to be stupid questions, are part of the gig!

    End of that point... I find a lot of screenwriting info on the web, much of it contradictory, trends change, but it's been a good learning tool.

    I think if you have a good story, written within sensible parameters it has just as much chance as any other, which is almost nil these days, but you don't need to blow $600 to realize that.

  4. ignatiusmonkey7:53 PM

    The book basically is his lecture, and I imagine the audio book is an adequate substitute for being there.

    I took a couple of McKee's one-day classes (on Horror and Thrillers), and they were interesting enough. This wasn't even his main "Story" class, and it too contained much of what's written in his book. He had a lot of interesting things to say, but he often seemed more concerned about proving his own awesomeness than teaching a group of 100+ people. McKee might be more of an entertainer than an educator, and a beginning screenwriter isn't likely to walk out with much practical advice he or she can use next time they sit down in front of a blank page. Anyone expecting a guru to teach them everything they need to know about a complicated, contradictory subject in a weekend deserves the disappointment they're likely to get.

    I must admit, I did have fun at the McKee classes, if for no other reason than to trip out on McKee himself. He's a former actor, and he's clearly playing a part up there. Not so interesting as to revolutionize my sense of story or anything, but there are worse ways to spend an afternoon. Personally, I learn more from Mystery Man, and from my own successes and failures.

  5. Boiled down:
    1. He's a colossal dick.
    2. He knows a lot about making a story. He knows more than I do, so I'll use what he knows.
    3. Knowing what he knows isn't a guarantee that your script will sell; he's like a dick-with-training-wheels in the film industry. You'll meet worse. Much worse.
    People don't buy good stories. They buy the twinkle in your eye and the cut of your jib (and by 'jib', I probably don't mean nipples) (Maybe). A good story makes it a little harder to say no, but we're not dealing with people like you and me, no, ma'am.

    My take is at


  6. I find it ironic that McKee's book is titled 'STORY', while his real forte is in SCENE structure, which follows from his acting training.

    His paragraphs about story structure are very very crude and you'll find better pretty much anywhere, surely with our favorite story dudes on the web.

    I was fortunate enough to see McKee for free for an hour back in the days when he was signing his first edition at the Santa Monica Barnes & Noble.

    Later I did his ARTHOUSE seminar in Sydney. Fun, but totally academic and therefore completely useless for the budding writer.

    What he delivers is STORY, not according to Aristotle but according to Seth Godin: a simple marketing 'spiel' - one big infomercial for his own persona and his book.

    It can be entertaining but indeed there's very little in terms of practical, usable stuff.

  7. I went to the Story weekend once -- I got to go for free. I loved it, more than reading the book. He's entertaining, for sure. But also because I was working on a specific project at the time. It was hugely useful to just consider what he was saying as it related to my own project, and make notes about that, as opposed to general notes. I came away with solutions to story problems I'd been facing.

    I've heard this is how lots of people (execs, people like John Cleese - ?) use the seminar. You go every time you want a boost on a specific project you're working through.


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