On McKee’s `methodology’ in `Story‘ (1997)

While I think he has some valid points, I have some issues with certain assertions in McKee’s Story (1997, etc).

McKee is in fact incorrect, when he states in Story (1997):

`All notions of paradigms and foolproof story models for commercial success are nonsense. Despite trends, remakes and sequels, when we survey the totality of Hollywood film, we find an astounding variety of story designs, but no prototype.’

(McKee 1999: 3 – my emphasis)

On the contrary, there is actually now a prototype for (probable) commercial success, given this scientific and empirical doctoral research study of the common story patterns in The Top 20 RoI films of the past 70 years.

There are also considerable logical lacunae (i.e. gaps) in McKee’s argument here.

Confused Crowd

Since McKee has not chosen a clearly-defined, non-self-selected sample data-set of commercially successful films/screenplays to study (such as, say, The Top 20 RoI films), it is extremely unlikely that he can know with certainty that: “all notions of paradigms and foolproof story models for commercial success are nonsense”.

Furthermore, how likely is it that McKee has actually indeed, literally “surveyed the totality of Hollywood film”? (i.e Literally? That sounds like hyperbolae/exaggeration.)

Naked Philosophy Guy does: Philosophy

Naked Philosophy Guy ruminates.

If he has surveyed every film Hollywood ever made (in history), then McKee provides no evidence – nor the empirical results of such a survey – in his screenwriting manual Story (1997).

This latter point made by McKee here is problematic at any rate: i.e. “when we survey the totality of Hollywood film, we find an astounding variety of story designs, but no prototype”.

i.e. Wait – Is this actually true-?

It would likely not even be useful to study “the totality” of Hollywood films at any rate, when 7 in 10 of them lose money, and are, therefore – unsuccessful films (which possibly even, ended their writers’ careers.)

7 in 10 feature films lose money

7 in 10 feature films LOSE money (!)

A Burning Question: Would it not be more logical/useful (for working professional screenwriters/ filmmakers) to actually study:

The common characteristics of the most viral of the `3 in 10′ films that succeed in reaching their intended audience, to find a Story “prototype”?

This screenplay is pretty hot

This screenplay is really hot

And in fact, since feature films are so expensive, might it not even be more useful, to study the top (say) 20 RoI films (whether they are Hollywood-produced, or not; and, two of them are), and look for a story prototype, among them all?

Confuzzled caveguy

One of our Pleistocene ancestors, figuring stuff out. Humans love problem-solving. Our brains are wired for it.

Regardless of this point of logic which McKee apparently misses – as mentioned previously – the claim that McKee has “surveyed the totality of Hollywood film” is highly unlikely:

If, as Vogel states, there have been 500,000 films to date, and at a conservative estimate, let us suppose there were only 30,000 Hollywood films to date (assuming an average of approximately 300 per year, over the past 100 years) – this would require 60,000 hours of study, just to watch all of them.

Defects of the present view

Has anyone ever actually watched “The Totality of Hollywood Film”-?! (That would actually take about 20 years to do, without a break.)

Assuming that McKee (or any such researcher) actually slept 8 hours a night, in a year, that represents: 16 hours – times 365 days (with no days off), which is: 5840 hours. At this rate – it would take one person 10 years of full-time work, to watch them all. We must also add another 10 years, if the researcher in question took just 2 hours[1] to analyze each and every one of those films, for their (common) Story structures/dramatic elements.

This would therefore be: 20 years of work with not a single day off...

And – as we know, McKee has worked as a screenwriting teacher, and, enjoys playing golf[2]. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Golf is great.)

Overall, McKee certainly sounds authoritative in these above statements, but – we must ask:

…Where is the empirical proof, that these film story `principles’ in `Story’  (1997) actually work?

A very different data set demonstrates the story prototype that  has worked with theatrical cinema audiences for the past 70 years:

The Top 20 Audience Reach/Budget Films of the Last 70 Years. Data Source: The-Numbers.com. Analysis: JT Velikovsky

The Top 20 Audience Reach/Budget Films of the Last 70 Years. Data Source: The-Numbers.com. Analysis: JT Velikovsky

Most importantly – a brief graphical look at “the actual figures” reveals a clear comparative picture: examining the average RoI of the typical movies that McKee uses as examples (such as: Greed, Casablanca, Tender Mercies, etc.) vs. the Top 20 ROI Films:

Typical films analysed by McKee for their story in Story (1997)

Some typical films analysed by McKee for their story in Story (1997). The average budget of these films studied by McKee is $10.6 million.; average RoI of these films is 814%.

Next let us examine the average RoI of the 2 data sets (McKee’s example `studied’ films vs. The Top 20 RoI Films of the Past 70 Years):

Films studied: ROI comparison

Films studied – RoI comparison: McKee’s average of 813% RoI compared to the Top 20 films average of 81,713%. Or: over 10 times as profitable on average.

Important Note: McKee’s example screenplays/films cost an average of $10.6m to make – versus – an average of $1.8m for the Top 20 RoI Films’ RoI.

The film `examples’ chosen for study by McKee – and in fact, almost all the other screenplay gurus – use, are on average vastly more expensive (way out of reach of the early- or mid-career filmmaker) and most importantly – if a film is written according to those “principles” – it is, empirically, less likely to reach a wide audience, and therefore, turn a profit.

Average Cost of the Films Studied: a comparative analysis

Average Cost of the Films Studied: a comparative analysis ($10m to $2m)


McKee gives his own definition of what “a good story” is, in Story (1999), as thus:

`GOOD STORY WELL TOLD. ‘Good story’ means something worth telling that the world wants to hear.’

(McKee 1997: 20-21 – emphasis mine)

However, “What the world most wants to hear” – has already been empirically decided:

The Top 20 RoI films are – empirically – the most successful/viral film stories.

– These are the stories the world most wanted to hear, as is shown by their word-of-mouth (virality).

The Film ROI (return on investment) bell curve

The Film ROI (return on investment) bell curve

McKee also goes on to state, in his advice to screenwriters in Story (1997):

`You must be born with the creative power to put things together in a way no one has ever dreamed.’

 (McKee 1997: 20-21 – emphasis mine)

It is also perhaps even somewhat misleading to suggest in this way that, a successful feature film screenwriter has to “put things together in a way no one has ever dreamed”.

As discussed previously, all of the Top 20 RoI films have many clear influences and precedents: memes (ideas) that their authors chose to include in their film stories.

The memes (ideas/”units of culture”) in these films were put together in a way that not only had been dreamed of but in fact – had literally been put together before, in reality, in other films.

This in fact is exactly How Creativity Works: namely, by what Koestler in The Act Of Creation (1964) called bisociation – i.e. by connecting previously successful memes/ideas/contexts.

The Act of Creation (Koestler 1964)

In The Act of Creation (1964) Arthur Koestler uses the term `bisociation’ to mean the combining of two previously disparate or incompatible contexts, and/or ideas:

“I have coined the term ‘bisociation’ in order to make a distinction between the routine skills of thinking on a single ‘plane’, as it were, and the creative act, which, as I shall try to show, always operates on more than one plane.” (Koestler 1964)

So let’s examine some of the memes (ideas) that were put together in the Top 20 ROI Films.

The Story Premises – And Inspirations – Behind The Top 20 RoI Films:

 ROI #





Paranormal Activity A young suburban couple set up a video camera in their bedroom to discover whether their house is haunted. Writer Oren Peli and his then-girlfriend heard spooky noises in their house at night, and were inspired by this idea. (Sacks 2009)


Mad Max When a violent biker gang murders a cop’s family, he sets about taking bloody revenge. Co-writer James McCausland was inspired by the 1973 oil crisis. (McCausland 2006) George Miller was used many ideas from his time in a hospital ER, as a surgeon for road trauma victims.


The Blair Witch Project Three film students go missing while shooting a documentary about the legendary “Blair Witch”. Co-writers Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick were inspired by the Salem witch trials, the play The Crucible and the Tennessee “Bell Witch” legend. (Britton 2010) The #3 ROI film also bears very strong similarities to the films The Legend of Boggy Creek (1972) and Cannibal Holocaust (1980).


El Mariachi When a travelling musician is mistaken for a hitman, he must evade a violent gang who aim to avenge some of their members deaths. Writer Robert Rodriguez was inspired by Hitchcock (mistaken identity, in North By Northwest), early Spielberg and Scorsese films. (Broderick 1993)


Night of the Living Dead When a passing satellite causes flesh-eating undead human “ghouls” to rampage across America, 7 survivors barricade themselves inside a rural farmhouse. Co-writers George Romero and John Russo took inspiration from Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend. (Russo 1985: 6-7)


Rocky A washed-up boxer gets a chance to fight the heavyweight champ. Writer Sylvester Stallone was inspired by his own experiences as an actor and in gyms, and by the 1975 Muhammad Ali – Chuck Wepner heavyweight bout. (Sanello 1998: 63)


Halloween A criminally insane psychopath escapes from an institution and returns to his old neighbourhood to kill again on Halloween. Producer Irwin Yablans suggested a story about babysitters being stalked by a psychopath on Halloween night. (McCarty 2003)


American Graffiti In 1962, a group of small-town high school graduates spend one last night cruising the streets before they go off to college. Writer George Lucas was inspired by his own experiences cruising the strip in small-town Modesto, as well as his fascination with radio DJ Wolfman Jack, and the film I, Vitelloni (1953).


Clerks A day in the life of two store clerks, Dante and Randall, in which Dante rekindles his relationship with an ex-girlfriend. Writer Kevin Smith was inspired by the film Slacker (1991) and his own job as a convenience store clerk.


Once A Dublin busker and a Czech immigrant flower-seller with broken relationships make music and record an album together. Writer John Carney was inspired by his own experiences as a musician, and by the songs of Glen Hansard (of Irish folk rock band The Frames).


Napoleon Dynamite A super-nerd helps his new friend win class presidency while coping with his own bizarre family. Co-writer Jared Hess was inspired by his own experiences, and by family and friends, growing up in Preston, Idaho. (Epstein 2004)


Open Water A couple are accidentally left far in shark-infested ocean waters by a scuba-diving charter boat. Writer Chris Kentis was inspired by the true story of Tom and Eileen Lonergan who were left at sea by a scuba-diving charter boat in 1998, and his own scuba-diving experiences with wife Laura Lau.


Friday the 13th When a “cursed” summer camp is refurbished for re-opening, seven camp counsellors are stalked by an unknown killer. Director Sean S Cunningham was inspired by Halloween to create a slasher/horror film, and the concept began with the title, Friday the 13th. Writer Victor Miller created Jason and his mother, and the shock end dream-sequence was inspired by the movie Carrie (1976).


Saw Two men wake up trapped in a room with a dead body and must follow certain rules if they are to survive. Co-writers Wan and Whannell were inspired by The Blair Witch Project and Pi (note: two of the top 23 ROI movies ever). They initially had the idea of people trapped (by Jigsaw) inside an elevator, due to budget constraints. The idea of Jigsaw occurred to Whannell when he suffered migraines and suspected he had a brain tumour, inspiring the idea of Jigsaw as a villain with a terminal illness.


Primer Two men accidentally invent a time machine – and use it to cheat the stock market – but in their greed, they soon turn on each other. Writer Shane Carruth is has a degree in mathematics and is a former engineer. He was inspired by the time travel ideas of physicist Richard Feynman, and the notion that most ground-breaking scientific discoveries by scientists occur by accident, in unglamorous locations, such as garages.


The Evil Dead Five college-student friends go to a cabin in the woods, and accidentally become possessed by flesh-eating demons. Writer Sam Raimi was inspired by drive-in horror films, such as Massacre at Central High and Revenge of the Cheerleaders, and H P Lovecraft’s The Necronomicon, referenced in various short stories and novellas.


ET: The Extra-Terrestrial When a young boy discovers E.T., a stranded alien, he must help to conceal E.T. from the authorities and return him to his home planet. John Sayles wrote a semi-sequel to Close Encounters of the Third Kind called ‘Night Skies’, about hostile aliens who terrorize a family barricaded inside a farmhouse. Spielberg abandoned the project, but redeveloped a subplot about the relationship between the lone good alien and an autistic boy as “E.T.”. (IMDb.com 2012)


The Full Monty Six out-of-work steel workers in Sheffield UK form an unlikely “Chippendales”-style male striptease act, but soon realize, they must strip down to totally nude. Producer Uberto Pasolini conceived the idea and hired writer Simon Beaufoy to write the screenplay and Peter Cattaneo to direct. Controversially, New Zealand playwrights Anthony McCarten and Stephen Sinclair filed a £180,000,000 lawsuit against the producers of The Full Monty in 1998, claiming that the movie blatantly infringed on their 1987 play Ladies Night, which toured both Britain and New Zealand. (BBCNews 1998)


Star Wars A top-gun pilot/farm boy joins terrorist rebel forces to rescue a kidnapped princess and destroy the Galactic Empire’s planet-destroying weapon, The Death Star. Writer George Lucas was unable to afford the rights to the 1930’s film serials of Flash Gordon. In writing Star Wars, he was inspired by the serials Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, Dune (the novel by Frank Herbert), andfilms The Hidden Fortress, Yojimbo, Metropolis, 633 Squadron, The Dam-Busters, The Wizard of Oz, and Joseph Campbell’s anthropological narratology text, The Hero With A Thousand Faces. (Lucas studied Anthropology in college, this is a major `set text’.)


My Big Fat Greek Wedding When a plain young Greek woman falls for a non-Greek American man, she must reinvent herself; win his love; and then integrate him into her eccentric and excessively-Greek family. When she was unable to get film work as an actor, writer Nia Vardalos wrote a one-woman comedy show about her Greek family, and adapted it into a film screenplay.

The Story Premises – and Inspirations – Behind the Top 20 RoI Films

Analysis: JT Velikovsky (2012)

Therefore, some of the information in McKee’s Story (1997) is perhaps: incorrect.

However in his introduction McKee has clearly admitted – his “research” is not empirical – his “principles” are the result of random observations, not an empirical study of film. Nevertheless, all screenwriters need to read McKee. McKee is regarded by many as `the #1 Story/Screenplay Guru’. Which means working screenwriters need to be aware of the current `screenwriting convention’ – whether they agree with the story principles involved, or not.

It should be noted however, this general lack of consilient (scientific and empirical) method in selecting a data set – when presented as “research” – perhaps reveals a Romantic (mystical) view, and not a Rationalist (scientific) view of Creativity, and (unfortunately) has its roots in the work of Aristotle (Poetics) and his analysis of ancient Greek plays, over 2200 years ago.

It is therefore perhaps more useful – for a screenwriter and/or filmmaker to employ rational, scientific and empirical (or: consilient) methods to the study of: feature film story success.

Creative Practice Theory Narratology is a method that employs these techniques, resulting in the StoryAlity syntagm, a narrative template that writers/filmmakers can use to enable their film story to reach the  widest possible audience, and for the least production budget.

CPT General Model Diagram (Velikovsky 2012)

Creative Practice Theory – General Model  (Velikovsky 2012)

For more on Creative Practice Theory, see this explanation. In other words: consilient (scientific and empirical) knowledge gathered to help a writer and/or filmmaker create a viral film story.

…Comments welcome,


JT Velikovsky

High-RoI Story/Screenplay/Movie and Transmedia Researcher

The above is (mostly) an adapted excerpt, from my doctoral thesis: “Communication, Creativity and Consilience in Cinema”. It is presented here for the benefit of fellow screenwriting, filmmaking and creativity researchers. For more, see https://aftrs.academia.edu/JTVelikovsky

JT Velikovsky is also a produced feature film screenwriter and million-selling transmedia writer-director-producer. He has been a professional story analyst for major film studios, film funding organizations, and for the national writer’s guild. For more see: http://on-writering.blogspot.com/


[1] When working as a screenplay/story analyst for the major studios, I usually took 2 hours to read the script (roughly the same length of time as it takes to watch a movie) and, a further 2 hours to make my detailed Notes/Analysis. This is fairly standard for Script Readers, in the film Story Analysis industry.

[2] For more detail, see the excellent New York Times article: The Real McKee: Life and Letters http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2003/10/20/031020fa_fact


BBCNews (2012), ‘UK Writers sue over The Full Monty’, (updated March 4th, 1998) <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/61929.stm>, accessed July 6th.

Britton, Vicki (2012), ‘The Truth Behind the Blair Witch Project Film’, Suite101.com <http://suite101.com/article/the-truth-behind-the-blair-witch-project-film-a231966>, accessed July 5th.

Broderick, Peter (2012), ‘A FILM FOR A SONG – Robert Rodriguez’s Garage Movie.’, Filmmaker Magazine <http://www.filmmakermagazine.com/issues/winter1993/film_for_song.php>, accessed July 5th.

Epstein, Daniel Robert (2012), ‘Interview with Jared Hess, Writer-Director of Napoleon Dynamite’, (updated June 24th 2004) <http://www.screenwritersutopia.com/modules.php?name=Content&pa=showpage&pid=2705>, accessed July 5th.

IMDb.com, Inc. (2012), ‘ET – The Extra-Terrestrial: Did You Know?’, Did You Know? <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0083866/trivia>, accessed July 6th.

Koestler, A (1964), The Act of Creation, Hutchinson, London.

McCarty, Michael (2012), ‘John Carpenter looks back at Halloween on its 25th anniversary’, <http://www.syfy.com/sfw/issue339/interview.html and – alternate: http://www.ohmb.net/showthread.php?t=9385>, accessed July 5th.

McCausland, James (2006), ‘Scientists’ warnings unheeded’, The Courier-Mail, December 4th, sec. Business.

McKee, Robert (1997), Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting (1st edn.; New York: Regan Books) 466 p.

— (1999), Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting (London: Methuen) 466 p.

Russo, John (1985), The Complete Night of the Living Dead Filmbook (Pittsburgh: Imagine, Inc.).

Sacks, Ethan (2009), ‘Box office champ ‘Paranormal Activity’ had scary personal inspiration for filmmaker Oren Peli’, NYDailyNews, October 25th.

Sanello, Frank (1998), Stallone : A Rocky Life (Edinburgh: Mainstream).

‘The Real McKee’, Parker, I (2003), The New Yorker, Life and Letters, Vol. 79, No. 31, p. 82. See: http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2003/10/20/031020fa_fact

7 thoughts on “StoryAlity #32 – On McKee’s `methodology’ in `Story’ (1997)

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