McKEE’S TWO UNFORTUNATE EXAMPLES of “BAD FILM STORIES”
On pages 22 and 23 of Story (1997), McKee gives screenwriters examples of what he finds to be “bad stories”.
But – interestingly, note how closely these “bad stories” actually resemble two films on the Top 20 RoI list…? (i.e. – Two of the most successful film stories, ever.)
McKee bemoans his two `bad’ screenplay story `types’ as follows:
“Over the years I’ve observed two typical and persistent kinds of failed screenplay. The first is the “personal story” bad script:
In an office setting we meet a protagonist with a problem: She deserves a promotion but she’s being passed over. Angry, she heads for her parents’ home to discover that Dad’s gone senile and Mom can’t cope. Home to her apartment and a fight with her slobbish, conniving roommate. Now out on a date and smack into a failure to communicate: Her insensitive lover takes her to an expensive French restaurant, completely forgetting that she’s on a diet. Back to the office where, amazingly, she gets her promotion… but new pressures arise. Back at her parents’ place, where just as she solves Dad’s problem, Mom goes over the edge. Coming home she discovers that her roommate has stolen her TV and vanished without paying the rent. She breaks up with her lover, raids the refrigerator, and gains five pounds. But chin up, she turns her promotion into a triumph. A nostalgic heart-to-heart over a dinner with her folks cures Mom’s woes. Her new roommate not only turns out to be an anal-retentive gem who pays the rent weeks ahead with cashier’s checks, but introduces her to Someone New. We’re now on page ninety-five. She sticks to her diet and looks great for the last twenty five pages, which are the literary equivalent of running in slow-mo through daisies as the romance with Someone New blossoms. At last she confronts her Crisis Decision: whether or not to commit? The screenplay ends on a tearful Climax as she decides she needs her space.”
Note that in My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002), the `office’ is also the family’s Greek restaurant, although Toula (Nia Vardalos) soon gets a job in another office (a travel agency).
The only key difference to the above description by McKee is that, the couple finally marries – and they move into a house next door to Toula’s overbearing parents (i.e. a `Villain Triumphant’ story, which is one of the key characteristics of most – if not all of – the Top 20 RoI Films.).
As it happens, McKee also gives another unfortunate (or: bad?) example of so-called “bad storytelling”: note the striking story similarities here to another Top 20 RoI film, as McKee continues:
“Second is the “guaranteed commercial success” bad script:
Through a luggage mix-up at the airport, a software salesman comes into possession of the-thing-that-will-end-civilization-as-we-know-it-today. The-thing-that-will-end-civilization-as-we-know- it-today is quite small. In fact, it’s concealed inside a ballpoint pen unwittingly in the pocket of this hapless protagonist, who becomes the target of a cast of three dozen characters, all of whom have double or triple identities, all of whom have worked on both sides of the Iron Curtain, all of whom have known one another since the Cold War, all of whom are trying to kill the guy. This script is stuffed with car chases, shoot-outs, hair-raising escapes, and explosions. When not blowing things up or shooting folks down, it halts for dialogue-thick scenes as the hero tries to sort through these duplicitous people and find out just whom he can trust. It ends with a cacophony of violence and multimillion-dollar effects, during which the hero manages to destroy the-thing-that-will-end-civilization-as- we-know-it-today and thus save humanity.”
Um, so – try this Rebus puzzle:
Er… Star Wars (1977)… anyone?
Note that, in Star Wars (1977), the plans for the Death Star (“the-thing-that-will-end-civilization-as-we-know-it-today”) inside R2-D2 is discovered by accident – through a droid mix-up (Luke and Ben bought a red droid that blew up, and R2-D2 was not their first choice).
Moreover, McKee states “It ends with a cacophony of violence and multimillion-dollar effects, during which the hero manages to destroy the-thing-that-will-end-civilization-as-we-know-it-today and thus save humanity” – or, when Luke blows up the Death Star (though – Darth Vader escapes – again, a Villain Triumphant story).
These are therefore, possibly, two `bad’ examples of “bad storytelling” by McKee.
Note the films #19 and #20 on this list, The Top 20 `Audience-Reach / Budget’ Films of the Last 70 Years:
…SO – UH… WHY IS McKEE (APPARENTLY) THE #1 SCREENPLAY “GURU” THEN?
It would appear, even in this day and age, most people are still attracted to the Romantic (mystical) notion of creativity that McKee utilizes, which has its roots in Aristotle, and Poetics. See this post, for why this is perhaps a bad idea.
Some excerpts from the 2003 Ian Parker New Yorker profile article on McKee seems salient, and may explain this paradox. McKee states in the New Yorker interview:
“See, what I do is very seductive. On Sunday night, I’m going to get a standing ovation. I am an old actor and this is thirty hours of performance to a captive audience. It’s very satisfying.”
The next morning, in a lecture room at the Institution of Electrical Engineers, McKee took the stage without introduction or fanfare. Holding a coffee cup with his elbow locked into a right angle, he cleared his throat before making fierce announcements about the location of the restrooms and his policy of never answering questions from the floor. Like a wise political candidate, he presented himself as the reluctant outsider who had accepted the task of cleaning up a mess left by corrupt predecessors.
Hollywood makes five hundred films a year, “and the large percentage is perfect shit,” McKee said, from a script that barely changes a word from one performance to another. In its search for material, Hollywood sets aside seven hundred and fifty million dollars a year in development budgets; most of this goes to writers. “And look what you get.” McKee raised his eyebrows and took a stagy sip of coffee. “Look. What. You. Get.” (Parker 2003)
So – WHAT DO YOU “GET” WITH MCKEE?
It may now become clear why McKee “does not take questions from the floor” in his Story seminars.
His screenplay analysis “methods” certainly raise many questions, and appear completely unempirical, and non-scientific.
Perhaps – in his favour – McKee apparently objects to auteur theory, namely that the director is the primary creative author of a film.
Truffaut and his “auteur theory/policy” has indeed done massive damage to the industry’s respect for the creative contribution of the Screenwriter in film – likewise, Roland Barthes, with his “Death of the Author”. (But that’s a whole other problem, for a whole nother Blog post.)
As this doctoral research shows, the true `authors’ of the relatively most effective/popular film stories (the Top 20 RoI Films) are those who are Writer-hyphenates. They combine their writing and filmmaking skills to create film stories, usually on “micro-budgets”, and thus, reach the widest audience, relative to their available resources.
Overall, this “Top 20 RoI film stories” study not only provides useful guidelines for storytellers/screenwriters – but also aims to reinstate the Writer, and the Writer-hyphenate as “the most effective author of a film” (while bearing in mind that – all collaborators on a film contribute to it creatively).
This reinstatement of the Writer and Writer-hyphenate would not be necessary – if any of the 10 or so, “screenplay gurus” used consilient (scientific, empirical) methods – but, it appears they do not – and so, the doctoral thesis extract argues, this perhaps needs to change…
McKee could maybe be reminded that – apart from his study of dramatic techniques in Poetics, Aristotle also invented taxonomy – by scientifically classifying the fauna of the world in 2300 BCE.
In much the same way that homo sapiens is still evolving, over the last 100 years film has emerged and is evolving as a storytelling medium, in a way that could not exist in Aristotle’s time, 2200 years ago.
Now that we actually have identified, and can understand “Story DNA” much better, a similar, more advanced scientific approach to genetically-engineering our film stories can (and should) be adopted.
If this `Top 20 RoI Films’ philosophy seems influenced by the ideas of Charles Darwin, Richard Dawkins and Sir Karl Popper – it is also ethical utilitarianism in action – “the greatest good for the greatest number” (see: Jeremy Bentham) – as the highest RoI films are liked by the widest audience.
Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill may well have approved, with their “greatest happiness principle” and “pleasure principle”…
By using the story tropes and structures (memes) that all the Top 20 RoI Films use, you can increase the likelihood of your own film story/screenplay going viral too.
Film stories need to entertain. The more entertaining they are, the more popular they become – and thus, they spread further – and wider – through the culture, whatever message/s or theme/s they may contain.
(…Is this not the goal of every writer/filmmaker with: Something to say?)
Having said all that, you still need to read McKee, and maybe even attend his seminars (and about 10 other screenplay guru books too): the current `screenwriting convention’ holds them in very high regard.
However – as with all Philosophy – it is always very important to QAT:
Question Accepted Truths.
…Comments always welcome,
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/
Apocalypse Now (1979) (videorecording, Omni Zoetrope,) 1 videocassette (VHS) (148 min.) : sd., col. ; 1/2 in.
McKee, Robert (1999), Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting (London: Methuen) 466 p.
Parker, Ian (2003), ‘The Real McKee: Life and Letters’, The New Yorker, 79 (31), 082.