People are Discovering People, and it's a Revelation: An Interview with Robert McKee
Robert McKee is not an anthropologist. He’s definitely not a guru. But the legendary writing instructor is eager for his students to fully understand story form. The author of the craft books Story and Dialogue is returning to Boston this September with his famous “STORY” seminar (9/21-9/23). This week, GrubWrites editor Sarah Colwill-Brown grabbed him for a Sunday morning natter about the difference between “form” and “formula,” the future of storytelling (spoiler: it’s long-form TV), and why he detests those pesky epithets. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
(SCB) Vice calls you an “anthropologist of narrative.” Do you think that’s an accurate description of what you do?
(RMK) No. It’s ok—it’s cute, some journalist had to create a new title. I’m happy to hear it, because I am so bored with being called a “guru.” That’s such a misnomer. “Guru” is a sarcastic word, and it belittles the people I teach. In modern parlance, a guru is somebody who has these sycophantic followers who worship him thoughtlessly and slavishly do whatever he tells them to do. But I’ve had sixty students who have taken my courses and won Oscars. I’ve had Booker Prize winners and Pulitzer Prize winners, and brilliant creatives who have made some of the most wonderful long-form television, film, novels, and plays. To pretend that those people don’t know what they’re doing, and that they’re following someone who’s teaching them pablum is an insult to my students. So I’m glad you didn’t use the word “guru” (laughs).
I get the connotation. Whoever wrote that [I was an “anthropologist”] senses that I look at narrative in an analytical, almost scientific, way. I do find it very useful to discover the underlying structures, and to help the writer become fully aware of things that they’ve only sensed through repeated experience. What I’m trying to do, by illuminating the form, is to help prevent people from copying others. If all you have to go on as a writer is the repeated experience of having read the stories, seen them on stage and screen—if all you have is your repeated experience—then how will you be able to judge the quality of what you’re doing, whether it’s really excellent or not? The only way you can do it, in that case, is to compare what you’re doing to everything you’ve ever seen. And if it harmonizes with what you already know, if it seems like what other successful writers have done, then it must be good for you to do that. What you don’t realize, therefore, is that you’re simply copying. You’re just recycling your experience of other writers into your own writing. Which is valuable, of course. We want deeply read and experienced writers who know the full canon of the art, but to really be free, to be able to invent, you’ve got to be able to go beyond what you know, what you’ve experienced, and what other people have done, and take that material and create with it new variations and innovations that you’ve never seen before. And the way to free yourself, the way to genuine innovation, is to have mastered the underlying form itself: to see how this form plays out inside of everything you’ve ever seen, to understand it as a thing in itself that is embedded in everything, so that you can play with it and improvise with it. My ambition is to give writers a sense of that rather complex, but nevertheless stable, form that lives underneath every story ever told, from fairy tales to Hamlet. And then they can play with it—minimize it, maximize it, turn it on its head, do it upside down. Rather than being enslaved to repeating.
I was going to ask you what you would say to writers who reject your approach because they perceive it as formulaic, but it sounds as though your response would be that it’s not about repeating form, but understanding form in order to make it new.
Yes. There’s a break line between form and formula. I teach form, not formula. But, people who are not experienced in this, who haven’t given it much thought, don’t know the difference. If I were teaching musical composition, I would teach music theory, and I would teach the underlying form of music. If I were teaching painting, I would teach the rule of thirds; I would teach perspective; I would teach the psychology of color; I would teach the underlying form of visual arts, abstract and representational, so that my students understood the form. And that form is not a formula. The form, in painting, is underneath everything, no matter how abstract. Form in music is underneath everything no matter how classical or how acid rock.
“New Criticism,” which is what I grew up with, taught us to dig into a poem or a story to discover the forms that are inside of it, and the way in which those forms are articulated, related and unified. Then you build that outward to the text, and base your interpretation on an inside out understanding of the deep form as it manifests itself at the textual level. Every work of art, then, had its own unique meaning, because it has its own unique form and its unique expression, and it’s not an example of some other theory. But that’s gone. New Criticism is now passé, or was passé years ago, decades ago.
I write a blog called Works / Doesn’t Work. One of the best ways to teach, is to take something that’s in the public eye at the moment—a film that’s come out, a novel that’s in print—and look at how it works or doesn’t work, why it works or doesn’t work, and apply those principles of form to a current example. The two ways you teach music is you have students listen to music and study the masters, and then you teach them music theory, the underlying form. Between understanding the forms and applying them to works of excellence—or to bad work—people learn. So, one way I try to ease people into their education is to take examples of contemporary pieces and illuminate them, so the students can understand what the execution of the form is, for better or worse.
So, who in TV, film, or literature is doing interesting things with story at the moment? Who should we be watching or reading?
Well, see, that’s a loaded question. That question says, “What trends should I be following? What in the world today is really interesting? Who’s doing really interesting things? Who’s breaking new ground? Therefore who should I imitate?”
I’m interested in what contemporary text you would take to a classroom. Perhaps that’s a better question.
Oh, well, there’s so much good modern writing today, especially in long-form television. That’s where we’ve seen some of the most brilliant writing for the last decade or more. There are some wonderful novels, of course; there’s Will Self and novelists like him, still trying to make those old anti-form structures stand up. But the most breathtaking work is in long-form TV, because it really is in many ways a new form, although it’s a compound of traditional forms, but taken to a scale that’s unprecedented. The standard that long-form creators aim for today is the 100-hour story, spread out over eight or so seasons. A work of that size is breathtaking. If you were to adapt a 400-page novel—for example, Big Little Lies. Did you see that?
That’s a novel that became one season [of a show]. And so, a long-form show is six, seven, eight, nine, ten seasons, so it’s a whole shelf of books (laughs). And the key to long-form—as it is in a full-length novel—is character. What keeps you turning the pages, what keeps you coming back season after season of the long-form is the evolution of those characters. It’s not the storytelling. The storytelling is critical, of course, to engage the intellectual interest, in terms of what’s going to happen next, and how is this going to turn out, but the emotional interest is invested in those characters. And what holds that emotional interest season after season is change—of two kinds. One is a revelation: Are we discovering things about these characters in the fifth, sixth, seventh season that we didn’t know where there? And that, in retrospect, we realize were always there? Two: the character arc. Is the character evolving and changing for better or worse over the multiple seasons? So, you want revelations, and an arc in one direction or another, and as long as those characters are evolving and being revealed, we’re interested. When they stop changing, when they stop evolving and the discovery is over, we lose interest. And, therefore, the complexity of character in long-form television far exceeds anything we do in a novel. Because we just don’t have that much time. And so I do a whole day—I won’t be doing it in Boston this time—but I do a whole day on long-form television series, and the thrust of it is on character, and we analyze the protagonists of some great shows. For example, going back to a series that certainly has set the standard: in The Sopranos, Tony Soprano, I analyze as a twelve-dimensional character. Not three. Twelve. Walter White in Breaking Bad, I show, is a sixteen-dimensional character.
So, what’s the definition of a dimension, in this instance?
A consistent contradiction in the nature of the character. It could be a contradiction between appearance and reality—they seem to be one thing outwardly, but we discover when they take action who they really are inwardly. It could be a contradiction within the character—the famous contradiction, for example, in Macbeth between his ambition to be the king, and his guilt over the deeds he committed to be the king. It could be a contradiction on the level of characterization—for example, a woman who is extremely fastidious in her makeup, and spends hours every morning carefully making up her face, but doesn’t brush her teeth. If she’s so obsessed with her appearance, why doesn’t she bother to brush her teeth? That’s a contradiction. And so, it’s a contradiction on the outer level, or between the outer level and the inner level, or within the inner level, and it’s a consistent contradiction—it’s not just a moment—and so it’s somebody who is both loving and cruel, courageous and cowardly, intelligent and blind, etc. People who have a dynamic and consistent contradiction of some kind—that’s what we mean by a dimension, and, as I said, Walter White has sixteen such living contradictions within himself.
Those are shows that are propelled by only a handful of characters, and yet, as you say, they’re still incredibly expansive. What about a show like Game of Tbrones?
Game of Thrones is fantastic, isn’t it?
It is! Though some fans are expressing dissatisfaction with this particular season. There seems to have been a shift in the storytelling that isn’t settling with them very well. Have you been engaged in any of the discourse around that?
What is the shift in storytelling that they’re objecting to?
Events are moving much more quickly, which is somewhat disruptive to our understanding of the world and of the characters. I haven’t fully analyzed what’s shifted yet, but I do think that there is something unsubstantial about the storytelling this season. It borders on melodramatic.
Melodramatic in the sense that it’s unmotivated?
Yes. The big moments seem not fully earned.
I haven’t seen [this season] so I can’t say. But you see, melodrama is not a matter of writing too big. When you do not believe that the motivations of characters matches the extremities of their actions, that’s what we call melodrama. So if the events are massive, but fully motivated, that’s not melodrama, that’s high drama. My definition of melodrama is under-motivated excessive action. But Oedipus tearing his eyes out is fully motivated. Brutus falling on his sword is fully motivated. If characters are fully motivated to take extreme life and death actions, that’s not melodrama. I can’t judge, because I haven’t seen it yet, whether or not the climaxes that are forthcoming in Game of Thrones are melodramatic, because I kind of feel that they probably won’t be, given that the motivation has been building year after year. Given this fantasy world, extreme actions are the nature of things. On the other hand, I think it’s great that people get so personally invested in stories.
It certainly demonstrates the continued vitality of story. As a novelist, I’m intrigued by your definition of dialogue. You say that dialogue is “anything said by any character to anyone,” and so a first-person novel is 50,000 words of nonstop dialogue. What do you think changes for the novel writer if they think of novels that way?
Nothing fundamental. Whether or not anybody in academia has said that a first-person novel is, in essence, 300 pages of dialogue doesn’t really matter, because you’re going to write it the same way anyway. But what it would do for the novelist is make them even more keenly aware of drawing a sharp line between themselves and the character who is telling the story. The character’s language is truly the character’s language, and not some soft or slightly bent version of their own. When you’re writing first person, that character’s voice has to be dialogue, and therefore you have to find a real vocal style, so that the reader can hear that voice. It begins with vocabulary: what is in the character’s head, are the names and actions of every damn thing they’ve ever seen in their life. Therefore the character is limited to the names of things, the actions and objects that are living in the memory of that human being. And you, as a writer, have got to work within that and ask yourself, “What metaphors, what tropes might my character use, based upon their particular experience?” When you think about the character telling their story, you have to think in terms of fifteen, twenty times more material than you could ever put in a novel to build out the life experience of this character, in order to accumulate their language. So of course it’s also the form of the sentences, and the rhythm of them, and all those other qualities, but it begins with vocabulary. The vocabulary is an indication of everything this character has ever experienced.
I want to encourage people to think, in their careers, about moving between forms. If you have a story that really is taking place in the mind of a character, why would you try to do that on screen? If a character is struggling with their society, then that is a potential movie. If it’s a story that really takes place inside of a family, or a few intimate relationships, that could be a play. A lot of things can be moved around, and it’s all very fluid. When you look at the material you’re working with, you really ought to ask that question: In what medium would this be most expressive?
Yes. I love that question.
The thing that’s going to make good TV is multi-dimensional characters. In Game of Thrones, you don’t necessarily have multi-dimensional characters; you have a massive cast. That massive cast that we cut between constantly is how to tell long form without complex characters. In that case, you need complex society and complex relationships—and hundreds of them. And they should all have names you can’t pronounce. (Laughs.) So, there are exceptions to everything. But if you notice, for example, Game of Thrones is virtually a movie, because it’s tremendously expressive visually. Great cinematics. The conflict is all social and physical. Whereas Breaking Bad, which is good looking by all means, is more about interiors and dialogue than action. And so Game of Thrones is a wonderful exception. It’s an enormous network of movies.
We’re in a “golden age” of television. Do you think writers are moving toward the TV form just because it’s popular?
There’s a lot of reasons. Not the least of which is service. What people want today is service, meaning, they want their stories when they want them and where they want them, on their schedule. They don’t want to have to go to the movies or a theatre at eight o’ clock, and have to be in a certain place at a certain time in order to experience a certain story. The service that television performs by making stories convenient and accessible has certainly had an immense influence on people’s habits. And then DVD box sets and DVR recorders released the phenomenon of binging. People, in a sense, binge over novels, right? You pick up a novel at seven o’clock, around dinnertime, and at three o’clock in the morning, you’re still reading. So people binged on novels for a long time, but nobody binged on screens until recently. And it’s a wonderful experience. People like Charlie Rose, Anthony Hopkins—highly regarded intellectuals—have confessed to binging. It’s like a shameful thing (laughs). And I think that the secret is, long form television, now that the medium has made binging possible, is revealing depths of character, depths of humanity no medium has ever delivered in history. People are discovering people: that people are just not package-able in two hours. People are capable of qualities, and behaviors, and actions, and choices, and changes that go on, and on, and on. People are endlessly flexible, and adaptable, and deep. And there are things going on deep inside of them that we never had a chance to excavate. So, people are discovering people, and how complex they are, and how changeable they are. And it’s a revelation.
Do you think that exploration of character is finite, though? You mentioned in another interview that you discovered a new ending to a series, which you termed “exhaustion,” when the character is entirely explored and there’s nothing left to know. Do you think there’s a limit to that multiplicity?
Well, I’m sure there is, but we’re yet to reach it. The limit is, how complex can a human being be? And, coupled with that, how complex could these complex characters’ relationships with other human beings be? I’m sure there are limits out there. But we haven’t reached them yet. What’s amazing is how fascinating our fellow human beings are. Big Little Lies—I was so annoyed when it was over. I thought, these characters are much more complex than they have a chance to be in eight hours. Why can’t we take these women and put them into new circumstances? They’ve got lives that could go on and on, and I thought that they just scratched the surface of these characters. So I don’t know what the limits are. After Breaking Bad, we got the prequel, Better Call Saul, which is taking supporting characters and exploring their complexities, and their relationships. That brother-to-brother relationship in Better Call Saul is a fantastic thing. So it seems to me limitless. Perhaps there are some limits to the dimensionality of a single character, but there are no limits to the relationships.
Is there a question that you’ve never been asked, but would like to be?
Here’s a question that’s never been asked: What’s gone wrong with certain media that are struggling? Right now, I think the novel is holding its own, long-form television is taking us into the future, but the theatre struggles, and so does cinema. There are fewer and fewer really good films every year, and fewer and fewer compelling plays. Why? I don’t think it’s a problem of story form. I think that story form is well understood. The explorations of minimalism are wonderfully done in films like Moonlight, and Manchester By The Sea, 45 Years—these marvelous minimalist works where there’s a novelistic emphasis on the inner life. So, it’s not a question of form. It’s a question of content. What’s gone wrong is that the theatre and the cinema have become very conservative in their willingness to explore the dark side of human nature, and the ugliness in this world. They’re all trying to be uplifting, and as the great H. L. Mencken would say, the up-lifters are the enemy. And they’re all trying to self-consciously improve society, and up-lift and cheer up, and the content is shallow. Whereas, the content of long-form TV, and the content of really fine novels is deep. Because in the cinema there’s so much money involved, they just don’t want to upset people, and so they’re pulling their punches. There’s a certain restraint and shallowness in the content. It’s not a formal problem.
Colwill is an instructor and manuscript consultant at GrubStreet, an associate editor at Bat City Review, and an MFA candidate at the University of Texas at Austin. After graduating a scholarship awardee of GrubStreet’s Novel Incubator program, Colwill found representation for her first novel, Before We Tear Our Selves Apart, with Robert Guinsler of Sterling Lord Literistic, which is currently on submission to publishing houses. She is the recipient of the Wellspring House Emerging Writer Fellowship, the Henry Blackwell Essay Prize, and a Crawley-Garwood Research Grant, and has received fellowships and support from Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, The University of Texas at Austin, Boston College, Kansas State University, the Anderson Center for Disciplinary Studies, and GrubStreet. She was a finalist for the 2019 Tennessee Williams Fiction Prize, the 2019 Reynolds Price Award, the 2019 Far Horizons Fiction Award, the 2019 Disquiet International Literary Prize, and the 2019 Lit Fest Emerging Writer Fellowship. Colwill’s fiction is forthcoming in Granta and is anthologized in Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet (Press 53). She has served on the editorial team for Post Road magazine, The Conium Review, Solstice Literary Magazine, and Pangyrus magazine. Colwill is a founding member of the Back Porch Collective, a Boston-based group of writers. With members connected to Cuba, India, Albania, Atlanta, Bosnia, Miami, Jamaica, and the UK, they bonded over a common passion for global narratives and literature’s potential to create empathy and understanding across all geographical, political, and cultural borders. Hailing from Yorkshire, in the north of England, Colwill is determined to introduce the word “sozzard” to the American vernacular. For a full list of publications, projects, and services, please visit colwillbrown.com.See other articles by Colwill Brown