Does Acting Help Your Writing?

Robert McKee explains how acting experience is an invaluable asset when writing for the screen. As a bonus, Mckee also tackles a question about the importance of a story’s plot.


Robert McKee’s WORKS / DOESN’T WORK Film Review:

Wonder Woman (2017) | Directed by Patty Jenkins

McKee Says: It Works, But… (Spoiler Alert!)

Over all, WONDER WOMAN successfully combines a coherent script and amiable casting with eye-catching spectacle and the triumph of good over evil. What’s more, the revival of this iconic protagonist in these contentious days makes it an important social event. Delighted little girls in my audience shouted “Wow!” scene after scene. It’s a hit and doing what Action spectacles are designed to do: making money.

However, I can think of two ways in which the film doesn’t work and cost it a bigger box office.

1. Repetitious Action:

I counted ten action set pieces: one rescue, one escape, and no less than eight assaults by Wonder Woman. Action becomes boredom without variety, so the director is to be congratulated for inducing pace, variation, and a sense of progression into a screenplay that repeated Wonder Woman’s mania for confrontation end to end.

2. The Character of Ares:

First, casting a British actor as villain is a dreadful cliché. Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal the Cannibal and Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber set the standard decades ago, but persistent copyists have worn the meme to its nub.

Second, an Action story can only be as exciting as the villain and his tactics make it. A cliché in that role sucks energy out of the telling.

The Action genre can deliver a positive climax in just one of three ways: The hero overpowers the villain; the hero outsmarts the villain; or the hero does both—outsmarts and overpowers.

Outsmarting means discovering a hidden flaw in the villain and, in a jiu-jitsu like move, exploiting it. Needless to say, a climax that pivots on the hero outsmarting the villain is far more satisfying than her overpowering him with brute muscle. But then an amazing feat of outsmarting calls for a screenplay with mental muscle.

Ares has no hidden flaw to discover, outsmart, and exploit; he’s just weaker than Wonder Woman and so ripe for defeat. We’re told that he was once the most murderous god on Olympus. If so, that doesn’t say much for the power of Zeus and his fellow deities. I doubt that Satan, the Christian god of evil, would crumple like Ares.

The Moral Question:

The Action Hero is, by definition, a good person who uses evil means to defeat evil. The hero will be as lying and deceitful as evil, as clever as evil, and most importantly, as violent as evil. In fact, the hero will ultimately do these things far better than evil, destroy evil, and then go back to being a good person again.

Of course, the notion that people who use evil means to do good will not be corrupted by these tactics, or that once heroes take life-and-death power into their hands, they will it back to the people is naïve. But then Action has always pitted an idealized purity of good against undiluted evil. That’s the core of this genre.

Because action heroes must be violent, they have been almost exclusively male since Homer. Recently, however, long form television series such as HOMELAND, GAME OF THRONES, VIKINGS, and THE AMERICANS have added fiercely heroic killer women to the ranks. Now WONDER WOMAN.

Always bear in mind that Action writers never intend for fictional violence to be taken as a literal model for behavior. Rather, they use it as a metaphor for the courageous strength we all need to face life. For that reason, society has generally accepted the role of Action tales in the lives of boys. On the other hand, if our sorry society is to progress, we must empower women as an equal, hopefully greater, force for moral good.

Therefore, some questions: Are we comfortable using violence as a poetic for girls in the same way we have always used it for boys? Have Action stories made boys better human beings? Will they have a positive influence on girls? I hope so because the trend is clear.

Who Is Maya Deren and Why Does She Matter to Your Screenwriting?

How did Maya Deren change the filmmaking world?

Maya Deren, the mother of the avant-garde cinema and its movement, greatly influenced some of the most respected filmmakers of our time; from Orson Welles and Ingmar Bergman to Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch.

Her 1941 groundbreaking film MESHES OF THE AFTERNOON demonstrates a tour de force filmmaking artistry, using no decorative photography, no spoken words, and only single drum beats. To this day it stands as the beacon of avant-garde cinema.


May 28th, Robert McKee will end the Beijing GENRE Festival (May 25 - 28) with THE MASTERPIECE Day. He will analyze Maya Deren’s MESHES OF THE AFTERNOON, and Roman Polanski’s Oscar-winning film CHINATOWN. Robert will also address the state of current Chinese films.

A Brief Bio of Maya Deren

Maya Deren came to America in 1922 as Eleanora Derenkowsky. Together with her father, a psychiatrist and her mother, an artist, she fled the pogroms against Russian Jews in Kiev. She studied journalism and political science in at Syracuse University in New York, finishing her B.A up at NYU in June 1936, and afterwards received her Master’s degree in English literature from Smith in 1939.

Maya Deren

In 1943 she made her first film with Alexander Hammid called MESHES OF THE AFTERNOON (1943). Through this association she changed her name to “Maya”, a Buddhist term meaning ‘illusion’. She made six short films: MESHES OF THE AFTERNOON (1943), AT LAND (1944), A STUDY FOR CHOREOGRAPHY FOR CAMERA (1945), RITUAL IN TRANSFIGURED TIME (1945-1946), MEDITATION ON VIOLENCE (1947), THE VERY EYE OF NIGHT (1959). She also made several incomplete films, including THE WITCHES CRADLE (1944), with Marcel Duchamp.

Maya Deren was the first filmmaker to receive a Guggenheim for creative work in motion pictures (1947). She wrote film theory, distributed her own films, traveled across the USA, Cuba and Canada to promote her films using the “lecture-demonstration format” to inform on film theory. Deren established the Creative Film Foundation in the late 1950’s to reward the achievements of independent filmmakers. [READ FULL BIO]

The Principle of Infinite Pains: Legendary Filmmaker Maya Deren on Cinema, Life, and Her Advice to Aspiring Filmmakers.


“There is no Avant-Garde any more. There is only Retro Garde. Filmmakers are imitating the auteurs of the past and recycling tired works of the past. I am tired of movies about movies. What we want to see is movies about life…about characters that express the nuances of life.” -ROBERT MCKEE


Robert McKee’s WORKS / DOESN’T WORK TV Series Review:

The Night Of (TV Mini-Series, 2016) | Created by Richard Price and Steven Zaillian

THE NIGHT OF: A Study of the Importance of Research

McKee Says: It Works (Spoiler Alert!)

Research on Character Specific Details  

A character can have conflicts on various levels; two traits could oppose, a trait and a conscious desire could oppose, two conscious desires could oppose, two subconscious desires could oppose, a conscious and a subconscious desires could oppose. You have all of these choices on how to develop conflict within a character.  

In THE NIGHT OF, the gritty telling details of the lawyer character suffering from an intense physical ailment gives him a unique character — a physical conflict, the psoriasis, with all its amazing variations against a character’s conscious will. How do you do your job when your body is raising hell with you? As a result, the audience is in tremendous empathy. It profoundly humanizes the character and makes you, the viewer, think about every little malady you ever had from headaches on down that got in your way when you were trying to do something. It is a great choice and impressive telling details make it very real. You can only create from what you already know. If you don’t know enough of your characters and their world to have 20 choices for everything, then you will just recycle clichés. I am hard pressed to think of a single cliché in THE NIGHT OF. I can’t think of anything where I had really felt “I had seen this before”. That’s eight hours of original writing.

The World of Prison: Pyramid of Power  

The world inside of the prison is about the people with power and the people without power. How do the people with power get their power? There are scenes in this series where guys spend a lot of time pushing weight. Most are quite strong, but only one guy rules and he is not the strongest guy in the prison. So there is a pyramid of power in prison. What is about the guy at the top of the pyramid that allows him to control people below him? The answer is personality. He possesses an inner quality that inmates recognize and it frightens them. Even though they might be twice as big and strong, they don’t throw a punch because they are intimidated. In any violent world, such as inside the Mafia, everybody’s got guns from top to bottom. So, how does the hierarchy control the lower-archy? They do it with personality. The same thing goes inside the lawless world of a prison.

Writing Freedom in TV Series

Although THE NIGHT OF deals with the degeneration plot, the spine of it is a social drama using the courtroom drama to expose and criticize a social problem, the incompetence of institutions, police, prosecutors, prisons and so forth.  

The institutions in society are mirrors of human nature. The great documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman made brilliant cinema vérité documentaries about institutions - prisons, insane asylums, high schools, boot camps, and monasteries. His premise was all institutions dehumanize people, including monasteries. It is just how it is; it is true. And herein lies the dilemma of a lesser of two evils choice. For example, if we don’t have an institution to put dangerous people away from society, we will be releasing serial killers. It is a terrible choice. At the same time we must bear in mind that we blame institutions as if they have separate consciousness of their own. They don’t. The consciousness behind all institutions is human nature.  

Now the cinema has become extremely conservative, socially and politically making it almost impossible for a filmmaker to get that bleak. The fear is few enough people go to the movies anyway, and negaphobia is rampant in our society. THE NIGHT OF is anything but conservative. It is real, cutting edge, too dangerous for an art movie. One of the few recent film exception is an Iranian film, A SEPARATION.

The great takeaway from all of this: This is the Age of the Writer. Television has released the writer with freedom to create comedies, dark dramas, family, whatever the subject is, to be innovative, to go into places and things that are restricted by commercial television and cinema.


Robert McKee’s WORKS / DOESN’T WORK Film Review:

Big Little Lies (2017 - ) | Created by David E. Kelley

McKee Says: It Works (Spoiler Alert!)


BIG LITTLE LIES crosscuts three stories over seven-episodes, then pulls them together at Climax. But instead of limiting itself to the points of view of its three protagonists, the screenplay moves from place to place, person to person, telling the story from an omniscient, God-angle view—as did the third-person novel it adapted.

Free to take the telling where they like, the editing team cuts from the struggles of the protagonists, to the schemings of various antagonists, to snide comments from sideline characters, to inserts of California clichés. In fact, the editors toss in more images of crashing waves than you’d see in a surfing contest.

This brisk editing tempo serves two purposes:

(1) It counterpoints the subtexts of emotional paralysis and anxiety that haunt the three principals. Without these cutaways, the mini-series could have become as static and mood-ridden as a minimalist art film.

(2) These inter-scene montages also serve as a delaying tactic to heighten tension. The splicings busy our eyes while the crosscutting keeps the storytelling in the air, both devices forestalling answers to the ultimate questions: “Who going to die in this story? Who will do the killing?” As the ancient writer’s adage goes: “Make’em laugh, make’em cry, make’em wait.”


Beginning in 2007, the closed-season series DAMAGES pioneered a radical technique: Each episode’s teaser flashed forward to a glimpse of that season’s violent climax. As the weeks went by, teaser after teaser gave us snippets of the future, but never enough to know what happened in full. We had to wait to the final episode to experience the grand climax.

Along the way, however, we watched the series through the lens of dramatic irony. Because of the teasers, we knew more than the characters knew; we knew they were heading for disaster. The effect of putting the audience ahead of the characters was twofold: One, it created suspense of a unique quality. Two, the audience’s curiosity looked deeper into the inner workings of the characters, asking, “How and why did these characters do what I already know they did?”

BIG LITTLE LIES uses the same essential technique but with a comic touch. Between turning points, the telling flash-forwards to a Don Rickles chorus of fast-talking insult artists who ridicule protagonists and antagonists alike. They play no direct roles in the core dramas but instead get laughs as they mock this cast of pretentious elites. Like the foretastes of the future in DAMAGES, these gossipers put the audience ahead of the main characters but keep the outcome to themselves.


The setting is the costume a story wears. Ideally, the writer would like to wrap her telling in a time and place that heightens the meaning and emotion of its events. The setting’s imagery then acts as a subliminal metaphor for the story’s positive versus negative charges, for good versus evil, comedy and tragedy. With that ambition, the final location of BIG LITTLE LIES is perfection.

The climax takes place at a fund-raising costume party with an Elvis Presley/Audrey Hepburn theme. Elvis’s leather jackets versus Hepburn’s pearl necklaces express the series’ polar conflict of male v. female, aggressor v. victim, but in a way that is at once romantic and dangerous, serious and humorous, over the top and below the belt.

I was hooked, held, and paid off. I’ll miss these fascinating characters and the superb actors who played them.


Robert McKee’s WORKS / DOESN’T WORK TV Series Review:

Vikings (2013-) | Written by Michael Hirst

McKee Says: It Works (Spoiler Alert!)


When we look back on the what-was, events often cloud over with shapeless confluences of intersecting cultural and physical forces, undercut by coincidence and contradiction. That’s why people argue about what happened last month, let alone last century. That’s also why striving for historical accuracy cripples storytelling. Trying to recreate past events as history says they happened often traps storylines in cul-de-sacs of confusion. Instead of granular factuality, the wise writer strives for historical expressiveness. In short, he captures the spirit of the times.

The three grand treatments of the past: News outlets monitor current events; historians interpret previous events; storytellers imagine living events. Chroniclers record factual deeds; historians sift social, political, environmental, and economic forces; authors express the human consequences.

Lazy writers carry around ready-made stories, hoping to transplant them in interesting historical settings. In such, the past simply becomes a background for a portable tale that could have been told in any time or place.

Hard-working writers explore the story potential in a span of history by first eliminating an overwhelming surplus of events, then selecting a cast of characters to stand in for that era’s vast population, and, most importantly, merging their factual knowledge of what actually happened with creative imaginings of what could have happened, dramatizing the hidden desires that drove their taken-from-life characters.

In other words, they let history reveal its stories, rather than imposing theirs on history. Discoveries found in books come to life in the imagination. As a result, when all-too-familiar genres, such as Love and Crime, arise naturally out of an unfamiliar world, they fascinate us with never-seen-before rituals, rules, and relationships. History, reinvented and well-told, makes the old new again.


To create VIKINGS, Hirst called on three primary sources:

(1) The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: In 891, King Alfred the Great (849—899) ordered all annals from all towns be collected, copied, and kept in one grand book. The resulting Anglo-Saxon Chronicle lists virtually every significant English event from 450 AD to 1066 AD.

(2) The History of Denmark: A hundred years after Alfred, the Danish scholar Saxo Grammatius gathered all oral sources he could find to compile a Danish history.

(3) The Icelandic Sagas: A century or two after Saxo, the last Icelandic storytellers, men and women who memorized and recited family narratives, transcribed their spoken histories to paper.

In these sources, and much secondary research as well, Hirst found six key events: (1) Ragnar Lothbrok married three times and fathered numerous children. (2) He led victorious Viking raids on England and France, but (3) suffered a major defeat at Paris. (4) In 865, a storm blew his ship aground on the English coast. (5) King Aella of Northumberland captured him and put him to death. (6) Months later, an army led by Ragnar’s sons conquered northern England and executed Aella.


Every piece of history offers raw material for virtually every kind of story, so when Michael Hirst was drawn to the Viking era and Ragnar Lothbrok, he faced two major questions: How to structure a multi-season television series around just six events? And, most importantly, what genres do these facts suggest? He chose two primary lines that could sustain story arcs over decades of his characters’ lives and seasons of audience fascination:

Domestic Drama:

Vendettas inside families can last a lifetime. They churn through three intrinsic values: Envy/Empathy, Loyalty/Betrayal, Unity/Break-Up. To dramatize these values, Hirst redesigned the family that history gave him.

Legends claim that Ragnar had three wives, but for storytelling power, two is a much better number. Two wives can loathe each other to the death, but put a third spouse in the mix and drama turns to farce. So Hirst eliminated a wife and then created Lagertha and Aslaug as multi-dimensional women, mutually contradictory in their natures, living in perpetual hatred.

There’s no record of Ragnar’s siblings, so Hirst looked into Viking lore, found Rolo (a warrior who lived decades in the future), and him made Ragnar’s brother. Hirst’s Rolo, driven by envy of Ragnar, betrays him and ultimately defeats him in the second battle for Paris.

Ragnar’s Quest:

History dealt Hirst a weak hand: How can a man’s haphazard life unify four seasons of storytelling? What Spine of Action would motivate Ragnar to pursue what Object of Desire for over two decades (49 episodes) and end on a meaningfully powerful climax? Motivational questions require deep-seated insight into the inner realms of human beings, and history offers the writer no such answers.

Hirst’s raw material: When Ragnar’s sons carve the blood-eagle on King Aella, they take a Hamlet-like revenge, but only use episodes 44-47 to do it. What’s more, this last movement begins with the coincidental shipwreck that dropped Ragnar into Aella’s hands in the first place. His sons right a wrong, but if their revenge means no more than that, this uptick wouldn’t have the necessary weight to pay off four seasons.

Hirst’s solution: The author decided that revenge would be only a means to an end. To unify Ragnar’s story, he rewrote history by eliminating random chance and linking all pivotal events to the choices and actions of his protagonist and no one else. In short, Hirst gave Ragnar a quest.

Ragnar’s vision of Odin (1:1) triggers the Inciting Incident that launches his quest. Ragnar embraces the god’s call to greatness and goes in pursuit of conquests and renown. But then his struggle for fame takes a negative turn (2:2) when the Seer makes the prophecy that his sons will win far greater glory than him.

Ragnar’s defeat at Paris (4:10) costs him his last chance at greatness, and so with life at rock bottom, where does he go from there? Defying history, Hirst has Ragnar redefine his quest. He could still win immense glory, not for himself, but for his sons. To do so, Ragnar conceives a long con that will not only make the seer’s prophecy come true, but climax on his sacrificial suicide—the spectacular death of a tragic hero.

Ragnar bribes some has-been warriors to row him to England. Once there, he kills these men, and then surrenders to Ecbert, King of Wessex. Even though Ecbert locks him in a cage, Ragnar manipulates Wessex into turning him over to Northumberland. Ragnar knows that Aella, his ancient enemy, will inflict a suffering so degrading and hideous that his death will motivate his sons to take conquer England, take revenge on both Aella and Ecbert, and with win their glorified place in history.

Indeed, history granted fame to Bjorn, Hvitserk, Ubbe, Sigurd, and Ivar, but now, thanks to Michael Hirst, the scale has tipped and the future will know them as the five sons of Ragnar Lothbrok.


Hirst creates and executes this series without benefit of a writer’s room. VIKINGS is the outpouring of just one artist’s research, imagination, and storytelling gifts.

GET OUT (2017)

Robert McKee’s WORKS / DOESN’T WORK Film Review:

Get Out (2017) | Written and Directed by Jordan Peele

McKee Says: It Works (Spoiler Alert!)


Horror, when it’s really good, arouses the belly-knotting, irrational fear of things that do not in fact exist. This primal genre comes in three sub-genres: 

1. The Uncanny. In these stories, the antagonists possess fantastic and yet scientifically explainable powers. The alien in ALIEN, for example, forces its spore down the throat of a human being, so the embryo can incubate in the victim’s stomach before hatching and chewing its way out. Parasite wasps here on earth do exactly the same thing when they lay their eggs inside caterpillars.  
2. The Supernatural. These antagonists have extra-earthly powers beyond the logic of science. Freddy Krueger in A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, for instance, is a demonic, murderous ghost who crosses from the after-world to the real world by moving through the dreams of his victims while they sleep.

3. The Super-Uncanny. The third sub-genre keeps the audience in the dark: From where does the horror come? The supernatural or the uncanny? Stanley Kubrick’s adaption of the Stephen King classic, THE SHINNING, raises the level of terror by suspending us in wonder: Who is he? Is Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) a psychopath bent on hellish savagery or a haunted man driven to violence by hellish demons?  

In all three subgenres, monsters thrive on the twisted pleasure of inflicting terrible pain, and then enjoying and prolonging the suffering of their victims. In short, they possess the spirit of evil.

GET OUT gives the Uncanny a 21st century twist by ingeniously dramatizing the unholy merger of science and evil.


Horror, like all action genres, builds to the moment when the protagonist is weaponless, defenseless, back to the wall, at the mercy of the overpowering monster—aka, the Mercy Scene. If this story is going to have a positive ending, the protagonist, from a state of utter helplessness, must rise to the occasion by either outsmarting the monster by discovering and exploiting a weakness in it, or overpowering the villain by mastering his power. What’s more, the protagonist must come out on top without resorting to coincidence or rescue. This, needless to say, is where most action films fail.

GET OUT’s protagonist does both. He outwits the trap set for him, then unleashes a burst of brutal revenge that would make a monster cower. The writer/director Jordan Peele achieves this with a mastery of storytelling. If you’ve seen it, see it again. If you haven’t, see it twice so you can study the art of set-ups and pay-offs. Every turning point, every detail, every look does one or the other. Not a gesture is wasted.


Horror audiences laugh as a safety valve for extreme fear. This can’t be avoided, so the question is: “Do they laugh when they want or when the screenwriter wants?” The Good Laugh in Horror puts the writer in control. I have never seen the Good Laugh better handled than GET OUT’s hysterical gags.