Four Traps New Screenwriters Fall Into

(Transcribed from McKee’s audio interview with London Screenwriters’ Festival)

What are the most common misunderstandings first-time screenwriters have about screenplays?

First: they think because of all that white on the page, that screenwriting is easier than novel writing or playwriting. They think that real writing is words, and if you don’t have to fill the page with words then it must be easier. What they don’t realize is that it is the opposite - screenwriting is harder in many ways than a novel or a play. In a novel or a play you can write all the wonderful expressive dialogue, pages of discourse and description to get you through the storytelling. On screen, you have to do it for the eye and not the ear, with minimal dialogue and vivid scene descriptions. The ideal approach to any scene is, “How could I write this scene visually and not have to resort to a line of dialogue.” Dialogue is the regretful second choice. Writing in pictures rather than words is much more difficult.

The second misconception that novice writers have about screenwriting is that it is formulaic. They think there is a certain structure or form for telling stories that you have to have, or certain turning points on certain pages, a formula you have to learn. That if you master that formula, you become a screenwriter. That, too, is a false idea. There is no formula for writing a screenplay, novel or great play. You have to have characters live in a world that is charged with certain values. Something happens, the inciting incident, at the beginning of a play, novel, film, television series, that radically upsets the balance of the character’s life and it propels them into action, progressively to the climax of the story. That form is not a formula. It is endlessly variable and flexible. Thinking in a formulaic way or trying to learn or master the formula is very destructive to writing.

The third misconception that novice writers have about screenplays is that they are not really about characters but about external events, not internal events. They have tendency to use types rather than complex, dimensional characters — to start with events rather than characters, and then let the characters fill out those events somehow. The emphasis on to whom something happens and why, and the way they react, is something I see young writers rarely do. I highly recommend you start with a fascinating character, build her out, make her as complex as you might like, then ask yourself, “What would it be like for this character if x, y or z happened.” Once you got a wonderful character in mind, find a fascinating way to put her life out of balance. Start with character, rather than event.

The fourth misconception - there is a long list but I will end at four - is that novice writers create on-the-nose dialogue because they don’t understand subtext. They don’t understand that what is not being said is more important than what is being said. They should try to create a kind of transparency where characters go about saying and doing whatever they say and do, but as they do that, the audience sees through them to the real thoughts and feelings, even subconscious thoughts and feelings underneath; the real pain, suffering, ambition, anger, and the real joys that are going on underneath the surface of behavior. The best way I know to understand subtext is to study films you love and isolate scenes from it, take a pencil, write what these characters actually say and do out loud, and then go back and watch the scene again and ask yourself, “What are they really thinking and feeling? What are they doing to each other that is not on the nose, and what is going on in the inner life of these characters?” When you take those notes, you will see that what is being felt, thought and done inside is a great deal more than what is being said and done outwardly. The inner life is ten times bigger than the outer life.

The Pleasures of Horror

The recent wave of successful of Horror films speaks to a society suffering tremulous feelings of vulnerability, constant fear and dread, helplessness, paralysis, frustration, and rage.

Like all genres, Horror goes in and out of fashion. Right now it’s very in. And like all genres, Horror rewrites its conventions in reaction to the changing attitudes and values of society.

During the 1930’s, the era of the Great Depression and the rise of Nazism, horror offered us traditional monsters of the supernatural (DRACULA), the uncanny (KING KONG), and the manmade (FRANKENSTEIN).

In the Nuclear Age and Cold War of the 1950’s, Horror brought us radioactive mutations (THEM) and social paranoia (INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS).

Ours, however, is an age of compound nightmares:

a. Nuclear Outlaw Nations.
b. Economic Disasters.
c. Natural Disasters.
d. Man-made Disasters.
e. Plagues of Viruses.
f. Rampant Crime.
g. Serial Killers.
h. Toxic Environments.
i. Global Warming.
j. Rising Seas.
k. Opiate Epidemics.
l. Gender Wars.
m. Sexual Assaults.
n. Lunatic Politicians.
o. International Terrorism.
p. National Terrorism of mass shootings from Sandy Hook to Virginia Tech to Orlando to Las Vegas.

The aim of modern Horror is to expiate these emotions with a vicarious experience of damnation, of the fate worse than death. To do so, it uses both horror and terror. To horrify means to cause extreme repulsion; to terrify, to cause extreme fear. Or in the words of a renowned horror producer, “Not a dry seat in the house.”

Why do people want this experience? For at least a half dozen reasons I can think of.

One: Horror serves as a training film for survival.

Many films, from ALIEN (1979) to SAW (2004) to HOSTEL (2005) to LIFE (2017), offer up an allegory of humanity in the form of group confined to an isolated dwelling, and then sort through various victim traits looking for the survivor—someone like Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley who has a balanced combination of courage, discretion, cool, and brains.

Two: Horror releases our repressions.

We all have antisocial and self-destructive impulses we must repress. We struggle to control our impulses, because if not, they lead to perversity, violence, and death. Great pleasure comes from suffering them vicariously in the safe environment of a movie house. As David Cronenburg put it, “People must confront their hidden natures. It’s healthy. But in the cinema, metaphorically, not in life, actually.”

Three: Horror releases pent up fear.

Not the mere fear of death. If it were simply that, Horror wouldn’t work. Going out of existence isn’t that bad. The greatest fear is the fear of the fate worse than death, the living death known as damnation. In Crime stories, a victim begs for his life; in Horror, he begs for his death. In Horror, suffering is so unbearable going out of existence is a mercy.

Four: Horror releases us from social suffocation.

Modern life deadens us. The repetitiousness of our days numbs our capacity to feel strong emotions. Horror spurs these emotions to life. The traditional storified emotions of fear, suspense, and surprise in Horror become terror, anxiety, and shock.

Five: Mary Shelly said, “Frankenstein was my attempt to speak to the mysterious fears and desires hidden deep within our natures.”

Horror wires us up to our subconscious, and when it makes that connection, we experience a rush of identification with great power, or what is commonly called sadomasochism.

Sadism is the pleasure that comes with a feeling of power over life and death. Admit it or not, at times we all suffer feelings of helplessness and vulnerability. These feelings are dispelled when we identify with a monster and feel the thrill of aggression, of pure, limitless, sadistic power.

Masochism is the pleasure of sheltering in the shadow of great power. Feelings of helplessness can be overcome by cowering in the aura of a powerful person who must, ironically, constantly demonstrate his power or we lose trust. How? By hurting us. The Horror audience is induced to identify with the victim, as we too may become a victim in life if we grant someone the “right” to humiliate us.

Truth be told, a little sadomasochist hides in us all and comes out when we’re feeling powerless in the face of forces that threaten our existence, literally or figuratively. In the safe environment of Horror a deep pleasure alternates between repulsion from and attraction to power, between terror and rage, between dread and desire.

Six: Horror is healthy fun.

Concentrating only on the grotesquery of Horror films misses the inner reasons people flock to this genre. Horror provides the aesthetic experience of buried emotions.

In Stanley Kubrick’s words, “Monsters and mad men are simply extensions or exaggerations of deep strains present in us all. If people don’t want the horror experience once in a while, I think there’s a side of themselves they’re not facing.”

Joan Kaminsky, who writes horror under the pen name of Brooks Stanwood, said, “Horror allows us to think the unthinkable and actually enjoy it. It’s like directing your nightmares.”

Beyond the catharsis of fear overloads and repressed desires, Horror is an emotional roller-coaster ride. Bouncing back and forth between revulsion and thrills is a kick.

Robert McKee’s Reel Secrets DVD: “THE BEAUTY OF HORROR”

Originally aired in the U.K., this is Robert McKee’s half-hour program on the beauty of horror and what scares us.

Exclusive to the McKee Store.

Buy Now - $15

Storytelling lit a fire in Robert McKee that still burns 35 years later.

Excerpt from an interview originally published by Final Draft on September 25th, 2017

The venerable screenwriting instructor Robert McKee is not only a knowledgeable craftsman, but also a fan of well-spun tales, whether on stage, in books, or on screen. Creator of the three-day STORY seminar—and a celebrity among academics, thanks to Brian Cox’s portrayal in 2002’s Adaptation—McKee is blunt yet eloquent as he glides from films he adores and despises. He mentions loving 2016’s Lady Macbeth, director William Oldroyd’s 19th-century romantic thriller, in the same breath as 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy and The Lego Movie. But this summer’s Atomic Blonde? Not so much.

“It’s repetitious. It’s a female Jackie Chan without the humor,” he said in a recent phone interview, adding, “I never believed that people simply go to stories to escape. I think they go to a story to explore a world that they didn’t know. That’s why, when you see something that’s a catalogue of clichés, you don’t escape. You get pissed off.”

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How Do I Get Over Writer’s Block?

Robert McKee discusses the dreaded phenomenon of writer’s block and suggests some strategies for overcoming it.

Steve Pressfield’s The War or Art is a necessary ally for anyone who has ever faced writer’s block. Robert McKee wrote the foreword for the book and is a long-time fan and friend of Pressfield. For members, Pressfield is featured in a lengthy Storylogue interview.

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“To find the truth, make your own heart pound when you write.”

- Robert McKee

“Do research. Feed your talent. Research not only wins the war on cliche, it’s the key to victory over fear and it’s cousin, depression.”

- From Robert McKee’s STORY: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting

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