Question: What's the biggest mistake that novice screenwriters
Robert McKee: The biggest mistake they will
try to make—that they will make—is that they will try to adapt to
whatever is trendy. And so they’ll look at the hits, they’ll look at
last summer successes, or even the independent films, you know. And I’m
sure that after a film like “Boys Don’t Cry” got out, Hollywood was
inundated with interesting little small stories of small town characters
in some kind of brutal sexual relationships, or whatever. On the other
hand, “Avatar” of course and films like that spin loose imitators. And
so they will be more concerned about selling than they will about
creating, and the attitude often of young writers, or wanna-be writers
for the screen is that there is so much shit on the screen, surely my
shit is better than their shit. And so, they want to get made, they
want success, they want to be in the movie business, and so they will
imitate whatever they see, assuming that because of awful stories like
“Transformers” get made that they just have to find another toy at Toys
R’ Us and imitate that and build a movie around it.
What separates a good screenwriter from a bad screenwriter?
McKee: Well, there are degrees of goodness and badness. And so, it
could be a very subtle difference. And in that one, you wouldn’t
know. You just wouldn’t. But usually you can tell pretty well. Even
if they’ve written 20 screenplays, that doesn’t mean that they have
mastered, for example, the craft of exposition. I can pick a screenplay
up or a novel, whatever, within a few pages recognize whether or not
this writer has a degree of craft, a mastery of craft, to a certain
degree at least, simply by noting how they handle exposition. If they
handle exposition beautifully, it generally means this is somebody that
is really, even though they haven’t been made or produced, or whatever,
this is somebody who has thought deeply about the craft and knows how to
draw the reader into their story and not tell them and burden them with
exposition too soon and too heavy-handedly, but draws it with curiosity
and empathy into the story, and indirectly and invisibly as it were,
we’re gathering in the exposition that we know, but we’re not conscious
That technique alone requires years of practice. And
trial and error. Generally I can tell in the way in which the writer
describes what kind of imagination the writer has, at least visual
imagination. I can tell within the first dialogue scene of whether or
not this writer, even in an action piece has any sense of subtext, or do
they write their dialogue on the nose. I mean, there are certain...
When people perform in the Olympics, and you have judges sitting there
giving them five, six, seven, up to 10, and so forth, what are they
looking for? They have ways of judging a performance. Okay? There’s
a... Some of it is just sensory, there’s a quality of relaxation in the
work, there’s a quality of confidence in the work, there’s a quality of
centeredness in the work, and so some of these things are sort of
ineffable, but you can judge a performance of figure skating based upon
these. Plus, did the blade land at a certain angle? Okay?
so, it’s the same thing. Writing is a performance, just like figure
skating. And I can read it and have a sense, again, of confidence, of
control, of precision, of one thing or another. Now, it doesn’t
necessarily mean that by the end of the work, I’m going to be wowed.
But I can tell from the beginning of the work whether or not the writer
has mastered their craft to a certain degree. But that is one thing.
But there are lots of people with superb craftsmanship and nothing to
say. Steven Spielberg, brilliant craftsmanship, and nothing to say. M.
Night Shyamalan can really light a scene and really shoot, and he’s got
a cartoon mind, comic book mind. He’s got nothing to say. And so, the
mastery of craft is no guarantee overall, on the other hand, you may
see people are still struggling with the craft, but they have passion,
they have insight, and they really understand human behavior in
relationships, or whatever, or they have some wonderful imaginative
ideas about alternate worlds in whatever genre.
And so, noting
the quality of the craft is no guarantee of excellence, but it’s an
interesting thing that a lack of craftsmanship and a lack of insight
into life seem to go hand-in-hand. It’s no accident that bad writers
also have nothing to say. Okay? Having something to say seems to
inspire people. All right? But not necessarily. So, it’s not an easy
thing necessarily, and they can make mistakes and you can judge books
erroneously by covers, but there are touchstones you can use along the
way that give you a sense of quality, versus banality.