TranscriptQuestion: How is screenwriting different from other kinds of fiction writing?
Robert McKee: Well, the three great media, not only screenplay, but it’s also the theater, playwriting, and the prose. I mean, those are the three primary. And they get mixed a lot. TV is a sort of combination of all three really, novel, theater, and film. Graphic novels are another form that combines novels as a basis, as the title suggests, with films, sort of, like cartoons.
And the principal differences between the three of them is the level of conflict that interests the writer of each of them. And so, you have stories—they all tell a story—but stories involve characters in conflict with their social or physical world, in personal relationships with friends, family, lovers, and an inner conflict within their own natures between themselves, their subconscious mind, their body, their emotions, and so forth. The novelist tends to be interested in inner conflicts; characters in conflict with their own contradictory natures, their own contradictory desires, their emotions. Playwrights tend to be more interested in personal relationships, of family, friends, lovers—because the theater is a form for dialogue, primarily. And talk is the way in which people in personal relationships work those relationships out for better or worse, right? And so the power and the beauty of the theater is personal conflicts.
The power and beauty in film is the extra personal conflicts of characters in conflict with their physical world and their social world. And so all three media can tell complex stories because you can work with inner conflict, certainly, in a film, you can work with personal conflict naturally in a film, and in a novel, you can do all three, in a play you can do all three. But the strength of each of them tends to be at one of those three levels. And so, if you’re trying to make a career choice as to what kind of writer should I be, you really need to ask another question; which level of conflict in life really interests me the most? And then you would presumably move into that medium. But I know a lot of writers whose real interest is not at the level of conflict that the medium in which they are writing is strongest in. And so a lot of independent filmmakers, for example, are really interested in inner conflict. And so they should be writing novels and not trying to make films of people staring into space, coming to big decisions in their lives, or whatever, it would bore people.
And so, which level of conflict interests the writer is a critical choice. And a lot of writers don’t understand their own instincts and they get... Stanislavski, the great acting teacher once said: “You have to figure out whether you’re in love with the art in yourself, or yourself in the art.” And too many people go into film, especially, or television because they are in love with the idea of themselves in the art. They want to be in the movies, they want to be in TV, or even in the theater, or whatever. When their natural talents and interests lie elsewhere. So, that’s a critical choice as to which medium you choose because it has to pair up with what really interests you.