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Robert McKee is a creative writing teacher known particularly for his "Story Seminar," a multi-day screenwriting lecture that he has given at venues all over the world. He is the[…]

The biggest mistake that novice screenwriters make is trying to follow what’s trendy.

Question: What's the biggest mistake that novice screenwritersrn make?
Robert McKee: The biggest mistake they will rntry to make—that they will make—is that they will try to adapt to rnwhatever is trendy.  And so they’ll look at the hits, they’ll look at rnlast summer successes, or even the independent films, you know.  And I’mrn sure that after a film like “Boys Don’t Cry” got out, Hollywood was rninundated with interesting little small stories of small town charactersrn in some kind of brutal sexual relationships, or whatever.  On the otherrn hand, “Avatar” of course and films like that spin loose imitators.  Andrn so they will be more concerned about selling than they will about rncreating, and the attitude often of young writers, or wanna-be writers rnfor the screen is that there is so much shit on the screen, surely my rnshit is better than their shit.  And so, they want to get made, they rnwant success, they want to be in the movie business, and so they will rnimitate whatever they see, assuming that because of awful stories like rn“Transformers” get made that they just have to find another toy at Toys rnR’ Us and imitate that and build a movie around it.
rn What separates a good screenwriter from a bad screenwriter?
Robertrn McKee: Well, there are degrees of goodness and badness.  And so, itrn could be a very subtle difference.  And in that one, you wouldn’t rnknow.  You just wouldn’t.  But usually you can tell pretty well.  Even rnif they’ve written 20 screenplays, that doesn’t mean that they have rnmastered, for example, the craft of exposition.  I can pick a screenplayrn up or a novel, whatever, within a few pages recognize whether or not rnthis writer has a degree of craft, a mastery of craft, to a certain rndegree at least, simply by noting how they handle exposition.  If they rnhandle exposition beautifully, it generally means this is somebody that rnis really, even though they haven’t been made or produced, or whatever, rnthis is somebody who has thought deeply about the craft and knows how torn draw the reader into their story and not tell them and burden them withrn exposition too soon and too heavy-handedly, but draws it with curiosityrn and empathy into the story, and indirectly and invisibly as it were, rnwe’re gathering in the exposition that we know, but we’re not conscious rnof it.
That technique alone requires years of practice.  And rntrial and error.  Generally I can tell in the way in which the writer rndescribes what kind of imagination the writer has, at least visual rnimagination.  I can tell within the first dialogue scene of whether or rnnot this writer, even in an action piece has any sense of subtext, or dorn they write their dialogue on the nose.  I mean, there are certain... rnWhen people perform in the Olympics, and you have judges sitting there rngiving them five, six, seven, up to 10, and so forth, what are they rnlooking for?  They have ways of judging a performance.  Okay?  There’s rna... Some of it is just sensory, there’s a quality of relaxation in the rnwork, there’s a quality of confidence in the work, there’s a quality of rncenteredness in the work, and so some of these things are sort of rnineffable, but you can judge a performance of figure skating based upon rnthese.  Plus, did the blade land at a certain angle?  Okay? 

Andrn so, it’s the same thing.  Writing is a performance, just like figure rnskating. And I can read it and have a sense, again, of confidence, of rncontrol, of precision, of one thing or another.  Now, it doesn’t rnnecessarily mean that by the end of the work, I’m going to be wowed.  rnBut I can tell from the beginning of the work whether or not the writer rnhas mastered their craft to a certain degree.  But that is one thing.  rnBut there are lots of people with superb craftsmanship and nothing to rnsay.  Steven Spielberg, brilliant craftsmanship, and nothing to say.  M.rn Night Shyamalan can really light a scene and really shoot, and he’s gotrn a cartoon mind, comic book mind.  He’s got nothing to say.  And so, thern mastery of craft is no guarantee overall, on the other hand, you may rnsee people are still struggling with the craft, but they have passion, rnthey have insight, and they really understand human behavior in rnrelationships, or whatever, or they have some wonderful imaginative rnideas about alternate worlds in whatever genre.
And so, noting rnthe quality of the craft is no guarantee of excellence, but it’s an rninteresting thing that a lack of craftsmanship and a lack of insight rninto life seem to go hand-in-hand.  It’s no accident that bad writers rnalso have nothing to say.  Okay?  Having something to say seems to rninspire people.  All right?  But not necessarily.  So, it’s not an easy rnthing necessarily, and they can make mistakes and you can judge books rnerroneously by covers, but there are touchstones you can use along the rnway that give you a sense of quality, versus banality.