Writers Make Sense Out of Chaos

We spend more time than ever consuming stories. Do we need them more than we used to?
  • Transcript


Question: Do you think our culture is getting better or worse at telling stories?

Robert McKee: Oh, in terms of the skill of executing stories, I would say we’re getting better.  That’s one thing.  Okay, I think it’s clear.  For example, I mentioned the series, “Damages,” and in fact there was just an article in New York Magazine the other day about “Damages” and the brilliant way in which that series does something that really has never been explored quite that way before.  They use flash-forwards as hooks.  They give you glimpses of the future, but only glimpses, and so they put you in a state of semi-dramatic irony.  You know more than the character knows. The character’s going to die.  Okay, you know that.  This character is going to die.  Then you go and flash-forward to the death, all right?  And now you watch... you go back and you watch them in the present.  So, you know what he doesn’t know.  You know he’s going to die, but you don’t know how or why he’s going to die.  And so, and you don’t know who did it, who killed him, and so forth.  And so there’s lots of hooky questions and curiosity, but it’s also a bit of dramatic irony.  That’s amazing.

When you see it, you wonder why hasn’t this been done before?  So, in terms of executing stories, I would say that the techniques are better than ever.
In terms of the content of the stories, that’s another question.  And in terms of what these stories are about, the depth to which they bring their characters, I would say, no.  The stories are more shallow overall.  And that’s a huge generalization.  But post-modernism itself, by definition, means shallowness.  It means a satire of the techniques of writing.  Okay?  Calling attention to the techniques of writing, and that, of course, divorces you from the content by the very nature of it.  And so in this post-post-modern world, or wherever we are now, I would say that as a grand generalization, that the content of stories are not the quality that they were in the 50 golden years from the 1920’s to the 1970’s on stage, page and screen, every where in the world, especially the English-speaking world, the films, the plays, and the novels of that period were magnificent in content.
And so we’ve learned to be more clever, more experimental, and more skilled, often, in the telling of stories today, but I can’t say that the content is what it used to be.
Question: Are you optimistic about the future of storytelling?

Robert McKee:
I never lose faith in story, film may come and go as an art form, and art forms have come and gone.  Opera, more and less, came and went and then just gets revived endlessly.  There’s very little cutting edge opera today.  There are art forms that rise up and dominate a period of time in human history and then recede.  And so film goes though that and recedes.  So what, because there will always be story.  And the medium of the future, I think, is television.  But certainly the novel and the theater is still alive and well, for the most part, despite some pretty mediocre storytelling.
And so, the art of storytelling, the art of story, I never worry about.  People will always tell stories and they will tell really great stories and beautiful stories.  But the medium of the future, the medium that writers choose to do what is the best work in the future that changes.
Human beings... a great critic said once, Kenneth Burke said, “Stories are equipment for living.”  Human beings need storytelling in order to make sense out of life, in order to live as well and civilized as a human being can. And so they will go to the storyteller for meaningful emotional experiences that they cannot get from life, and then it’s just a matter of which medium the storytellers of the future choose to dominate that period in time, and then that too will change in time.
Do we need stories more today than we used to?

Robert McKee:
The time that people spend in stories created for them by a storytelling artist today compared to 50 to 100 years ago, it’s triple or quadruple what it used to be.  Do they need it more?  Maybe.  You could make an argument that the disintegration and relativization of values in contemporary society is so blurring that people desperately need stories to help them make sense out of life because what we are used to agree upon nobody agrees on anymore.  Society is, it’s obvious, but is so splintered and so split.  I mean, there’s a spectrum that runs from "I am my brother’s keeper" to "Every man for himself" and we call that liberals, and on the right conservatives.  And this argument over are we our brother’s keeper, or is it every man for himself, has never been more ugly and fragmenting of society.  And so people are clustering now, depending on their position on that spectrum, of caring or not caring in such ways that they cannot even talk to people who are anywhere else on that spectrum.
And as a result, there is more chaos in daily life and then throw in the great recession and a few other chaoses like wars, and people are desperate.  And they need story.  Yeah, I think you could make an argument.  Now, are they getting the quality of stories, comic or tragic, that would help them live through this really ugly period in history?  Probably not.  But the writers do their best.  Because the writers are just citizens too, you know? And they’ve got no necessarily more philosophical, psychological insight into this than anybody else. So the writer has to be a philosopher of a kind today that they’ve never had to be before.  They have to make sense out of a kind of chaos that no one ever confronted before.  I mean the worst thing that, you know, a hundred years ago, and the worst thing that could happen is that you die.  So, people told stories about how to live well, live meaningfully if you could, or tragedy.  But death was the worst thing.  Well, there are far worse things now.  Far worse things.  And people are literally in living hells.  They’d be better off dead, all around the world.  The suffering in the Third World today is of an extreme that the Third World has never suffered before because, generally speaking, in the Third World people didn’t starve to death, they could farm.  But even that in many ways has been lost and for a lot of reasons.  But yeah, the world is in a worse state than I know from history, and people would probably say, the Black Plague was the worse.  But I don’t think so, because people understood the Plague: You get sick and you die.  Who can understand the banking system?  Who can understand love?  Who can understand parenting?  I mean these are things people thought they knew; they don’t know anymore.  And so the Plague at least was clear.  It was terrible, but it was clear.
The problem for people today is confusion in a world that should make sense.  In a world in which you have more communication than ever, makes less and less sense than ever.  And so you need storytellers to make sense out of that chaos, but it’s as I said, it’s a chaos of a very different kind today, and the writer struggles.