Gemma Creagh chats to one of the most sought after screenwriting lecturers, Robert McKee, ahead of his Story Seminar (5 – 8 November) at The Learning Resort at the Killarney Convention Centre.
In the first part of this interview, Robert talks about conflict that lies at the heart of all writing, the pitfalls beginner writers face, writing from the inside out, and the place of need and desire in writing.
So if I’m a beginner at writing, and I have a story that I really want to tell, how do I decide between telling it in the format of prose, stage or screen? How do I know what will suit it best?
All writing is about the titanic forces at war within a human being. Every writer has got to pick a level of conflict that really draws their love and concentrate their storytelling at that level. Once they understand what level or levels to focus on, when a writer understands what dimensions of human conflict really gets their interest, then they have to make a decision as to the medium.
If they are really fascinated by inner conflicts, they should be writing novels; if they are really fascinated by personal conflicts, friends, family and lovers; they should be writing plays – because personal conflicts run through dialogue and the natural home of dialogue is on stage. If they are interested in social physical conflict; then they should be writing film… or television.
Writers write across all levels but there is a certain level generally that is the natural home for a writer and then they concentrate on that level. You have to know what you love and you have to be writing for the medium which best expresses that subject matter, that level of conflict. It’s got to be driven by what the writer wants and not what the writer thinks society or the family or Irishness, for example, demands of them. These are very hard decisions. What do I love? What really fascinates me? These questions determine what medium I should be writing in. These are critical life-defining choices for a writer.
How much of getting a good script is about emotional honesty and truth on the page. How much is about the skill of getting it down and then putting together characters and a story?
Well the problem with all of those questions is that you can come at this business of creating characters and story from any of those angles. Ultimately, it all hangs together. It’s a unity. I can’t say to any particular writer that first it’s really all about honesty and asking yourself deep personal questions about values – what do I love? What do I respect? Whatever. Then you go outward from that.
If somebody is walking down the street or sitting in a pub, they look across the street or room and they see a person. They ask themselves the question: What kind of human being would inhabit that face? They start speculating, as writers often do, on the inner lives of people that they just observe. That’s as good a way to get started on a project as I know. Ultimately, as a writer you are going to have to ask yourself all of those questions about what do I believe, what do I think is worth living for, what’s foolish to pursue, what really matters and create a great metaphor for life filled with fascinating characters and great storytelling. But that is what you get at the end of the day! How you enter into that process is idiosyncratic.
What are some pitfalls that you see beginner writers fall into?
They have no patience. They think it’s easy… or that it should be easy. So they are undisciplined and in a hurry. They just start pouring dialogue or scenes off the top of the head. The classic beginner error is to write dialogue in search of scenes, and scenes in search of story. They start outside and then try to work down into the harder things. So the first thing they do is they start writing dialogue. Then they find some sense of character in a scene and they start stringing scenes together hoping that all of this will accumulate something someday into a story.
That kind of outside-in writing is typical of the beginner. If they are going to succeed they must find a way to write from the inside out. To hopefully start with character and develop a really interesting psychological complexity and put it inside of the character. Then ask yourself the question: if I were this character in their circumstances, what would I do? Then ask the question what would stop me from doing it? What do I want? How will I go about getting it? What will be the antagonistic forces in my way? So build it from the point of view of character with a desire and a complexity of life that prevents them from satisfying their desires. That is what I advocate in my teaching. Writing from the inside out.
This desire is at the very heart of writing. Whatever it may mean for a character. The root of it all is a human being who wants something. That is the inspiration, the source of things. The energy of life comes from feeling that your life is not in balance, that it is lacking. This creates desire.
This leads me on to another depth that really good writers ultimately get to – they understand the difference between desire and need. Desire is something the character wants. It could be conscious, I mean they have a conscious desire of what they want in life. Very likely it is subconscious. That they are being driven by something deep within them that they’re not fully aware of. But those are unfulfilled desires. That is not my definition of need. My definition of need is that, from the writer’s point of view, as you look at your character you ask yourself: what does this character need in order to become a fulfilled human being? It is an empty place. This character lacks maturity. This character lacks the capacity to love. This character lacks a certain depth of insight or wisdom. This character is naive. Lacks a sophistication. Whatever it is, it is missing from this character. Then you ask yourself: how can I create a story that will put this character through an experience that would fill their need while they go about pursuing a desire? so that at the end of the day they are a more complete or fulfilled human being than they were at the beginning.
Sometimes what a person really needs is to complete their humanity, to live life to the fullest often involves tragedy. They need to hit rock bottom. They need to suffer and maybe even die in the process, like Macbeth. Yes, he dies, but by the time Macbeth reaches the end of the line he is a fulfilled human being. Maybe you can say that about so many since Oedipus, all these great tragic characters – by the end of story they maybe dead but they have lived life to the limit! And they are a complete example of who they could be.
These questions of desire vs need and so forth are at the very centre of things. A good writer ultimately knows that they have to be answered. How you get there? Who can say. But as long as the writer has taste and judgement and a sense of what the limits are – what the finest of writing can achieve… and they put themselves to the test to reach of those limits, then good things can happen.
Purchase tickets for Robert McKee’s Story Seminar at The Learning Resort here
Check out Robert McKee’s website here