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McKee's Admonishments


Disciplines > Storytelling > Storytelling articles > McKee's Admonishments

Principles | Eternal | Archetypes | Thoroughness | Realities | Art | Respect | Originality | See also


In 'Story', Robert McKee takes a stern view as he lists what storytelling is and what it is not. Here a some thoughts and comments about these 'Story is...' notes.

Principles, not rules

Whilst there are many 'rules' for stories, there are none which are hard and fast and must always be obeyed. Hence any story can break the 'rules': the only real test being whether it is appreciated by its audience.

This frees the storyteller to break any of the rules or principles on this site or elsewhere. Freedom, however, comes with responsibility. When storytelling is not just following rules, it puts more onus on the storyteller to be creative and find new forms, plots, characters and so on.

Eternal, universal forms, not formulas

Stories have shape, and whilst this shape can be described, such as in Campbell's 'Hero's Journey', there is no hard and fast formula that the writer simply follows. There is no one underlying universal formula nor a fully-formed framework that must be followed.

Yet stories can be recognized, even those written or spoken thousands of years ago. We can listen to Greek or Aboriginal stories and still feel the power of the story. Great stories are timeless because they deal with timeless themes in timeless and universal ways.

Archetypes, not stereotypes

There are patterns of personality that are known to psychologists, but it is also known that no two people can be classified as identical. Carl Jung, the famous psychologist identified a number of archetypes that may be seen across humanity. Yet we naturally create simplified stereotypes to help us avoid thinking too much.

Beyond individuals, there are also archetypal stories. Archetypes transcend cultures. Cultural stories are recognized within the culture but mean nothing outside this circle of understanding.

Thoroughness, not shortcuts

Whether you are writing stories or screenplays, it is not a process of following a few rules and heuristics. Good writing is deep. It is thorough and is neither quick nor simple, although experience may help a writer produce quality work more quickly and more easily.

McKee's subject is screen writing and he notes the ignominies of the screenwriter who suffers endlessly from directorial cuts and rewrites.

The realities, not mysteries of writing

Aristotle wrote about it in 'Poetics' and many have written since about the art and science of writing. There is science in writing as well as art. There is much learning that has been made explicit which the student of writing

It has been said that any technology that is sufficiently advanced appears as magic. The same is true of writing. An experienced writer may seem to do it effortlessly, almost mysteriously, yet what is often forgotten is that they have got to this position through long study and practice.

Mastering the art, not second-guessing the marketplace

Storytelling is a commercial process. Whilst there is art for art's sake and which may not be appreciated in the lifetime of the artist, storytellers need to live and so must pay attention to their customers.

Overall, should you focus first on the art or find out what your audience wants and give just this to them? This is a tricky balance. Whilst you should listen to your customers, they do not always know what they want and it the nature of creative industries that you do not know whether you are successful in your work until you get a response from your audience.

Respect, not distain, for the audience

A good story melts the masks of the audience, stripping them back to their natural humanity where they feel emotions in response to the turns of the story being told.

Good writers sometimes get caught up by an idea or stuck in an emotion that disconnects them from their audience and results in a story that does not work well. Their best works appear when they connect with their audience and sustain this connection throughout the writing process.

It is a trap to think that audiences are stupid, not understanding story nuances and are nothing but an annoyance. Yet many artists get caught in this snare as their feet leave the ground and they are sucked up into a firmament of illusion.

Originality, not duplication

While there are many common characters, devices and plots, the writer needs to find a workable relationship with these. In the search for originality, it is too easy to flee these wisdoms, while it is even easier to becomes slaves to them.

Although homage may work, it is too easy to steal storylines, just as some musicians lean too heavily on the sequences of previous composers. If an audience finds a story too familiar they will not be aroused by it and will gain little.

The best originality makes use of the patterns of the past whilst adding new spins to reflect the present that will resonate into the future. Originality surprises, stimulates, arouses. It trigger and releases emotions. It leads to stories that are appreciated and which win awards.

See also

Story is...


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