Story
eBook - ePub

Story

Robert McKee

  1. 480 pagine
  2. English
  3. ePUB (disponibile sull'app)
  4. Disponibile su iOS e Android
eBook - ePub

Story

Robert McKee

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Indice dei contenuti
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Informazioni sul libro

Robert McKee's screenwriting workshops have earned him an international reputation for inspiring novices, refining works in progress and putting major screenwriting careers back on track. Quincy Jones, Diane Keaton, Gloria Steinem, Julia Roberts, John Cleese and David Bowie are just a few of his celebrity alumni. Writers, producers, development executives and agents all flock to his lecture series, praising it as a mesmerizing and intense learning experience.

In Story, McKee expands on the concepts he teaches in his $450 seminars (considered a must by industry insiders), providing readers with the most comprehensive, integrated explanation of the craft of writing for the screen. No one better understands how all the elements of a screenplay fit together, and no one is better qualified to explain the "magic" of story construction and the relationship between structure and character than Robert McKee.

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PART 1
THE
WRITER
AND THE
ART OF
STORY

Stories are equipment for living.
— KENNETH BURKE

INTRODUCTION

Story is about principles, not rules.

A rule says, “You must do it this way.” A principle says, “This works … and has through all remembered time.” The difference is crucial. Your work needn’t be modeled after the “well-made” play; rather, it must be well made within the principles that shape our art. Anxious, inexperienced writers obey rules. Rebellious, unschooled writers break rules. Artists master the form.

Story is about eternal, universal forms, not formulas.

All notions of paradigms and foolproof story models for commercial success are nonsense. Despite trends, remakes, and sequels, when we survey the totality of Hollywood film, we find an astounding variety of story designs, but no prototype. DIE HARD is no more typical of Hollywood than are PARENTHOOD, POSTCARDS FROM THE EDGE, THE LION KING, THIS IS SPINAL TAP, REVERSAL OF FORTUNE, DANGEROUS LIAISONS, GROUNDHOG DAY, LEAVING LAS VEGAS, or thousands of other excellent films in dozens of genres and subgenres from farce to tragedy.
Story urges the creation of works that will excite audiences on the six continents and live in revival for decades. No one needs yet another recipe book on how to reheat Hollywood leftovers. We need a rediscovery of the underlying tenets of our art, the guiding principles that liberate talent. No matter where a film is made—Hollywood, Paris, Hong Kong—if it’s of archetypal quality, it triggers a global and perpetual chain reaction of pleasure that carries it from cinema to cinema, generation to generation.

Story is about archetypes, not stereotypes.

The archetypal story unearths a universally human experience, then wraps itself inside a unique, culture-specific expression. A stereotypical story reverses this pattern: It suffers a poverty of both content and form. It confines itself to a narrow, culture-specific experience and dresses in stale, nonspecific generalities.
For example, Spanish custom once dictated that daughters must be married off in order from oldest to youngest. Inside Spanish culture, a film about the nineteenth-century family of a strict patriarch, a powerless mother, an unmarriageable oldest daughter, and a long-suffering youngest daughter may move those who remember this practice, but outside Spanish culture audiences are unlikely to empathize. The writer, fearing his story’s limited appeal, resorts to the familiar settings, characters, and actions that have pleased audiences in the past. The result? The world is even less interested in these clichés.
On the other hand, this repressive custom could become material for a worldwide success if the artist were to roll up his sleeves and search for an archetype. An archetypal story creates settings and characters so rare that our eyes feast on every detail, while its telling illuminates conflicts so true to humankind that it journeys from culture to culture.
In Laura Esquivel’s LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE, mother and daughter clash over the demands of dependence versus independence, permanence versus change, self versus others—conflicts every family knows. Yet Esquivel’s observation of home and society, of relationship and behavior is so rich in never-before-seen detail, we’re drawn irresistibly to these characters and fascinated by a realm we’ve never known, nor could imagine.
Stereotypical stories stay at home, archetypal stories travel. From Charlie Chaplin to Ingmar Bergman, from Satyajit Ray to Woody Allen, the cinema’s master storytellers give us the double-edged encounter we crave. First, the discovery of a world we do not know. No matter how intimate or epic, contemporary or historical, concrete or fantasized, the world of an eminent artist always strikes us as somewhat exotic or strange. Like an explorer parting forest leaves, we step wide-eyed into an untouched society, a cliché-free zone where the ordinary becomes extraordinary.
Second, once inside this alien world, we find ourselves. Deep within these characters and their conflicts we discover our own humanity. We go to the movies to enter a new, fascinating world, to inhabit vicariously another human being who at first seems so unlike us and yet at heart is like us, to live in a fictional reality that illuminates our daily reality. We do not wish to escape life but to find life, to use our minds in fresh, experimental ways, to flex our emotions, to enjoy, to learn, to add depth to our days. Story was written to foster films of archetypal power and beauty that will give the world this dual pleasure.

Story is about thoroughness, not shortcuts.

From inspiration to last draft you may need as much time to write a screenplay as to write a novel. Screen and prose writers create the same density of world, character, and story, but because screenplay pages have so much white on them, we’re often mislead into thinking that a screenplay is quicker and easier than a novel. But while scribomaniacs fill pages as fast as they can type, film writers cut and cut again, ruthless in their desire to express the absolute maximum in the fewest possible words. Pascal once wrote a long, drawn-out letter to a friend, then apologized in the postscript that he didn’t have time to write a short one. Like Pascal, screenwriters learn that economy is key, that brevity takes time, that excellence means perseverance.

Story is about the realities, not the mysteries of writing.

There’s been no conspiracy to keep secret the truths of our art. In the twenty-three centuries since Aristotle wrote The Poetics, the “secrets” of story have been as public as the library down the street. Nothing in the craft of storytelling is abstruse. In fact, at first glance telling story for the screen looks deceptively easy. But moving closer and closer to the center, trying scene by scene to make the story work, the task becomes increasingly difficult, as we realize that on the screen there’s no place to hide.
If a screenwriter fails to move us with the purity of a dramatized scene, he cannot, like a novelist in authorial voice, or the playwright in soliloquy, hide behind his words. He cannot smooth a coating of explanatory or emotive language over cracks in logic, blotchy motivation, or colorless emotion and simply tell us what to think or how to feel.
The camera is the dread X-ray machine of all things false. It magnifies life many times over, then strips naked every weak or phony story turn, until in confusion and frustration we’re tempted to quit. Yet, given determination and study, the puzzle yields. Screenwriting is full of wonders but no unsolvable mysteries.

Story is about mastering the art, not second-guessing the marketplace.

No one can teach what will sell, what won’t, what will be a smash or a fiasco, because no one knows. Hollywood’s bombs are made with the same commercial calculation as its hits, whereas darkish dramas that read like a checklist of everything moneyed wisdom says you must never do—ORDINARY PEOPLE, THE ACCIDENTAL TOURIST, TRAINSPOTTING—quietly conquer the domestic and international box office. Nothing in our art is guaranteed. That’s why so many agonize over “breaking in,” “making it,” and “creative interference.”
The honest, big-city answer to all these fears is that you’ll get an agent, sell your work, and see it realized faithfully on screen when you write with surpassing quality … and not until. If you knock out a knockoff of last summer’s hit, you’ll join the ranks of lesser talents who each year flood Hollywood with thousands of cliché-ridden stories. Rather than agonizing over the odds, put your energies into achieving excellence. If you show a brilliant, original screenplay to agents, they’ll fight for the right to represent you. The agent you hire will incite a bidding war among story-starved producers, and the winner will pay you an embarrassing amount of money.
What’s more, once in production, your finished screenplay will meet with surprisingly little interference. No one can promise that unfortunate conjunctions of personalities won’t spoil good work, but be certain that Hollywood’s best acting and directing talents are acutely aware that their careers depend on working within quality writing. Yet because of Hollywood’s ravenous appetite for story, scripts are often picked before they’re ripe, forcing changes on the set. Secure writers don’t sell first drafts. They patiently rewrite until the script is as director-ready, as actor-ready as possible. Unfinished work invites tampering, while polished, mature work seals its integrity.

Story is about respect, not disdain, for the audience.

When talented people write badly it’s generally for one of two reasons: Either they’re blinded by an idea they feel compelled to prove or they’re driven by an emotion they must express. When talented people write well, it is generally for this reason: They’re moved by a desire to touch the audience.
Night after night, through years of performing and directing, I’ve stood in awe of the audience, of its capacity for response. As if by magic, masks fall away, faces become vulnerable, receptive. Filmgoers do not defend their emotions, rather they open to the storyteller in ways even their lovers never know, welcoming laughter, tears, terror, rage, compassion, passion, love, hate—the ritual often exhausts them.
The audience is not only amazingly sensitive, but as it settles into a darkened theatre its collective IQ jumps twenty-five points. When you go to the movies, don’t you often feel you’re more intelligent than what you’re watching? That you know what characters are going to do before they do it? That you see the ending coming long before it arrives? The audience is not only smart, it’s smarter than most films, and that fact won’t change when you move to the other side of the screen. It’s all a writer can do, using every bit of craft he’s mastered, to keep ahead of the sharp perceptions of a focused audience.
No film can be made to work without an understanding of the reactions and anticipations of the audience. You must shape your story in a way that both expresses your vision and satisfies the audience’s desires. The audience is a force as determining of story design as any other element. For without it, the creative act is pointless.

Story is about originality, not duplication.

Originality is the confluence of content and form—distinctive choices of subject plus a unique shaping of the telling. Content (setting, characters, ideas) and form (selection and arrangement of events) require, inspire, and mutually influence one another. With content in one hand and a mastery of form in the other, a writer sculpts story. As you rework a story’s substance, the telling reshapes itself. As you play with a story’s shape, its intellectual and emotional spirit evolves.
A story is not only what you have to say but how you say it. If content is cliché, the telling will be cliché. But if your vision is deep and original, your story design will be unique. Conversely, if the telling is conventional and predictable, it will demand stereotypical roles to act out well-worn behaviors. But if the story design is innovative, then settings, characters, and ideas must be equally fresh to fulfill it. We shape the telling to fit the substance, rework the substance to support the design.
Never, however, mistake eccentricity for originality. Difference for the sake of difference is as empty as slavishly following commercial imperatives. After working for months, perhaps years, to gather facts, memories, and imagination into a treasury of story material, no serious writer would cage his vision inside a formula, or trivialize it into avant-garde fragmentations. The “well-made” formula may choke a story’s voice, but “art movie” quirkiness will give it a speech impediment. Just as children break things for fun or throw tantrums to force attention on themselves, too many film-makers use infantile gimmicks on screen to shout, “Look what I can do!” A mature artist never calls attention to himself, and a wise artist never does anything merely because it breaks convention.
Films by masters such as Horton Foote, Robert Altman, John Cassavetes, Preston Sturges, François Truffaut, and Ingmar Bergman are so idiosyncratic that a three-page synopsis identifies the artist as surely as his DNA. Great screenwriters are distinguished by a personal storytelling style, a style that’s not only inseparable from their vision, but in a profound way is their vision. Their formal choices—number of protagonists, rhythm of progressions, levels of conflict, temporal arrangements, and the like—play with and against substantive choices of content—setting, character, idea—until all elements meld into a unique screenplay.
If, however, we were to put the content of their films aside for the moment, and study the pure patterning of their events, we’d see that, like a melody without a lyric, like a silhouette without a matrix, their story designs are powerfully charged with meaning. The storyteller’s selection and arrangement of events is his master metaphor for the interconnectedness of all the levels of reality—personal, political, environmental, spiritual. Stripped of its surface of characterization and location, story structure reveals his personal cosmology, his insight into the deepest patterns and motivations for how and why things happen in this world—his map of life’s hidden order.
No matter who your heroes may be—Woody Allen, David Mamet, Quentin Tarantino, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Oliver Stone, William Goldman, Zhang Yimou, Nora Ephron, Spike Lee, Stanley Kubrick—you admire them because they’re unique. Each has stepped out of the crowd because each selects a content like no one else, designs a form like no one else, combining the two into a style unmistakably his own. I want the same for you.
But my hope for you goes beyond competence and skill. I’m starved for great films. Over the last two decades I’ve seen good films and a few very good films, but rarely, rarely a film of staggering power and beauty. Maybe it’s me; maybe I’m jaded. But I don’t think so. Not yet. I still believe that art transforms life. But I know that if you can’t play all the instruments in the orchestra of story, no matter what music may be in your imagination, you’re condemned to hum the same old tune. I’ve written Story to empower your command of the craft, to free you to express an original vision of life, to lift your talent beyond convention to create films of distinctive substance, structure, and style.

1
THE STORY PROBLEM

THE DECLINE OF STORY

Imagine, in one global day, the pages of prose turned, plays performed, films screened, the unending stream of television comedy and drama, twenty-four-hour print and broadcast news, bedtime tales told to children, barroom bragging, back-fence Internet gossip, humankind’s insatiable appetite for stories. Story is not only our most prolific art form but rivals all activities—work, play, eating, exercise—for our waking hours. We tell and take in stories as much as we sleep—and even then we dream. Why? Why is so much of our life spent inside stories? Because as critic Kenneth Burke tells us, stories are equipment for living.
Day after day we seek an answer to the ageless question Aristotle posed in Ethics: How should a human being lead his life? But the answer eludes us, hiding behind a blur of racing hours as we struggle to fit our means to our dreams, fuse idea with passion, turn desire into reality. We’re swept along on a risk-ridden shuttle through time. If we pull back to grasp pattern and meaning, life, ...

Indice dei contenuti

  1. Dedication
  2. Contents
  3. Notes on the Text
  4. Part 1 - The Writer and the Art of Story
  5. Part 2 - The Elements of Story
  6. Part 3 - The Principles of Story Design
  7. Part 4 - The Writer at Work
  8. Fade Out
  9. Suggested Readings
  10. Filmography
  11. Index
  12. Acknowledgments
  13. About the Author
  14. Copyright
  15. About the Publisher