On McKee’s Story Seminar: The Meat + Everything Else

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Last month, I flew up to NYC for a few days of walking, waiting and writing; three things I seem to do most frequently when I’m in the city. I travelled up to attend Robert McKee‘s infamous STORY seminar, a 3-day intensive on the design and structure of storytelling. It seems like people are finally starting to realize and value the art of storytelling and not just in traditional methods (novels, movies, songs, etc.) but in everything. Some of the best, most efficient advertisements go viral because of their unique takes on story. All of that to say, this is a great seminar for anyone who looking to sharpen their skills.

Before I go too far into this, I want to say that I don’t think McKee necessarily advocates one specific avenue for success in screenwriting. If you’re looking for the right way to do it, you should stop and reëvaluate what you’re getting into. The way we watch television and movies, the types of content we consume is evolving too quickly for there to be one exclusive route to success. What McKee gets behind is story. Read his book, listen to the audiobook, or go to the seminar. You’ll benefit from this course if you take the good and leave the bad. It’s as simple as that. Don’t expect to agree with everything, and don’t expect to walk out after three days a brilliant screenwriter.

I’ll also preface by saying I felt a little douche-y and unqualified for going to this. What type of person goes to these things? According to McKee, John Cleese has been to the seminar four times. Will I need to go four times? When I signed up, I got an email with a long list of recommended films to watch, films that McKee would mention at some point. I’m not going to lie, that part was a little thrilling. I spent a couple months going through as many as I could that I hadn’t seen, re-watching a few that I had, missing the important ones I felt should be included. The email also included a schedule which showed what I already knew: the seminar is essentially Robert McKee talking for 10-ish hours straight, for three days. Whatever kind of dread you personally associate with sitting in an auditorium for 10-ish hours a day, for three days, I empathize.

But ultimately, I loved it.

I researched the seminar quite a bit before I left and I didn’t find the kind of information I wanted: like, the meat. Here are a few things I picked up and/or wanted to know before I spent the time, effort and cash.

McKee doesn’t encourage taking too many notes. He’s memorized Story. Not basically memorized, not essentially memorized, he has absolutely memorized the entire thing and if you’re well versed in the book, you’ll connect with verbatim passages. For me, there’s a big difference in reading a book and experiencing the performance of it. If your seminar is like mine (and it will be), most people don’t heed this rule and will be furiously writing (or typing) the entire time.

I agree and strongly discourage trying to note everything McKee says. Buy the book, it’s all there. If you haven’t read the book, just assume it’s all in there because it is. Your notes should be the emphasis with which McKee says certain things, if and when he references content newer than 1997 (when the book was published – there have not been any revised or updated editions), and your own observations and notes to self. While most of the day is McKee talking, in every break there is a Q&A (because McKee is relentless) where you can ask questions (or just listen) one on one that will be eventually posted to his website: Storylogue.

Looking back through my notes, I tried to keep track of when McKee referenced specific films or TV shows, especially if he thought it was an example of good storytelling (Breaking Bad, Chinatown, Kramer vs. Kramer, The Lego Movie, etc.), or examples of specific points like conventions, character, meaning, audience, design, etc. Anything he was particularly verbose about like screenwriters and directors (Ingmar Bergman, Stanley Kubrick), books (The War of Art by Steven Pressfield; The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri) and movies you should see that didn’t make the emailed list (My Dinner With Andre, 12 Angry Men, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, and Spring).

The major critique that seems to follow McKee is that he’s not an incredibly successful screenwriter (though McKee debates that: “I’ve sold everything I’ve written”) and theoretically shouldn’t teach screenwriting. I don’t get that logic. I’ve met many exceptional writers, filmmakers and everyday people who aren’t famous in their particular fields but still have significant and mind-blowing things to say. Selling anything, especially in highly competitive markets, is a big deal. If you aren’t open to learning, you’re already in a world of hurt.

If you’ve heard that McKee goes line by line through the script of Casablanca, you’ve heard right. I may have dreaded the thought, but it was a surprisingly entertaining six or eight hours. Scripts were provided via pdf (or you could buy a hard copy for $20) and we skipped through the movie in what felt, at first, like 5-second segments. Even as a cinephile and writer, I’ve never gone through a film that slowly, even while looking at the script. The analysis was part history lesson in regards to how the script and film production evolved and came to fruition and part minutiae: the main plot, the five sub-plots, inciting incidents, image systems, characters, actors, music, etc.

This seminar ain’t cheap. It will likely be cost-prohibitive to many. Currently, a straight-up pass to all three days is: $865. There are options to add other things like a 1-year membership to Storylogue, a copy of Story, and Final Draft software that will drag the price up. I applied as a “fellow” – which meant I worked at the store during the breaks, and that cut the price by a few hundred dollars. Do that. I met loads of people who were amped up to discuss their writing backgrounds and what they were getting out of the seminar, and that interaction was one of my favorite parts. Being around people from around the world who do what you do and, more importantly, get what you do — is huge.

I’ll also say that when you sign up, you are warned that timeliness and respect is critically important to McKee. This is not a joke. McKee rarely leaves the stage and the breaks seem more for our benefit than his. Be on time. As he will mention, it is distracting both to people who’ve paid for the seminar, and him, to be late — doors slamming behind you, trying to find a seat, getting resettled. Do this, and he will call you out. Ditto on cell phone usage. “The first time, the fine is ten dollars cash that you’ll walk up to the stage and put in my hand. The second time, I’ll ask you to leave and not come back” (… is basically the spiel). That said, special arrangements are made if you need to come and go for medical purposes, he’s not heartless. He’s also outspoken, and as it’s his seminar, there are things you may not agree with and some of them are controversial and offensive. I found this didn’t happen too often but when it did, I passed it off as McKee being of a generation far separate from mine. I honestly thought I wrote down an example — because I do remember cringing in my seat a few times — but ultimately, it was just a part of the bad that I threw out and didn’t let ruin the experience. I realize not everyone will be able to do this, but for your own enjoyment: try.

Again, I loved it. I left every day feeling inspired and motivated and it jump-started some serious productivity. Since I’ve been back, I’ve consulted my notes regularly, I’ve read through Story, and I think it’s helped refine some major weak points in my writing, and how I think about story structure.  I can’t imagine retaking the course at this point — though there were repeaters in my seminar, and if you spent the first time writing out all those notes instead of being in the moment, you might be back for the marrow. Some people, McKee said, just like the atmosphere of the place and work on screenplays in the back row. I didn’t see those people, but I’m sure they’re out there.

I’ve focused a lot on the screenwriting aspect of this seminar, and, to be honest, that is the area in which McKee is most focused. However, you don’t have to be a screenwriter to get something out of this course, so don’t be intimidated if you have no idea what Final Draft is. You don’t have to!

I hope this is helpful. If you’ve been to the Story seminar, I’d love to hear about your experience and if you have any questions, let me know!

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