His students have gone on to write stories as diverse as Sex and The City, Toy Story 3 and The Fighter, and include talents that range from William Goldman and Geoffrey Rush to Joan Rivers. John Cleese has attended his course three times. A few years ago, when Australia’s most popular children’s author Andy Griffiths was visiting the bookshop where I was working, I asked him if he had any advice for me, and perhaps I should have guessed what the answer would be.
“Get to Robert McKee.”
At the time I had no idea who McKee was, but after thorough research it became pretty clear that, as far as Hollywood was concerned, McKee was where it was at. He is a ‘script doctor’ - he fixes stories and has made a living teaching people the craft of good writing. He tours the world delivering his lectures - before my seminar in Sydney he had presented them in France and later in the year he was planning to head off to Russia.
Writing seminars are an expensive enterprise. For me, the costs exceeded a grand to find accommodation and make it to four days of 9-hour sessions. Luckily, it was worth every cent. My writing has always been about the short-form. If I had written a novel prior to the seminar, I would have, without a doubt, begin with a short story, then written another short story, and then another, attempting to string these smaller chapters together into an overall narrative. McKee has corrected this method out of me. The writing, he says, is the easy part. The hard part is crafting a good story, a meticulous structure that turns up and down in such a way that the audience or the reader never tires of it. To create an entire world of words, to keep ahead of the audience at every step and leave them begging, this is the art of the real writer.
McKee is often criticised for teaching a ‘formula’ for writing. He’s defended his reputation for years, and rightly so. He doesn’t teach ‘formula’, he teaches ‘form;’ the classical design structure that most narratives take. Of course there are exceptions, but these exceptions are always marked by their knowing deviation from the classical design. Regardless of what you wish to write, knowing the telltale signs of a good story is paramount. It was impossible when listening to McKee not to recall my favourite pieces of work and align them with the structure. No surprises - they fit perfectly.
To try and cram four massive days of lecture material in this blog post would be both impossible and an insult to McKee’s remarkable course, which imparted valuable wisdom not only about writing but life itself. Certainly the 36 hours I spent in that lecture hall were among the most engaging I have ever had the pleasure to attend – at no point did I wish it would end sooner, which is no mean achievement in itself. McKee is seventy, and while his energy seems to have no intention of flagging, it is certainly possible that he may retire soon. For those interested, a good substitute to the lecture series would be to purchase a paper copy, and the audiobook of his text Story: Substance, structure, style and the principles of screenwriting. If like me, the concept of the long-form fiction leaves you feeling unprepared, or if you have written a full work but feel that it’s missing something – McKee’s your man. I firmly believe that no-one can teach you how to write - but the features of good writing can be taught, and moreover are a vital lesson to learn if you hope to create wonderful stories that make their mark, and one day prove your worth as a master of the craft.
Lyndon Riggall is a young writer and student, living in Hobart and studying English and Classical Literature at the University of Tasmania. He tries to divide his time equally between writing works for pure enjoyment, and for rigorous artistic worth, but often can't remember which pile is which.