Friday, November 20, 2015

Friday Fun - Robert McKee, The Story Seminar & an Exciting Long Weekend of Learning in Killarney

Heidi Rice talks about why learning something new can actually be surprisingly good fun, if you have the right teacher. And there really isn't anyone better at teaching the art of Story than the incredible Robert McKee... Add in some gorgeous Killarney scenery and you're all set for an amazing long weekend.

Two go mad in Killarney!
When my good mate Abby Green told me that Robert McKee was doing his famous four-day Story seminar in Killarney this November I immediately jumped at the chance to sign up. But it was only after I'd paid the fee, booked my flight to Kerry and downloaded McKee's seminal book about scriptwriting onto my iPad that I began to panic about the thought of having to learn something new for the first time in a very long time.

Many years ago, in a galaxy far far away I finished my American Studies degree at Warwick University and then ceremonially burned all my essays and notes, determined never to have to sit through another seminar again in my lifetime. I was now officially a grown up. Which meant I didn't have to do that boring shite ever again. And now here I was signing up for classes again. What had I been thinking? This could end up being the opposite of fun. Would my brain explode trying to learn something new after all this time?

Ready to get down to business...
Well, as it turns out, my brain did explode, because this was mind-blowing stuff at times, but I didn't just learn something new... I fricking LOVED every minute of it. So much so, I might even consider trying to learn French again now.

Now, that said, McKee's four-day retreat is very full-on, very intense, and extremely hard work. What you're talking about is eight hours of lectures a day, with only two half-hour breaks and a one-hour break for lunch for FOUR consecutive days. I can tell you for a fact, I never had to work that hard at college. But the Story seminar is also fascinating, thought-provoking and delivered by a guy who knows how to hold an audience. McKee - an old school alpha male who can happily name-drop John Cleese and Kirk Douglas as past students - makes no bones about the fact that he is the guy in charge. No interruptions or questions are allowed during the lectures (although you can go up and ask him in the breaks), also no chit-chat, no late-comers and if your mobile phone goes off, you're in deep shite. Then again, as McKee explained, everyone had paid serious money to be there, and anyone who thought it was okay to interrupt another's learning experience was going to get short shrift from him, and frankly I was with him on that... It's not that hard to turn off a mobile phone.

Subplots and how to use them.
So what was the seminar about? Well, surprisingly, I discovered that a lot of what McKee was teaching was actually fairly intuitive, stuff that as a writer I was already doing without even realising it. But there was other stuff - some of it fairly specific to screenwriting - that gave me lots of important information about exactly how an audience (or a reader's) mind receives and processes information about character, plot, etc that I'd never realised before now... Even though I (like everyone else) had been doing it myself ever since I had my first story read to me.

Good omen on Day 3
Who knew for example that everyone tries to minimise change, that human beings' instinctively shy away from deep emotions, that we are always seeking to return to the status quo. That even positive change can be disturbing when it forces you to move outside your comfort zone? And that audiences (and readers) have always used stories to help them understand the human condition on a purely visceral level because it allows them to feel those changes, experience those emotions, within the comfort zone of their own home (or their own imagination) . And therefore, that the ability to understand and enjoy story-telling is in fact the thing that makes us all human. Pretty cool stuff, right?

McKee's basic lesson though to writers can be encapsulated in one particularly enlightening sentence (which I'm going to attempt to para-phrase here from my FIVE notebooks full of notes - uh-huh, FIVE. I am such a swot!):

Your characters reveal who they really are through the choices they make under pressure while trying to obtain their object of design against the forces of antagonism. 

Lunch break by the lake in lovely Killarney.
What does that actually mean? Well, you'll have to take McKee's seminars (or read his book) yourself to understand all the details involving subplots, controlling ideas, positive and negative charges within scenes, crisis decisions, resolutions, set-ups and pay-offs, etc. But basically it's about knowing that you as a writer have to challenge your protagonist (or protagonists) at every turn. You have to know exactly who they are and why they do what they do and what they truly want (and this can often be subconscious). And you have to be giving them choices – real choices not contrived ones – which they must respond to honestly at every turn according to who they are - so that every step they take towards (or away from) their goal changes the dynamics of your story and reveals more of who they truly are.

Ultimately, it turned out to be a pretty emotional four days. Because McKee imbues a lot of his own life and opinions into his teaching - and he shoots straight from the hip (i.e.: expect to hear the f-word creatively used on occasion!). After a six-hour dissection of Casablanca on our last day (that movie has five subplots!!!) I was exhausted, while at the same time feeling energised and excited about the stories I'm currently working on.

Mission accomplished!
I know I'll still make the usual mistakes, and probably still be tearing my hair out at times, and wanting to weep over my laptop at others... But at least now I have some more tools to figure out what's wrong. A lot more insight to help me fix it. And the knowledge that this is meant to be hard work, because what writers do is THE most important and difficult job in the world. (Yup, tougher than brain surgery, folks, you heard it from me and Robert McKee.)

Best of all, am pleased to announce me and McKee appear to be kindred spirits when it comes to film appreciation, because he loathed Titanic as much as I did. One comment on the movie is somewhat unrepeatable (something about floating turds but ruder) but I had to wholeheartedly agree with his main observation which speaks to the heart of what he was saying about honest story-telling: "Why did she let him die? Didn't we all think there was enough room on that pallet for the both of them?"

Of course, the movie was a huge hit, so McKee isn't infallible, and he does point out that his theories are guidelines, rather than hard and fast rules - but that comment still made me chuckle!

Special thanks go to Abby Green and Katrina Cudmore for joining me on the journey (and bringing wine and orange flapjacks as required)!

Heidi is currently working on her next novel for Harlequin Presents after being offered a new contract! And getting over excited about the release of her first longer book, So Now You're Back in Feb 2016. You can contact her on Twitter (@HeidiRomRice), Facebook, her blog or through her website if you want to know more.


  1. God, yes, everything you said. Anyone reading this - if you get a chance to see Robert McKee in person, GO! x Abby

  2. A great summary Heidi of an incredible 4 days ... as a newbie author this workshop was invaluable. McKee imparted nuggets of poor brilliance so frequently I'm still trying to process them all! Like you I took endless notes and I know I will use these forever in guiding my writing.