December 8, 2015

Robert McKee Says These 4 Things Keep Bad Writers from Being Good

Being considered a good screenwriter depends on a whole host of things.

Does your plot make sense? Are your characters dimensional? Does your story structure work? Really, the list of criteria is virtually endless, so maybe looking at what makes a screenwriter bad is a little more helpful. In the video below, screenwriting guru Robert McKee details four things that he thinks keeps bad screenwriters from being good. Check it out:

McKee had a lot of great things to say about how to improve your writing. He warns writers against:

Being a slave to trends

The year I took a screenwriting course in college, films like The Dark Knight Rises, Skyfall, and The Bourne Legacy were super popular. There were 13 students in the class and 10 of them pitched ideas for action/thrillers surrounding a rogue agent or mysterious hero. I'm not saying they were trying to be trendy, but they certainly seemed to be caught up in the hype of what was popular at the time.

Imitation is not the sincerest form of flattery in this case. McKee advises writers to write what inspires them -- to create something that will be rewarding on a personal level rather than on a financial level. If you're too focused on what's successful now, you're always going to be playing catch up.

Heavy-handed exposition

McKee says that he can tell a writer's level of mastery of the craft (more or less) based on how well they handle exposition in their story. This is because screenwriting is not about giving information to your audience, but letting them find it for themselves. Screentakes founder Jennine Lanouette analyzes the first scene from The Road Warrior in order to show you how to write better expositional scenes. We've posted her video essay before, but here it is again:

Having little to no subtext in your dialog

Clunky exposition and dialog sans subtext go hand-in-hand -- and what's more cringeworthy than dialog that over-explains, divulges too much info, or, with a heavy hand, establishes the emotional atmosphere of the scene? This doesn't mean that your dialog should be sparse -- Woody Allen's screenplays, for example, had tons of dialog! In fact, this scene from Annie Hall demonstrates pretty well what subtext in dialog looks like:

Annie and Alvy are simply chatting on the balcony about art and stuff, but we learn so much more about them, their relationship, and their fears from what they're not saying. And that's the whole point of adding subtext.

Having nothing to say

How much do you know about the human experience? How much do you know about human relationships, the human mind, human interactions, etc.? How much insight can you offer about life? If your answer is, "Not a whole lot," then you might want to wait on writing that script. Cinema means putting a mirror up to people and letting them take a long hard look at themselves. You may have a really exciting, original story, but if it doesn't speak to the human experience, according to McKee, you really have nothing to say:

There's lots of people with superb craftsmanship and nothing to say. Steven Spielberg -- brilliant craftsmanship, and nothing to say. M. Night Sugarman -- whatever his name is -- can really light a scene and really shoot, but he's got a cartoon mind, comic book mind -- he's got nothing to say. 

Noting the quality of the craft is no guarantee of excellence, but it's an interesting thing that a lack of craftsmanship and a lack of insight into life seem to go hand-in-hand. It's no accident that bad writers also have nothing to say.

Do you agree with McKee's insight? What do you think makes a "bad" writer? "Good"? Let us know in the comments!      

Your Comment

20 Comments

I agree with those points and it was all very good advice. I'm reading "Detour: How To Direct a Microbudget Film" right now and it's parallel to a lot of what I've read so far. But saying Spielberg has nothing to say is just silly. Maybe not as effectively as his earlier movies but he's still a master of the craft and has always been an actor's director.

December 8, 2015 at 6:31PM, Edited December 8, 6:31PM

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Jeremy Abbott
Video Producer/Independent Filmmaker
321

McKee in many ways is a classicist which is why I think he thinks Spielberg has nothing to say. In some sense he is right in that Spielberg does generally not have any over arching philosophy or metaphysical angle, the way say Kubrick does, or Peter Weir. However the genius that is Spielberg comes out in his every day characters, the metaphysical is in the normal, the childlike, home street, the family. That is what I think McKee has missed.

December 8, 2015 at 6:49PM

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Jonathon Sendall
Stories
1238

I'm a fan of Spielberg, but for the record, the last thing he was considered to be in his early career was as an actors director.

December 10, 2015 at 11:04AM

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I agree with all of them except the last. I think that there's two types of art, art that teaches and art that's entertainment. And saying that "lack of craftsmanship and a lack of insight into life seem to go hand-in-hand" is just wrong.

December 8, 2015 at 6:50PM

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Zachary Will
Cinematographer
807

Shots fired, lol. Totally agree with the comment about M Knight S. having a comic book mind. Can't agree with the Spielberg diss though.

December 8, 2015 at 8:17PM, Edited December 8, 8:17PM

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Don Way
Writer/Director of Photography
961

That Spielberg line was sure to rub 90% of people the wrong way :) I, for one, agree with Mckee, more or less. Spielberg has nothing to contribute about morality, about aesthetics, about emotion and human psychology, nor has he got anything to say about society or justice or evil - for all of these he uses stock versions; some banal pre-established generally-agreed-upon point of view. He is a populist with a passion for the status quo.

However, some artists overcome a blank mind by focusing in on a very small thing and hone it to perfection. They stake their claim by amplifying a detail to give us an altered, heightened awareness of that one little thing. For Adam Sandler that would be bottled rage, for Michael Bay it's physical destruction, for Chris Nolan it's just a sense of operatic scale and intensity (though Nolan does have some thought going - it's just pretty shit + subservient to the spectacle).

Spielberg's tiny detail is a childlike (i.e. without reflection) sense of wonder. Surely this is one of the most universally relatable emotional nuggets to latch on to, making him the most commercially successful filmmaker ever. It also fuses his movies to our nostalgia receptors, meaning people are VERY reluctant to dismiss him.

December 8, 2015 at 8:43PM, Edited December 8, 8:43PM

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That's not to say Spielberg can't make something great if the writer contributes all the perspective - ET is a phenomenal film, for instance - and unlike Bay, Spielberg has learned to get out of the way of his writers lately, not thrusting his stylistic predilections on them (Catch Me if You Can, Minority Report, Munich). But often his limited perspective still distracts from an otherwise good idea (A.I., Amistad, Saving Private Ryan).

December 8, 2015 at 8:59PM

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To talk about Speilberg in such broad terms seems ridiculous to me considering the films under his belt are huge and differ greatly. Have you seen "Schindler's List"? Do you think that he has nothing to say in that? I'd say the themes in most of his films are the themes in any good film -love, mortality, identity, loss of control -to name a few.

December 8, 2015 at 11:45PM

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Stephen Herron
Writer/Director
1305

Schindler's List is the story of a handsome, (northern european) leading man learning a lesson in humanity, overcoming adversity and the villain gets what's coming to him in the end - because those are the fundamentals of what a movie is to Spielberg. Like both Kubrick and Terry Gilliam said: how could he make a success story out of the Holocaust? I didn't say Spielberg had nothing to say, he just has very banal things to say (though he says them with great power and conviction).

But of course Schindler's List is by far the most seen film on the Holocaust because he made those populist choices. Masses are not going to stand in line to see a picture trying to illustrate the total failure of humanity. Doesn't change the fact that that would have made for a better film.

And themes, on their own, do not make a story worthy or unworthy. Brokeback Mountain (to take a random example) isn't great because it's about homophobia and intolerance and identity. You can make a horrible film with these themes, easy. It's great because of the conflicted sympathy you have for Michelle Williams character, because of that scene where Gyllenhaal says he want's to quit Ledger, because it's fucking with the Cowboy trope without winking or joking, because of the tangible sense of loneliness and isolation etc. - and through these perceptive, disarming insights and truths it elevates its themes and makes them felt.

December 9, 2015 at 2:50AM, Edited December 9, 2:51AM

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Pfft. Schindler's List was an adaption of a novel by one of the worlds most lauded writers Thomas Keneally - who assuredly understands the human condition - and was approached to write the book by a holocaust survivor. Nor is populist is a dirty word.

The converse of Mr McKee's point, is that some people also tend to have too much to say. ;)

December 10, 2015 at 11:21AM

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The advice is solid except that last bit - I would take Spielberg's advice over McKee's any day. Take one glance at McKee's filmography, he makes a living trying to tell others how to craft films without the actual experience to validate anything he says. His whinny attitude towards other filmmakers makes him sound as inexperienced as he actually is.

December 8, 2015 at 11:37PM

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Stephen Herron
Writer/Director
1305

"M. Night Sugarman - whatever his name is" - hahahahaha, Robert, you're so funny! Look at the funny brown man with his crazy name!

If you can't remember his name Google it you arrogant prick.

December 9, 2015 at 2:49AM

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Jon Mills
Filmmaker
854

I think it's safe to say he knows his name.

December 9, 2015 at 3:40PM

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Jonathon Sendall
Stories
1238

Yeah, that really rubbed me the wrong way.

December 10, 2015 at 7:56AM

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Benjamin Reichman
Post Supervisor/AE/Editor
285

Me, too.

December 10, 2015 at 3:12PM

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micah rose
Writer/Director/Playwright
86

Duel, Jaws, Empire of the Sun, ET and my personal favorite, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (one of only two films Spielberg wrote). All have plenty of subtext!

December 9, 2015 at 8:07AM, Edited December 9, 8:07AM

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Adam Levins
Director
81

Spielberg is the wrong example. He is a director, not a writer-director like Shyamalan.
Also, he happens to be one of the world's best directors. Who cares if he can write or not.

December 9, 2015 at 10:41AM

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Ezi Seel
603

Spielberg's movies are hugely popular, so he must have something to say that people want to hear/see. If he had absolutely nothing to say, then not even the dumbest individual would care for Spielberg's movies.

So, I think what Robert McAfee or what's his name again meant to say was, that he is not interested in the things that Spielberg has to say. Huge difference!

December 10, 2015 at 5:55PM, Edited December 10, 5:55PM

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Talentless snake-oil salesman who made a living out of people's honest desire to learn the craft, by flogging them recycled material and confident nonsense.

December 11, 2015 at 6:18PM

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Alex Richardson
Director
3032

Having nothing to say is a very current Hollywoodian paradigm of sorts...

But seriously, Spielberg has nothing to say? The whole underlying line of Jurassic Park was that humans shouldn't try to control nature because nature can't be controlled. Shyamalan has nothing to say? The Sixth Sense gave us a strong undertone into the moralism of life and death, and how if some people were to die, they wouldn't even notice - or rather that some people's lives are so monotonic that death wouldn't change much of it.

Rather than the writer having nothing to say, sometimes it's the viewer who has nothing to hear.

December 12, 2015 at 12:03PM, Edited December 12, 12:03PM

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Raph Dae
Screenwriter & attempted director
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