10 Screenwriting and Story Tips from Robert McKee

Take some tips from the Story Seminar for free. 

If you're a fan of screenwriting or things interesting to screenwriters, then I'm sure you've come across Story by Robert McKee. Robert McKee is a screenwriting guru and a story consultant who is known for his "Story Seminar," which he developed when he was a professor at the University of Southern California. His extremely thick book takes you through the principles of writing and some techniques that can make you a better writer. (After you read this article, hop over to the No Film School Podcast where McKee was a guest.)

We found this helpful video where he breaks down some of those techniques into tips for writers. As always, there are exceptions to many of these rules, but try to think about them generally.

Check out this compilation from Outstanding Screenplays, and let's talk after. 

10 Screenwriting and Story Tips from Robert McKee

1. Your protagonist needs to be the one who makes the decision that brings about the climactic action.

Is your protagonist driving the story forward? Are their actions and choices putting the story into focus and kicking it into gear? Make sure they are active, and not just along for the ride. Give them something to do. 

2. Set yourself creative limitations, because they will inspire you and help you with your writing.

I had a conversation with an executive this week who told me he thought this was the most important thing writers need to do to get the creative juices flowing. Can you write a story with four characters only? Can you do something that only takes place in one room? Set these limitations to help you come up with movie ideas and get inspired. 

3. You reveal a character’s hidden nature by putting them under pressure.

There's an old Pixar writing strategy that says we need to see our characters fail, and I think that's true. What can go wrong in every scene? How do we see these people struggle with who they want to be, and how they can achieve their goals? 

4. Desire in your character is key.

What does your character want? We talk about goals on here a lot. They need to have a goal, but also the reasoning behind it. That's where desires come in. I want to solve the case to make the city safer. I want to bring all my friends back from Thanos' snap. Give them something tangible and obvious. 

5. Create a physical picture of a character in your mind, then take them with you wherever you go to discover what kind of desire they have.

I think there's an importance in writers doing more research. Figure out who this character is by talking to people you think are like them. Whether that's contacting people who have the same profession or finding celebrities who you want to star as them and hearing the way they act. See how these people act in the wild. 

6. Draw the audience in with empathy and curiosity, and let them indirectly gather exposition as they go along, rather than overwhelming them with it.

See how you can spread out the information in the first act. What do we need to know about your character and their situation? Can you make the audience engaged in figuring out what happened to them, more than just dumping on them what happened to them? Always let this trickle in. We'll care about them because we see them failing or working for a goal. The more curious we are, the more the pages will keep turning. 

7. You can do whatever you want in your screenplay, as long as you make sure it works and you know why you’re doing it.

There are no rules in screenwriting (except plant and payoff). All we care about is that you give us a story that really tugs on our heartstrings and keeps us engaged with the action. So how do we get those? Follow your gut feeling and deliver. Don't worry about what other people say, just write and refine. 

8. Create dimensionality in characters by building consistent contradictions within them.

What are some characters you really love? Indiana Jones is a brave adventurer who's terrified of snakes. Chief Brody is a good cop who has no idea how to behave on the water. Michael Corleone is a war hero who gets consumed by family drama. Dig into the characters in your script and see what small little contrivances can do to make them feel like real people. Access this through their arcs as well. 

9. When you don't know what to write about, ask yourself what your favorite movies are and why they are your favorite.

Great movies are a comfort. There are lots of ways to create a spark inside yourself. But I think riffing on the way you would reconstruct your favorite movies, or maybe even taking their loglines and writing your own version of it, is a great way to hone your skills. Think about the elements that make them your favorites. Why do they stand out and capture your heart and mind? What makes them connect? Emulate that. 

10. Character payoffs should always be emotional unless you have a special reason.

Think about not only what happens inside your story but how these moments affect people internally. Does someone let a character down, or crush their heart with a rejection? Is there a way to hook that into the goal and show how things evolve within them? What do these emotional hurdles do to them or cause them to do? Let emotion guide the way.      

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