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.
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!