Robert McKee’s Story

I’ve just finished reading Robert McKee’s Story: Substance, structure, style, and the principles of screenwriting. It’s amazing.

I only finished it yesterday; and perhaps my opinion will mellow with time. Most things do. But I think it’s fair to say that it’s a genuinely remarkable book; one that might change how I read, and certainly how I think about stories. I genuinely wish I’d come across it years ago – ideally when I was still at university.

So what is it about Story that’s so good?

I think that it’s the clearest and most insightful set of ideas about what a story is that I’ve read in a long, long time. Now perhaps it’s just that there’s a whole wealth of literary criticism books that are excellent, and I just haven’t been reading the right ones. But this felt startlingly good to me.

If I can paraphrase some of the most important things I think he said, they are:

  • A story is in some sense rhetorical; it’s communicating a vision of how the world is.
  • A story is about a protagonist – someone (or thing) that’s capable of desiring something, and taking action to try and achieve that desire.
  • A key part of the story is the antagonist; what it is that’s stopping the antagonist. The better and more significant the antagonist is, the more meaningful the protagonist’s struggle.
  • The arc of the story is from the moment when the gap opens between the way the world is, and what the character desires; through the character’s attempts to bring about what he, she or they want; through to the final conclusion, when it’s achieved or not achieved.
  • Each scene should change something for the protagonist; internally, externally, it doesn’t matter – but there should be a change in how the protagonist fits in the world.

There’s more – a lot more – in the book, but as I look back over my notes I feel as though I won’t do it justice. I want to sort through them and read them over a little more.

Essentially, the idea that I liked enormously is that a story is about the conflict a character (or group of characters) has in trying to shape the world, and what finally happens. McKee argues that good stories end in a way that achieves that outcome (or fail to), but in a way that the protagonist wasn’t expecting.

He talks a little about the broader concept of a story – nonlinear, noncausal pieces, and ones with passive protagonists. But he argues that these are often reactions against linear, causal stories with active protagonists, and that seemed a reasonable argument to me.

I’m looking forward to thinking more about stories after reading McKee; and I’m tremendously glad I read it. It’s not that the book’s perfect – it isn’t. At points there were disappointing typesetting errors, and more fundamentally I think he over-specifies things that may not be true, when it’s the core of his ideas that are most important. But event with its flaws, it’s the best piece on story that I’ve read in a long time.

McKee and the seminars

The Story book is based on a seminar which McKee is famous for, and which he apparently delivers almost non-stop (check his website). I found mixed reviews; this one was a positive response to his book, and this one found the seminar ‘unconvincing’.

And because of the seminars, of course, McKee is also famous as the character who appears in AdaptationHis character features in a scene in a seminar, and then later he advises Charlie Kaufmann in a bar. The New Yorker has an account of McKee changing the ending; and you can hear his version of it on YouTube. Either way, it’s an interesting connection.


Google cars

There’s an interesting article about Google’s self-driving cars over at Business Insider, and the implications of when they go mainstream.

I wanted to read a little more, but there doesn’t seem to be much reporting yet. Most of it seems to stem from this Reuters article.

I think the Business Insider article overstates things a little. Perhaps not. Self driving cars will give people more free time – you can read, or use your phone while the car does the driving. That sounds small, but think about ten minutes times the population of a country; that’s a real difference.

Whether it’s an industry changer … probably, in the long term. I imagine there’ll still need to be replacements, and repairs, and all the usual things that cars need.

The final factor, of course, is that Google’s self-driven models are hugely, enormously data dependent. Now, if anyone can compete effectively on a data-driven model, it’s Google. But to the best of my understanding (which, of course, is very limited), they still rely on very detailed models of the world they’re driving through. Which means that for areas that haven’t been mapped, there needs to be another solution. I don’t know if that’s a module to let the human drive – it sounds like the prototypes don’t have that option.

The people who are in real trouble from this change, I imagine, are taxi drivers. Never mind Uber; Google is coming for them.

But in the medium term – say, a decade or two – I’ll hazard a guess that we might see self-driving cars effectively replacing taxis in dense urban areas. Much cheaper, and more effective – you might never need to own a car if you live in a city over a certain density. But it’s hard to imagine them replacing road trips, or making a difference in regional areas.

Truly interesting stuff though.

Stories and trailers

I’ve been reading Robert McKee’s Story, and LOVING it. But more on that later, when I’m finished. As I’m reading though, it did help me think through one particular thing. Specifically, I have a (perhaps slightly unusual) habit of watching trailers; a brainless thing I do to unwind.

And, reading McKee, I realised that part of the reason I do it is because often, the way a trailer is presented now is often a large of chunk, or sometimes most, of the story it’s advertising. Think about it.

Take Tuskfor example, which I would never actually watch the full movie of (I don’t handle horror movies well). But from the trailer, you can tell that it’s about a person making a podcast, trapped by an old sailor, who presumably wants to do something evil to him, against his will. Really, then, barring unexpected twists, there’s only the central question left – will the protagonist escape?

Or Underdogs. It essentially takes three minutes to give a quick, sketchy overview of the background and context for the main part of the story. Will the protagonist, and his band of unlikely fussball players, defeat the bully in an enormous soccer match? And, in doing so, who will the love interest fall for? Given that it’s an animated movie that looks to be aimed at the children’s market, I think there’s a pretty safe guess as to the answers.

Not all that trailers are that bad. Not every trailers tell most of the story in two minutes, and have such a strong vibe that you can tell how it’ll turn out in the final few scenes. But some do.

If I ran a news service

If I ran a news service, I think it’d be nice to prioritise. I think most general news outlets (not industry/topic specific ones) are still based on the idea of filling up a certain amount of space, print or otherwise.

Which is a shame, because some days are quieter than others. Some stories are more important than others. I think it’d be interesting to try ranking stories; there could be three or four different rankings, along the lines of:

– This changes everything! These would be the kinds of stories that you talk to strangers about on the bus, the ones that you remember where you were when you heard about them. The big ones. 

– The future is different now. Big shifts, things that signal a change in direction. They may happen over an extended period of time (i.e. commodity prices – still going down), so it might be necessary to call it retrospectively. Which is fine; the news outlet could bump these around the same time they become standard topics of conversation, a few days after the speciality sources have already covered it. 

– All clear – go about your business. This is the all clear. I could pull out my phone, glance at it quickly, and if the all clear’s on, I can go back to whatever I was doing. Under this category, a significant chunk of normal stories. 

So, don’t get me wrong. There are an enormous number of stories that are important and interesting, that could go in category number three. And telling those stories is an important contribution socially. It just strikes me that there’s room to help people filter a little better.

The machines are coming

I’ve written before on how interesting I think the implications of technological development is for the economy (see here, here and here). So I read The Second Machine Age with interest. It’s one of the better pieces I’ve read so far (which isn’t saying much; both because I haven’t had the chance to read much, and there doesn’t seem to be a huge amount on the topic).

Overall, I think Brynjolfsson and McAfee (B&M henceforth) are a little too optimistic; but they do a good job picking out some of the main questions.

Some of the perhaps obvious, but still important, points:

Rapid advances in our digital tools are creating unprecedented wealth, but there is no economic law that says all workers, or even a majority of workers, will benefit from these advances.

And later:

… there is a floor on how low wages for human labor can go [essentially, sustenance for a human]. In turn, that floor can lead to unemployment: people who want to work, but are unable to find jobs [that will let them live]. If neither the worker nor any entrepreneur can think of a profitable task that requires that worker’s skills and capabilities, then that worker will go unemployed indefinitely. Over history, this has happened to many other inputs to production that were once valuable, from whale oil to horse labor. They are no longer needed in today’s economy even at zero price. In other words, just as technology can create inequality, it can also create unemployment. And in theory, this can affect a large number of people, even a majority of the population, and even if the overall economic pie is growing. 


The better machines can substitute for human workers, the more likely it is that they’ll drive down the wages of humans with similar skills … you don’t want to compete against close substitutes, especially if they have a cost advantage. 

They make an important point that technology can complement human skills, increasing demand for some types of skills. I’m not convinced (and they don’t make a quantitative argument) that it’s enough.

They also argue that machines aren’t good at what they call ideation – thinking of new ideas, identifying goals and planning successful strategies, in new environments. But given the cases that they themselves document, of mistaken predictions of what computers ‘can’t do’, and their arguments that technology will only develop more quickly from here on out, they’re wise to say that it’s uncertain. [From a philosophical perspective, I don’t see anything unique in the material human minds rest on; when the technology gets good enough, it seems likely that something highly intelligent – possibly in very different ways – will emerge as a brain. But that’s a topic for another day; I’d recommend Dennett as the best I’ve read on that topic].

They talk about the long term; a stage when labour is very low in value, and the economic value of labour may be well below what it costs to maintain it. That’s when we get into interesting territory; a new discussion about how things are structured economically. They talk about a basic income, which I think is an interesting idea (they’re critical, but more supportive of a negative tax credit).

Ultimately, The Second Machine Age is the most interesting piece I’ve read so far, on what I think is a hugely important topic. Technological change has really important implications, and I don’t think enough thought has been given for what that means for our society. Population matters here too, enormously; that’s an area I don’t understand nearly well enough. But change is coming, and I think there are important questions unanswered; well articulated in an article [behind a paywall] called We need a new Bismarck to tame the machines.

Books and movies

I read A Million Miles in a Thousand Yearsand liked it a lot. It’s warm, and well-written in a very simple style. And I particularly loved how he talked about stories; what is a story? Why do we need them? How do they fit together, in our own lives? What stories are we telling about ourselves? I think there’s a whole world of interesting questions there. Miller doesn’t get bogged down in details, but still talks in an interesting way about stories, and how he thought about them for his own life; worth reading.

I also saw The Imitation Game, which was a lot of fun. I don’t know the story well enough to know if it’d be deviated from; but I felt like it captured some of the key elements, from the little I knew. While it takes place during WWII, the shots of the movie are theatrical, overblown, and somehow distant from the action. That’s appropriate; as a character says at one point, for them the war essentially took place in a small English village.

Benedict Cumberbatch, of course, shines in a role that’s cast as someone with autism, struggling to express himself to those around him. There are moments when two or three layers of emotion (the happiness or sadness required by the scene, the overlay of trying to play Turing as a man out of touch with his emotions and his coworkers, and in some cases a bittersweet emotion in a particularly complex interaction) all rest on the tiniest of motions in Cumberbatch’s cheeks. He pulls it off superbly.

Worth seeing.

Update: Actually, I take that back; The Guardian takes issue with the movie’s accuracy. I’ll need to get a copy of Alan Turing: The Enigma, which seems to be one of the better (if denser) biographies.