Guru McKee’s Hyderabad Story

Robert McKee in Hyderabad

Robert McKee — the “not-so-secret force” in Hollywood — was in Hyderabad to conduct his celebrated Story Seminar. For writers, particularly screenwriters, it was a not to be missed event to hear the guru and learn from him. But calling it a seminar would not be doing justice to an event that was extraordinary in its scope and depth. It was, not unlike the films that he analysed, one heck of an entertaining experience!

One that puts together his humungous knowledge of Hollywood and world cinema, the insights of a teacher, the passion of an evangelist, the charm and wit of a standup comic, the actor’s command of timing and dialogue delivery, and the salacious tidbits of an inveterate gossip! And like any good story, you laugh and learn, cringe and cry and come away feeling inspired and motivated.

According to McKee’s official profile: “About the only Hollywood notable not to have taken the Story Seminar is Steven Spielberg.” Spielberg’s loss rather than McKee’s! As McKee gleefully points out: “Spielberg has been using the ‘deus ex machina’ ever since Jurassic Park.” And in McKee’s lexicon, deus ex machina translates as the ultimate sin that any writer can commit! Continuing in his irreverent tone he lambasts Spielberg’s much-raved-about War Horse as a piece of work that “glorifies and romanticizes war”.

Here are some nuggets of advice from Hollywood’s premier screenwriting guru:

Write The Truth: That’s McKee’s exhortation to all writers. A writer’s goal must be to create a good story and tell it well. Cinema worldwide is facing a crisis and that, he says, is a result of writers who prefer to lie or hide behind facts instead of telling the Truth. And as he explains, facts are not the truth. Truth is the writer’s interpretation of the facts, one that he/she believes in and uses form, not formula, to create moments that are unforgettable, inspiring and universal. Writers who can do that are way above and beyond the competition. “Today, it’s a tsunami of shit!”

“Inception was like a video game…creating the rules of the world late into the movie. It’s complicated but not complex.” McKee explains that while “complicated” plots are the ones with extra-personal conflict at the heart of the story whereas complex ones are at the other end of the spectrum with conflict at the extra-personal, personal and inner levels.

The Character-Driven or Plot-Driven Debate is “nonsense”! Plot and Character are two sides of the same coin. And the reason why the argument continues is that writers can’t differentiate between characterization and true character. “Characterization is the sum total of her observable traits…” Attitudes, beliefs, behaviours that make them credible and unique. Characters are a result of “choices they make under pressure…they are who they really are under their mask of characterization”. As the story progresses, the goal is to “strip away the mask of characterization (and reveal) the heart and soul of the character”. Now, that puts to rest yet another raging debate: should characters have transformational arcs? When you peel off layers of characterization to reveal the real persona underneath, ‘transformation’ becomes redundant.

“Melodrama is the outcome of a character’s under-motivation. Or, a mismatch between the motivation and its expression or action.”

Writers, Take Pride in Your Work! The Writer is the Original Artist whereas the Director is the Interpretative Artist. If writers don’t write, films don’t get made, the industry shuts down! So, take pride in your work and believe that writers are the power that fuels the industry. Even the best directors in the world couldn’t rise beyond the script/material they had. “Alfred Hitchcock made a lot of bad films.” The difference was the script. While Vertigo made compelling viewing, his Family Plot was just a “bunch of cliches”.

“There is no Avant Garde cinema anymore. All we have is Retro Garde. They are imitating the Anti-Structure auteurs of the past and recycling tired works of the past.”

McKee believes that there is no “formula” to writing, only a “form”. Thus, there can be no rules but one: DON’T BORE THE PEOPLE! A rule that he NEVER breaks in his Story Seminar!

For more on McKee’s Commandments, here is an article that I wrote for The Hindu BusinessLine:

About Adite

Author & Screenwriter
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17 Responses to Guru McKee’s Hyderabad Story

  1. Oh, God. Thank you so bloody much for this post! I was there for the seminar and it might have just changed my life! This post helped me relive the whole thing.

    Just a couple of corrections. I don’t think he was talking about the film when he trashed War Horse. He was trashing the play. Because, I clearly remember he mentioned that he had not seen the film and wasn’t planning to either. And so, he couldn’t speak about it. But, he did say that he had no idea why Spielberg would do a film that glorifies war. I’m not sure but he might have also questioned whether Spielberg was in his right mind.

    You also misspelled the word “deus” as “deux”. You might want to edit your post. Also a better picture?

    Anyway, thank you once again for this post! By the way, you write really well.


    • Hey, thanks for dropping by and pointing out the errors. Sure, McKee was trashing the play and he did mention that the play romanticizes war but as you could tell he has no love lost for Spielberg either! 😀 Stay inspired! Cheers!


  2. hemant apte says:

    Attending the Mckee Seminar was truly a once in a lifetime kind of an experience. And Adite, thanks for summing up the entire experience ever so beautifully. Your blog is almost like a refresher course! You really have a way with words!


  3. scriptlarva says:

    Hmm, don’t know about War Horse. But it does appear McKee is not impressed by Spielberg. Mckee has supposedly said once-‘Spielberg has great technique, but nothing unique to say.”


  4. Eleni Muller says:

    Personally, I have no problem with deus ex machina. Maybe it’s the fantasy/sci-fi lover in me. With that said, it must be done well – not just thrown in to save a person’s life. IMHO, if the theme is strong, the audience won’t care who comes down from the heavens, other dimension, future or whatever other creative place a writer can think of to save the day!

    This past weekend I had my girls watch one of my favorite movies, “AI,” which is a Spielberg film that some may consider uses deus ex machine. In this case, a race of A.I.’s from the far future help the A.I. finally attain the love he sought from his mother. The ending still managed to pack a lot of depth and emotion – which I won’t give away in case anyone hasn’t seen it yet. I think the reason this story worked so well for me is the character development was apparently as equally important and the theme of a child wanting to love and be loved by his mother was never lost throughout the whole film.

    In closing, Mckee’s makes an excellent point: character depth needn’t be sacrificed to drive the plot forward. You can have both, but mainstream movies lack this recently. Could explain why Mckee said, “Today is a tsunami of shit.”

    Luckily we have a great indie industry!

    Great post as usual Adite!


    • Eleni, that’s exactly the point he makes. Deus ex machina is when the problem resolves itself by coincidence or magically. Set it up in advance so it doesn’t appear random. And btw, he trashed A.I. too. Particularly the bit about the story plot point of giving the kid just one day with his mother! 😀 And thanks again, for taking the time to comment on my blog!


  5. Marina Albert says:

    Many thanks Adite for sharing your experience and Mr. McKee’s nuggets of wisdom. Beautifully put. I only wish that he could/would come to Australia or is that too much to ask? Sigh….


  6. Hi Adite,

    What a fabulous post. I would love to be at one of his seminars. 🙂 I especially liked his demand to “not be boring”.


  7. Adite, what a great description — I love getting a taste of your experience!

    Robert McKee spoke at the national Romance Writers of America conference a few years ago, and I was so busy moderating that I completely missed most of what he had to say. But just the nuggets you’ve shared show what makes him so popular…it sounds like a wonderful event.


  8. I loved what he said and loved the way you delivered it here Adite. Yes, inspiring.
    Excellent blog. Kaz 🙂


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