Story telling

In the media business we think about ‘Story’ all the time – with a capital S. It’s also the title of a massive tome by Robert McKee who is one of the gurus of Story World.

They gabble away in a kind of vernacular – ‘beats’ and ‘acts’ and what not. Did the writers of ‘Casablanca’ really ever think in these terms?

The BBC once sent myself and a few colleagues to attend a Robert McKee Weekend – a gruelling experience that culminated in a stop/start screening of ‘Casablanca’. McKee never stops talking. No one can ask a question.

It is a paradox that McKee is one of the gods of the Story teaching circuit and yet when was the last time you caught a great movie movie with his name in the writer’s slot?

There is a mass of material online offering both advice about how to write a screenplay and tickings off for not knowing the rules. Beats, acts, protagonists… and so it goes on. Anyone could write one of these essays.

This barrage of dogma is a powerful sign that it’s  all wrong. I think it is.

There isn’t one ‘perfect’ way to construct a narrative – but there is a responsibility to engage and hold the attention of whoever pays money to experience your product.

We need to delve deeper into the roots of dramatic action.

And right at the base of the apparatus is the idea of conflict.

Conflict. Conflict. Conflict. Forget ‘beats’, forget ‘acts’, think conflict.

I was reminded of this recently watching quite an interesting series on Netflix: The Mindhunters. It’s the story of an ill matched pair of FBI agents who defy institutional narrow mindedness and lethargy to go in search of the mind of psychopath by talking to a handful of very nasty people.

Well there’s a quest if you like. But what’s most fundamental about any kind of drama that grips us is that each scene is a machine to generate conflict – which we internalise and struggle to resolve. Scenes work if they spin out conflict. Between characters, within characters. Conflict is the fuel of drama.

That’s the machine of story telling. Drama is a continuous manufacturing of conflict.

Conflict that seizes on to our minds with an iron grip because it is the nature of the human condition.




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