Robert Masello's Letter from Hollywood
Even though 16 people had already told me it was impossible to sell a pitch in Hollywood, I went ahead and tried it, anyway.
And darned if I didn't do it.
I pitched my little romantic comedy idea to an executive for a major movie producer, and he clapped his hands together and bought it on the spot -- or at least he promised me his boss would buy it, and then we'd work on developing it together.
Over the next couple of weeks, while deal memos flew back and forth between his company and my agents, we worked on the idea. But every time the exec said something like, "Let's work on your inciting incident," I'd have to stop and ask, "My what?"
Finally, after this had happened half a dozen times, he said, "You've got to take the Robert McKee screenwriting course. It's his terminology I'm using -- everyone in the business does -- and if you don't know it, we'll never be able to communicate properly."
So even though I'd never heard of Robert McKee until that moment, I forked out something like $400 to enroll in his intensive three-day seminar. McKee teaches them all the time, on a rotating basis, in different cities, even different countries, and whether it's official or not, McKee has certainly become Hollywood's screenwriting emissary to the world.
Does he deserve to be? Until recently, the only way to find out was to enroll in the class and hope for the best. For years, McKee resisted putting his lessons into printed form. But finally, one very persuasive editor managed to get him to do just that: The book is called Story; it's published by HarperCollins, and in some ways I'd have to say the book is even better than the class.
McKee is a dynamic speaker, with a lot to say, but he's not exactly affable. He doesn't stop for questions, he doesn't suffer fools gladly (or at all), and not everything he says is immediately crystal clear. That's where the book is an improvement. If all that stuff about one scene folding into another got by you in the lecture hall, you can read it here, slowly, and more than once if you need to. If you're still not sure what your inciting incident is supposed to do, you can find out in the book.
But what both the class and the book have in common, and this is the thing that I think makes them so valuable to anyone who wants to write for the screen, is a respect, indeed a reverence, for the art, and the craft, of screenwriting. We've all seen so many lousy movies and TV shows that it's easy to fall into the trap of thinking, "Oh man, I could do that. Just let me at it." But doing it right, doing something good and worthy and well-structured, isn't that easy. McKee, like so many of the other Hollywood screenwriting gurus, may not necessarily have all the right answers, but he does know all the right questions -- the questions you need to ask yourself, the questions you need to address in your script. What's your screenplay really all about? How do you kick it into gear? What are you trying to say? Why is the traditional three-act structure your best friend in the world? What does the climax have to accomplish -- and how do I make sure that it does what it's supposed to do?
If you can answer those questions in your own work, then you're a long way toward becoming a professional screenwriter -- and you're a lot more likely to understand the next studio exec who, in a typical attempt to appear creative himself, starts throwing the screenplay lingo around.