Tag Archives: Robert McKee

Getting fresh

Journalists are trained to get the story first or at least gather new facts that are exclusive to their reports. As an author, you should be striving for a different sort of exclusivity – original ideas, characters, voices, structure and plot. After all, why would any publisher want to invest in a story that has basically been done before – unless you have a truly unique spin on the material?

While writing Game as Ned I had a day when I questioned whether I had any original ideas in my head. I picked up the Saturday Age and stumbled across a double page spread on Mark Haddon’s Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Not only did this oft-awarded book focus on a teenage narrator with an autism spectrum disorder but it was already so successful it had been added to the Victorian VCE reading list. Most Aussie authors would kill to have one of their titles make that list.

Given that I was writing a book narrated by a teen with an autism spectrum disorder, I feared nobody would be interested in a story so similar in subject matter to Haddon’s. Game over.

That night my wife and I scored a babysitter and had a night out. For want of other choices, we saw the Jack Nicholson movie Something’s Gotta Give. The plot, coincidentally, echoed that of a short story I’d just had short-listed in a writing competition. That realisation hit me like a bus. I became genuinely worried that I was just a big sponge for other people’s ideas. It was a dark day on the author odyssey.

On the up side, it inspired a major rewrite of the Game as Ned manuscript, a new co-narrator and, I believe, a stronger story.

My next book Five Parts Dead deals with death, dying, guilt and grief. It’s set at a lighthouse in South Australia. Not so long ago I stumbled across reviews of two new YA novels – one focusing on exactly the themes I’m tackling*, the other set at a remote West Australian lighthouse. Ouch.

Perhaps I’m older and wiser now. I’m certainly more philosophical. It’s impossible to prevent overlap between stories.

Death and grief are universal themes. People have been writing about them since… forever.

Lighthouses are evocative and iconic**. Umpteen books have been written about them.

What I have to work on is delivering a fresh way of looking at age-old subjects. Screenwriting guru Robert McKee once wrote a dedication for me in his book, Story. It read: “To Tim, Write the truth.” I see my task as an author as finding a new truth that’s worthy of a) publication and b) reading.

That’s my focus while I’m working towards an end of year deadline for my Five Parts Dead edits.

*I’m currently reading this book, Lia Hills’ The Beginner’s Guide to Living. I thoroughly recommend it – probably to readers 16 and up. Sure, Lia covers very similar issues to those I’m trying to tackle. Thankfully, she does so in very different ways – even if we reference some of the same materials.

**My Word of the Week is the noun for lighthouse lovers – “pharologists”. Would you believe there’s a Facebook group for lighthouse buffs entitled “Pharologists are light-headed”? Of course there is.

Up and away

Caught Pixar’s Up with the kids on Fathers’ Day. Liked it better than Wall-E and Cars but nowhere near as much as The Incredibles or Monsters Inc.

The kids liked it but didn’t love it. I wonder if that’s because they didn’t really see themselves in any of the main characters – a grieving curmudgeon, a lonely boy scout and a misfit talking dog. I know, I’ve blogged previously that my daughter sometimes plays at being a Grandma so she should connect with the movie. Looks like I was wrong.

I know the Pixar crew are graduates of the Robert McKee screenwriting courses. It felt to me that they’d gone with some real McKee angles in Up – writing stories/scripts that address universal truths such as loneliness, shattered dreams, grief and old age. Indeed, the first five minutes of the film told a story that almost moved me to tears. After that bit of magic, it was sound the trumpets and bring in the action and gags.

Some of the best gags involved a) old age and b) dogs chasing squirrels. The kids obviously didn’t get the former. As for the latter, we don’t have squirrels Down Under so the joke lost a little impact (though we still laughed). I was also surprised by how Pixar handled some of the later fights scenes (no spoilers from me) and how scary some of the hunting dogs were. The Little Monkey (5yo) found it all a bit tough once the villain arrived on the scene. Interestingly, her cousin the Little Engineer (4yo), had no such qualms.

So, it lacked the wow factor we’d hoped for. And I’m a tad worried that I identified somewhat with the old guy Carl…

I’m now hoping Ponyo might be a better fit for the Little Dragon and I.

Update: I just spent a night making Up mobiles to hang in the kids’ rooms so they must be at least slightly under the Pixar spell.

Story: Hope over fear

The best-selling bible of screenwriting, Robert McKee’s Story, dedicates its initial chapter to the purpose of storytelling – a quest for the universal human truths that bind us together. McKee says “Story isn’t a flight from reality but a vehicle that carries us on our search for reality, our best effort to make sense out of the anarchy of existence”.

My life, as a journalist, author, parent and human, has been a search for story. I firmly believe that it is by hearing each others’ stories that we learn to see beyond differences in skin colour, socioeconomic background, faith and philosophy. Story brings insight, appreciation, empathy. From these flow compassion and tolerance.

The biggest story in the world today is the inauguration of the new American president.

What I find moving is how the entire globe seems to have invested so much hope in this one man. Listening to talkback radio today and viewing online comments it felt like the world had been starved of hope. As if we’ve been weighed down. Scared. Deadened. Left to winnow for meaning in consumerism and other hedonistic pursuits. (Ouch. Where did that sentence come from, Tim?)

Conscious of the weight of expectation on President Obama’s shoulders, I read his inauguration speech with anticipation. There were several phrases that stood out for me and numerous examples of powerful use of story (along with a forceful repudiation of the outgoing administration).

The phrases:
“We gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.”


“There are some who question the scale of our ambitions – who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short. For they have forgotten what this country has already done; what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage.”

Later still:

People will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy.

The context of the latter comment was a challenge to foreign ruling powers opposed to US interests. Nonetheless, it works as a stand-alone statement for all to absorb.

As to the President’s use of story, here’s a blog post from The New York Times’ Timothy Egan that sums up how the world was watching, seeking “a story to inhabit”.

Let’s hope we find it.

Turning to books 2

Further to my previous post, here’s what the doyen of screenwriting teachers, Robert McKee, says in his book, Story:
“Imagine in one global day, the pages of prose turned, plays performed, films screened, the unending stream of television comedy and drama, 24-hour print and broadcast news, bedtime tales told to children, barroom bragging, back-fence internet gossip, humankind’s insatiable appetite for stories. Story is not only our most prolific art form but rivals all activities – work, play, eating, exercise – for our waking hours. We tell and take in stories as much as we sleep – and even then we dream. Why? Why is so much of our life spent inside stories? Because, as critic Kenneth Burke tells us, stories are equipment for living.”

McKee goes on to say: “Story isn’t a flight from reality but a vehicle that carries us on our search for reality, our best effort to make sense out of the anarchy of existence”.

I was fortunate enough to attend an intense three-day course with McKee a few years ago. Here’s what he wrote in my copy of his book: “To Tim, Write the truth.” I take this to be part of McKee’s crusade for stories with meaning and universal relevance – as opposed to the soulless material excreted from major film studios with an eye on revenue rather than story.