In Robert McKee's book STORY, he says that a whole life story of a character must become a story well-told.

So, it seems that the concept of "story told" is a representation of a "life story" that fits in a finite amount of time (i.e. a book or a movie) compared to the whole lifetime of the character. Also, he says that the story told is a concept that expresses everything that the writer has left out from the whole life story.

Well, consider the short text of Philip Dick, "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale". In that text we encounter an adult main character, without references to early days of his life.

Now, Assuming that Dick wrote an entire life story for Douglas Quail (the main character of the short text) and then Dick chose just a little part of Douglas Quail's lifetime to write the short text: According to McKee, this fits well inside the structure of transforming a life story into a story told.

But, that doesn't fit into the other aim of the concept of "story told" which is to try and express the other parts that the writer left out from the whole life story of Douglas Quail.

So my question is: How precise is McKee's advice in STORY, in order to write a book?

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    My understanding is that if the author does not know the whole story of the character, it will show as cracks in the bits the make it onto the page. "Story is about respect, not disdain, for the audience." The character on the page must be fully-realized, and this requires the author to know every piece of the character's life story. – DPT Dec 26 '18 at 2:30
  • "Does it really represent…" "How precise is the advice…" "But what about X…" These are invitations to debate a topic, rather than answer a question. Can something be true even with exceptions? Yes. Is it good advice to have realistic characters? Yes. Should stories be about life rather than just a bag of gimmicks? Yes. Did Phillip K Dick write stories (good & bad) that were more about gimmicks than life? Yes. Does that disprove McKee's advice about life-stories? No, it proves there is a market for gimmicky writing. Is that bad? Yes, when there are ONLY stories about gimmicks and not life. – wetcircuit Dec 26 '18 at 11:11
  • Note that in "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale", not only do we learn some important details of Quail's childhood and life before the events in the story begin, but one of those details is a central plot point to the story. So we do in some ways learn all of the most important aspects of Quail's life - highlights of his whole life story, as it were. I haven't read McKee, but I wonder if that's what he might have been getting at. – Todd Wilcox Dec 31 '18 at 21:10
  • Also you might compare and contrast with The Hero With A Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell. One way to view McKee's concept might be that the story that's told and the life story are both like the monomyth, and therefore each might parallel the other in overall structure. – Todd Wilcox Dec 31 '18 at 21:19

No expert exists in a vacuum. McKee's lectures are aimed at a specific audience.

The irony of teaching screenwriting in college is that McKee keeps telling 20-something students that they should write about life when few of them are old enough to have the life experience to understand what "life" even means.

"Life" in this context is not a timeline of events and dates like a CV or bio. He is not talking about the character's childhood, and what he ate for breakfast. "Life" is not just a worldbuilding exercise left to the imagination, or where an author MadLibs tropes and pseudo-Freudian motives, like rolling dice for an RPG character.

"Life" is how real people behave. It's what's important at the end of the day. The kind of person you become when you drop the fantasies of youth and apply yourself to become a better person. "Life" is the bumps and bruises, and healing time, of an adult. "Life" is how your priorities radically change, forever.

When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

As an adult, you can look back at childhood with different eyes, you know what kids don't know. You can also see your own parents, and the generations that came before, with less mystery, resentment, and awe. As we come into adulthood, we take on responsibilities we rejected when we were immature. We watch our parents age and become frail, and realize life doesn't end at 30 that's actually the age where you start to realize how much of our childhood was just commercial bs, and also watch your friends struggle with the loss of that easy childhood identity where "fun" is the commodity that consumes every moment.

Not everyone matures completely, but everyone experiences this "turn" of identity where candy-colored breakfast cereals and cartoon mascots become just empty jingles and tv commercials. Similarly, the childhood version of "romance" is discarded, and even what is acceptable for dinner changes forever. You easily remember what it was like to eat pizza every day, and all the dumb celebrity crushes you fantasized about, and how important it was that you constantly have "fun" or you will die. Everyone learns this, eventually.

The only people who lack this universal knowledge of "life" are (broadly generalizing) everyone under the age of 30-35. Stories that lack realistic characters are immature, and McKee considers immature writing "bad".

Robert McKee estimates the typical screenwriter begins in earnest at around age 20, and needs 10-15 years of bad writing and living life before they have both the writing skill and the life experience to write something good. Therefore his magic age is 35, but obviously these are sweeping generalizations and round numbers.

I am simplifying, but all of this is said in this video interview. (Also you can probably guess which side of 35 I am on.)

Your taste in authors will change as you mature and figure out "life"

Philip K Dick was an imaginative and entertaining author with mental health problems that prevented him living a normal life ("life" in the McKee sense of the word). He had psychotic episodes which he called religious visions, he was paranoid and depressed, and he wrote some "crazy" stuff that was not so great including a mean-spirited anti-woman screed where his (self) hero befuddles an abortion clinic with algebra (because people with vaginas are too stupid to math). He also nagged the FBI that fellow sci-fi author Stanislaw Lem was actually a cabal of communist spies intending to infiltrate America.

Dick will be remembered as a genius more than he will be remembered as a crackpot, but as I mature my opinion of his writing has been tempered. I enjoy his wacky plot twists and reality-melting diversions, but I also now see a man who couldn't finish the stories he started, and every protagonist has a self-justified persecution complex because the world is nothing but conspiracies.

HP Lovecraft is another author that I enjoy for my own nostalgia of youth, rather than reading today. I can't get past the ridiculous racism and the pseudo-victimization of "existing" in a world with something you don't like driving you insane. I mean, really? That's the plot of every story? A thing exists that doesn't even care about you, and you can't understand it so you go insane. Also everyone who isn't of pure-European birth is a devil-worshiping cannibal. I'm embarrassed that I once loved this stuff – how did I not see it for what it was?

These men, whose stories spurred my youthful imagination, now seem damaged and immature. They might have been good at spinning tales of imagination, but they were miserable at this thing called "life", and it shows in their writing. Characters appear just to befriend or menace the hero, but come and go conveniently. There are no 3-dimensional people in their stories. It's all gimmicks and plot. One protagonist is interchangeable with all the others.

So what is this "life" in McKee's characters?

What I never could have imagined when I was younger, was that I would start loving authors like Jane Austen who wrote amusing little romance stories from a bygone era about silly heroines who eventually get married. What I didn't understand because I didn't have the experience was that Jane Austen is so good at "life" that she nails every character, and makes you believe in their motives. They are fallable, and ridiculous because these petty motives are so important to them. There are characters in her novels that are actually aware how silly her plots are, and deflate the heroines' immature fantasy view of the world. All of her stories shift between satire and sincerity. She makes you laugh, and lures you into getting involved in these character's lives, because even though it's just a predictable romance there is a lot of "life" going on that raises the stakes and makes the characters still relatable two centuries later. "Life" is universal.

No one at any time stops to tell the hero of a Dick or Lovecraft story that maybe they are just being ridiculous and should be on medication, but that is exactly what happened to them in real life. Real "Life", that thing they were so bad at depicting.

Austen's plots are no less of a fantasy than Lovecraft or Dick, but every character is a person and has a "life", even if they are a throwaway random townfolk or a distant cousin. She has a "take" on every person's interior monolog and how they view the world. That's something only a mature person recognizes because kids don't have the experience of what "life" is really about or what motivates real people.

Characters don't sprout wings and tentacles, instead they have embarrassing public faux pas, eagerly broken hearts, awful family members, friends who sell out their childhood dreams, false assumptions and inflated egos, and calculating charms and brazen schemes of self-glorification. And it all goes wrong for every single character. Villains and protagonists and all side characters alike, all have something they want, but Austen thwarts them all, every last one – even if it's the most minor detail: Mrs So-and-so didn't enjoy the cake. There is a detail that signals a personality and an opinion. They all have a pre-existing "life story" that is currently being interrupted. That doesn't mean Austen wrote a complete character arc for every throwaway encounter, but it implies every encounter is derived from a real life experience – that's how those little details work. We recognize them. They make these throwaway characters feel substantial.

When we are young and everything must be "fun" and "new", having the imagination to invent seems like the greatest power in the universe – anything and everything will be sacrificed for a new experience. But once we mature and the need to be entertained with a new toy goes away, we start to crave artists who aren't as caught up in writing gimmicks (like sleeping immortal gods that can end the multiverse by sneezing). Instead we start to look for artists/writers who have the talent and insight to write about how the world really is, but also can also make us care about it again.

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    Nice text. I'm a physics student actually, and I have never read that much in my life or,as you said, a nostalgic youth of reading and writing. But, about two years ago a gentle character poped up inside my mind, I mean, an idea and now,almost every day, I fell the necessity to develop and write about this character. And I'm 24 and I have no intend to write a masterpiece or became a well-known writer, maybe this is a good thing (or not). Anyway, I'm trying to read the classics of sci-fi and some "technical literature" on how to write. – M.N.Raia Dec 26 '18 at 17:59
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    @M.N.Raia, we're all in the same boat learning to write, haha. I forgot to welcome you to WritingSE. Also, you can decide to ignore McKee until it starts to resonate. Not all readers are over 35. – wetcircuit Dec 26 '18 at 18:33
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    "including a mean-spirited anti-woman screed where his (self) hero befuddles an abortion clinic with algebra (because people with vaginas are too stupid to math)." Sorry to pick a nit: Of course "The Pre-Persons" was a mean-spirited anti-woman screed, I agree with that. The nit is that the algebra was a test for the children in the story, not the women. The parenthetical comment about "people with vaginas are too stupid to math" doesn't make sense to me in relation to the story. – Todd Wilcox Dec 31 '18 at 21:14

I haven't read his book, but I suspect he is wrong. A character should have some story arc, which will have some shape.

I suppose every story arc, even one that lasts only a few hours, could somehow be crow-barred into a metaphor for a life's journey, but I don't see that as useful.

The existing 3 Act Structure (3AS), or its equivalents (4-Act which breaks Act II into two equal part, or Shakespeare's 5-Act) and their "landmarks" are sufficient, and non-specific enough to be more useful.

Again, I did not read the book, but the 3AS opens on the MC's normal world, and about 10%-15% of the way into the story, some inciting incident occurs, that will escalate and cause the MC, by the end of Act I (about 25% of the way into the story) to leave their normal world. In a romance, for example, the inciting incident will often be the first meeting (or contact) of the future lovers. (In both Sleepless In Seattle and You've Got Mail the lovers are communicative but do not physically meet or see each other for quite some time.)

Now I could say that the "normal world" is a metaphor for "childhood", and the "inciting incident" is a metaphor for beginning puberty, that escalates so by the end of Act I the MC "leaves childhood" and becomes a sexually active new adult, but there are romantic complications, until the MC figures out who she is and what she wants, etc.

I could continue with that metaphor (off the top of my head) I just don't find this kind of metaphor useful!

An "inciting incident" is general but accurate, and represents anything from a discovery to a terrorist attack, a minor inconvenience (like the power going out) to a major trauma (an extinction level event).

A story is simple, a problem appears and one or more characters struggle with it. Perhaps to resolve it, perhaps to survive it. The 3AS is the result of studying successful stories, and finding the commonality in how the author's structured them and introduced story elements, which led to us better understanding the human psychology of hearing stories and what works for presenting them.

If Robert McKee's analysis of story appeals to you, go with it, but it doesn't trump the 3AS. It might inform the 3AS and how you want to interpret it; but if you get confused, use the 3AS as a touchstone and figure out how McKee's advice fits into that. Because the majority of agents and publishers are familiar with the 3AS and its elements, so along with your writing ability, the 3AS is what they will be looking for to see if you have written what they consider a publishable story.

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    I think you should dig a little deeper. McKee is critical of 3AS because it is just another formula, not a story. The OP misinterprets McKee's "life" as "life history", as opposed to shorthand for "a character who has a life". McKee never said every screenplay is a biopic from childhood to death. He is very strongly against that kind of formulaic, fill-in-the-blanks writing that hits story beats on pages 17 and 87. He is critical of that kind of screenplay and says it has killed cinema. – wetcircuit Dec 26 '18 at 15:41
  • @wetcircuit I don't consider 3AS a "formula", though people use it as one. I believe it is more science (and I am a research scientist) that is the distillation of analyzing successful stories, and what makes them successful. To say a story needs "a normal world intro" and an "inciting incident" is not formulaic, it is saying that the majority of best-selling or widely loved stories do have those things, and DID have those things before the analysis was done. Just like "The Hero's Journey" distilled myths (a subset of good stories) to find commonality. More "observation" than "prescription." – Amadeus Dec 26 '18 at 15:48
  • McKee is not against those things at all. I think you are arguing against a "position" that doesn't exist. It's pretty easy to listen to one of his lectures and learn what he is saying, first hand. There is no reason to argue against a strawman that he never said. – wetcircuit Dec 26 '18 at 15:52
  • @wetcircuit I concede; as I said I have not read him, I was responding to the description given by the OP as if it were a self-contained question. sorry, I can't do an hour of research to answer a stack question. If McKee is critical of 3AS as "just another formula", as you say, then I probably don't want to hear what he has to say anyway. You don't have to write to it, but in the end if a story does not contain the critical elements it describes, then statistically speaking it is unlikely to succeed in the modern market. Nothing in 3AS says X on page 17 and Y on page 87. – Amadeus Dec 26 '18 at 16:30

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