Jilly: Three Things I Learned at McKee’s Story Seminar

I promised to report back on last weekend’s craft marathon, otherwise known as Four Days of McKee—three days of the legendary Story seminar and a further day dedicated to the Love Story.

It was physically grueling. I can’t remember the last time I spent four eleven-hour days in a row sitting in a lecture theater, and it’s been more than thirty years since I had to take notes longhand. I treated myself to a new notebook and pen for the occasion.

It was mentally challenging. I had mixed feelings about Mr KcKee’s teaching style (to say he has strong opinions, robustly expressed, would be to understate the case), but no reservations about the quality of his analysis. Even though much of the material was familiar to me and I only made extended notes where I thought it necessary, I still filled more than sixty pages and went home every night with a head full of new ideas.

I could blog for the next year or more about the things that I learned, but three nuggets top my list of things to chew on, because I think they will be especially useful to me when I get on to writing Alexis’s prequel story. All three were superbly illustrated during the final session of Story—a six-hour scene-by-scene analysis of Casablanca and again during Love Story’s breakdown of The Bridges of Madison County.

Top of the list is empathy. We’ve all been told that while it’s not necessary for the reader to like the main character, it’s vital for her to empathize with them—to feel that if she were in the same predicament, she’d make the same choices. I always think about that requirement when introducing a protagonist. I had not considered that the character must maintain empathy throughout the story or risk losing the reader. When a character makes a choice which risks alienating the reader’s empathy, it is the writer’s job to make that behavior understandable and relatable. So in The Bridges of Madison County, isolated housewife Meryl Streep sets eyes on fascinating stranger Clint Eastwood and chooses to cheat on her boring but respectable husband, cooking dinner for Clint in the family home, sleeping with him in the marital bed, (almost) leaving her family for him, and remaining in love with him throughout the rest of her married life. The husband is not a bad guy, and it takes a lot of hard work on the part of the writers and the director to make Meryl and Clint’s affair palatable, let alone inevitable, let alone a course of action that the audience is willing them to take.

Second is curiosity. Have you ever stuck with a story you weren’t enjoying because you wanted to know how it ended? Me, too. Apparently it’s because human beings are endlessly curious. So another way to persuade the reader to stay with you through a book or a series is to keep some juicy story questions open, and in such a way that the reader can’t guess what’s coming. And it’s important to do at least as good a job on your antagonist’s story as on your protagonist. Readers are well versed in story and genre conventions, and if you tip your hand, even a little, they’ll see everything.

Third is subtext, especially in the big scenes when the stakes are high and emotions run higher. There should be at least as much going on under the surface for the reader to figure out as there is front and center for them to see and hear. If you put everything on the surface, your story will feel flat and melodramatic and there’s nothing left for the reader to interpret.

I had Alexis on my mind the whole weekend. The prequel novella is the story of how her parents met and parted. We know Alexis’s mother ran and that Alexis was born in hiding. We know that some time after that her father married and had a son with another woman. I am the goddess of my story world, and I know both Daire and Annis are deserving of empathy, but I’m going to have to work super hard to deliver that experience to the reader. Last weekend I got some good thoughts about how I might do it. Curiosity I think might be a little easier. The choices the characters make cause consequences that raise major questions that will power the whole of Alexis’s series. Subtext will, I hope, help to keep the reader engaged as the story unwinds.

What do you think?

Have you ever empathized with a story character even though their choices were morally questionable or even repugnant? Stuck with a story just to find out what happened? Do you love it when characters leave the most important stuff unsaid?

8 thoughts on “Jilly: Three Things I Learned at McKee’s Story Seminar

  1. Oh boy. Your last question hit me hard. I’m writing immoral immortals — they have a different view of things like loyalty, and it’s only in my work this month that I’ve managed to come up with a rationale for why they do what they do. I have no idea how to work that into my earlier stories.

    I think you have a little more leeway with relationships when you are working in fantasy, and you have extra leeway when you are working with prequels and shorter works. Not every love story is going to end up as a happily ever after. Even fantasy readers know that. And romance readers know it, too, but don’t want to accept it — that’s why the norms for romance is The Happy Ending. (“Why read about unhappy endings when we can see plenty in real life?” seems to be a common argument, and actually a very good argument.)

    So much in the literature genre seems to be about morally repugnant people who don’t wind up with happy endings. I have stuck with plenty of those stories, and sometimes read them twice, but I don’t really enjoy them when that sadness is the entire dish. (I’m looking at Flanner O’Connor, and also the book Lolita.)

    I don’t mind some sad threads, and some people who are fairly amoral, as long as people wind up happy in the end. Perpetually satisfied Bertie Wooster comes to mind. (-: The sweet boy has such a low bar for happiness, and I love him.

    I’ll note, too, that’s it seems to be OK when minor characters don’t get their guy, as long as they are happy. Bet Me — I don’t think Liza winds up with a guy, but she really doesn’t need one. And the Bad Girl in that story really is fascinating. Sometimes it’s a lot of fun to explore the mind of The Other Side.

  2. Jilly-would you consider doing a second post describing scenes in The Bridges of Madison County that perform the tasks you’ve listed?

    As far as immoral/amoral characters, my whole Touched by a Demon series is written from the point of view of demons from Hell who engaged in corrupting and destroying human beings. In their own heads, though, what they’re doing is perfectly valid. Another trick for keeping reader sympathy with bad actors is to surround them with other characters who are much worse.

    • I used an example from Casablanca in my reply to Kay below, because it’s really famous and everybody knows it. Apart from that maybe I should see if I can apply the teaching and come up with my own examples–that would be good practice for me and better than using McKee’s material.

      Making your demons less bad than the rest of their diabolical community is a useful trick. I also think curiosity will be your friend. We know that your demons are powerful and expect to win easily against the puny humans, and we also know that they won’t. What we don’t know is how you’re going to pull off that trick. It will be fun watching them get their comeuppances!

      • I’m most interested in the “bait and switch” he describes at the point where characters make their devil’s bargains, if that helps….

  3. Well, gosh. I’ve already read some or part of Michaeline’s and Jeanne’s work, and I liked it, and I want to continue to read it. That said, my answers to your questions, Jilly, are a little surprising:

    1. Have you ever empathized with a story character even though their choices were morally questionable or even repugnant?
    NO. Well, maybe. If I like the character and s/he is trying but makes a bad decision, then fine. I can empathize with that. If the character him/herself is repugnant or morally questionable, then no.

    2. Stuck with a story just to find out what happened?
    NO. In almost all cases, I KNOW what happens. I’m reading for the journey, the details. If I don’t like the details, I’m out of there.

    3. Do you love it when characters leave the most important stuff unsaid?
    NO. How am I supposed to empathize with them if they don’t say what’s important?

    • I meant to post this earlier, but it flew away too quick. There’s a book by Nick Hornby, A Long Way Downy, about 4 people who meet at the top of a skyscraper on New Year’s Eve, They’re all planning to jump because their lives are such messes. And you quickly realize why–because they’re messes. The young woman, especially, is pretty off-putting. At one point she turns to the audience and says something along the lines of “If you’re feeling sorry for me,” (which you totally are by that point) “shove it up your saggy old arse.” I remember literally gasping when I read that line.

      And yet there’s something almost hypnotic about the four as they try to straighten out their screwed up lives.

      So, yes, I’ll stick around–if the novelist is extraordinarily skillful.

    • Replying to Kay, I’d question your answer to 1, because IIRC you have at least one published novel with very sympathetic characters who are well-intentioned but who act unethically and even illegally and get themselves into very hot water. (And I’m pretty sure you have at least one more example in a yet-to-be-published story) ;-).

      And re. subtext: sticking with Casablanca, what about the fact that Bogart never once says “I love you” to Ingrid Bergman, even though she’s the love of his life and even when he knows he’ll never see her again? He says “Here’s looking at you, kid.” We know exactly what he really means, but he never articulates it.

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