Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Nature of Today's Storytelling Debate

Let’s imagine that we are all aspiring musicians and/or songwriters.

One day, a man (who is not a musician and has never once written a song in his entire life) comes into town. He holds a “Conference for Aspiring Songwriters” (for $250 a pop, mind you), and tells the packed crowd of young hopefuls that all songs must follow the AABA formula.

“History has proven that the greatest songs ever written use the thirty-two bar form known as AABA,” he says. “This form found its origins in Tin Pan Alley songs and later became the essence of rock, jazz, and pop music. This became the principal form of music beginning around 1925-1926. It’s a thirty-two-bar form with four sections usually eight measures long each (4×8=32), two verses or A sections, a contrasting B section, the bridge or 'middle-eight,' and then a return of the verse in one last A section (AABA). Thus, we’d have:

verse / verse / bridge / verse

“Some of the best examples of AABA,” he says, “include Jerry Lee Lewis’ ‘Great Balls of Fire,’ the Everly Brothers’ ‘All I Have to do is Dream,’ and the Beach Boys’ ‘Surfer Girl.’ The best Beatles songs followed this formula, as well, from ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ to ‘I Will’. Although they have, at times, modified the thirty-two bar structure, they never strayed far from the most proven songwriting form in music history.”

“Therefore,” he declares, “all songs must follow this construction. All songwriters must use ‘Great Balls of Fire’ as their personal model.”

And, of course, the entire music industry embraces this man.

Then the artists, those who have actually written songs and studied songs all their lives, stand up and say, wait a minute. How do you explain songs like “Every Breath You Take” by the Police, which features a thirty-two-bar section, a contrasting bridge, and then a repeat of the thirty-two-bar section, making a compound of ABA and AABA forms? This structure might look something like this:

verse / chorus / verse / chorus / bridge / (verse) / chorus

“It’s not as strong a song as ‘Great Balls of Fire’.”


“Because it failed to follow AABA.”

How about Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love?” Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’?” Tom Petty’s “Refugee?” They all follow similar compounds of ABA and AABA forms. People love those songs, do they not?

“Compound ABA and AABA forms are too long, too complicated, less catchy, harder to market, and don’t give you as much freedom with lyrics as AABA.” (What?) “AABA gives you room for musical intros and outros, not to mention the opportunity to add some musical breaks between the verses without having to worry about making the song too long. As I’ve said in my award-winning conferences, compounds are lesser songs that will not stand the test of time because the form does not connect with people as easily as AABA, which has been proven throughout the history of music.”

Hey, not all great artists in rock and jazz followed AABA. Ever heard of Pink Floyd or Miles Davis? They connected with thousands of people!

“Those were rebellious artists that brought disgrace to their genres for failing to follow AABA.”

Then how do you explain the works of Amadeus? Symphonies, concertos, or any other kind of
multi-movement form of music like ballets, fugues, operas, rhapsodies, or sonatas?

“Nobody goes to ballets or operas anymore because those songs don’t connect with people as easily as AABA. They don’t sell as many tickets and for good reason - it’s not a form that works as well. AABA is a proven formula that has lasted almost 100 years now.”

But aren’t symphonies high art?

“Music is about connecting with people. If you don’t connect with masses of people, you fail.”

So high art can’t exist even with songs that are

“That’s correct.”

Then I guess Les Miserables is a piece of shit.

“Unfortunately, yes.”


Webs said...


Anonymous said...

Another admirable post. As a new writer working hard at making his story as challenging as possible and reworking and rewriting it to ensure the presentation doesn't let it down but rather adds to the experience, my perspective on the 'rules' of screenwriting are that they are a useful analytical tool to jump start you when you are stuck.

When you read back a draft that you have sweated over with a mixture of flair and method, using all of your innate and acquired knowledge about what makes a good story - not rules but fundamentals such as strong characterization etc., arcing or not - and you can't quite put your finger on why something isn't quite working, or you have a vague sense that some part could be stronger. If inspiration isn't helping out, then the screenwriting 'rules' offer a methodical way of looking at your work to judge where you may want to make changes (or not, but thinking about it in such terms may unlock some nugget of wisdom).

You'll probably tell me off, but I have a similar approach to character sheets, for secondary characters at least. We are often told that you must know what newspaper your characters read that morning, must know them inside out, and I agree, but from my own experience I believe that you need to know them inside out by the time you get to the end of the writing process, not necessarily before you put, ermm, finger to keyboard. If you are Werner Herzog you can visualise the entire film in your head and then spend a couple of days banging out the script. But for lesser mortals such as myself, I find that I cannot plan every last detail before I start to write (even though I have most of the story mapped out ahead of time) and that I learn an awful lot about my characters during the writing process, and that the story evolves and, hopefully, feels natural and spontaneous as a result. But if I got to the end and didn't know them inside out, it would be seriously flawed.

Elver said...

You really hate McKee, don't you? :P

I was unaware of the controversy around the guy when I first read his "Story". And it was one of the first books I read on the subject. The lessons I took away were the following:

1. There's traditional and non-traditional narrative.

2. Both are fine, but you gotta master traditional before you start doing non-traditional.

3. Subtext is very important.

4. Write from the inside out.

And those are pretty much the major lessons I walked away with.

I really didn't get the feeling that "I'm right, you're wrong, only AABA works." It was more like "It's really hard to fail at AABA, so learn it and use it and build from there. Alternatives exist and can be very good, but you should know AABA really well before you attempt those."

McKee's style of teaching falls into the same category with people like Lajos Egri, Penn Jillette, John Safran, Jeremy Clarkson, and other famous, annoying, smug assholes. It might not be correct 100% of the time, but the delivery never lacks confidence. And that's something the newbie really does need.

Joshua James said...

Great post, heh-heh.

We're fermenting a rebellion, a glorious rebellion.

Laura Deerfield said...

or fomenting one, even.

Though McKee is perfectly happy to let the impression of his godhead stand, I don't get that smugness in his writing.

I feel it's a problem that those who are not the creatives have latched onto this formula because they are made uneasy by things they can't quantify. It's the risk-averse Hollywood atmosphere.

Christina said...

I wonder if McKee ever attended a Dead concert? Would have been good for him. They wrote some bizarre stuff. They have this one song, Terrapin Station, that takes up one side of an album and reminds me of opera. And don't get me started about Dark Star.

This post probably makes no sense. I'm feeling spacy today. Playing too much music.

Joshua James said...

fermenting is more fun!

Anonymous said...

MM, I liked your example of music to prove your point of too many rules. I'd like to throw in art as well. I'm a photographer and just recently I had an experience with this kind of thinking. Some of the old schoolers and their students strictly abide by "The Rule of Thirds". A photo MUST be separated into thirds. Blah, blah, blah. In 2007 I entered one of my photos into several Juried shows (it didn't fit into rule of thirds). My results were won a first place, a second, a best in show...then didn't even get chosen to hang in two other shows...shows judged by crotchety old school thinkers who only pick photos that follow the rules. Unfortunately for me, those are the more prominent shows. LOL. Figures.

So already having experienced this narrow way of viewing someone's work, it got me thinking about how other's judge screenplays. I'm a soccer mom from NJ who has absolutely no connections whatsoever, and the only real chance I have of getting my work recognized is by placing in some of these contests. But I fear the readers, who I know are for the most part students, may be brainwashed in the McKee school of strict, in-the-box thinking. I think out-of-the-box and I write out-of-the-box. As if these contests aren't hard enough, now you have to keep your fingeres crossed that your SP falls into the hands of someone who hasn't been brainwashed on this strict formula. Yikes.

This post struck a cord with me because I've been thinking about this very thing recently. Although I was encouraged when Juno won the Oscar because it showed me anything is possible. When I read Juno I had to laugh because her narrative was witty and entertaining, something I stopped doing cus someone told me you shouldn't. Keep it lean and to the point. BLAH, BLAH, BLAH.

This turned into a rant. Sorry bout that. :P

Anonymous said...

Listen to this pop song by Irish/English girl group Girls Aloud entitled Biology. It is famous for having a totally originally structure where the chorus doesn't show up until the end. Also the are the hottest girl group in history.

Mickey Lee said...

What? No mention of Roy Orbison?? For shame....

Laura Deerfield said...

Joshua - I actually love the image of a revolution fermenting. Seems that's much the way they happen.

Team Brindle said...

Your post illustrates nicely why I don't use a prefab structure formula touted by some guru-- and always read SWing books with my antennae up.

I've always found it odd that a lot of these SWing teachers and consultants -- most of whom aren't working writers-- are so adament that aspiring writers follow their particular philosophy, template and imaginary "rules", when real screenwriters are much looser with their process (& less pushy).

The gurus need to project that certitiude in order to be taken seriously and sell books. I always keep in mind that they earn their money by selling books and giving advice, not by sellng screenplays.

Mim said...

I agree that the "rules" aren't hard and fast, and should be more of a jumping-off point than a map to follow slavishly.

It's just that articles like this have a way of encouraging new writers to skip learning the basics and go straight to writing their 200 page epic narrated in voice over by a character who stays in one room.

They all say, "Well Quentin Tarantino worked at a video store before he wrote Pulp Fiction and if he can do it, so can I." And none of them realize that the first thing Quentin Tarantino sold was True Romance, which is about as formulaic and by-the-book as you can find.

It's all right to say that following the rules limits your creativity, but I think you should deliver that joyous news with a healthy dose of reality. Learn the basics first and master them.

Joshua James said...

True Romance was hardly formulatic, not in the early nineties . . . the hero dies at the end.

And if people are writing, they're learning. Let them write their 200 page opus. Let them write badly. Everyone writes badly in the beginning, even those with training and seminars under their belt.

So let them soar without constraint.

I believe people will learn more from writing and failing than they will from reading books on writing and not writing much at all.

Just my opinion.

Elver said...

I don't mean to pick on MM here, but... How is "only AABA works" different from "we see/we hear is sloppy writing" or the popular-again "voiceovers are forbidden"?

Not saying that there's hypocrisy. Just asking for clarification.

Unknown said...

Well, the difference between what MM is saying here and his warnings to don't use we see/we hear etc. is the same as the difference between composing and playing. You need to be able to play the hell out of that piano in order to make your composed piece of music sound good.

Elver said...

It's all fine and dandy with the music analogy, but consider, for example, a car analogy.

There's a huge number of car journalists and race drivers who've never actually built a car, but when one of them says that the live rear axle suspension on the latest Ford Mustang is seriously stoneage and seriously harms the car's handling, then I'd trust that person's opinion.

Or when they point out that the latest generation of Honda Civic Type-R is heavier and has horrible torsion bar suspension at the back without a power upgrade to the engine, making it worse than the previous generation, then I wouldn't really disagree with them.

Or when they point out that the new Evo 9 has serious turbo lag problems...

You get the point.

None of them have actually built or designed a car. Yet you would trust their opinion on cars. As would I.

One can know what a great car looks like, feels like, drives like, without actually being able to build one.

Why doesn't the car analogy work here?

scottycwilliam said...

In True Romance, the main character (played by Christian Slater) DOESN'T die in the end. Tony Scott filmed the death scene (which was originally in Quentin's script) out of respect for him, but decided that he cared for the main character too much to let him die. Christian's character and his girlfriend had a baby and named him Elvis. The death scene was an alternate ending on the DVD.

Anonymous said...


don't confuse rules about the presentation of the story with rules about the story itself. Sticking with the music analogy (sorry, you car one was lost on me), go ahead and write that great symphony however your creative juices tell you to, but, for God's sake, don't write the score out in red felt tip with ad hoc notes ('this bit slow to emphasise how sad it is') all over it. Stick to the conventions of presentation, because why would you want to handicap your work by doing otherwise?

Voice-overs and no "we see/we hear" fall into means of presentation, they don't affect the story itself and can always be eliminated through better writing.

Elver said...

Hm. You make a good point.

Joshua James said...

My point was, when it was a spec, the hero died at the end. obviously the film was different. But my point was as a spec, it wasn't THE ROOKIE (Clint Eastwood film) it wasn't by the numbers action spec.

The original script of NATURAL BORN KILLERS is available online (it even lists Rand Vossler as director) and it's very different from the film and again, far from formulaic, especially for the time it was written.

MaryAn Batchellor said...

Brilliant analogy. Brilliant.

(oh, and some classical music DOES follow AABA)

scottycwilliam said...


Isn't that what usually happens? original scripts change to suit the Hollywood formula. Happy endings, always..

Anonymous said...

Act One: Put your hero in a tree.

Act Two: Throw rocks at your hero.

Act Three: Get your hero out of the tree.


Well written, sir.


Darkmatters said...

Strange coincidence that I should stumble across this post just now.... I just finished the book.

I don't agree 100% with everything McKee says, but then I don't agree with 100% of what ANY author says! I do however believe that a good 85% of the book is excellent.

Thus far in fact, it's the best book I've found on the subject. But then, who bases their entire technique on just 1 book? I've also ready John Truby, Michael Tierno (with an assist by some obscure old dude named Aristotle) and a few others, plus absorbed as much info as I can find online. When you do this, you fill your head with a more balanced diet, and any "bad parts" of the individual books or authors cancel each other out.

For would-be screenwriters to attempt to come up with their own 'rules' entirely out of the blue would be - well, not really like re-inventing the wheel, more like starting with re-inventing the wheel and then trying to work their way up to designing a modern automobile (without, mind you, copying anything already done by the designers who have come before)!!! If you want to see alternative paths, climb onto the shoulders of the giants who have come before. Even if you disagree with much of what's 'common practice' today, the available screenwriting books are still an invaluable trove of incredible richness.... absorb it and move on to new pastures! Primitivism only works for a gifted few.

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