Copyright © 2003 by William Mistele. All rights reserved.
The following essay and most of the quotes are derived from the seminar and book by Robert McKee called Story. See also, Robert McKee, Story, Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting, ReganBooks, an imprint of HarperColllins Publishers, 1997.
“Former actor and director Robert McKee, 59, is the preeminent teacher of screenwriting. His three-day, 30-hour, $450 Story seminar, which is conducts worldwide, has been attended by approximately 40,000 aspiring and practicing screenwriters.”
In context, this essay is not about viewing oneself from the perspective of Wilder’s play, Our Town, in which the young girl looks back on her life and realizes how precious each moment was after she has died. It is not a detached view of one’s life from some transcendental perspective. There is no Zen staring at a blank wall for hours on end trying to be free of one’s identity.
No, McKee is interested in the choices we make right now in this moment about how to get on with our lives in a realistic, satisfying, and also compassionate way. We are pursuing self-expression and the truth about ourselves. This is not abstract or intellectual. It involves gut feelings and striving for harmony amid day-to-day conflicts.
At a break during the seminar, I asked Robert McKee, the eminent professor of writing screenplays, about his interest in psychology. I pointed out that the categories he uses in describing screenplays are years ahead of the psychology now taught in modern universities. His reply was “Yes, my work is ahead of psychology. But why bother with psychology? Someone else will have to write a book about that. My interest is in art.”
That is to say, why focus on illuminating personal experience and gaining self-understanding and then stop there? In a good screenplay, the author expresses the emotions he lives through while writing in such a way that millions of moviegoers experience exactly what he felt during his process of writing.
McKee: “Through empathy, the vicarious linking of ourselves to a fictional human being, we test and stretch our humanity. The gift of story is the opportunity to live lives beyond our own, to desire and struggle in a myriad of worlds and times, at all the various depths of our being.”
For McKee, cultures fall into decadence when story telling becomes bad. Consequently, if you are going to understand yourself and take the time to come to grips with who you are, then why not learn the craft that allows you to share that experience in a way that transforms the world? Recently, a woman advised the thirteen-year-old daughter of the man she was dating to keep a journal in order to deal with the conflicts she was facing—
The critic Roger Ebert on the movie Thirteen: “That the horrors in this movie are worse than those found in the lives of most 13-year-olds, I believe and hope. It is painful enough to endure them at any age, let alone in a young and vulnerable season when life should be wondrous. But I believe such things really happen to some young teenagers, because at Sundance last January I met Nikki Reed, who co-wrote the screenplay when she was 13, and was 14 when she played Evie, the movie's troublemaker.
“When I meet Reed at Sundance she was with the film's director, Catherine Hardwicke, who told one of those Only in Southern California stories: Hardwicke was dating Reed's father, Reed was having problems, Hardwicke suggested she keep a journal, she wrote a screenplay instead, Hardwicke collaborated on a final draft and became the director.”
In a sense, McKee is a prophet of a religion called art. For him, art is a metaphor for life that tells you have to live life. McKee asserts that storytelling is the oldest, most productive, and dynamic form of cultural behavior. Let us take a look at some of the descriptive concepts McKee presents in his famous story seminar and discover the extent to which they might be useful for self-understanding.
In turning to the psychology of the self, we might first take note of the literary concept of a biography. A biography is told well as a story. You cannot describe what occurred during all the years of an individual’s life. You have to distill, edit, and present what holds the reader’s attention.
You are in effect telling a story about the individual’s life—the highlights, the conflicts, the passions, the successes, failures, and the driving motivation. McKee puts it this way—“The biographer must interpret facts as if they were fiction, find the meaning of the subject’s life, and then cast him as the protagonist of his life’s genre.”
What is a story? Borrowing from Joseph Campbell, McKee says all stories are one story and that they take the form of a quest:
Joseph Campbell summaries the common denominator in all mythologies:
One story is told throughout the world in a thousand different ways: Though living in safe, secure, and familiar circumstances, the hero is called, accidentally stumbles, or else is tricked into crossing the boundary demarcating the familiar world and the unknown.
He leaves behind the setting of family and protective community. In doing so, he bypasses the shadowy figures or culturally sanctioned guardians who watch over the boundaries leading into the unknown. Because he travels beyond the safe limits of conventional knowledge, he acquires unusual companions—animal, human, or divine—who aid him in his journey. Along the way, he overcomes dangers, traps, and monsters. Finally, after undergoing a supreme ordeal, he discovers various kinds of treasures. But the journey is not yet complete. These treasures must be brought back and shared with others, for the value of what he finds is not known to him or us until it is established within the human community.
Joseph Campbell states that the problem for us today is to “make the modern world spiritually significant, i.e., making it possible for men and women to come to full human maturity through the conditions of contemporary life.” To accomplish this task, we need a mythical and spiritual dimension of thinking which meets the challenges of four tests. Here I will relate the first.
The first function of a living mythology is the Transcendent Function. Life has a dimension of mystery. One the one hand, myths always try to tell us the truth—that nature is deadly, terrible, and monstrous. At the same time, they also say that living is opening our hearts and minds to the sheer wonder of existence. Life, therefore, is both terrifying and fascinating. It is full of horror and wonder.
The first and primary condition any mythology must fulfill, then, is to awaken and sustain awe and gratitude within us. As human beings, our task is not just to gain scientific and objective knowledge but also to perceive and experience the world as new. For a myth to be genuine and effective, it must empower us like nothing else to step back from our identities, social roles, and the conventions of society. It must go further and offer us genuine insights—we should be able to see clearly into the unknown and unexplored depths within us and not be frightened. In effect, a truly alive mythology should introduce us to the great mysteries of life.
In the past, religions were able to speak to the beauty and the horror of life expressing both extremes in one set of symbols dramatized through a single mythological story line. But how do we to do this today? If our religion or personal mythology cannot accomplish this task in an effective way for us, then it has failed in its primary purpose.
Going further, Campbell states that all religious mythologies apply to the past and not to the present world. For Campbell, we are at this time without a genuine mythology that is capable of encompassing the variety and complexity of the world in which we live. Whatever the richness and force of any particular religion, that religion fails to take into consideration the wider interests, genuine ideals and purposes, and the depth of the problems confronting us in the modern world.
You only need to look at the art produced by religious practitioners to understand this. The imagery lacks the power and creativity that would otherwise be able to speak to all sides of human nature. From history, says McKee, we have learned that human beings are both devils and saints. One day we build the Cathedral of Notre Dame and the next day Auschwitz.
We have Shakespeare who places before us the spectrum of human virtues, vices, motivations, and desires that constitute and define personality. We have Carl Jung who probes the depths of archetypes that awaken within us the dreams of all mankind. And then we have Albert Speer, the engineer behind Hitler’s war machine and Oppenheimer who organized the Manhattan Project in the U.S. that build that atomic bomb. We have Nelson Mandela and Gandhi as well as Saddam Hussein and Stalin.
We create fires hotter than the fusion of the sun. We create life forms that do not exist within nature. We freely rewrite the code of DNA. With off the shelf technology, we are quite capable if we so chose to colonize other worlds—that is, the human race for the first time (and for the first time of the earth) is in a reproductive phase in which we can establish ourselves on other planets.
What religion or mythology can come to terms with human nature and our ability to create both for peace as well as destruction? I sit in an Evangelical Christian church where the minister is doing an exegesis on a letter of the Apostle Paul to a first century Church. My mother sitting next to me whispers, “I don’t care about the culture of the first century. Why can’t he tell more stories?”
Perhaps the Apostle Paul never read the Gospel stories that were, after all, written about the time he was arrested and carried back to Rome. Paul did not tell stories. He spoke to the intellect that tries to integrate and comprehend. Stories, on the other hand, speak to the heart that tries to fathom the depths of feelings struggling to find harmony amid and between life’s conflicts.
Where is the Christian (or for that matter) any minister, Rabbi, priest, or sage who comprehends the Manhattan Project, the Third Reich, Stalin, Mandela, Gandhi, Shakespeare, and Carl Jung as well as modern life? Where is the heart with enough empathy and discernment to capture the spine of desire in the life of Steven Hawkins as well as bin Laden? He does not exist on this planet. This is Joseph Campbell’s point.
Compare Campbell’s summary of the mythological story to McKee’s summary of story. McKee is not as interested in the great spiritual values and ideals of mankind as much as in the dynamics and structure of story that enables it to capture our attention and engage the depths of our emotions. For McKee, this is story:
For better or worse, an event throws a character’s life out of balance, arousing in him the conscious and/or unconscious desire for that which he feels will restore balance, launching him on a Quest for his Object of Desire against forces of antagonism (inner, personal, extra-personal). He may or may not achieve it. This is story in a nutshell.
Here we are not talking about some great culture establishing mythological hero. We are not describing a quest that leads to a direct encounter with the greatest force of destruction that threatens all of life on earth. Nor are we discussing the discovery of some treasure that enriches the entirety of human society.
Rather, we are using descriptive categories that apply to each individual’s life. This is a huge transition from the dimension of mythological quest to the personal story of any individual. Then again, McKee started as an actor. He played Shakespeare.
Some say that Shakespeare invented the modern personality. For Shakespeare, no matter what happens to you in life you still have the freedom to choose how you will respond. You are an active player in life. In fact, you exercise complete and absolute sovereignty over some aspect of your identity.
No matter how small this aspect may be, your ability to choose how you respond (even when the enemy or forces of antagonism are another part of yourself) makes you the hero of your own life. No matter how small or great, you have a chance of winning or losing that harmony and resolution of conflict that you deem significant and worth pursuing. The depths of emotions and the value charges of life are already in play within each of us. Each of us is the dramatic protagonist of our own life story.
McKee: “Each of us knows that we must choose and act, for better or worse, to determine the meaning of our lives. No one and nothing coincidental will come along to take that responsibility from us, regardless of the injustices and chaos around us. You could be locked in a cell for the rest of your life for a crime you did not commit. But every morning you would still have to get up and make meaning. Do I bludgeon my brains against this wall or do I find some way to get though my days with value? Our lives are ultimately in our own hands.”
This is not saying that the archetypal conflicts and the deep spiritual rewards of life are not still in play. It is simply saying that in each generation and in each individual’s life there is a discovery process through which ancient wisdom is reborn in a new form. Ageless values come alive when we see them for what they are through our own eyes, feel them within our own bodies, and experience them within our own hearts.
In the movie, American Splendor, the story line follows the actual experiences of a file clerk who writes comic books. But these comic stories are not about super heroes. They are about ordinary people in ordinary situations dealing with work, relationships, riding the bus, surviving cancer, etc.
Understand, file critics like Ebert see more than one movie every day for years on end as part of their jobs. Consequently, they like to see something different once in while. Ebert gave this movie four stars, his highest rating. Like I say, it is an impressive movie precisely because it makes interesting a man who works his entire life as a file clerk.
Roger Ebert says about this file:
“The comics are true, deep and funny precisely because they see that we are all superheroes doing daily battle against twisted and perverted villains. We have secret powers others do not suspect. We have secret identities. Our enemies may not be as colorful as the Joker or Dr. Evil, but certainly they are malevolent--who could be more hateful, for example, than an anal-retentive supervisor, an incompetent medical orderly, a greedy landlord? When Harvey fills with rage, only the graphics set him aside from the Hulk.”
We have examples of individuals making choices. A thirteen-year-old girl decides to write a journal instead of a screenplay. A file clerk with a dead-end job decides not to talk to a therapist about things only a therapist would bother to listen to: not having a girl friend, struggling to get out of bed, or his reaction to overhearing comments made from the alley. No, he begins writing comic books in which every moment, no matter how boring, becomes art that can be shared with others—a proclamation about the survival of one’s spirit.
To discover the on-going story within us, let us consider briefly the application of the following concepts: Inciting Incident, plot and subplot, progressive complications, choice, value charge, characterization versus true character, the gap, supporting cast, writing from the inside out, and imagery and symbol.
In talking about any person, we can distinguish between characterization and true character. McKee: “Characterization is the sum total of all observable qualities of a human being, everything knowable through careful scrutiny: age and IQ; sex and sexuality; style of speech and gesture; choices of home, car, and dress; education and occupation; personality and nervosity; values and attitudes—all aspects of humanity we could know by taking notes on someone day in and day out. The totality of these traits makes each person unique because each of us is a one-of-a-kind combination of genetic givens and accumulated experience. This singular assemblage of traits is characterization…but it is not character.”
True character is what the individual is really like inside. The only way to get at it (even for an the individual himself) is to observe the choices the individual makes in pursing an object of desire amid conflict and under pressure. These kinds of choices involve taking risks. You can have one thing but not another—there is choice and through it we discover the inner core values and motivations of a person.
What sets the story—not the outer events but the real drama--of an individual’s life into action? We are after the self we create through our choices in life. We are not after the hand dealt to us by fate but in how we respond to what has been given to us. This brings us to the Inciting Incidents.
What event has radically upset the balance of your life for better or worse? This is something you are aware of. It can be something you initiate or that happens to you. In any case, the value charge and balance of your life are radically upset going either toward the positive or negative.
This event is something you react to even if your choice is not to react. But refusing to act cannot last for long. McKee: “We all wish some reasonable sovereignty over our existence and if an event radically upsets our sense of equilibrium and control, what would we want? What does anyone want? To restore balance.”
The Inciting Incident sets an individual on a quest for some thing, situation, physical, or attitudinal that he feels he lacks or needs that will pull his life back together. He is propelled by this need to attain an object of desire that will resolve his conflict. This desire can also be unconscious and in conflict with what he thinks he wants.
Nonetheless, you should be able to pull someone aside and ask him, “Say, what do you want out of life? And he should be able to tell you. I have heard lots of responses such as I don’t know what I want. No, perhaps you don’t consciously.
But I have watched many individuals over the decades. Ask the woman what she wants and she may reply with a question, “Love?” But watch her actions for twenty or thirty years. She forms relationships with men out of a desire to acquire power and fame. She drains each of man of all he has to teach her and then she ends the relationship and enters another one that offers her more opportunities. I call that ambition, not love.
Another woman who is not sure of what she wants slowly gains confidence in herself to the extent she is now able to find others upon whom she can dump her anger and hatred. Having succeeded in making their lives a nightmare and living hell, she gets a job in which she does well and discovers finally what she wanted all along—independence and self-confidence. I would say there was real definition and focus on an unconscious level even if the conscious mind was confused.
Or a man may say, “I wish to serve the Lord.” Over the decades he acquires wealth and he indeed helps others but only when he gets one specific response from them—they must adore him and communicate that adoration fully to him. I call that vanity not service. What individuals say they want is not necessarily the definition of what is actually motivating them. To discover truth, you have to be willing to question everything including your own secret motives.
Another man says he wishes to live an easy going life style in which, nonetheless, he strives to be of benefit to others. A real altruist. But he demands his wife obey him in all ways to the extent that he insists she wear clothes that humiliate her in public. Here too we have a strong conflict between the intent to help others and the reality of how he desires to enslave someone near to him.
An Inciting Incident leads us to ask, How will this turn out? Will the individual get what he thinks he wants? Does he really want it after all and will it really restore the balance of his life or make things worse?
In story, an Inciting Incident implies the protagonist will have a direct confrontation with the greatest force of antagonism preventing him from regaining the harmony he desires. The upheaval, soul-searching, or irresistible fascination of the Inciting Incident indeed require the creation of a new order of life that reestablishes balance and harmony.
The Inciting Incident must be consistent with the world and background of the individual. We sometimes do crazy things or want what is impossible. These are not part of Inciting Incidents.
Being an intuitive sort, I used to find and study women who I considered to be “doors into another world.” (I still do that). They revealed the great mysteries and archetypes of life as much as any religion or work of art.
One day I casually introduced a friend of mine to one of these women. At the time, she was a student at Kalamazoo College in Michigan. He did not leave campus when I left. Instead, he dropped what he was doing and finagled his way into one of the dorm rooms on campus. She fascinated him to the extent that he became psychologically paralyzed. Today we call this kind of person a stalker.
Of course, the girl totally ignored him and eventually he left after coming to his senses. This was not an Inciting Incident in his life. It was not part of a plot or subplot in his life. Women with such depth were beyond his grasp and he figured that out on his own. He had no chance and such a relationship would have been inconsistent with both his characterization and character. Thus no Inciting Incident occurred.
What was the Inciting Incident in the movie Forest Gump? McKee asks our seminar. Is it when he discovers he can run? No, that is just part of his characterization. It occurs when the mother has her son promise on her deathbed that he will always do the right thing.
What is the Inciting Incident in the movie A Beautiful Mind? McKee asks. It is not the birth of his obsession to be the perfect mathematician. Rather, it occurs when he discovers he is crazy.
What was the Inciting Incident for Moses? No doubt the burning bush through which God spoke. What about the Buddha? His discovery of suffering in the world by seeing old age and death, the very kind of things his father had plotted to conceal from him.
We have major Inciting Incident and minor ones constituting main plots and subplots. These subplots can be counterpoint, resonate with, in contradiction to, or add complicity and variety to the main course of our lives.
When I was age four an angel appeared and asked me what I wanted. That was an Inciting Incident. It was a setup that would have a payoff eight years later when my family moved to Grosse Pointe. But it was also part of a plot that would take another ten years before it resulted in a rather dramatic Act One Climax that drew together three other subplots at the same time.
An Inciting Incident of that nature placed my life within the genre of supernatural thrillers such as Sixth Sense, Meet Joe Black, and Shakespeare’s The Tempest. It meant I would not be able to write like Hemmingway or Faulkner, like Camus or Sartre, or like Bergman or Fellini. Whether I liked it or not, two separate worlds have an equal claim upon my perceptions or so it would seem.
But guess what? You cannot have light without darkness in equal measure. My life is also part of the genre that contains such movies that probe the dark side of life: Groundhog Day, Jacob’s Ladder, Through a Glass Darkly, and Persona.
What was the Inciting Incident for this dark side, for a personality that does not and cannot belong to this world without creating a place for itself?
I can just hear McKee saying at this point, “Every writer thinks his life would make a good screenplay. But biography is fiction and autobiography is pure fantasy. Although it is true that the unexamined life is not worth living, it is also true that the unlived life is not worth examining. You have to unite imagination and creativity to your choice and action if you are going to have a life story worth telling.”
All the same, I can recall a whole series of events over the years that embody the value change from sojourner to an individual at the extremes of despair. There was a combination of genres: education, disillusionment and supernatural thriller. These kinds of stories take place more within the mind of the protagonist than through overt action in the world.
Then again, Andre Breton, the surrealist, had Nadja. Dante had Beatrice. But I had Betty Anne. She was out of the dark side beyond anything Dante or Breton could have imagined. And then I met other women and things got even worse.
My point is that reviewing life in simple descriptive terms such as Inciting Incident is like pushing all the crap off the table, freeing oneself of distractions, and finally getting down to work. In other words, I find McKee’s descriptive categories useful. Asking story questions causes certain events to stand out among all others. When you reduce conflicts to the bottom line, things fall into place and you discover what you really care about.
The Inciting Incident, for example, involves a change for better or worse. Something good or bad is offered to us and we have a choice as to how to respond. Ira Progoff, who teaches intensive journal, says events such as this can also be what he calls “roads not taken.”
A woman marries and has children thereby giving up her career in the performing arts. She made a choice. A man chooses to be a stockbroker rather than a naval officer or a nature photographer. He made a choice. But years later, after the family is raised or retirement nears, these individuals may say, “But I still love the performing arts.” Or, I still love ships and nature.”
And so a choice reappears, the plot continues, even if the Inciting Incident is left unacknowledged for decades due to other commitments. Bury something important in your unconscious and it will eventually emerge in the same or a different form with greater force.
The woman directs her attention away from her family so that she can write and direct musicals. The man buys a sailboat and sails around the world with his new digital camera. Or else they slip into self-pity and stagnation dreaming about what might have been. Inciting Incidents, long forgotten, may come back and demand a second act in their own subplot so that the individual’s life has the variety and contrast needed for the person to feel alive.
In a story, the Inciting Incident must occur early on in the telling to hook the audience’s curiosity and wonder about how things will turn out. In life, the Inciting Incident may be followed by years or decades of inactivity. The plot goes dormant and remains submerged until inadvertently reawakened.
I was teaching a class on listening skills and I observed something about a medical doctor who was near retirement. As he told the story of his life, the only time his face lit up was when he recounted a demonstration by an artist who used colors in an amazing away. This occurred when this doctor was five years old. I pointed out to him that perhaps he would like to consider working in some way with art or photography. His body remembered something that his mind at forgotten.
A Hopi Indian medicine man told me how as a newborn child his clan had performed a ritual joining his spirit to the spirit of another child who had died during child birth the same day. He was told that when he was ready and mature, the dead child would become his spirit guide. Later in life, after fulfilling his other ambitions, he became a healer due to the benefit of this spirit connection.
The Inciting Incident in this case required him to fulfill his personal desires before his spiritual vocation would appear. It would take him a lifetime to do this before the payoff would arrive.
Some Inciting Incidents meet Joseph Campbell’s description of taking us across familiar boundaries and into the unknown. The Hopi Indian’s Inciting Incident did. In Western literature, Dante sees Beatrice and in that momentary glance his mind and emotions become so entwined that the event incites the writing of the Divine Comedy.
Homer, by contrast, still lived in a world where the divine was free to interact directly with mortals. For Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey resulted when Zeus and Hera gave Homer the final say in one of their on-going disputes. Homer sided with Zeus at which point Hera cursed him with blindness but Zeus bestowed upon him inspiration. From conflicts and inspiration of that caliber, you write great, world historical epics.
On the other hand, there are individuals who have to bury some of their Inciting Incidents for their careers to thrive. Carl Jung kept his mystical visions secret so that his analytic psychology would not be compromised in world that valued rationality. And there are William Blake and W.B. Yeats. Yeats could write, “Come away Oh human child, to the forest and the wild, for the worlds more full of suffering than you can understand.”
Or Blake, “Hear the voice of the bard, who present past and future sees, whose ears have heard the Holy Word that walked among the ancient trees.” Both Yeats and William Blake were members of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids that has records of their participation in its archives. But at the time these authors could not write about druid practices per se and maintain their professional careers.
In other words, the inciting incidents, acts, and climax of these subplots in their lives are hidden from us. We do not know how they played out. We do not know if inspiration involved them in mystical pursuits as an attempt to understand or if their mystical pursuits drove their poetry. Inciting Incidents often involve both mind and emotion to the extent that the individual feels he is undergoing a religious experience.
As an exercise, then, take a piece of paper and list the Inciting Incidents of your life. These are not hidden from you. You already know them. They have inspired you or threatened you.
They bribe and welcome you, offering you new vistas of opportunity and freedom. Or they attempt to coerce and compromise you dragging you down into the gutter or worse. In other words, Inciting Incidents are laden with highly charged values and confront you with a change for the better or the worse shifting your life out of balance.
And they offer a major choice. This choice involves risk, possibly loss and danger, possibly reward, inspiration, and self-esteem, but with it comes an awareness that you can have one thing but not another.
The Inciting Incident also propels you to take some sort of action in pursuit of an object of desire, conscious or even unconscious, that will restore harmony to your life. When faced with a serious crisis, you can ask yourself, what do I want? If your desire for resolution is substantial and enduring, the answer to the above question will define a quest.
In addition to major choices, a number of Inciting Incidents will be minor relating to subplots. As in drama, sometimes there are multiplots or miniplots. That is, there may be a number of plots occurring in your life that are of equal significance going on at the same time. Or there may be different chapters to your life that are not directly related to each other.
For McKee, human beings and nature as well are fundamentally conservative. McKee: “Your character, indeed all characters, in the pursuit of any desire, at any moment in story, will always take the minimum, conservative action from his point of view. All human beings always do…. No organism ever expends more energy than necessary, risks anything it doesn’t have to, or takes any action unless it must. Why should it? If a task can be done in an easy way without risk of loss or pain, or the expenditure of energy, why would any creature do the more difficult, dangerous, or enervating thing? It won’t.”
Individuals do foolish, absurd things but their actions are relative to their point of view in that precise moment of acting. As McKee would say, people only do what they think they have to do to accomplish their purposes.
People act in any moment according to their past experience, what has happened to them, what they imagine or dream, what they hope, and the way they believe the world is. There is a probability and expectation that a given action will carry with it a certain result. Most of the time when we act what we anticipate will happen actually occurs.
What we anticipate or expect, however, may not happen. The truth is that what actually results as a consequence of our choices can only be discovered through action. The way the world reacts will forever remain unknown to us unless we act. The truth, then, is what actually happens as opposed to the probability of what might happen.
McKee: “In story, we concentrate on that moment, and only that moment, in which a character takes an action expecting a useful reaction from his world, but instead the effect of his action is to provoke forces of antagonism. The world of the character reacts differently than expected, more powerfully than expected, or both.”
Forces of antagonism may come three directions. First, they can arise from within us. These forces can be our body, emotions, or mind. Any one or combination these may not react the way we expect. Our emotions betray us. Our thoughts become distracted. Our body refuses to cooperate. Arjuna from the Mahabarata, “The mind is harder to tame than the wind.” William Blake: “The eye sees more than the heart knows.” The greatest battle perhaps is coming to grips with the demons inside of us.
There is also a personal level to forces of antagonism that may respond in a way we do not expect. This encompasses personal relationships: family, lovers, and friends. These involve kinds of intimacy deeper than social roles.
The third level consists of extra-personal relationships such as conflicts with social institutions, governments, churches, businesses, police, waiters, criminals, doctors, etc. It is the whole world including nature.
The gap is that space that opens between what a person anticipates in a specific situation as a result of his action to get what he wants and the resultant response when the world refuses to cooperate. The forces of antagonism, from any combination of the three levels, react differently or more powerfully than expected.
An individual deposits his payroll check into his checking account in order to cover his other expenditures—mortgages on the house, loans on the cars, insurance, credit cards, etc. He has done this countless numbers of times. But this time the check bounces. He knows the money is there, it has always been there, so he gets on the phone and calls the bank. This is minor annoyance.
The bank manager says that he did not endorse the check. The individual replies that for twenty years he has been depositing checks into his own account that are in his own name without endorsing them. The bank says this is its policy.
The man’s action resulted in a reaction from the world that he did not expect. But his mind quickly adjusts to the new situation and he takes an action that he did not want to have to take, one requiring slightly more will power and ingenuity—he calls his lawyer.
His lawyer tells him that own his secretary has been depositing his checks into his account without signing them for thirty years. The lawyer points out further than when he had checks bounce because the bank made a mistake, he had the bank manager write each of his clients and apologize to them on behalf of the bank. Suddenly the individual feels vindicated. The world has regained the order he expected it to have.
He calls the bank manager back ready to yell at him for messing up something so simple. In any case, he will now endorse the damn check, redeposit it, and get on with his life. The bank manager replies that there has been a mistake. His computer now indicates that the real problem is not that the check was not endorsed but that there were insufficient funds in the account from which it was to be drawn. What? This is the man’s payroll check.
Again, the world reacts in a way he did not anticipate, putting him in jeopardy. Now there is risk. This is not annoyance. This is distress. If there are no funds behind that check, then his other checks will bounce.
Now the individual must take a third action and call his boss who does not like to be disturbed by petty questions. But the situation is serious, worrisome, and somewhat dire. It turns out the boss is not annoyed, just sad when he takes the call. He tells the man that the creditors have pulled the plug on the company refusing to invest in what they now consider to be a losing venture. The company is bankrupt. There are no significant assets and the offices are now closed.
Now we have a story precisely because we get to see how this individual will respond when his world is turned upside down. Minimal and lesser actions will no longer work. Consequently, we have a chance to catch a glimpse of this individual’s true character by the choices he makes under pressure and amid conflict. An hour before his day was ordinary. Things were going according to expectation. Routines were normal. The status quo was in control.
Then chaos entered. He is in the middle of a gap—he cannot return to the past and a variety of antagonistic forces block his way into the future. Now he must put forth greater and greater will and utilize more and more resources in order to restore balance and harmony to his life.
How will he respond to the reality as it now presents itself to him? Will he rise to the occasion? Will he go into denial and refuse to respond? Will be overoptimistic or depressed? Everything he does from now on involves choice and risk. Doing nothing is taking the greatest risk of all.
Does he recall that funny feeling he had when he was hired? He was told that the company’s expenses including the payroll were being paid not from out of the company revenues but from the investors. Does he decide that this is the opportunity he has been waiting for to break free from a lousy job and try working at something he really cares about?
Is he worried about what he will tell his wife or friends? Or is the real question simply how to make that car and mortgage payments? We will only know who this person is deep down by observing the choices he makes in situations such as this. The man must walk through this gap and in so doing he will both reveal and define his character.
Along the lines of the political subplot in my life, I had an interesting “first act” climax. As a teenager, I tried to share with my family my concerns for the suffering and poor of the world. I figured that even if my analysis was in dispute, the concerns of my heart were genuine. Nonetheless, it was not my analysis that was questioned but the concern itself.
The forces of antagonism were greater and other than what I anticipated. I was shocked by the response I encountered as the difference between the Republican and Democratic parties was explained to me for the first time.
To summarize a long and tense conversation, I was told, “You fool! Other than the activities of Christian charity, no one cares about the poor. Democrats pretend to but they do not. Democrats want to take the money from people who work hard to earn it and give it away, not to the poor, but to those who will build the Democratic power base.
“There are some bleeding heart liberals who out of guilt and feelings of alienation deceive themselves into thinking they want to help the poor in a way that produces genuine change. But these are con men that believe their own con. Their big lie is that they think they can rescue people. They have to rescue people otherwise they do not get the emotional payoff that placates their twisted conscience.
“But as a matter of fact, only the poor can rescue themselves. The liberal attempts at assistance defeat and drive the poor into greater poverty. Every program they initiate is pie in the sky and a lie because it produces no practical results. Its only real purpose is to gain and hold media attention.
“No, the only way in the whole world to help the poor is to give them jobs. There is no other way to build self-esteem, community pride, and to strengthen the family. It is only when there are wealthy people who have excess money to invest—the venture capitalists—that jobs are created through new forms of enterprise.
“This is what being a Republican is all about. We take risks. We manage capital with ingenuity and inventiveness. We maintain and exercise responsibility for the economy in ways the workingman can never imagine. And we are the ones who bring about the changes that make the world a better place in which to live. And this is why, as long as Republicans are influential in our government, the United States will be the greatest country on earth.”
That was my Act I political subplot climax. Years later I would make fun of the Dalai Lama’s monks who continuously shy away from studying sociology, economics, and history. I said, “Being enlightened is seeing the world as it is. This can not be done without some sort of understanding of international economics and military history.”
As this subplot unfolded, I would discover that it is necessary to first encounter and then overcome within oneself the roots of hatred and the pure lust for power before it is possible to overcome these things in the world. To accomplish this, I journeyed into the unknown far beyond anything a good Christian or a Republican could possibly imagine.
In the example involving the bounced check, an ordinary activity split open the gap between expectation and reality. At first, the situation seemed to require a simple phone call to straighten out the problem. Minimal effort. Then came the unexpected response from the bank—check not endorsed. Something fishy is going on.
A second greater action is then taken requiring more effort—call the attorney. Briefly, it appears order and sanity have returned to the world. But things are not as they appear.
The bank reveals the truth of the situation in greater detail. Now another step is taken, one full of foreboding and uncertainty. Call the boss. But things are worse than what was imagined. How will our protagonist respond? Now we are on the level where real character defining choice appears.
I had a lot of liberal friends in high school. In fact, I had introduced the first two conscientious objectors in my town of Grosse Pointe to each other. One was the son of the chief negotiator for the UAW in Detroit and the other went off to join the SDS and found the yippie movement. But little did I anticipate the vehemence that would confront me when I questioned the established values of my family.
The exercise at this point, then, is to recall in greater detail some of the “progressive complications” that followed an Inciting Incident in your life. McKee: “To complicate means to make life difficult for characters. To complicate progressively means to generate more and more conflicts as they face greater and greater forces of antagonism, creating a succession of events that passes points of no return.”
How has your life been made difficult? As your interests and desires progressed, were they confirmed or under attack? Did things develop or were they put on hold? Did your expectations pan out or were you shocked by responses from the world or your inner self that you never anticipated?
What were the other gaps that occurred along the same plot line that arose from an Inciting Incident? What did those choices, made under pressure and amid conflict, reveal about your inner self, your true character?
What insight arose when reality came into direct conflict with your subjective expectations? How did you handle that insight? What levels of will and new resources did you draw upon to respond to the crisis? And over the years, have you noticed any changes in your inner character? Have you become aware of previously unconscious desires and motivations? What has been your response to that insight?
In story, the protagonist is surrounded with other characters whose traits amplify and contradict the protagonist. One character brings out the protagonist’s fear and another his faith. A third character, by contrast, highlights the protagonist’s weakness and a fourth his strength. The protagonist reviles one person for his abuse of power and seeks to imitate another for his courageous service.
In some life scripts or story lines, a character shows up who is perfectly design to exploit a character flaw in such a way that it threatens to or does destroy the life of the protagonist. Another character shows up who is so cleverly designed that he inspires and serves as the catalyst for renewing and transforming a character’s life.
It is not the protagonist did not have a choice in the matter. You can always look at an obsession or course of action and say, “If I continue in this way, it will destroy me.” Some individuals nonetheless seem to miss this moment of self-reflection.
Maybe they did not see their own lives reflected in a story and so had no warning about a witch, demon, or monster disguised as something beautiful and enticing that was ready to snatch their soul from out of their grasp. Or maybe now that it has happened to them they can write their experiences into a story so that others might learn.
There I was in high school--a good Christian--but look at my supporting cast, both inner and outer. I was in a fabulous church choir. Great music. Cutting edge stuff. But the choir director was having an affair with one of his students. The tenor who sang next to me—he was that guy who would go on to form the Michigan chapter of the Students for a Democratic society while simultaneously belonging to the Join Birch Society.
Two students sitting across from me in math class were the class valedictorian and the state presidential scholar. Both avid atheists, they nevertheless loved to argue about Christianity and atheism. Then I go to a Christian college and immediately meet women who were sexually molested by their good Christian fathers and a dean of students who conspires with a Freudian therapist to haze and expel students with unacceptable political views.
And, in spite of the atheists and narrow-minded fundamentalists, when I sit in church pew, there is this persistent angel sitting behind me whispering in my ear, “Do you have any miracles you would like to accomplish? Perhaps a sea to divide, a cloud by day or a pillar of fire by night?” Push that away and I next find druids who consider me a druid because I meditate for days inside stone circles and find trees that talk to me and tell me stories about their lives. And these are only the minor characters in my supporting cast.
But in terms of casting, of others who provide the right contrast and support, I still have key roles to fill. I am waiting for certain characters to show up. The drama of my life requires it. The spine of desire driving my life demands development and action.
I once wrote a story about three goddesses arguing about which of them was more beautiful. But instead of attempting to bribe a mortal whom they would made judge of their contest, they decided instead to place their individual essence inside of a male. In this way, they could determine beyond all doubt by the man’s choices and actions which essence had the greater clout.
Would it be Aphrodite’s lust, Athena’s desire for the highest love permitted to a mortal being, or Diana’s love of nature and freedom? And then the goddess of the earth takes notice and decides to enter the contest as well. We all have conflicting desires within us striving for supremacy. Harmonizing these conflicts is one of the great tasks of mythology and religion. And it plays a major role in each of our lives. For better or worse, significant others dredge these conflicts up from the depths within us and force us to deal with them face to face.
Who are those who have been the supporting cast of your life? Which ones draw out the best and the worst within you either by resonating with you or contradicting you? Which supporting cast, basic, fundamental, and essential, have not yet entered your story? What part of your self, caught in brief glimpses or still unknown, is waiting to awaken through the light and words you discover through contact with another’s life?
Imagine just the right person walking up to you one day and in a brief conversation or by inciting new emotions gives you a new face, a new personality, or a directs you on a course of action you would never have otherwise taken? That is, an individual appears before you who either embodies an unknown aspect of yourself that you cannot deny. Or else this individual has knowledge or skills that reshapes your life in ways that would otherwise be impossible. Do not think of just one person and situation in which this might happen. Imagine ten or twenty.
Writing from the Inside Out
The last concept I will mention from McKee relates to the method of writing screenplays. In the hermetic magical training of Franz Bardon, there is an exercise in which you imagine you are another person whether this is someone you know or a complete stranger. You focus your mind in such a way that there is nothing else within your consciousness than being this other person.
Actors do this exercise as well. Except in the case of great actors, they may take months working on a specific character. If they are going to play a cop, they may ride along in a police car for months with different officers so they get a better sense of the day to day reality. They also recall and relive memories that are similar to those they will be expressing in the role of the character. This is going way beyond what Bardon expects a student to practice as an exercise.
Similarly, McKee talks about writing from the inside out. This is where you exercise your imagination in identifying with a character within a specific scene you may be writing. McKee says the objective is to ask “What if?” That is, what would it be like if I were that character within that situation? What would I think and feel? How would I perceive the world?
This is a restatement of Bardon’s exercise and Stanislavski’s “Magic if.” For Stanislavski, you improvise. You imagine you are the character until “honest, character-specific emotions flow in our blood.” If you can gain an authentic, gut-level reaction in imagining you are the character in a specific situation, then what you describe in writing will work for an audience as well. You emotions are transferable to others. Your art is the medium through which you produce in others’ bodies the sensations and feelings you have felt in your own body.
McKee takes this further, however. In writing, he says you should imagine not one or two versions of a scene but ten or twenty. Then you can throw away those which are crap and use what is powerful and surprising. For example, what if when a character acts, things do not go as he expects? What if it is the worst thing or the best thing that could happen? And what if the worst turns out to be the best and the best the worst?
I had just taken my seat on a plane coming back from the McKee seminar on LA. The girl behind me asked if she could have my seat. I wasn’t about to give up an isle seat and so I asked the stewardess who was a few rows away if there were any isle seats available for this girl.
The stewardess had been talking rapidly with another steward about their jobs and benefits. She glanced at me and said all the seats are full. The flight is totally booked. And then she went back to talking about the A team and the B team and how unfair it was that her boss was trying to get her to work more hours than her contract called for.
Once everyone was seated, however, a third of the seats were vacant. My first thought was that her comment about the plane being full does not encourage confidence in the flight crew. If she doesn’t know whether the flight is full or not then maybe she doesn’t know the kind of plane she is on or even the emergency procedures. Perhaps she will say, “Everything is fine folks, no cause for alarm,” as we see the ground come rushing up through the window.
But then I thought some more and told the girl behind me, “The bitch lied!” The girl said, “Maybe she didn’t know,” and I replied, “She knew. She just didn’t want to bother being helpful.” I don’t like it when someone who is being paid to attend to others’ well-being is standing there ranting about her job. I tend to file complaints on such occasions just on principle.
After the plane was airborne, she went on ranting with the other guy about her job. And then I thought, wait a minute, this is really good material. I am writing screenplays. This is great stuff I am hearing about her difficulties with her job, with layovers, and staff conflicts. I don’t want to interrupt this. I couldn’t get this kind of material if I paid her.
And then I started imagining ten or twenty ways her life was going. All of a sudden my picky, tight-ass reaction to her flippant attitude seemed irrelevant. I already know how to be assertive during conflicts of interest. I didn’t need to step on another bug. My empathy (or self-interest) took over—“look at this person. She is pouring out her guts. What on earth goes on behind those polite masks the other stewardesses wear who seem so calm and helpful?
On the connecting flight, two female and a male steward gave each other hugs and laughed as they passed each other in the isle. This was more difficult for me. I had a very hard time imagining what was motivating those responses.
Recall someone you like who seems quite nice to you, warm, friendly, etc. Now imagine ten or twenty unconscious desires that will gradually surface and lead him or her to act in a manipulative and harmful manner.
Recall someone you consider vile, selfish, or cruel. Imagine ten or twenty explanations for this. And then imagine some unconscious desires seeking to surface through this individual that will lead him or her to perform acts of generosity and compassion.
Imagine a few individuals who are selfish and generous, cruel and compassionate, enlightened and also blind to their own character flaws of vice and stupidity. And then consider ways their lives may succeed or else fail depending on the ways in which their hidden qualities of character will lead them to different choices in critical situations.
Now imagine someone you love. Ask your self, “If I were this person in the circumstances this person is in, how would I act and how would I feel?” Do the same for someone you hate. Find an emotion that rises from out of physical sensations in your body as you do this.
Imagery and Symbol
A great movie invents its own symbols and imagery. These are effective only if they are not obvious and are not conventional. They are unique to the story being told and they influence us on a subconscious level.
A certain sound is repeated at key moments in a story so that it takes on its own meaning. Water is used not as a life-giving symbol but rather as a destructive presence. Aragorn in Tolkein’s trilogy about Middle Earth smiles slightly each time he is about to go into battle or the taste of peanut butter in Meat Joe Black becomes a symbol of the way an abstract spirit (Death) can crave and also take delight in the surprise and newness of sensory stimulation.
One way of working directly with symbol and imagery is an exercise from Ira Progoff’s work with writing journals. Take a dramatic scene from your life or a large period of time such an entire stage of your life, an Act if you like. Consider the outer events that occurred during this short or larger period of time. What marks off the beginning and end of this scene, act, or stage of your life? What was the conflict, who were the individuals present, and what did they want to accomplish?
Now relax and take a few deep breaths. Ask yourself what was going on underneath or behind these outer events. Do not think about an answer. Just wait and allow your body to respond on a gut level. You are looking or sensing a physical sensation in your body that carries feeling with it. Again, the process is that this physical response arises from the body and its wisdom rather than from the mind with its concepts.
In the example I gave earlier about my family explaining to me the difference between Republicans and Democrats, the symbol I come up with that is underneath the outer conflict is the smell of tear gas. I recall that horrible gas I encountered at one of those “peaceful” demonstrations at the University of Michigan during the sixties—the way a faint whiff attacks and inflames the sinuses of the nose and the eyes. It is the smell of conflict in which power is being demonstrated and the processes of consensus and problem solving have been terminated.
Now go one step further. Relax again and hold in your mind both the outer events of this time fame and your inner sense of what was underlying the outer events. Again, do not think but allow your body to feel and respond in its way and in its own time. Ask, “What is beneath all of this? What is going on behind it? Or, what is the opposite?”
In my example, I see and feel myself walking along wilderness trails. The air is clear and there are no conflicts over power, at least not with other human beings. This image embodies one resolution of the direct conflicts I was experiencing at the time. It was not necessarily the best solution to my problems but it did shape the course of my life over the next decade—I spent a lot of time out in nature away from human society.
I never thought of walking down nature trails as a symbol but it is a symbol and a very powerful one. Decades later, after studying with some of the best yogi, meditation, and chi kung/Tai Chi masters in the world, I finally discover that it is only walking that actually brings into balance the various opposing energies in my body. It is the only thing that brings the energy down from out of my head and grants me some sort of balance.
As a symbol, you could say it was there all along but I was unaware of it as a symbol. It carried a lot of power. But only looking back now do I see the power it held for me. If I were writing a screenplay about the course of my life, I would layer in images of being out in the wilderness so that these took on a specific and unique meaning in addition to their normal associations.
This would not be the act of throwing the cell phone away and walking bare foot in the grass as in the movie Pretty Woman. It would be more along the lines of an individual who is as comfortable in and as familiar with the wilderness as an Indian medicine man. Yet the approach to nature would remain remarkably different.
Robert McKee is the only real Buddhist I have ever met (though I am sure he would disclaim being a Buddhist). This is because he focuses on the insight generated through actual experience in real life situations. McKee: “Life is about the ultimate questions of finding love and self-worth, of bringing serenity to inner chaos, of the titanic social inequities everywhere around us, of time running out. Life is conflict. That is its nature.”
Some try to ignore, downplay, or else package these conflicts within intellectual theologies and philosophies. Some try to ritualize life’s conflicts within catechisms or symbolic ceremonies. But such approaches fail to grasp the drama that take place within each individual’s heart on a day to day basis.
It is within this space, the gap that opens as we act and as the world confronts us with unexpected and forceful opposition, that we discover who we are. How else would we ever confront the false assumptions we make about life? Where else would we ever encounter both the unknown vices and the wealth of spirit that are hidden within us? Such moments are the cutting edge of life and the place on stage where we learn to feel most alive—where we turn daily life into a spiritual training ground.