“Win The War On Clichés” Robert McKee On Writing Action Films

By Creative Screenwriting Magazine • September 29, 2022

Screenwriting instructor and author has taught, inspired, and mentored thousands of screenwriters over his career spanning several decades. His combination of practical exercises and real life film and television examples to illustrate his points has led to many of his students forging highly successful screenwriting careers. In his latest book, Action: The Art of Excitement for Screen, Page, and Game, McKee focuses on the specific art of writing action movies.

“Action is the most in demand genre now. It has even surpassed crime, love and horror. There’s a newly-found passion for action that hasn’t been there for some time,” exclaimed McKee.

The author added that action in a screenplay is more than thrills and spills. “It’s a complex genre with its own set of principles and tremendous variations.”  As is the case with every genre, there are audience expectations that must be met. “Writers must work within those expectations and deliver them to audiences in ways they do not expect.”

He advises that action writers need to actually master the action genre and not simply replicate what they’ve seen on screen. They can do this by getting to the heart and soul of the genre and infusing their own spin on  it often by fusing it to another genre.

 - I wrote the book to help writers win the war on clichés

McKee’s advice extends beyond film and television writers. It applies to novelists and game writers too since these formats follow the same genre demands. “If writers understand both the conventions and exceptions of the genre, they can create a great story.”

Robert McKee co-wrote his tome with co-author and long time student, Bassim El-Wakil, who suggested collaborating on book on writing in the action genre.

McKee has a distinct process for writing books based on need and clarity. “I run a seminar and listen to the students’ questions. They tell me where there’s a gap in the lecture. This improves future lectures. When I reach a saturation point with the lectures, it’s time to write the book.”

Current Trends In Action Films

McKee is seeing more supernatural elements in modern action films and the evolution of comic book heroes. There’s also an increase in realistic action like Top Gun and The Northman as is a mixture of fantasy, hero, and action.

He also cautions against identifying and following trends too closely. “If you see a trend and write in it thinking it will make you a successful screenwriter, you are easily at least ten years behind the times.” The last things writers want after labouring over a script for months or years, is hearing the industry say, “We’ve seen all that. That’s passé.” Trends are not born when films hit the screens. That is the tail end of a trend.

“Good writers invent the trend. They create something so original that everybody copies them.” Screenwriters should understand the genre and story form because that’s what audiences connect with the most. “You need to find a new world and a new setting so the core characters of action – especially the villain – have a space to act. You need an all new powerful villain with a set of desires and powers. A hero is a reaction to a villain. Villains act. Heroes react.” The author commented that many screenwriters begin their stories from the hero’s perspective rather than the villain’s.

 - Without villainy, there is no heroism.

A solid action film requires three core characters:

-victim
-villain
-hero

These key action characters react to each other to keep the story momentum flowing. “Writers can use this framework to create something fresh and original in a genre we all know and love. If you copy, you will not stand out.” He also encourages screenwriters to watch films and read screenplays of successful action films so they are aware of the genre being executed at its best.

McKee uses this character triad to define genre in Alien (1979) and Aliens (1987). “Alien is a horror film because Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is a victim who rises to the occasion. Aliens is an action film because she’s a heroine.” He also cites Die Hard and Terminator as classic action movies.

The Mercy Scene

Robert McKee looks for one key component in every action film – the core scene – where the hero is at the mercy of the villain. “The hero is weaponless, defenceless, and helpless with their back to the wall. Somehow the hero needs to find the resources to turn the tables on the villain in that scene and come out on top.”

The author believes that this scene defines what it is to be a hero – to outsmart and overpower the villain when their chips are down. “It’s the hardest scene to write and requires the most imagination,” he said.

Excitement is the pre-eminent emotion elicited in action films. “Horror films evoke terror. Crime stories evoke a certain fear. Action evokes excitement.”

“Excitement is the sense of the proximity of death. The core value in action movies is life and death. The closer a hero comes to death, the greater the excitement. The audience will always be safe. In crime movies, the core value is seeking justice. In a war film, it’s victory and defeat.  In horror, it’s life versus a fate worse than death.” If the hero crosses a certain line in terms of proximity to death, the action film becomes a horror film. Although crime and war films deal with life and death, this isn’t what’s most at stake. It’s winning or losing.

 - Excitement is the experience of moving closer and farther to and from death

“Genres wear themselves out. Action is no different,” cautioned McKee.

Robert McKee blushed when we called him a screenwriting guru. He is driven by the success of his students. “I’ve taught over seventy Oscar winners, hundreds of Emmy winners… Also Pulitzer and Booker Prize winning novelists and writers.”

He’s also driven by obsession. “I’m obsessed with purity, clarity, precision, and depth of story in the simplest terms so the audience gets it. I’ve always resented writers who’ve tried to impress people with their intellectualizations and elaborations of language.”

“A cliché is a good idea a screenwriter had a good idea a hundred years ago that has been repeatedly used ever since. Because action is done so often, repetition becomes a bigger problem.”

He advised a fresh and original approach so writers “don’t fall prey to the cliché.” More recently, action movies are displaying increasing complexity of character though contradiction. “Consistent contradiction within a character creates a dimension. A three-dimensional character has three contradictions in their nature. Sometimes they’re courageous and sometimes they’re terrified. Sometimes they’re brilliant and sometimes they trip over their own feet.”

 - Contradictions make characters dynamic through the positive and negative charges within them.

Robert McKee believes that the action films of the future will be mainly be based upon the complexity of character. He also sees long-form television as the future of the action genre as cinema attendances dwindle. “Long-form television will be the future home of the best writing in the world using action as the driving energy.” Long-form allows for more intricately layered characters and character interactions. “It allows for characters to undergo more complex personal crises and transformations.”

Writers in this medium are also merging action with other genres, such as crime and love. He quotes the multi-award-winning show Ozark as a prime example. “It merges action, crime, family drama with complex character evolutions.“

Creative Screenwriting Magazine

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