Welcome back, ink heads! I’m back to my series inspired by Robert McKee’s seminal book on storytelling aptly titled Story, which, though written with screenwriters in mind, is chock-full of useful lessons for any type of fiction writer, whether you’re a short-story writer, novelist, or playwright.
Today, I’m going to discuss one of two “failed screenplays” – or stories, in this case – that McKee has identified. It may seem a bit presumptuous to assert that there are only two explanations for why stories fail, but I think you’ll agree that these categories get to the heart of most storytelling blunders by exposing two extremes of the tale-telling spectrum: portraiture and spectacle.
Portraiture is the first type of failed story.
Portraiture, according to Merriam-Webster, is “the art of making portraits; portraits of people painted or drawn by artists.”
When I think of a portrait, I, like many of you I would guess, think of masterpieces like The Mona Lisa or The Girl with the Pearl Earring. I envision beautiful oil paintings depicting mysterious people that, while intriguing and lovely to look at, are unreachable, frozen in the faraway time and place from which they pose.
Stories as portraits are quite like that – beautiful, but unreachable. That is to say they are filled with stellar prose and gorgeous imagery, yet fail to take us on the literary journey we seek and enjoy as readers. We feel an initial swell in our hearts as we are struck with the poetry and gravitas of their language, but with no real core of Truth, our fascination quickly dissipates, and we walk away having read pretty words, but not a story.
Here’s an example of portraiture from Story:
In an office setting we meet a protagonist with a problem: She deserves a promotion but she’s being passed over. Angry, she heads for her parents’ home to discover that Dad’s gone senile and Mom can’t cope. Home to her apartment and a fight with her slobbish, conniving roommate. Now out on a date and smack into a failure to communicate: Her insensitive lover takes her to an expensive French restaurant, completely forgetting that she’s on a diet. Back to the office where, amazingly, she gets her promotion … but new pressures arise. Back at her parents’ place, where just as she solves Dad’s problem, Mom goes over the edge. Coming home she discovers that her roommate has stolen her TV and vanished without paying the rent. She breaks up with her lover, raids the refrigerator, and gains five pounds. But chin up, she turns her promotion into a triumph. A nostalgic heart-to-heart over a dinner with her folks cures Mom’s woes. Her new roommate not only turns out to be an anal-retentive gem who pays the rent weeks ahead with cashier’s checks, but introduces her to Someone New. We’re now on page ninety-five. She sticks to her diet and looks great for the last twenty-five pages, which are the literary equivalent of running in slow-mo through daisies as the romance with Someone New blossoms. At last she confronts her Crisis Decision: whether or not to commit? The screenplay ends on a tearful Climax as she decides she needs her space.
Are you yawning yet? This sounds more like a diary entry than a novel or screenplay synopsis, doesn’t it? There’s a reason most people’s personal journals are not adapted into movies – they’re downright boring!
“The ‘personal story’ is understructured, slice-of-life portraiture that mistakes verisimilitude for truth. This writer believes that the more precise his observation of day-to-day facts, the more accurate his reportage of what actually happens, the more truth he tells. But fact, no matter how minutely observed, is truth with a small ‘t.’ Big ‘T’ Truth is located behind, beyond, inside, below the surface of things, holding reality together or tearing it apart, and cannot be directly observed. Because this writer sees only what is visible and factual, he is blind to the truth of life” (emphasis mine).
We are storytellers, not reporters. It is our task to skillfully choose interesting, thematic, Truth-containing events to write about. It is not our task to record facts as we’ve heard or experienced them, no matter how true (small ‘t’) those facts are to life.
All of us have had spats with loved ones, been disappointed, experienced frustration, and fallen in love, like the girl in the above synopsis. These are certainly perfectly legitimate and diary-worthy events, but not necessarily anything to write home about, much less write entire scenes and chapters about. In the aforementioned aimless plot about the girl, we see a sketch, not a story.
Facts mean very little without a kernel of Truth invigorating them.
McKee gives the example of the story of Joan of Arc. Each rendition of her tale is filled with the same facts: She raises up an army, defeats the English, is charged with heresy and burned at the stake. However, every version is driven by a different Truth of her life operating behind the scenes, Truths such as Joan’s spiritual convictions, her political ideals, her wit, her suffering, and even her supposed lunacy.
I think a practical way to determine whether you’re wading into the murky, yawn-inducing waters of Portraiture is to take what I’ll call The Watercooler Test. I’ve actually never worked in an office that had a watercooler, but apparently there’s a stereotype that good stories and/or jokes are often told around our modern version of watering holes.
Anyway, to take The Watercolor Test, simply ask yourself, “Would my watercooler story hold people’s attention, or would they nod off and head for the coffeemaker instead?”
Static portraits are undeniably beautiful and often awe-inspiring, but it’s motion pictures, a.k.a. movies, that thrill, inspire, uplift and entertain by the very fact that they are, by nature dynamic. When it comes to art-related watercooler stories, generally the successful ones aren’t about the latest Hans Holbein exhibit at the local art museum, but about the movie we saw over the weekend, the one with the hilarious repartee between the lovers, the mind-boggling plot twist, the edge-of-your-seat action, the sad but oh so awesome ending, the cathartic effect that kept us up late thinking…
Our books, like good movies, should leave readers with an emotion – maybe even a few – that will stick with them long after they’ve reached “The End.”
I vividly remember the first time I ever saw the movie Gladiator in theaters. I wept during the credits. I sobbed on the way to the car. I cried during dinner at T.G.I. Friday’s. I was still sniffling as I did my homework. The film’s underlying Truth of “strength and honor” sunk so deep into my soul that it’s still one of my all-time favorite movies for both its entertainment merits and its poetic treatment of timeless themes, such as duty over desire and good versus evil.
To help ensure your book doesn’t fall into the unforgiving category of “Failed Story,” I encourage you to take the craft of storytelling and the discipline of plot structure seriously. A talent for writing doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll all make it as fiction authors. But more on that next week!
 McKee differentiates between “truth” and “Truth” in his book, explaining that “Big ‘T’ Truth is located behind, beyond, inside, below the surface of things, holding reality together or tearing it apart, and cannot be directly observed.”
 Generally speaking, page ninety-five is toward the end of a screenplay.