Storytelling — Harmon vs. McKee

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Narrativium

I’ve been on a gigantic yak-shave for the last few months exploring storytelling theories, so I figured I’d start a new blogchain to compile my findings.

The most useful line about storytelling I’ve read so far is this line from Walter Benjamin, quoted at the opening of Reality Hunger:

“All great works of literature either dissolve a genre or invent one.”

I realized the line accurately describes all stories I like, and also everything I attempt in my own fiction experiments, whether or not I succeed. Hitchhiker’s Guide, for example, dissolved the genre of space opera. Iain M. Banks’ Culture series resurrected and reinvented it. Storytellers who do one of the two things tend to do at least a little bit of the other as well, but tend to have a preference. It’s like being left or right-handed.

One storyteller who seems particularly good at dissolving genres, and to a lesser extent, inventing them, is Dan Harmon.

Recently, I gave Harmon’s first hit TV show, Community, a second chance, after enjoying Rick and Morty, and was well-rewarded. I ended up bingeing all six seasons in a few weeks. The evolution from the former to the latter is both strikingly evident, and very enjoyable to trace.

The reason I didn’t get into it the first time around was that I mistook it for just another genre-perpetuating ensemble sitcom like Friends. But turns out, it actually dissolves the sort of schmaltzy genre of which Friends is an exemplar. It is a sly takedown of all the tropes and techniques that define shows like Friends.

Rick and Morty too, dissolves the genre pioneered by The Simpsons, the straight-up adult cartoon. Both of Harmon’s shows represent an extreme form of character-driven storytelling at the boundary of realistic and cartoon archetypal characters. To top Rick and Morty you’d have to achieve some sort of fundamental re-invention within the medium of the 22-minute cartoon-show. Community, I think, pretty much killed the traditional sitcom, making way for the currently ascendant genre of Millennial cringe.

The thing about both shows is that they achieve their creative-destructive effects without slipping into typical late-stage styles like Mannerism or Baroque. They exhibit enough skill at the craft of storytelling to tell good stories, but harbor enough disrespect towards craftsmanship as an end in itself to avoid heading down stylistic cul-de-sacs. Instead, they subvert to dissolve, but with real affection for the things being dissolved, rather than either simple hostility or affected meta-ness. Hostility would make a tedious ideological project of dissolution. Affected meta-ness would lead to empty academic exercises. Harmon simply wants to use the genre-dissolution process to scavenge good stories out of the corpses of tired ones.

Harmon is also a very effective theorist of storytelling. His gloss on the Hero’s Journey is the most effective one I’ve seen, and in my opinion superior to better-known versions like Christopher Vogler’s Writer’s Journey or Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat. It’s an 8-step thing he calls the story circle that’s a masterclass in heuristic compression. In the first 3 posts in the series I’ve linked above, he explains the idea visually, then in terms of multiple dichotomies (life/death, conscious/unconscious) and then takes the trouble to simplify it down to eight words before proceeding.

You
Need
Go
Search
Find
Take
Return
Change

I typed that without looking because it’s simple enough I’ve actually memorized it, and am trying to make it second nature. And lately I’ve taken to idly thinking up story ideas in terms of it. It’s one of those rare formulas that liberates instead of confining. And that’s Harmon’s intent. Here is his rationale for this kind of perverse-seeming extreme distillation of guiding theory into formulas:

Sounds like a caveman giving you an order. That’s what it is. Behind (and beneath) your culture creating forebrain, there is an older, simpler monkey brain with a lot less to say and a much louder voice. One of the few things it’s telling you, over and over again, is that you need to go search, find, take and return with change. Why? Because that is how the human animal has kept from going extinct, it’s how human societies keep from collapsing and how you keep from walking into McDonald’s with a machine gun.

I’ll have more to say about Harmon’s stuff later in this blogchain, but here I’ll just note that this kind of extreme compression of an operating model is also characteristic of the most effective business executives I’ve worked with. They take ideas that would normally fill entire dense books in the hands of business academics, and distill them down to a set of the most important elements. And they do so in such compressed and memorable ways, they don’t forget them even when stressed, sleep-deprived, and worked off their feet.

This is one of the reasons I rely so much on 2x2s in my consulting work. It’s the same kind of caveman distillation of what could easily be big fluffy airport business books.

Robert McKee is sort of the anti-Harmon. His 1997 book Story, based on his famous seminar, is the gold standard for Hollywood screenwriters. But I found it turgid and nearly unreadable when I first encountered it sometime around 2003. More recently, I read and, to my slight surprise kinda enjoyed, his 2016 book, Dialogue, which inspired me to give Story another go. But Story remains as turgid and unreadable as I remember. You almost feel guilty for not liking the book because he is so clearly and sincerely in love with storytelling in all its forms, and there is so much of real utility in the books if you manage to grind through them.

I’m apparently not the only one who struggles to appreciate McKee. Somebody recently pointed out to me that a classic pair of scenes in the 2002 Nicholas Cage classic, Adaptation is actually a satirical takedown of McKee and the little pedagogical industrial complex he’s established (I think I watched the movie before I knew who McKee was, so I never made the connection).

McKee’s books are exhausting analytical teardowns of every aspect of storytelling, but reading him, you can’t help feeling that he’s missing something big and central. It feels like he is covering every aspect except for some elusive central one. Like he’s talking around the topic instead of about it.

It feels like he’s missing something highly successful practitioners like Harmon understand in their bones, and try to articulate as clearly as possible by stripping away everything else. Harmon’s eight-word Hero’s Journey — you, need, go, search, find, take, return, CHANGE — is about as close as you can get to the ineffable void at the heart of story. The specific psychological conceits of the Hero’s Journey in all its versions don’t matter. What matters is trying to circle the essence any way you can. Harmon does it as tightly and deliberately as he can. McKee seems not to recognize that it needs doing.

McKee’s preachy insistence on the primacy of craft, the spiritually elevating value of hard work, and the importance of a perfectionist overwork ethic are, I think, “tells” that he doesn’t quite get the soul of story despite clearly being a genuine lover of storytelling. It reminds me of the hustleporn spouted by not-quite-successful entrepreneurs for the benefit of wantapreneurs. How-not-to-fail theories masquerading as how-to-succeed theories.

This is evident in his selection of examples to discuss in both books. They’re all over the place, and not just because he’s trying to inject variety into his examples. McKee clearly loves any kind of movie so long as it is a great showcase of what he sees as the essence of the craft. He has no thematic or stylistic preferences besides perhaps a preference for drama over comedy. He has taste of sorts, but it’s a technician’s taste. The kind of taste that picks out stories told well, but not the kind that picks out stories worth telling, for a particular storyteller, which I think is the kind of taste working storytellers need more. In fact, early in Story he argues pretty stridently (and in my view, entirely wrong-headedly) that it’s all in the telling; that how you tell a tale is overwhelmingly more important than the choice of which tale to tell. But he’s unable to see the connection between his own advice and his observation that Hollywood is desperate for good stories.

It can feel downright intimidating for newbie storytellers like me to even dare think the thought that a veritable institution like McKee might be missing something big about a topic he’s written and talked so much about, over such a long career. It can feel blasphemous to harbor the sneaking suspicion that McKee belabors the less essential things he can see because he can’t see the important things. But reading the Harmon end of caveman-grade theorizing inspires some confidence in the impulse to set McKee aside, as at best a secondary reference for when you run into specific bugs that need fixing. You’re not going to learn how to breathe life into stories via his books or seminar. But you might pick up a few first-aid tips and maybe even a life-saving surgery technique or two.

So what’s going on with McKee? Is it simply a case of those who can do, those who can’t teach?

I think there’s more to it.

Here’s what I think is going on: McKee is the Antoine-Henri Jomini of storytelling.

I wouldn’t expect you to recognize the name, since it’s an obscure military-history nerd thing, but Jomini (1779-1869) was the most famous theorist of Napoleon’s campaigns in the immediate aftermath of the Napoleonic wars. But today, he is basically an unknown obscurity. On the other hand, Carl von Clausewitz (1792-1831), who was an obscure figure then, is now regarded as the most important contemporaneous theorist of Napoleon’s campaigns, and the thinker most responsible for distilling the actual important lessons from that era of military history for future students.

The thing is, Jomini both lacked, and failed to appreciate, the importance of what William Duggan called strategic intuition, in a book of the same name. Clausewitz on the other hand, not only appreciated it as the essence of Napoleon’s strategic successes, but theorized it carefully and gave it a name — the coup d’oeil, or what I called a “cheap trick” in Tempo. Napoleon had that cultivated mix of preparation and genius to see the essence of a strategy problem, and the right solution to it, “at a glance.” But it’s not a mysterious, ineffable skill. It’s one that yields at least partly to analysis, and lends itself to systematic cultivation. It just didn’t occur to Jomini to even attempt the analysis, but it did to Clausewitz.

Just to underline the robustness of the archetypal dichotomy, another Jomini/Clausewitz pair, more familiar to modern audiences, is Michael Porter/Clayton Christensen.

Porter was, for the longest time, the more “famous” business strategy professor, but his books always struck me the way McKee’s books do — grinding slogs you kinda have to work through enough to get familiar with, but missing some essential central idea in a deep way.

The late Clay Christensen on the other hand, truly got business strategy. Whether or not you like the theory of disruption, actual business executives and entrepreneurs in the last three decades have gotten, in my opinion, vastly more out of Christensen’s theories than out of Porter’s. While I don’t think Christensen ever got the theory of disruption down to eight words, it has that same memorable and high-utility compressibility. You could reduce the essence of his work to something like “serve underserved marginal markets to attack the core.” Christensen had strategic intuition. Porter sort of understands what is sometimes called strategy operations — the spreadsheets and block diagrams you make in the process of figuring out strategy.

Back to storytelling.

If McKee is a Jomini, or Porter Dan Harmon is at least a Clausewitz or Christensen. Perhaps even a John Boyd. The Story Circle is almost as sophisticated as Boyd’s OODA loop. I suspect the big difference between McKee and Harmon is not that the latter is a practicing successful storyteller with two arguably great works (by Walter Benjamin’s definition) under his belt, but the fact that he does not over-respect the craft to the point that it obscures strategic intuition. The visible tell is that his stories radiate the joy of storytelling, rather than the grind of it.

The Jominis, Porters, and McKees of the world miss the forest for the trees because they keep adding more and more excruciating detail to their theorizing, relentlessly searching for the essence but always heading away from it. To the extent they approach strategic intuition at all, they do so via brute force extrapolation of tactical excellence.

On the other hand, the Clausewitzes, Boyds, Christensens, and Harmons of the world get to “good enough” on tactical competence, and then brutally strip away everything that gets in the way of strategic intuition. The result is stories that sometimes have rough edges in terms of technique and craft, but nail the strategic core so well you don’t even notice.

To keep it specific, I’ll call the storytelling version of strategic intuition narrative intuition. Harmon appreciates, possesses, and values narrative intuition in spades, and it shows in his attention to the choice of stories to tell over the details of how to tell them.

McKee dimly senses the existence of such a thing, but heads off in exactly the wrong direction in search of it, and ends up venerating and fetishizing craft instead. His ends up, therefore, at an essentially Straussian posture — a scholar of Great Storytellers, but not of Greatness in Storytelling.

This is not a bad thing. The world needs hard-working, scholarly worshippers of craft too. There is much to be learned from McKee’s books, even if they are a slog to get through. But for developing narrative intuition, Harmon’s 8-word caveman grunts are a vastly superior guide.

To circle back to the Walter Benjamin quote, if great works dissolve or invent genres, perhaps not-so-great works perpetuate and refine them, tempting connoisseurs of craft down exactly the wrong path in search of the essence of story.

Series NavigationStorytelling — The American Tradition >>

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter

Comments

  1. Great read.

    Harmon’s story circle, and 8-word compression of it blew my mind when I first heard of it. I found out about McKee right after watching Adaptation, so my view of that is deeply imbued with Charlie Kaufman’s characterization of it as phony, charlatan book-selling tactics. (Sidebar I love how Kaufman, in Adaptation, wrote himself into his film adaptation and gave his greatest fears as a writer personification as an evil twin. Then, goes ahead and does all the narrative fallacies McKee’s alter ego cautions never to do — deus ex machina ending, cheap chase scene, etc).

    There’s a segment of the Wikipedia on Jon Von Neumann about a theorist who believed he achieved success through an intuition for the application and combinatorial possibilities of any new mathematical theory, plus his facility for linear algebra and symbolic notation. I wonder whether it isn’t intuition guiding all the best in any domain.

    You mentioned intuition might be a skill one can cultivate — any reading on this you recommend?

  2. It’s a shame that I can’t post pictures here because a few years ago in a fit of inspiration and fun I mapped Harmon’s Eight Steps onto Boyd’s OODA Loop. Roughly – Observe is You, Orient covers Need through Take, Decide is Climax and Act is Denouement. There is a little more but that covers the basics.


  3. Go
    Search
    Find
    Take
    Return

    o.k. this might be a skeleton of a “journey”. Otherwise it looks just like a consecutive sequence of actions and just any one might do. Then however, what is not a “search”?

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Search_problem

  4. Really dope post, looking forward to digging into the links here.

    Wanted to ask if in your research you crossed Ursula LeGuin’s essay “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction”?

    I recently happened upon it in my own research on storytelling and found it a great addition to the conversation I have with myself and others.

    She has several collections of non-fiction essays I highly recommend to other nerds all the time (Language of the Night along with Dancing at the Edge of the World especially) but this essay in particular seemed relevant to your post.

    Found a random link with the PDF here for reference:
    https://www.deveron-projects.com/site_media/uploads/leguin.pdf

  5. I am amazed you wrote this entire post without a single Fox/Hedgehog reference.

    (Not being snarky – it’s been a common theme of yours).

    • Though I suppose that McKee is something of a Hedgehog? Not sure if Harmon is the Fox but sure why not? :)

      • I think you have the attribution backwards: Harmon has one Big Idea, McKee is mired in a whole bunch of little ones.

        That’s why Venkat didn’t mention it. ;)

        • Fair enough. That’s what I get for spit balling :)

        • Fox in the trap: everyone should be a hedgehog mumbling their 8 magic words – except indie consultants who manage to have many 8 word strings ( but maybe all of them reduce to storytelling i.e. search algos ).

  6. The way I see this is: Characters are complicated sum of little things. Story is quite simple once you get your characters right. I like the way McKee gets to the core: How to get your protagonist in trouble.
    The way out is the hero’s journey.

  7. fhfjfhjjfhjfsa says

    The same feeling you have about McKee’s missing the point you should risk not succumbing to in your focus on compression. It’s one of the parts or accompaniments of incision, but if taken too seriously as a goal in itself it leads you down a rabbit hole of technical whittling (the compression game). A technical game is like when you’re trying to rack up points on some axis you have established. Making a point isn’t about scoring them. It’s about moving something.

  8. To refer to Adaptation as the “Nicolas Cage classic” is so wrong on so many levels… Kudos!

  9. I feel like I’m missing how the end of the story circle returns to the beginning (change –> you).

    Can anyone provide some insight into how the cycle loops around?

  10. Triggered by mentions of Clausewitz and fox hedgehog (and Tolstoy, Berlin and John Lewis Gaddis), another storytelling pattern this brings to mind is Raymond Queneau’s framing of two essential story structures, either Iliads or Odysseys, with the difference being choices on what to foreground and what to background. Here’s an interview where he lays it out, with guesses as to Modernist/Post Modernist changes:

    https://www.dalkeyarchive.com/a-conversation-with-raymond-queneau-by-georges-charbonnier/

    “GC: In a general way, would the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey” correspond to two realizations, two ways of apprehending things, two ways of conceiving them?

    RQ: Yes. In one we think of giving importance to history, but it is the individual who is interesting, and in the other the individual is interesting and we want to give him a historical importance. In fact, it’s the same point of view, that is to say the novelist’s point of view, the creator of fiction’s point of view. It is the character who interests him. Sometimes he wants to convince the reader that the story he is telling is as interesting as universal history, and sometimes he thinks that he will render this story interesting by slipping it into universal history…”

  11. I’m surprised you put Dan Harmon on such a pedestal. I’m surprised because dissolving genres is easier than creating them. Just like destroying a statue vs. creating one, Rick and Morty’s dissolution of the genre started by The Simpsons is a take-down. It’s a criticism without construction. It’s so much easier to do this successfully than to create a new genre successfully. I could get called out to supply evidence, but I’d be surprised if there are counter arguments to the relative difficulty of tearing down something prolific vs. building something prolific up from nothing.

    Dissolutions have their place — a much needed “that’s enough” to motivate the next era of creators. But I’m not sure yelling “that’s enough” deserves hero status. There will likely continue to be no statues of critics.

    • You seem to be conflating dissolutions with criticism. They’re not at all the same thing. Harmon’s shows are just plain enjoyable. I actually don’t like shows that invent genres much. They tend to be self-absorbed and self-conscious. Usually seems to take a few false starts by multiple people to get a new genre truly going.

  12. Venkat,

    I haven’t thought a piece of yours was this incisive and useful since “A big little idea called Legibility.” And this piece barely has a wasted word in it. Excellent. Thank you!

    Winter (Jiaoning)

  13. As always, this is elegantly written and has one nodding along, and it is only in the spirit of the staircase that comment occurs.

    I think that what you’ve identified here is the difference between explaining an accurate intuitive grasp of a system versus explaining a consciously directed effort to understand it. The challenge is that it’s very hard to know whether one’s intuitive sense is correct; I as an individual am not going to be able to tell whether that really strong sense I have of having discerned a hidden pattern is the OODA loop or the Time Cube. And if I know this, it’s safer for me – assuming I’m in a position where my judgment has to be seen to be free of error, which is the case for most people who draw a salary – to follow the path of demonstrably correct operations. Or, where there isn’t such rigour, of conventional wisdom versus wild ideas.

    In other words, I’m not convinced the difference between a Harmon and a McKee is that of a wild and noble soul versus a dull, clerkish plodding. It may just be that Harmon, who is a very interesting character indeed, is indifferent to consequences in a way that McKee isn’t. Clausewitz never published On War, after all.

  14. Aastha Agrawal says

    This was a wonderful read. It made me want to read more on Harmon, and it was a let down. Do you think we can dissociate ideas from the actions of the people who formulated them?

  15. I’ve been wondering about what makes someone good at speed chess versus normal chess, and how to improve one’s speed chess skills. Speed chess is more about strategic intuition and cheap tricks. Perhaps Harmon would crush McKee at speed chess but they’d have a tighter battle with more time on the clock.

  16. Here’s what I really like about this post, this whole notion of “not-failing”

    I used to play field sports with this guy who was really good. Way better than me. But sometimes we’d talk about strategy and we’d hit this impasse. I had this notion of teams that played to win and teams that played not-to-lose.

    He said, definitionally, it was the same thing. I was like no man, it very much isn’t.

    I don’t know why he couldn’t see it except for perhaps because he was such a natural athlete that he could play not-to-lose and still win. Others tho, not quite so on the right foot, have to play simply to win.

    It’s an important difference that I see reflected here, too.

  17. The thing trying to notice the thing. So hard for me.

    Is there any useful distinction between Dramatic Storytelling(Applied Science) and Unconscious Storytelling (The Algorithm at the heart of our Consciousness)??
    Reading Harmon theorize the origins of our storytelling capabilities/needs was fun though. His metaphor of a Basement Door made me want to come up with one of my own. I wonder if we can understand Uncounscious Storytelling as our Operating System. Sense-Making Software that allows us to interpret life’s inputs and help us make productive outputs out of the raw data of the world. The apps we run on this OS could be anything from family, money, to The Constitutions of our Nation-States. BTW This is the first thing google poops when you type in a ‘computer without an os’:

    “You can, but your computer would stop working because Windows is the operating system, the software that makes it tick and provides a platform for programs, like your web browser, to run on. Without an operating system, your laptop is just a box of bits that do not know how to communicate with one another, or you.”

    The Universe is a Database that is untenable when you mix existence, reflection, and memory maybe. A database is useless without some rules of engagement. Ehhh I feel like I’ve lost the plot now. So hard.
    The why is even harder….Maybe in my next Ted Talk—

  18. There seems to be an important point about mediocrity and excellence lurking here, with those obsessed with theory and craftsmanship remaining trapped in the domain of diminishing returns, polishing their craft, chasing small and elusive prey, while the intuitionists stay in a zone of fecund mediocrity, pursuing and landing whales.