Making The Absurd Rational

In story, unlike life, you can always go back and fix it. You can set up what may seem absurd and make it rational. Reasoning is secondary to postcreativity. Primary and preconditional to everything else is imagination—the willingness to think any crazy idea, to let images that may or may not make sense find their way to you. Nine out of ten will be useless. Yet one illogical idea may put butterflies in your belly, a flutter that’s telling you something wonderful is hidden in this mad notion. In an intuitive flash you’ll see the connection and realize you can go back and make it make sense.

– Robert McKee, in Story

Mood vs Emotion In Storytelling

In film, feeling is known as mood. Mood is created in the film’s text: the quality of light and color, the tempo of action and editing, casting, style of dialogue, production design, and musical score. The sum of all these textural qualities creates a particular mood. In general, mood, like setups, is a form of foreshadowing, a way of preparing or shaping the audiences, anticipations. Moment by moment, however, while the dynamic of the scene determines whether the emotion it causes is positive or negative, the mood makes this emotion specific.


Suppose the writer calls for a summer’s day, brightly colored flowers in window boxes, blossoms on the trees. The producer casts Jim Carry and Mira Sorvino. The director composes them in head-to-foot shots. Together they’ve created a comic mood. Comedy likes bright light and color. Comics need full shots because they act with their whole bodies.


But suppose the scene were set in the dead of night, the house spackled with shadows of trees blowing in the wind, moonlight, street light. The director shoots tight, canted angles and orders the lab to mute the colors. The producer casts Michael Madsen and Linda Fiorentino. Without changing a beat, the scene is now drenched in a Thriller mood.


The arc of the scene, sequence, or act determines the basic emotion. Mood makes it specific. But mood will not substitute for emotion. When we want mood experiences, we go to concerts or museums. When we want meaningful emotional experience, we go to the storyteller.

– Robert McKee, Story

On Exposition

This is from a book on screenwriting by Robert McKee, but applies also to picturebooks. I’m surprised at how much it sounds like that terrible dating book written for women The Rules. (I saw the authors on Oprah years ago.)


  • Parse out exposition bit by bit though the entire story.
  • You can reveal exposition well into the climax of the last ‘act’.
  • Never include anything the reader can reasonably and easily assume has happened.
  • Only tell the reader things that would only cause confusion if left out.
  • You keep a reader’s interest not by offering them information but by withholding it.
  • Don’t write ‘California Scenes’. California scenes are when two characters who’ve just met each other sit down and talk everything through. If you’re familiar with the stereotypical Californian modern film (e.g. The Kids Are All Right) then you’ll know that Californians are renowned for talking everything through.
  • Don’t write ‘table dusting’ scenes. In old plays, exposition was often handled by two maids dusting, while one maid told the other about the master of the house. These days, telling without motivation or conflict isn’t accepted by an audience (though we still sometimes see it).
  • Don’t bring in a flashback until you’ve created in the audience a need and a desire to know.
  • There’s only one good reason for voice over narration: counterpoint. Woody Allen is the master of counterpoint narration. (And in picturebooks, if the words simply describe the pictures, then you’re in trouble.)
  • Respect the intelligence and sensitivity of your audience.