Tag Archive for Robert McKee Story

REPOST: Thoughts On Bullying, Bystanders, and Middle Schoolers

Note: This was first posted over at The Nerdy Book Club, a great sight for fans of children’s books. Recommended.


“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson.

After I wrote the book BYSTANDER (Macmillan, 2009), I began to receive invitations to speak at middle schools. I was wary at first of being perceived as anybody’s “anti-bullying program.”

I wrote a book. Not a pamphlet, not a list of discussion questions, not a nonfiction guide to bullying. I could not offer a handy list of ten ways to make your school a bully-proof zone. I didn’t even believe in it.

I wrote a story –- that was the tool at my disposal.

Stories are essential to our lives. How could we live without them? We watch television, go to movies, tell tales to our friends and neighbors, conjure dreams at night, play complex video games, read books. Humans are storytelling creatures. We seem to need stories. Something inside us craves stories, we hunger for them, ravenous.

Why is that?

Stories function differently than nonfiction. The characters have a way of worming inside our souls. Robert McKee, in his book, STORY, claims that “Stories are equipment for living.”

Equipment for living.

Our lives race past us, a frantic blur, and we move from the next thing, to the next, to the next, with barely a moment’s reflection.

Stories give us pause. They give our lives form and shape. And time. We turn a page. We consider. We piece together the meaning of our days through the stories we hear.

And we ask of these stories the same question, over and over again: What is a good life? How are we to conduct ourselves here on this earth?

Well-told stories, as Harper Lee so beautifully demonstrated in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, allow us to walk in someone’s else’s shoes. Remember that remarkable scene at the end of the book? When Scout walks Boo Radley home, climbs up to his porch, and for a moment turns and looks at the world from his perspective?

Scout concluded: “Atticus was right. One time he said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them. Just standing on the Radley porch was enough.”

That’s story.

It’s also called empathy, understanding, compassion.

Here’s McKee again: “A culture cannot evolve without honest, powerful storytelling.”

Story isn’t an escape from reality. It is a light that shines upon the dark corners of our world, the secret places, the hidden fears and hopes and dreams.

It is why books matter, and why, I now know, some teachers have embraced BYSTANDER –- among other novels — as a way to explore this complex topic.

I’ve stood on a stage in auditoriums in front of 500, 600, 700 middle school-age children. Or as they refer to them in Ireland, “young people.” I like that. Young people. So much more intrinsically respectful than kids, little lambs eat ivy.

Despite my experience visiting places like Oklahoma and South Carolina, Illinois and Connecticut, Florida and Michigan, I’m still in the process of learning how to talk about bullying. Still growing into my own shoes. Still learning to speak above a whisper.

One of the central ideas embedded in the book – an idea I came to understand only through the passage of time – also happens to be one that’s incredibly difficult for me to directly convey to middle school students. So I don’t try to tell it, per say, so much as hope it leaks out over everything, like sunlight through the edges of a drawn blind. But I think it’s worth saying to you, here.

Research shows that bullying peaks in middle school. Why is that?

Let’s recall Emerson’s quote from up top, and agree that one of the greatest achievements in life is to become, simply, one’s true self. It sounds easy enough, but as we know, it is not. I’m a father, I have three children, including a 7th-grader and a 9th-grader. I watch their awkwardness and insecurities and struggles.

To be content in your own skin.

To not look to others for your cues.

To accept and trust who you are, to follow your own inner compass.

These are not easy things.

At no time in life is it tougher than in middle school, when peers begin to replace parents as prime influencers. How to dress, what to talk about, what to watch on television, how to act, where to sit, whom to befriend, whom to avoid. This is how we forge identity, hammering out our awareness of self (which is a created thing after all, the “self” we decide to become). At middle school, many of these daily details are powerfully influenced by the pack.

Yet a primary aspect to becoming a true individual is the casting off of those concerns. It’s a challenge for anybody to stand up against the crowd. For a middle schooler, it’s close to impossible. On a deep level, in terms of self-identity, they see themselves as the group. The group is them, the individual swallowed by the great whale. And we are all Pinocchio, trapped inside the dark belly, fumbling for a light, yearning to become a real boy.

This dynamic is how young people find their place in the world. We watch others to learn about ourselves. We tell stories. We listen. And then when it comes to bullying, the adults in their lives tell these young people to not worry what anybody else thinks.

“Who cares what anyone thinks!”

Well, they care. They care so much.

In my heart, I believe the lasting answer to bullying is to become a genuine, authentic, free-thinking, responsible individual. The best definition of responsibility I’ve heard is “the ability to respond,” to act according to the courage of your convictions.

People are good, I absolutely believe that. And the closer people hone into to their true selves, the better and more moral they become.

Be yourself. In doing so, we all become far more likely to allow others the freedom to be their selves.

Shakespeare: “This above all: To thine own self be true!”

Or, if you prefer, Oscar Wilde: “Be yourself. Everybody else is already taken.”

Writing Process: Research to Feed Your Head

“Talent must be stimulated by facts and ideas.”

— Robert McKee, Story

For the most part, I don’t talk about writing in global terms. It’s an individual process, and it’s not like I think I’m a master. I mean, sure, I’ve been writing professionally since 1986, so I’ve learned some things along the way. As time goes on, even I have to admit that I probably know something. Even so, I try to limit that to sharing my own experiences, things that have worked for me, rather than pretending to know what works for everyone. I’m more student than teacher. Nonetheless, one guideline of this blog since inception has been to be open about my work as a writer, no matter how squirmy that might make me feel.

I mean to say: A huge, huge part of me lands in the A.J. Liebling camp, who wrote: “The only way to write is well and how you do it is your own damn business.”

That’s why I don’t type status updates about my work on, say, Facebook, or begin party conversation by expounding upon my work routine. My brother, Al, sells insurance and I sure don’t want to read on Facebook about how he does it behind the scenes — just make sure I’m covered when we bend a fender, bro. However, I submit that a writer’s blog is different: You came here, I didn’t hound you down, so it’s your own damn fault if I sometimes prattle on about me, me, me. There’s an assumed interest that, again I contend, just isn’t there in most of social situations.

Back to the topic at hand, research: It’s like that last line in the Jefferson Airplane song about Alice In Wonderland, “White Rabbit,” I agree with the dormouse: It’s vital to feed your head. Ideas don’t usually appear in a vacuum. My most enthusiastic writing is fueled by new knowledge, new information. My focus is largely on building character, revealing character through events. If I only write about what I know — a rant I’ll save for a later date — then all my characters will ultimately be limited by the contents of one (not necessarily fascinating) character, me.

Fortunately, it’s never been easier to learn new things — and it’s also fun.

Two examples:

1) I’m writing something now and it struck me that a minor character might be really into tropical fish. He’s got a fish tank, reads books about fish, is just deeply into it. I have a personal connection to that, since when I was growing up my father had a fish tank and, for a while, my brother and I picked up the hobby (Billy even bred Siamese Fighting Fish — craziness, believe me!). But this was long ago. Let’s see . . . what else? As a kid, I loved the movie, The Incredible Mr. Limpet with Don Knotts. More recently, I’ve renewed contact with an old college friend who is . . . really, really into tropical fish. So he got me thinking about it again.

The reality is that I don’t know much about fish, but I want to create a character who does. So I’ll do research, see what comes up, try to write some scenes, go visit a fish store, and who knows. It might work for me, stimulate my imagination with facts and ideas, or not.

2) In Along Came Spider, I very much wanted to show that Trey, a positive, wonderful boy with autism, had his own unique talents and interests. For one, he loved animals and had a special affection for birds. He built his own bird houses and hung them in his back yard — and, in the book, one such house becomes a meaningful gift for the school librarian, Mrs. Lobel. However, I had a problem: I personally can’t build a piece of toast, much less a bird house. Time for some internet research to stimulate my brain with facts and ideas.

Here’s part of the scene that resulted, excerpted from Chapter 13, “Ava Bright.” In a meeting arranged by Trey’s oldest friend, Spider, Ava Bright visits Trey in his backyard:

They found green-haired Trey sprawled on his back patio. He was on his knees, hunched over scraps of wood and various tools — measuring tape, saw, hammer, drill, chisel, screwdrivers.

Ava’s eyes widened as she took in the entire backyard, the stand of breathtaking oaks, maples, and pines, the field of wild grass beyond. She arched her back and gazed up at the great old trees. “This is really, really nice,” she murmured.

Trey scrambled to his feet. “Oh, hi. I didn’t hear you guys.”

“What are you building?” Ava asked.

“A gift,” Trey answered. “It’s a nest box.”

“A nest box?”

“Most people call them birdhouses,” Trey said, “but most people are wrong.”

Spider grinned. He had heard Trey recite facts about birds and nest boxes many times. It was amazing and, at the same time, So Totally Out There. Trey could sit for hours in perfect silence, but when he got going on one of his favorite topics — like birds or rocks or ice cream — he would talk nonstop. And it didn’t matter if you paid attention or not. It was as if Trey had so many facts crammed into his head, he couldn’t keep them locked inside. Spider imagined a volcano spewing hot lava: Mount Trey.

“Can I help?” Ava asked. “I mean, I don’t know anything about nest boxes, but I’m pretty good with a hammer.”

Trey nodded, sure she could help. He looked at Spider with a question in his eyes.

“Sounds good to me,” Spider said.

Trey showed them what to do. And while he did, he explained things to Ava, who was either astonishingly polite or very interested — or both. “About one hundred different species of birds nest in natural cavities,” Trey said. “You know, like holes in trees, the eaves of houses, things like that.”

Ava nodded, listening as she made measurements on a length of pine board.

“But lots of trees are cut down every year,” Trey said. “That’s bad for birds. Their natural habitat is shrinking. Plus, other animals — like squirrels, which I do not like — he said with surprising hostility — “all compete for the nesting places. Lots of songbirds like nest boxes. Bluebirds, titmice, chickadees, wrens –“

“It’s nice that you build them,” Ava said. “I’m sure the birds appreciate it.”

“Well, we have to take care of them, don’t we?” Trey said matter-of-factly. “I mean, they can’t build these by themselves. And it’s so easy for us.”

Even though Spider had heard Trey say things like that many times before, this time the words struck him in a different way. We have to take care of them, don’t we? It was a simple thing to say. A clear, true thought. We have to take care of them, Spider repeated to himself. It’s so easy for us.

The clouds parted and a warm yellow sun shone down. Ava, Trey, and Spider worked together for the next couple of hours, laughing and talking. Ava asked a lot of questions — she had a curious, interested sort of mind — and Trey had all the answers. He explained how the nest box roof needed at least three inches of overhang to protect the birds from hard rain. He showed Ava how to spread a coat of petroleum jelly along the inside of the roof to keep away wasps and bees. And with a chisel, Trey patiently grooved the interior walls of the house. “It helps the baby birds climb to the opening,” he explained.

Ava was impressed. She looked around, suddenly puzzled. “But I only count two nest boxes in your yard,” she said. “I thought you built lots of them?”

“I give them away,” Trey answered. “Birds are territorial. They don’t like it if you put the boxes too close together. They don’t like crowds, and I totally agree with them,” he said. Trey finished screwing the last galvanized screw into the nest box. “There,” he said proudly, holding  up the final creation.

“You’re very talented, Trey,” Ava said with admiration. “And smart. Isn’t he, Spider?”

“He’s one of a kind,” Spider replied, grinning.

<< snip >>

The scene continues at a leisurely pace, the three kids hanging out together, building a friendship over hammers and wood. Nothing amazing ever happens in this book, frankly, a minor crisis or three, but my point in sharing this scene is to show how it grew organically out of my research for this character. He was interested in something I didn’t know anything about. As a writer, I felt in no way  limited to write about only what I knew — what I knew was that I needed to feed my imagination with facts and ideas! I wanted to learn and grow as a person, as a writer. Once I got to a point where I knew something (new), I was able to write, k/newly inspired.

That scene, and some core metaphors for the book, grew out of that research.

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When logic and proportion
Have fallen sloppy dead
And the White Knight is talking backwards
And the Red Queen’s “off with her head!”
Remember what the dormouse said:
“Feed your head
Feed your head
Feed your head”

Fan Mail Wednesday #125 (further thoughts on bullying)

As part of a late summer assignment, I received a terrific letter from Zander in Brooklyn, including his answer to the question, “What will happen to the characters in Bystander after the story?

Here’s an excerpt from that letter . . .

Thanks so much for answering my questions. I really loved your book! I did a little writing about what I thought might happen to some of the characters in the future. I was wondering if you have ever thought about this? Do you think Griffin will continue to be a bully? What about the other characters? I also have to ask the obvious question — were you a bully or where you bullied in school? If not, why did you want to write this book? I’m really looking forward to your answers.


What I think will happen to the characters after the story:

I think Griffin will still be the bully, but he will be a lone bully with no clique by his side. About twenty pages before the book ended, Griffin’s gang separated from him; they were fed up with Griffin and his ways and felt bad for the people they hurt and picked on. Griffin may form a new clique, but I think the same thing will happen that happened to the original click, they will get fed up with Griffin’s ways. Eventually, Griffin will probably find out that this whole bully thing isn’t working out for him and turn over a new leaf, but I’m not so sure about that either; it’s not exactly Griffin’s way. The other problem is the relationship between Griffin and Griffin’s father. If the way Griffin’s father acts changes, Griffin will change with him. You see, Griffin mimics his father’s actions, and if those actions change, I have a good feeling that a new Griffin will be born. If they would go into therapy, this could be achieved. But since that didn’t happen in the story, it’s unlikely that it will happen now. Thus having Griffin stay the same.

I also think that Mary and Eric will still hang out a lot, they might be considered boyfriend and girlfriend, but I’m not sure. I also think that Griffin’s original clique will turn into Eric’s clique, or Griffin’s original clique will accept Eric as a member; either way, Mary will no longer be Eric’s only friend. Before I finished the story, I thought to myself that it would not be a “…and they all lived happily ever after” ending, and I was right. If the story continued on, I still think this would be true, but it would be a cheerier ending than it is now.

Part of my reply . . .

Hey Zander,

Thanks for reading my book. I like the angle you took on it, thinking about what might happen to the characters after the story is finished and the final pages read.

No, I was not a “bully” in school. But to be honest, that’s a big label and not something I like to stick on anybody. It’s not often accurate to tag people with easy labels. I believe there are bully behaviors, there are times when some of us might act in unkind ways, but that’s rarely ever the sum of the whole person. A so-called bully might also be a loyal friend, a good teammate, a loving pet owner, an adventurer, a son, a comic, a student, an athlete, and, yes, even victim. Research shows there’s often a duality. Someone engaged in bullying might be a victim of it in another part of his life (Griffin), while a target of bullying will frequently turn around to bully someone else (David). It’s a common dynamic. The bully part is just one aspect of character, something he sometimes does, not the whole person. And in that way, I think we all have a bit of a bully, and victim, inside us. Walt Whitman wrote, “I am large; I contain multitudes.”

I’m not saying that bullying isn’t real. That there isn’t genuine hurt and, sometimes, devastating loss. We’ve all heard those tragic stories and I don’t diminish that pain for a second. But I think with that label we tend to turn every “bully” into a monster, and I suspect it’s subtler than that. Often the bully — or more accurately, the person engaged in bully behavior — is misguided, unknowing, doesn’t empathize fully, doesn’t really understand the effects of his behavior. I’m not ready to throw all bullies into the dungeon and throw away the key. I think most of us are good, decent people capable of making mistakes, poor decisions.

My primary reason for writing Bystander is that I wanted to tell a good story. I write realistic fiction, and I try very hard to be true to that word, “realistic.” I want my characters and situations to feel authentic, relatable. I want readers to identify with the story, to maybe see themselves, or someone they might know. Robert McKee, in his book Story, makes a strong case for the importance of “story” in our lives. We are surrounded by stories, and seem to hunger for them: movies, television, talk on park benches, at dinner tables, around fires, on stages and in books. McKee calls stories our “equipment for living,” and makes the bold claim: “A culture cannot evolve without honest, powerful storytelling.”

Wow. What do you think of that, Zander? Story is the fiction writer’s craft, a finer tool than a how-to book, or a nonfiction guide to a problem. Story doesn’t provide answers so much as it, hopefully, clarifies some of the questions. Not facts, but truths. And always the most important question is this: How to walk this earth? What kind of person are you going to be?

Well-told stories, as Harper Lee so beautifully demonstrated in To Kill A Mockingbird, allow us to walk in someone else’s shoes. If you haven’t seen the movie, I urge you to check it out. There’s a beautiful scene at the end of the book (and movie), when Scout walks Boo Radley home, climbs up the steps to his porch, and for a moment turns and looks at the world from his perspective.

That’s story.

It’s also called empathy, understanding, compassion. McKee’s “equipment for living.”

I first landed on the theme of bullying through conversations with my editor. I did research, read books, talked to experts, visited middle schools, and I gradually began to formulate the character of Griffin Connelly. The story grew out of that, until I became convinced that the focus had to be on the bystander, the silent observer.

From the beginning, I felt that Griffin was a boy on the wrong path. Obviously there are issues at home with his father. The mother is gone somewhere, his sisters have moved away, too. We know that Griffin has been stealing, and we know that the police suspect his involvement. Unless there’s some kind of dramatic change, I don’t see things ending well for Griffin Connelly.

I thought your analysis of the characters was insightful. I agreed with all of it. No, I did not write a happily-ever-after ending. But I’ve never been a guy who needs those kinds of endings in movies or books. I bristle when everything is all tied up in a tidy bow at the end.

To me, that’s not life. That’s not realistic. Real life is messier than that, and not so simple, and I wanted my book to reflect that.

Thank you for your thoughtful response to my book.