Have you taken Robert McKee’s screenwriting class? And if so, what did you learn from it? –Bill

To read his brochure, you’d think that everyone in Hollywood has taken McKee’s course, but the truth is, I don’t know anyone who has.

Whenever I hear his name brought up, it makes these tiny hairs rise on the back of my neck, because it usually means the speaker is going to cite some piece of screenwriting gospel, or use a clever word like "counter-theme."

I’ve never met McKee and have nothing against him, but to read his bio it’s clear that he’s not a very successful screenwriter and never really was. That’s not to say he can’t be a great teacher, just as many great film critics are not filmmakers, nor do I think that there’s anything wrong with a screenwriting class per se, especially if it helps you get off your ass and write. But I would rather have dental surgery than go through a structural analysis of CHINATOWN.

The downfall of these classes and books (Syd Field’s is the best known), is that the guru comes up with a theory about why scripts are good or bad, then manipulates the examples to prove his or her point. I remember one professor in graduate school who when confronted with counter-examples, would label some of the greatest movies ever made "failed films," simply because they didn’t fit her framework.

Overall, it’s worth reading a few books and taking a few classes to get a handle on how Hollywood talks about scripts and movies. Internalize what makes sense to you and chuck the rest. Kevin’s question goes right to the point: You’ll learn the most by reading a lot of screenplays, good and bad, and learning how they work.

The truth is, there’s no magic formula for writing a great script. (Or for that matter, a commercial one.) Anyone who tries to convince you that theirs is the One True Way is deluding themselves and you.