Inside-Out Running

I’m reading Robert McKee’s highly regarded book, Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting.

The book begins:

Story is about principles, not rules.

A rule says, “You must do it this way.” A principle says, “This works … and has through all remembered time.” The difference is crucial. Your work needn’t be modeled after the “well-made” play; rather, it must be well made within the principles that shape our art. Anxious, inexperienced writers obey rules. Rebellious, unschooled writers break rules. Artists master the form.

Lordy Bess, if that doesn’t describe training, I just don’t know. All the joys of running, and all the successes, come by “mastering the form.”

Inexperienced runners obey rules. I remember so well, how I would read running books and try to apply their schedules literally in the beginning – and what an excruciatingly boring way it was to run, and how unsuccessful it was. If the book told me “run 5 miles on Tuesday,” that’s what I did. And, well, it wasn’t long before I simply stopped following the “rules” – because I no longer could; my body rebelled against the rigid inflexibility of the “system.”

I had equally poor success when I rebelled and broke the rules. Running “however I felt” was a disaster. Emotion was a dismal guide.

It was only years later, when I learned the principles of good training, that I truly began to enjoy my running, and improve.

I found my way to the principles by two paths: Arthur Lydiard expressed the outward principles in a way that was crystal-clear – and he suggested the “inner principles” as well: how to tune each run to the individual body’s unique needs. But, in fact, I had long since embraced that inner side of training.

Still, Lydiard contributed important principles (periodization, building the aerobic base, etc.) which were based on eternal truths. And my spiritual practice contributed the notion of the role of the intuitive heart.

Later in Story, McKee talks about the difference between writing screenplays “from the outside in,” and “from the inside out.”

Writers who take the first approach rarely succeed. As McKee describes it, they get a wonderful idea for a movie, and they rush to begin writing dialogue. It’s a kind of building-blocks process: “Gosh, I’ve got these five great scenes in my mind – if I can just write great dialogue, I’ll be able to hang the scenes together, write a few transitions, and create a great, salable script!”

McKee is world-famous. His students have won 18 Oscars and 107 Emmys. He’s seen his share of bad scripts. What happens to the writer who works “from the outside in”? If the script gets a reading at all, it’s invariably rejected with a remark such as “Very nicely written, good crisp, actable dialogue, vivid scene description, fine attention to detail, the story sucks. PASS ON IT.”

And isn’t that the trouble with planning our training “from the outside in”? “I want to raise my VO2Max and get faster at 5K and 10K. So I’ll do a ton of intervals, and I’ll get really good at interval running (scene A). But I also want to improve my endurance-at-speed for the half-marathon, so I’ll do lots of tempo runs at 10K pace (scene B). With those ingredients, my training plan can’t fail!”

Those are great, great “scenes.” But unless a training plan works from start to finish – unless it tells a “good story” – it won’t have a hope of a chance of delivering great results.

McKee describes the opposite process – “writing from the inside out” – and it’s fascinating because it rings with truth.

A writer gets an idea for a film. But he’s cautious. He knows that unless the story works, the script is doomed. So he spends four or five months carrying around a stack of 50 or 60 3×5 cards. Each card contains one or two sentences that describe a scene. On the cards, he gradually builds an outline of the story.

He confines himself to a few stacks of cards for months on end for this critical reason: He wants to destroy his work. Taste and experience tell him that 90 percent of everything he writes, regardless of his genius, is mediocre at best. In his patient search for quality, he must create far more material than he can use, then destroy it. He may sketch a scene a dozen different ways before finally throwing the idea of the scene out of the outline…. A writer secure in his talent knows there’s no limit to what he can create, and so he trashes everything less than his best on a quest for a gem-quality story.

The second writer works by principles. He knows the feel and form of a great story, and he won’t be satisfied with anything less.

Okay, all analogies eventually break down – but there’s much in the inside-out process that mirrors good training and the practices of wise coaches and runners. Here’s what they tell us:

We keep our attention on the long view. We are patient. We destroy everything that isn’t good training. We’re eternally on the search for quality. We know that we won’t succeed unless we get the details right, and that each detail becomes “right” when it accurately reflects eternal principles.

Training is an art, and like a great film script, the end-product can be deeply satisfying and soulful and beautiful. “A writer secure in his talent knows there’s no limit to what he can create, and so he trashes everything less than his best on a quest for a gem-quality story.”

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One Response to Inside-Out Running

  1. Geoff December 11, 2009 at 3:57 pm #

    Nice piece. I’d never thought to look at writing and running in the same way. Guess it tooke a running writer (or are you a writing runner?) to clue me in to the similarities.

    Your last paragraph really reminds me of two quotes from Steve Prefontaine:

    “A race is a work of art that people can look at and be affected in as many ways they’re capable of understanding.”

    “To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the Gift.”

    If there were ever a great runner who also had a great screenplay or novel in him, it would have been Pre.

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