Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
If you’re a writer of drama or fiction, you need to master these rules before you consider breaking them.
I knew from an early age that I wanted to write stories, but it wasn’t till I was about 17 that I learned that there are actual methods, principles, and techniques involved in storytelling, when I received as a gift a copy of The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri. Wow! What a revelation! I read it greedily.
Fast-forward to 1990. I was 31 and now had my own TV series, The Odyssey, in development with the CBC in Canada. My writing partner Warren Easton and I were under pressure to come up with a pilot script and 12 more stories to flesh out a possible first season of the show. We’d bought a copy of The Golden Fleece by Robert Graves and The Complete Fairy Tales of Brothers Grimm, Volume 1 to search for story ideas for our mythologically based fantasy series, but were not really finding stories that would fill our action-packed half hours. One of the CBC executives offered to let me have a photocopy of a set of notes from McKee’s workshop, taken by a fellow participant. I’d heard of McKee and so I gratefully accepted them.
Back home I started reading, and was electrified. (The notes themselves were excellent, typed by this person on a laptop and capturing most of what McKee said.) Here was everything I wanted and needed to know: genre, character, structure, controlling idea, protagonist, acts, turning points, and much, much else. McKee came across as definite and authoritative. Here was no “well, some people say this, but on the other hand other people say this other thing….” As far as McKee is concerned, the principles of sound story design have long since been established; they are simply not widely known, and he sees his task as remedying that deficit as much as he can.
Years later I saw a copy of McKee’s book in a store and snapped it up. It is well read and well highlighted. When I read Aristotle’s Poetics I realized that McKee’s work is essentially applied Aristotle. Aristotle regarded plot–story–as the most important element in contributing to the effects of the most powerful form of poetry at that time: tragic drama. He analyzed what makes for an effective story, and McKee has applied that analysis to the most powerful form of storytelling in our own time: motion pictures.
But while the book is aimed at screenwriters, the principles apply to all forms of storytelling, including prose fiction. I continue to study this book and keep striving to apply its principles. As observed by the late philosopher Mortimer J. Adler, it is knowledge of principles that transforms a knack into an art. This book provides such knowledge. As far as I’m concerned, if you’re serious about telling stories, in whatever medium, you’ll get much better results, much faster, if you get this book and apply its principles. This knowledge is what will separate you from the army of dilettantes.