Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee

  Andrew Knighton    Sep 20, 2017
Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee

Level: intermediate to advanced – accessible for any writer who wants to get beyond the very basics, but still useful for those deeply steeped in the craft.

Robert McKee’s Story is one of the most famous and highly praised modern books on the art of writing. Written with screen writers in mind, it’s also widely marketed at and read by other sorts of writers. It promises an examination of, as the cover of one edition says, “substance, structure, style, and the principles of screenwriting”.

Going into Story, it quickly becomes clear why this book isn’t just relevant for screenwriters. McKee isn’t concerned with the particular trappings and techniques of cinema so much as he is with the way that stories work. While the examples are all drawn from films, the book’s lessons can be applied to anything from a narrative poem to an epic sequence of novels.

McKee does an excellent job of dissecting the elements of storytelling, labelling the individual parts, and explaining what each one does. He discusses characters and genre, scenes and overall story arcs. He explains what each element is meant to do, how it does it, and how to do it better. Importantly, he connects these parts together. His book examines the fundamental structure of stories and does so with great insight.

 McKee sees no distinction between character driven stories and plot based stories. In his view, good plots arise from good characters, from people’s desires, flaws, and ambitions. The conflict some people see between focus on character and focus on plot is an illusion. The two are intertwined.

Highlights

It’s hard to pick out a highlight in a book so built on fundamentals and that so effectively interconnects its different parts. Its value lies in the complete book. But here are a few standout parts:

  • The short section on structure and character is one of the most useful, as it illustrates how character and story are connected.
  •  Instead of focusing on the surface level features of a character, McKee talks about how pressure and choices reveal people’s inner nature and how this drives a story.

Should You Buy?

Pros

  • Invaluable in developing a fundamental understanding of how stories work.
  • Doesn’t rely on a single formulaic structure for writing.
  •  Covers all the fundamentals of story, including character, conflict, and plot.

Cons

  • Occasional sections that are specific to cinema rather than prose writing, and the examples are all taken from film rather than books.

This is an incredibly valuable book, a tool that no writer in training should be without. This won’t teach you to write beautiful prose or eloquent description, but it will allow you to create an engaging story on which to hang those words.

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