Review: "Story" by Robert McKee
Any writer, from beginner to expert
It’s no secret that Story is a dense, advanced craft book. It tops out at 466 pages, after all! But its author, Robert McKee, does one crucial thing that so many other craft book authors don’t: he makes it clear that storytellers should always respect their audience.
McKee takes writers out of their creative cocoons and shows them the importance of making their story delight others. And then — over the course of those 400+ pages — McKee tells us exactly how we can accomplish such a feat.
Story is Packed With Incredible Detail
The level of detail Robert McKee offers up in Story can get a new writer started on a strong novel. It can also give an experienced, weary writer fresh insights and motivation for returning to the keyboard.
In the first 40 pages of Story, you’ll learn all about the elements of story structure, from Beat to Scene to Sequence to Act to the overarching Story itself.
But that’s just the beginning. From there, McKee teaches us about every type of plot imaginable. He shows readers how to craft characters that matter, scenes that change value, settings that influence plot. McKee illustrates every single lesson with concrete examples.
Even though McKee uses examples from movies — the book is about screenwriting, after all — just about all the information in the book applies to novel writing, too.
If you’re the type of creative who dislikes digging into the components of a novel because it reminds you too much of math or science, fear not. McKee will make it so you can’t help but understand why every element matters and how exactly to make them all work in your own writing.
McKee Shows Writers How to Ask Helpful Questions
The questions McKee asks in Story challenge writers to ask them, too — and the answers provide significant guidance. Take this question in the chapter “The Substance of Story”: “Ask: What is the risk? What does the protagonist stand to lose if he does not get what he wants?” (149)
A lot of craft books pose questions like this. But McKee goes a step further, telling us what type of answer to look for. For the question posed above, he makes sure that we understand that “If the answer is: ‘Should the protagonist fail, life would go back to normal,’ this story is not worth telling” (149).
It makes sense. A story where failure means life settles back into its usual rhythms is a boring story indeed.
Basically, with every question he introduces, McKee gives the writer:
- A way to ask and answer the question for themselves.
- An interpretation of what the answer means for their story.
- Direction on how to dig deeper into their material if the answer is too shallow or expand and strengthen their story if the answer is deep.
In short, McKee doesn’t just say, “do this, do that.” He explains the concrete elements of story and then gives readers all the information they need in order to make those elements shine in their own fiction.
The Explanations in Story Make Things Clear — Often for the First Time
In a creative writing program, you might hear things like ‘subtext’ and ‘turning the scene’ tossed around the workshop table. You might grasp what those concepts are…or you might not, and it’s possible no one will explain them clearly to you.
Never fear: simply read Story and drink in McKee’s clear explanations. He devotes four pages to text and subtext alone, explaining it in such a way that anyone can understand it. And he does this for every single writing-related term you can imagine.
That’s why even though his writing style is advanced, we recommend this book to writers and readers of all abilities. Everyone can glean something from it — even something they’ve been struggling to learn for years!
Sometimes, the Specificity to Screenwriting Doesn’t Apply to Novel-Writing
There’s really only one instance where this is true: when McKee talks about taking your time to write down scene ideas on index cards and then expand them into “treatments” that then get screen description and dialogue added to them, becoming screenplays (414).
This is specific to screenwriting and it doesn’t really apply to fiction writing, where formatting is different.
At Times, McKee Uses Dated Language
Even though McKee explains why he exclusively uses “he” to mean “the writer,” the refusal to acknowledge a range of pronouns can be off-putting. There are also a few questionable turns-of-phrase relating to the LGBTQ+ community, people of color, and women.
This book was originally published in 1998. Maybe it’s time for a new edition!
This is the type of book that writers can return to time and again for inspiration, motivation, and a path through the tangly thicket of our fictional worlds. Get your highlighter and sticky-note markers ready, because there’s wisdom and insight on every single page.
McKee, Robert. Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting. 1998. Methuen, 2014.
About Laura Ojeda Melchor
Laura Ojeda Melchor holds an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and spends her days chasing after her adventurous toddler. A freelance writer and fiction novelist, she lives in Alaska with her family. She enjoys reading, writing, listening to music, exploring Alaska, and going for walks in her delightfully foresty neighborhood.
For her fiction, she’s represented by a fantastic agent at Upstart Crow Literary. She’s also a contributing writer for Book Riot. You can find her at her online home, lauraojedamelchor.com.