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Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting Hardcover – November 25, 1997
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Writing for the screen is quirky business. A writer must labor meticulously over his or her prose, yet very little of that prose is ever heard by filmgoers. The few words that do reach the audience, in the form of the characters' dialogue, are, according to Robert McKee, best left to last in the writing process. ("As Alfred Hitchcock once remarked, 'When the screenplay has been written and the dialogue has been added, we're ready to shoot.' ") In Story, McKee puts into book form what he has been teaching screenwriters for years in his seminar on story structure, which is considered by many to be a prerequisite to the film biz. (The long list of film and television projects that McKee's students have written, directed, or produced includes Air Force One, The Deer Hunter, E.R., A Fish Called Wanda, Forrest Gump, NYPD Blue, and Sleepless in Seattle.) Legions of writers flock to Hollywood in search of easy money, calculating the best way to get rich quick. This book is not for them. McKee is passionate about the art of screenwriting. "No one needs yet another recipe book on how to reheat Hollywood leftovers," he writes. "We need a rediscovery of the underlying tenets of our art, the guiding principles that liberate talent." Story is a true path to just such a rediscovery. In it, McKee offers so much sound advice, drawing from sources as wide ranging as Aristotle and Casablanca, Stanislavski and Chinatown, that it is impossible not to come away feeling immeasurably better equipped to write a screenplay and infinitely more inspired to write a brilliant one.--Jane Steinberg
"... stimulating, innovative, refreshingly practical." -- -- Lawrence Kasdan, Director
"...the best guide on writing you can find." -- Laurence Chollet, The Record, Northern New Jersey
"In difficult periods of writing, I often turn to Robert McKee's wonderful book for guidance" -- -- Dominick Dunne, Novelist
"McKee is the Stanislavski of writing." -- -- Dennis Dugan, Writer, NYPD Blue
"[Story is]an excellent instruction manual on the craft of storytelling." -- Austin American-Statesman
"to the people who write, direct and produce for Hollywood - or desperately wish they did - Bob McKee is a cross between E. F. Hutton and Sun Myung Moon. The man speaks, and people start to take furious notes - he is now the undisputed screenwriting king... for the legendary screenwriting boot camp that he runs. Thirty-thousand aspiring screenwriters have already taken McKee's 30-hour, three-day course..." -- Newsday
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If you're an aspiring writer, _Story_ may be extremely helpful for you (as evidenced by the many glowing reviews here), but it might also be problematic in ways you don't expect. It's from this perspective that I'm writing this review. Writing fiction is an incredibly personal experience, so to be clear I'm not saying that people who love this book as a writing how-to are wrong. I think if you have a certain mindset or approach to writing, this book will be extremely helpful to you. But if you don't, you may want to approach _Story_ with some caution (which I'll explain in a minute).
Some fiction writers employ a very methodical, intellectual approach, putting stories together like watchmakers carefully constructing a complex timepiece, creating detailed outlines first and using them as blueprints to build their stories. This is a completely valid way to work -- in fact, I'm envious of such writers and wish it worked for me. If you already know that you are this sort of writer, you should just order _Story_ right now, because you almost certainly are gonna love it and find it incredibly useful.
Some writers employ a more organic, intuitive approach, where creating a story is an unstructured process of discovery (the so-called "pantsers", because they work from "the seat of their pants"). In my view this is also a perfectly valid way to work, not inherently better or worse than being a dedicated outliner. If you know that you're this sort of writer, you may find _Story_ intellectually compelling (because it surely is), but it might also mess with your head (see below).
I personally am neither a hardcore outliner nor a committed pantser. I am finding that I produce my best, most satisfying work when I bounce back and forth between the two approaches. I can't go full organic because I get lost in the work and find that I constantly have 16 ideas that I can't choose between, and each one of those leads to 16 other ideas, and so on. On the other hand, for me employing a rigorous outlining approach is too intellect-driven. I feel I lose the creative spark and fascination that made me want to write the story in the fist place. Instead, deliberately or not, I find myself "solving" my story structure like a sudoku puzzle, overtaken with concern about hitting the right points in the right way at the right time, and things like, losing control of my story that way.
Which brings me back to _Story_. As someone else here said, McKee isn't telling you, "These are rules! You must follow them!" He's describing principles of storytelling he's developed over years and years of experience and analysis. The thing is, his approach is extremely methodical and intellect-driven, it has a gravity that's going to pull you in that direction. It's so intellectually appealing it's like your brain can't let go of it. Like I said earlier, if your writing mindset and approach are on the same wavelength as what McKee teaches, this is gonna be awesome for you and you're going to love it. If you're not, this can really mess with your head and your writing for a bit.
That said, this is good material even for someone like me, and I am glad I read it. There are useful ideas here, and it's good to be aware of them even if you're not going to go about building stories the way McKee teaches. But if you go about putting McKee's tools into practice and it just doesn't work for you, or you're simply not that kind of writer to begin with, don't panic if it feels like your brain has been taken over by McKee for a while. :-) This too shall pass, and afterwards you will probably feel like you have learned things that will be useful to you at some point down the road.
In the same way, Story evolved out of McKee giving lectures, and now, he continues to spread the word.
McKee is definitely an antagonist as opposed to a protagonist, and in person a funny and engaging fellow, and an excellent teacher. As you might expect, he does know how to tell a funny story, and he had a little fun at the expense of some of the sacred cows in the industry. I particularly liked his rant about Roger Ebert, who took his name in vain once but never again.
Anyway, the book shines a bright light on the elements of story. Conflict is to story what sound is to music. Story trumps dialogue in importance. Setups, payoffs, turning points, structure, inciting incident, protagonist vs antagonist, resonating and contrasting subplot, negation of the negation. Emotional value of scenes. Arc of the character. Act structure, rhythm and pacing. Text and subtext, beats, exposition. Character, dimension, step outline. All this and so much more.
Perhaps the most important single thing I learned from McKee is..treatment. The character treatment may be twice as long as the screenplay. This is the key difference between aspiring screenwriters, and successful ones.
I open my book, and look at his personal inscription to me, which I am sure he has written to many others... "Write the truth." I will, Mr McKee, I will. I trust you find this helpful.