Mastodon The Writing Desk: August 2011

2 August 2011

Story: Substance, structure, style and the principles of screenwriting by Robert McKee

Story is for any writer who ever wanted to understand and develop their craft.  Robert McKee's book is one of those wonderful discoveries that you can open randomly at any page and learn something about writing.  (I was recently given it as a present by my brother and couldn't put it down).  McKee's main point is that all notions of paradigms and 'foolproof' story models for commercial success are meaningless.  Instead of looking for shortcuts we need to be faithful to our principles.

I have no aspiration to become a screenplay writer but, like many of us, I once had a go at writing a play for radio. I am glad I did, as it helped me appreciate how much easier the whole experience could have been if I'd followed the principles set out in Story. I was particularly intrigued by the explanation of the genre and subgenre system used by commercially successful screenwriters.  McKee points out that genres don't inhibit creativity – they inspire it and anyone who ever tells a story is really doing so within the principles, structure and style of a genre - even those who rebel against genres!

His chapter on characterization and character development is also very thought provoking for any story writer. Characterization is described as the sum of all the observable qualities that make the character unique – but true 'character' is what waits behind this mask to surprise us.  McKee argues that true character is revealed through the choices made under pressure – and the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation. The memorable characters of film and literature are all of course rooted in this simple but easily overlooked principle.  I like the idea that, having analysed the clear and obvious choice for a character, we then ask what would be the opposite to that and why they would act in that way?
Story has hundreds of examples from movies of every genre (the list at the back takes 33 pages).  I've never really thought about it before but he points out that how odd it is to sit in a darkened room full of strangers and give our undivided attention to a story for two hours without a break.  I wonder if I will ever watch any of them again without thinking about the screenwriting.

I also found myself wondering how many of these movies have influenced the way I think about story writing – and I definitely have renewed respect for screenplay writers.  Next time you go to see a movie, make a point of knowing who actually wrote the story.  You will find someone who was prepared to write every day, line by line, page by page –with the courage to risk rejection and failure in the quest for stories told with real meaning.

Story is available on Amazon  and follow on Twitter at @McKeeStory

Robert McKee developed his ideas on creative writing when he was a professor at the University of Southern California. His seminars have contributed to the work of 36 Academy Award winners, 164 Emmy Award winners, 19 WGA (Writers Guild of America) Award winners and 16 DGA (Directors Guild of America) Award winners.