Robert McKee’s Story

I’ve just finished reading Robert McKee’s Story: Substance, structure, style, and the principles of screenwriting. It’s amazing.

I only finished it yesterday; and perhaps my opinion will mellow with time. Most things do. But I think it’s fair to say that it’s a genuinely remarkable book; one that might change how I read, and certainly how I think about stories. I genuinely wish I’d come across it years ago – ideally when I was still at university.

So what is it about Story that’s so good?

I think that it’s the clearest and most insightful set of ideas about what a story is that I’ve read in a long, long time. Now perhaps it’s just that there’s a whole wealth of literary criticism books that are excellent, and I just haven’t been reading the right ones. But this felt startlingly good to me.

If I can paraphrase some of the most important things I think he said, they are:

  • A story is in some sense rhetorical; it’s communicating a vision of how the world is.
  • A story is about a protagonist – someone (or thing) that’s capable of desiring something, and taking action to try and achieve that desire.
  • A key part of the story is the antagonist; what it is that’s stopping the antagonist. The better and more significant the antagonist is, the more meaningful the protagonist’s struggle.
  • The arc of the story is from the moment when the gap opens between the way the world is, and what the character desires; through the character’s attempts to bring about what he, she or they want; through to the final conclusion, when it’s achieved or not achieved.
  • Each scene should change something for the protagonist; internally, externally, it doesn’t matter – but there should be a change in how the protagonist fits in the world.

There’s more – a lot more – in the book, but as I look back over my notes I feel as though I won’t do it justice. I want to sort through them and read them over a little more.

Essentially, the idea that I liked enormously is that a story is about the conflict a character (or group of characters) has in trying to shape the world, and what finally happens. McKee argues that good stories end in a way that achieves that outcome (or fail to), but in a way that the protagonist wasn’t expecting.

He talks a little about the broader concept of a story – nonlinear, noncausal pieces, and ones with passive protagonists. But he argues that these are often reactions against linear, causal stories with active protagonists, and that seemed a reasonable argument to me.

I’m looking forward to thinking more about stories after reading McKee; and I’m tremendously glad I read it. It’s not that the book’s perfect – it isn’t. At points there were disappointing typesetting errors, and more fundamentally I think he over-specifies things that may not be true, when it’s the core of his ideas that are most important. But event with its flaws, it’s the best piece on story that I’ve read in a long time.

McKee and the seminars

The Story book is based on a seminar which McKee is famous for, and which he apparently delivers almost non-stop (check his website). I found mixed reviews; this one was a positive response to his book, and this one found the seminar ‘unconvincing’.

And because of the seminars, of course, McKee is also famous as the character who appears in AdaptationHis character features in a scene in a seminar, and then later he advises Charlie Kaufmann in a bar. The New Yorker has an account of McKee changing the ending; and you can hear his version of it on YouTube. Either way, it’s an interesting connection.

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