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Story: Substance, structure, style | Reviews

Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting Robert McKee
Methuen, 1999, 466 pages

 Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting

Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and...

 

 

'...but not for the first time I’m struck by the fact that it’s books about screenwriting that are the most analytical when it comes to finding out what makes a story tick.'

 

 

 

 

'flawed storytelling substitutes spectacle for substance, and too often that’s what we’re seeing, at the box office and in the bookstore too.'

 

 

 

 

'As McKee puts it, the art of story is the dominant cultural force in the world, and film is its dominant medium. '

This book, as is clear from the sub-title, is specifically about screenwriting, but not for the first time I’m struck by the fact that it’s books about screenwriting that are the most analytical when it comes to finding out what makes a story tick. 

Perhaps it’s simply that on screen, every second has to count – we see this at its most extreme in animated films such as Chicken Run where not one moment of time is wasted. And yet, Robert McKee, himself no slouch in the storytelling department, argues that that the art of story is in decay as writers no longer learn their craft but rely entirely on unconscious absorption of story elements, what they call ‘instinct’ but McKee calls ‘habit’, and something he argues is very limiting. As he sees it, flawed storytelling substitutes spectacle for substance, and too often that’s what we’re seeing, at the box office and in the bookstore too.

The story is our most prolific art form; it takes up most of our waking hours one way or another. Stories are ‘equipment for life’, according to Kenneth Burke, whom McKee quotes: in other words, they are about trying to work out how to lead our own lives. Stories may be an escape but they’re as much an exploration of life too. As McKee puts it, the art of story is the dominant cultural force in the world, and film is its dominant medium. Yet the thirst for story is unsatisfied because writers are no longer learning to write. This book is McKee’s attempt to redress that balance, and to rescue story from its decline.

McKee’s approach is straightforward. He deals in principles rather than rules. Principles involve things that work rather than an insistence on doing things a certain way. He strongly believes that scripts written with this in mind will be well-made according to the principles rather than perfectly written according to a set of rules, but completely unsuccessful.

McKee deals in universal forms rather than paradigms and foolproof models, arguing that there are many different forms of story design and that the aim is to excite the audience and ensure the story lives rather than to make a quick buck at the box office before the film is consigned to oblivion. And story should be about archetypes, about universal human experience, rather than about stereotypes. McKee argues passionately for his art, encouraging thoroughness and respect for the audience rather than simply trying to second-guess the market.

And to do this he devotes himself to a detailed analysis of story, in all its component parts. He looks at the elements of story structure, before moving on to an even more detailed examination of a story in process. Frequently diagrammatic and packed with examples, this might at first seem more prescriptive than descriptive, but McKee is trying to provide a solid framework for the writer to use, over and over … rather as a musician needs to understand the fundamentals of musical composition in order to improvise freely. It is an intensive study, but I’ve no doubt that at the end of it, a reader will be very clear about the business of story, and, although this is aimed primarily at screenwriters, anyone who writes stories, fiction or non-fiction would be well advised to keep this book in their writer’s library and to study it.

© Maureen Kincaid SpellerMaureen Kincaid Speller a reviewer, writer, editor and former librarian, is our book reviewer and also works for WritersServices as a freelance editor. 2002

Reviewed by Maureen Kincaid Speller

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List price: £17.70
Publisher: HarperAudio
1997-11-01
Audio Cassette
Sales rank: 3,877,687


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