Book Review: Story

Story:  Substance, Structure, Style, and The Principles of Screenwriting, by Robert McKee

It is easy to see why this book is so well-regarded when it comes to screenwriting.  Although most of my attention has been focused on playwriting [1], this book does a great job at showing what makes for good scripts, and it definitely is a different sort of writing than the dialogue-heavy sort of work I am normally and perhaps understandably familiar with writing and reading.  The author clearly assumes that his reading audience is going to take this book seriously, and so it is a very serious look at matters of substance, style, structure, and principles.  I can say that I learned a good deal about how screenwriting works from this book, and why it is so easy for people to go about it the wrong way.  Given the fact that so many stories are so terrible, and so many old plots are rehashed and so many bad adaptations are made, it is pretty clear that there is a massive failure when it comes to writing scripts, especially where so many films are made where the director tries to find a film in material shot aimlessly and pointlessly and where the edits attempt to create drama and tension that was not written into it in the first place.  Laziness abounds.

With about 450 pages of material, including the complete list of films referenced, this is not a book to be taken lightly.  The author details his material in nineteen chapters over four parts, and is careful to thank his agent and his publisher for prodding/encouraging him to write this lengthy and immensely helpful work.  The first part of the book introduces the writer and the problem of story and what it means in film.  Then the author looks at the elements of story, including the spectrum of structures from archplots to miniplots to plots of coincidence, settings, genre, character, and meaning.  The author then looks at principles of story design including the substance of the story, the inciting incident, act design, scene design, a detailed set of scene analyses, composition, and the process of crisis, climax, and resolution.  The final part of the book looks at the importance of the principle of antagonism that usually requires at least some kind of triangle among the characters, exposition, problems and solutions, character, the text, and the writer’s method of working from the inside of the story out than from the dialogue in.  All in all, this is a book that earns its length and manages to be an immensely worthwhile one.  I cannot recommend it enough for someone who takes screenwriting seriously.

That is not to say that this book is perfect, though.  There are definitely at least some potential readers who will be offended by the author’s humor.  The author has a notable bias against German humor [2], a joke he not only makes but repeats from multiple angles, such as when he details the trail of comedy traditions from Aristophanes and Terence in the Greco-Roman world (missing humor in the biblical tradition) and moving to the Middle Ages, Italy, France, and England, while pointedly skipping over Germany and drawing attention to the gap.  Who is to say that there is not some German Calderon or Moliere that we are simply unfamiliar with?  Aside from this, though, the work is excellent in that provides an insider’s look at why scripts look the way that they do and what makes them work.  It gave a lot of answers to me about why directors and editors and actors appreciate scripts the way that they do, the necessity of subtext (which comes fairly naturally to me anyway), and why it is so hard for Hollywood to find good scripts these days.  The fact that the author has been the teacher to so many great screenwriters makes him an obvious and notable authority in the field.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2017/01/26/audiobook-review-shakespeare-the-world-as-stage/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2016/12/01/book-review-creative-writing-masterclass-writing-plays/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2016/11/28/the-play-was-a-great-success-but-the-audience-was-a-disaster/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2016/03/20/book-review-eight-plays/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2016/02/06/book-review-ibsen-a-collection-of-critical-essays/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2016/02/06/book-review-the-new-art-of-writing-plays/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2014/03/18/ghosts-of-the-taira-the-relationship-between-the-wars-of-the-gempei-and-the-warrior-ghost-noh-dramas/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2013/09/29/castigo-sin-venganza/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2011/07/13/on-the-morality-of-the-dramatic-arts/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2011/01/10/on-the-unity-of-tragedy-comedy-and-history/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2010/11/19/contested-legitimacy-in-lope-de-vegas-fuente-ovejuna/

[2] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2016/02/26/book-review-dead-funny/

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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