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Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The…
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Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting (1997)

by Robert McKee

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1,542267,171 (4.15)7
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(Original review, 1997-11-30)

Aristotle's observations of drama, is very far from the early dramaturgy as 18th century Lessing for instance. In the twenties when dramaturgy started to become a subject on its own in Central Europe (where it started) there was already in the beginning two different approaches, the Pièce bien fait approach (which mostly is today's melodrama) and an agnostic approach basically used by Brecht (not in the sense of V-effect, but his approach to story - like in "Kleines Organon für das Theater") and many others where the approach follows the what he called "Mach und Dach" - first you do something - then you analyze what you have done and then build from that. The idea is that it is artistically weak to use tools of analysis as tools of creation as Eisenstein teaches for instance, who emerges as a slightly more important figure in the field of drama than Mr. McKee. McKee is no fool, but really is no help unless you already has what it takes to be a scriptwriter. For a talented person alone on the ocean of creative fear he might appear as a savior, but what he teaches might lessen the possibilities that always lies hidden or dormant in a potential dramatic proposal. Not everyone can be a scriptwriter unfortunately.

That McKee finds himself "The Aristotle of Our Time" is just indicating the level of understanding of what Aristotle was. The society in which he worked and lives was so fundamentally different from ours that comparisons cannot really be made with what Aristotle thought, but rather how we believe that we understand the meaning and content of these texts, as most scholars dealing with the history of ideas will tell you. That other language-user and guru, Johnny Carson, once advised "It's funnier to say things funny than to say funny things". And I think there's an analogy to be drawn from that insight with how stories should be told.

I was in a writer's group with a very scholarly type once, and we were all sent off to write up an analysis of a script, in the format a reader would present to someone higher up the script-assessment food chain (role-playing game). What he came up with was certain proof that many of the scholarly struggle to see the wood for the trees, and worse, think they're superior beings as a result of this shortcoming. The art of movie writing is to concoct a script that will get made into a film with a multi-million dollar budget. Scripts that don't get made don't count. In the context of this contest, scholarly insight is essentially useless, but an ability to name the parts is essential. Musicologists revere the Beatles (or at least they should) and yet the Beatles' intellectual musical training consisted of living their lives while listening to and playing the kind of music they loved. I suspect that this is how films are made too. To paraphrase a nice line from a fine film - the code is more what you'd call "guidelines" than actual rules. Arguing with McKee as an intellectual is futile. He is who he is, and he's achieved what he's achieved - the thing defines itself by being whatever it is. "The Aristotle of our time" Sounds a bit silly... worse... pointless. He's Mckee, innit?

Here's my suggestion for what qualifies as true greatness - you write something that has popular appeal, meets the demand of and catches the wave of its time, and subtlety and cunningly woven into it is your personal message to the world, the credo that you wish to express. It changes the way people see things, and the world becomes a better place for it. If you have managed that, respec'. No cash could trump that achievement. Here’s another piece of advice for what’s worth: Write sober and then ruminate on it at about 9pm with alcohol and/or weed and a notepad. Write down all the crazy ideas and possible sentences that come to you (but don't touch the actual writing, obviously. You'll regret that the next day).

NB. Funny thing is, McKee's never really written anything of note. Maybe I’m just confusing two completely different skillsets, writing and teaching. I do that sometimes… ( )
  antao | Dec 18, 2018 |
I finished! It took me 3 months, which is actually better than I thought. Yeah, this is a textbook. Just sayin'. But it is a very good textbook. There were several 5-star parts, but the bulk of the book was more 4-starish. That said, those 5-star parts changed the way I think about writing. Particularly "the gap". I would say it was well worth all the time/money I spent on it.

BTW, this was very geared toward screenwriting (yeah, I know it says that right in the title). I hoped to apply it to novel writing, and I was not disappointed, but there were certain concepts that didn't apply to novel writing. Still, he's really good about differentiating between the story formats and how they apply, and I would suggest it for anyone who deals with story in any form. ( )
  KR_Patterson | Apr 28, 2015 |
Before reading this book I'd highly recommend watching a lot of old films -- the ones listed at the end. Someone has kindly put that list on the Internet (along with the disclaimer that the list contains a lot of shit, but I suspect McKee's thoughts on watching shit match up with Stephen King's thoughts on reading shit -- you have to do it if you want to learn about story.) Anyway, here's that list:

http://letterboxd.com/watchinpreacher/list/robert-mckees-story-filmography/

Chinatown, Casablanca, Kramer vs. Kramer and Ordinary People and the films of Bergman get a lot of ink, so definitely watch those ones, or his examples won't make as much sense.

After a single read, I have to admit a lot of the diagrams are as clear as mud. These are concepts designed to be studied. Except for one: the diagram on page 45 about classical design was enlightening. Someone put it online:

http://www.zeldadungeon.net/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/articleGaroZeldaandtheSil...

In that chapter, there's also a sister graph which gives examples of films at each part of the triangle. If you'd seen those films, that'd make it crystal clear.

Tonally, this book reads a bit like the rantings of a grumpy old man. After a long career in Hollywood, this is probably justified. But the most annoying thing for me is McKee's way of using the masculine pronoun for everyone except dancers, mothers and victims, which assumes, of course, that the writer is always male. This, too, is probably not a wholly unrealistic assumption about the people who tend to get jobs as film writers.

I read this book not because I'm interested in writing a script for film but because I'm interested in picturebooks, and I'd highly recommend this book to anyone who does any kind of storytelling at all, especially if you like watching movies. Storytelling is a dark art and an ongoing study.



( )
  LynleyS | Feb 8, 2014 |
Unfinished

Mckee has some strong views about films and he’s not going to let you learn about the nuts and bolts of story without beating you over the head with those views every chance he gets. European cinema? Load of rubbish, last 20 years of cinema? Load of rubbish, Hollywood & Asian cinema? The only people who can make “proper” films i.e. films that tell stories properly. The nuts and bolts are there and I didn’t pearl rule it but lost interest a little less than half way through. The examples he uses are mostly films I’ve not seen (Obviously I’ve been watching the rubbish films instead) and the style is both dry and overwrought. In the end this book goes onto the discard pile.

Overall – The style is not for me but there are useful things to glean ( )
  psutto | Sep 25, 2013 |
One of the best breakdowns of storytelling I've ever read. McKee breaks down the essence of story and presents it directly, without that shroud of artistic ambiguity that seems to come with creative writing books. Nothing here is formulaic; instead, he approaches story from the stance of classical form, while teaching you how to to accomplish each step.

Story is nominally written for screenwriters, but the lessons here are applicable for any fiction writer. ( )
  chaosmogony | Apr 27, 2013 |
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Epigraph
"Stories are equipment for living." - Kenneth Burke
Dedication
I dedicate this book to the happy memory of my parents who, in their very different ways, taught me the love of story.

When I was first learning to read, but not always behaving appropriately, my father introduced me to the fables of Aesop in the hope that these ancient cautionary tales might improve my deportment. Each evening, after working my way through the likes of "The Fox and the Grapes," he would nod and ask, "And what does this story mean to you, Robert?" As I stared at these texts and their handsome color illustrations, struggling to find my interpretations, I slowly came to realize that stories mean much more than words and pretty pictures.
Later, before entering the university, I deduced that the best possible life includes as many rounds of golf as possible, and therefore, I would become a dentist. "Dentist?!" my mother laughed. "You can't be serious. What happens when they cure all teeth problems? Where will dentists be then? No, Bobby, People will always need entertainment. I'm looking out for your future. You're going into show business."
First words
Intro:
Story is about principles, not rules.
A rule says, "You must do it this way." A principle says, "This works ... and has through all remembered time." The difference is crucial. Your work needn't be modeled after the "well-made" play; rather, it must be well made within the principles that shape our art. Anxious, inexperienced writers obey rules. Rebellious, unschooled writers break rules. Artists master the form.
1:
The decline of story
Imagine, in one global day, the pages of prose turned, plays performed, films screened, the unending stream of television comedy and drama, twenty-four-hour print and broadcast news, bedtime tales told to children, barroom bragging, back-fence Internet gossip, humankind's insatiable appetite for stories...
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Book description
Amazon.com Review
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
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0060391685, Hardcover)

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

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:21:49 -0400)

(see all 6 descriptions)

Robert McKee's screenwriting workshops have earned him an international reputation for inspiring novices, refining works in progress, and putting major screenwriting careers back on track. In "Story", McKee expands on the concepts he teaches in his seminars, providing readers with the most comprehensive, integrated explanation of the craft of writing for the screen. Photos.… (more)

» see all 4 descriptions

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