Category Archives: writing

Books about writing.

Review 186: Supergods

Supergods by Grant Morrison

There is this interesting mental phenomenon, which you have probably experienced, called paradoelia. Briefly put, it is when our brains find a pattern where there is no pattern, making us believe that we see something that just isn’t there. It’s why every now and then, someone sees Jesus in a water stain in their basement. Or there’s a cloud that looks almost exactly like a dragon. Or when you wake up at four in the morning, and you’re squinting against the light and the toilet looks like a face and it’s laughing at you STOP LAUGHING AT ME!

Um. Right.

Humans are meaning-seekers. Whether it’s a song or a painting or a piece of toast, we want to find meaning everywhere we can. We are experts at it, world-champions, even when there is no meaning to be found.

ATREYYYUUUU!!!

When we turn these marvelous pattern-seeking brains towards places where there is meaning, well, that’s where things get interesting. Grant Morrison is a master pattern-seeker, which is probably what has helped him become one of the most interesting and important writers of the modern age. His area of interest is not philosophy, however, or literature or world affairs. He does not dissect the works of great masters of classical art or intricate mathematicians. Grant Morrison’s passion is something that many people believe they should give up by the time they leave their teens.

He loves superheroes.

That’s probably the only real point of overlap between me and Morrison, which is a pity because he seems like someone with whom it would be awesome to hang out. In the nearly seventy years since the dawn of the superhero, very few people have done as much thinking about them as Morrison has, nor have they followed the complex interrelationship between the superheroes and the world that brought them to life. Supergods attempts to answer a question that seems simple, but turns out to be mind-bendingly complicated: what do superheroes mean?

Yeah, I can see it…

He starts where it all began, with Action Comics #1 in 1938 and the debut of Superman. He spends several pages discussing the iconic cover alone – from its composition to the promises it makes to the reader – and uses that as a guide to all that will come after. The cover “looked like a cave painting waiting to be discovered on a subway wall ten thousand years from now – a powerful, at once futuristic and primitive image of a hunter killing a rogue car.”

Superman, who began his career as a protector of the people against the corrupt and the powerful, would be joined by Batman, who prowled the night looked to avenge a crime that could never be avenged. Together, they embodied the hopes and fears of their readers. They spoke to our nobility and our need to see that justice was done. They spoke to that haunting voice that told us that some things can never be made right. They were us, writ larger than life and yet printed on pulp paper and sold for a dime.

Together, Batman and Superman formed a template that nearly every other superhero would either conform to or react against. Over the next seventy years, superheroes would undergo massive changes – become light and dark, be parodies of the real world and terrible reflections of it. They would be funny, they would be grim. They would explore uncountable hyper-realities that were normally confined to the acid dreams of mystics, and they would face the most mundane and everyday problems that bedevil the man on the street.

Over the course of the book, Morrison looks at the history of superhero comics, charting their changes and mutations and looking for the underlying meaning behind each new iteration of the art. He tracks it from its pulp and populist origins, through the wartime years when the People’s Heroes suddenly became agents of propaganda, the age of the Comics Code, which forced writers to go to more and more ridiculous lengths to come up with stories, and the era of the realistic, where the heroes tried to cope with the problems of the readers’ world.

Don’t get punched by a Kirby character if you can help it, no matter what day it is.

He looks at the iconic moments in superhero publishing, such as the explosion of creativity brought about by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby at Marvel Comics, the editorial guidance of visionaries like Julius Schwartz, who sought to make comics a tool of education, and the masterstrokes of creators such as Alan Moore and Frank Miller, whose singular contributions to the genre are still reverberating clearly today.

Interlaced through all of this is Morrison’s own history, both as a reader and a creator of superhero comics. Much like the superheroes that he loves, Morrison gives us his secret origin as a young reader of comics, moving into a creative adolescence that found him searching for his own identity as both a creator and as a person. Like many of his heroes, he changed costumes and modes, went for a grittier, punk look for a little while, and proceeded to reinvent himself as one might reinvent a half-forgotten character from a title that was cancelled years ago.

As the history of superheroes intersects with his, the narrative becomes less a creative examination of how comics have evolved and more a story about how he evolved with comics. Not only did he become the equivalent of a rock star comic book writer, he managed to reach across the boundary between comic books and real life, crossing from one to another as one of the world’s first fictionauts.

The less said about what Deadpool means for us, the better.

It’s hard to overstate how much thinking Morrison has done on this topic, or how far he is willing to go to defend the heroes that he has not only grown up with but who have made his fortune for him. He sees superheroes not as a pleasant diversion or a corrupting force or as an unnecessary fantasy, but rather as in imperishable idea. They are a meme, a reflection of ourselves – both who we think we are and who we wish to be. Over the decades, Superman and Batman and Spider-Man and the X-Men and all of their costumed comrades have raised generations of readers and instilled in them some of the highest values to which we aspire. Despite being derided, dismissed, and very nearly outlawed, there has been something about the superheroes that has called out to us, and we cannot help but respond.

In an age where fiction and reality are nearly interchangeable, and where the imagination can produce something real in almost no time at all, perhaps it’s time to stop thinking about the superheroes as entertainment for nerds and children. Perhaps it’s time to see what the heroes have to teach all of us.

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“Superhero science has taught me this: Entire universes fit comfortably inside our skulls. Not just one or two but endless universes can be packed into that dark, wet, and bony hollow without breaking it open from the inside. The space in our heads will stretch to accommodate them all. The real doorway to the fifth dimension was always right here. Inside. That infinite interior space contains all the divine, the alien, and the unworldly we’ll ever need.”
– Grant Morrison, Supergods

Grant Morrison on Wikipedia
Supergods on Amazon.com
Grant Morrison’s homepage

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Filed under autobiography, comic books, culture, DC Comics, Grant Morrison, identity, Marvel Comics, media, memoir, nonfiction, super-heroes, supervillains, writing

Review 173: Still Life With Woodpecker

Still Life with Woodpecker by Tom Robbins

When my brother gave me this book for Christmas, he told me to “drink in the writing.” Or something to that effect. Whatever it was, he heaped praise on Robbins’ use of language. Several people in my family had read this, or some other Tom Robbins book, and they all enthusiastically agreed that reading him was a pleasure unto itself, above and beyond the enjoyment one gets from reading the actual story. I was promised an actual Reading Experience, and that promise was fulfilled in spades.

Reading Robbins is like sitting through a storm. His words flow down the page like the acid dreams of a long-reformed hippie. They dance and spin, curling into strange and exotic shapes that you can’t quite take in on the first read, so you look at the page again, convinced that there must have been something there that you missed. You find yourself at the end of a section, convinced that you’ve read it, but not entirely sure what you’ve read. Or you go back and read it again just because reading it the first time was just such fun.

Just pretend I'm not here. (photo by DeathandDisinfectant on DeviantArt)

Most modern writers do their best to keep you involved in the story, to keep the writing from drawing attention to itself. Much in the same way that many filmmakers try to keep you from thinking, “Oh, I’m looking through a camera,” so do writers try to keep you from thinking about the words – their lens through which they transmit their message and images. Robbins completely eschews this principle – not only does he make sure you notice his words, he goes out of the way to make the words themselves more interesting than the story.

This is not to say that the story isn’t interesting, of course. It is a romance, albeit a strange and brambly one. A young princess, the only child of an exiled king and queen, has vowed to devote her life to the betterment of the Earth, to use her royal station to help the world and to absolutely never fall in love – or even have sex – again. For very good reasons, of course. Nothing like having a miscarriage while cheerleading for your college football team to dampen your reproductive urges. This plan works up until she gets to a ecology conference in Maui, where she meets the man of her nightmares – a notorious terrorist who is nicknamed the Woodpecker.

The Woodpecker (his real name is Bernard) is a self-professed outlaw, a man who takes joy in subverting order, thumbing his nose at authority and living with a complete disregard for legal niceties such as not blowing things up. He’s been in prison and escaped, and has only a short time until the statute of limitations finally runs out. This doesn’t stop Bernie from bringing dynamite with him to Maui, and under the influence of alcohol and lust and rage, he tips his hand too soon. The only thing standing between him and prison is the beautiful red-headed princess – Leigh-Cherie – who hates him at first sight and swears that there is absolutely nothing about him that she finds redeeming.

Yes, yes, you hate each other. GET A ROOM!

We all know where that kind of thinking leads.

They fall in love, of course, a whirlwind outlaw romance that is only put to rest when Bernie finally lands back in prison. As a show of solitude to her lover, Leigh-Cherie locks herself in her room, turning it into a cell to mirror that of her beloved, and swears not to leave it until he leaves his. The only things in the room are a bed, a chamber pot, and a pack of Camel cigarettes.

That’s where things start to get weird.

The nice thing about this book is that you don’t really have to ponder what the themes were – Robbins points them out quite clearly by the end of the book, so if you didn’t get it the first time, you’ll be able to get it the next time ’round. It’s a story about love, of course, and the irrational, weird turns it can take. It’s about history, about the great, never-ending “why” that drives us from one act to the next. And, interestingly enough, it’s about our relationship with the physical world, from the greatest of the Egyptian pyramids to the most mundane pack of Camels.

During her self-inflicted time in solitary, Leigh-Cherie constructs a vast universe inside the label of her cigarettes (which she never actually smokes) and it leads her to truths and realizations that would confound the greatest philosopher or the most devoted mystic. By contemplating the mundane, she finds the key to the universe.

Speaking of relating to objects, the story itself is a kind of romance between Robbins and his typewriter – a Remington SL3 – which doesn’t, insofar as I have been able to tell, exist. Theirs is a tumultuous love. It begins with a tentative love, a hope that the machine is The One for this book. It passes through admiration and infatuation, only to end with rejection as Robbins finishes the book in longhand.

Oh my god, I can see forever!! And a naked man, BUT MOSTLY FOREVER!!!

As Robbins relates to his Remington, and Leigh-Cherie to her pack of Camels, so do we have relationships with objects. We become familiar with our possessions, imbuing them with character and personality. Not only that, but once we give consideration to the history of that object – its design and manufacturing, where the idea and the materials came from – we find that we can read the history of the universe in something as simple as a paper clip.

It’s a weird and wonderful book. The characters are vibrant and real, in a kind of hyper-real way. It’s funny and bright, changing pace and rhythm from page to page and really is a delight to sit and read. Even more fun to read aloud, actually, so if you have a chance to do that, jump and take it.

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“Plato did claim that the unexamined life is not worth living. Oedipus Rex was not so sure.”
– Tom Robbins, Still Life with Woodpecker
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Tom Robbins on Wikipedia
Still Life With Woodpecker on Wikipedia
Still Life With Woodpecker on Amazon.com

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Filed under anarchy, fiction, humor, romance, terrorism, Tom Robbins, writing

Lost in the Stacks 11: The Lessons of NaNoWriMo

This is my pen - THE CREATOR OF WORLDS.

As you may know, I’m doing National Novel Writing Month this year – though it’s nearly over by now. The goal of this activity is to write 50,000 words in the thirty days of November. It’s not easy, and sometimes it’s downright frustrating, but it reveals a lot about being a writer that can help you on your way to joining the ranks of authors that you love to read. The main thing you learn is that being a writer means doing actual work. It’s not backbreaking (unless you have a crappy office chair), but it can be just as frustrating and difficult, or as fulfilling and exciting as any other kind of work out there. Chances are that you’ll go from one to the other from day to day.

In this episode, I talk about what I’ve learned from writing every day for six months, and how it really has helped me appreciate what the professionals had to go through in order to become pros. Whether I will one day be a professional or not isn’t really something I’m thinking about right now, but it’s certainly been fun finding out….

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Filed under Lost in the Stacks, writing

Lost in the Stacks 4: Writers and Readers

With the debut of HBO’s “A Game of Thrones” miniseries and a new article in The New Yorker, the strange story of George R. R. Martin and his fans has been on my mind. So, in this episode of Lost in the Stacks, we examine the weird, often dangerously codependent relationship between the Writer and the Readers.

What does the writer owe to his or her readers, if anything? What can the readers honestly expect of their writer? What promises, implicit or explicit, have been made, and what happens when they’re broken?

Join me for an interesting conversation, and let me know what you think!

George R. R. Martin’s homepage
Finish the Book, George
Is Winter Coming?

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Filed under analysis, criticism, ethics, fans, fiction, George R. R. Martin, Lost in the Stacks, morality, reading, writing

Lost in the Stacks 3: Women in Fiction

This week, Scott Adams handed the internet a firebomb and then complained when it went off. In a blog post (deleted from his blog, but kindly reprinted here), he compared women asking for equal pay to children asking for candy. It roused the ire of the ‘net’s feminist population – rightly so – but his reaction of, “You’re just not smart enough to get it” was the icing on the cake.

Yes, ma'am....

But some good did come out of it – I started thinking about female characters in fiction. What difficulties do writers have in creating female characters, and why? How can we go about making sure that more writers do a better job at writing women?

It was an interesting topic to talk about, and I’m sure I made some mistakes or omitted some important details somewhere. After all, from my testiculated point of view, I’m bound to overlook something, so give the show a listen, drop me a comment and let me know!

Some links of interest:

Comics Alliance – ‘Dilbert’ Creator Scott Adams Compares Women Asking for Equal Pay to Children Demanding Candy
Feministe – Scott Adams’ alleged response to criticism
OverthinkingIt.com – The Female Character Flowchart
OverthinkingIt.com – Why Strong Female Characters are Bad for Women
Feminist Frequency – The Bechdel Test for Women in Movies
The Bechdel Test Movie List

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Filed under analysis, fantasy, fiction, gender roles, Lost in the Stacks, science fiction, Scott Adams, women, writing

Review 85: On Writing


On Writing by Stephen King

When I was in college, I sent a letter to Stephen King. It was the first letter I’d ever sent to an author – to any famous person, as far as I can recall – and I did my best to not sound completely fannish in it. I told him that I really liked his work, especially The Stand, and how I looked forward to seeing how other books came out, The Dark Tower series in particular. As far as I can remember, I kept my head. I was cool.

But I also did what I reckon many people do when they write to their favorite authors – I told him that I enjoyed writing as well, and I hoped I could be an author someday. In retrospect, I imagine King gets a lot of these letters, and after I’d sent it, I figured that was my stupid fanboy move. I knew what I wanted to happen next – I’d get a call from Stephen King who says, “You know, judging from the well-written letter you sent me, I would like to see an example of your fiction,” and so I’d send him the short story I was working on and he’d write back and say, “You’re BRILLIANT! I’m going to devote my remaining days to seeing that you become a writer of greatness! Stick with me, kid, and the world is your oyster!”

The advantage I have over other people with overactive imaginations is that I know when mine is bullshitting me. Honestly, I figured I’d never hear from him at all.

On that point, at least, I was wrong.

A few weeks later, I got a letter from none other than Stephen King himself! Included was a card, on which he thanked me for my kind words about his work, as well as a couple of photocopies of articles he had done about writing. I figure he had a whole stack of these, ready to send to every prospective writer out there, but it meant a lot to me that he had taken the time. The articles talked about how he wrote, and the advice he always gave to budding writers.

I figure he must have gotten a lot of letters like mine, because he eventually wrote this book. In it is nearly everything he knows about how to write well. I figure that he hoped people would stop asking when he published it, though I doubt people did. Those who want to be writers – and you can ask any published writer about this – believe that there’s a Secret to getting published. That there’s some special club of writers and agents and publishers who all know each other and in order to get in you have to go to live with John Scalzi and become his personal cat waxer for a year.

But it ain’t so. What those who are already in publishing will tell you is that the best way to get a story published is to write a great story. Do that, and your chances of success are much improved.

How, then, do you write a great story? All King can tell us – all any writer can tell us – is how he does it.

The first of the book is his Curriculum Vitae, in which he tells us about how he became a writer. It’s not a particularly surprising story, really. He gives us his memories of writing as a child, from knock-offs of horror comics to original works of horror and fantasy. The stories he tells, the memories that he relays to us show that he was interested in writing all his life, and the desire to write – no, the need to write – was something that has always been with him.

It follows him through his days as a neophyte novelist, breaking into the big time with the sale of Carrie, and how the personal and financial success he gained from that propelled him to write more and better. And, of course, there were the Dark Days. The drugs and the alcohol, the books he can’t remember writing and the days he can’t remember drinking through. He’s sober now, of course, but this is a warning – one of many peppered throughout the book: beware the Writers’ Traps. The illusion that you must be a drunk, a la Hemingway, to be a good writer, is one. He fell for it and, fortunately for us, he climbed his way out again.

Much like any trade, skill in writing is built by experience, and having the faith that you have something worth saying to the world. But even just having something to say and an unshakable faith won’t make you a good writer, so the second part of the book is a bit more practical: how do you make a story? Well, much like any trade, you need your tools. You need your grammar and structure and vocabulary so that you can present your ideas in a comprehensible form. You need your metaphor and simile, so that you’re not being too obvious in what you want to say. You need your symbolism, description and characterization, foreshadowing and nuance and dialog. But what you need the most is practice, patience and faith.

He walks through the steps of composition, character creation, and coming up with the essential through-line of your story. He gives us his own pet peeves as a writer (he hates adverbs passionately and says that the passive voice is to be avoided at all cost) and exhorts us to read as many different writers as we can. He gives us the benefit of his years of experience and the things he has learned, and says to us, “Now you try.”

King sets a very challenging bar, though – 2,000 words a day, every day, no exceptions. Well, for people just getting started he’s willing to be a little lenient: 1,500 words a day and you can have Sundays off. And you have to take it seriously, as you would any true craft. King recommends that you establish a Writing Space, ideally somewhere where you can close the door. Lose the distractions and take care of the reasons not to write.

And, as the fine folks at Nike would say, just do it.

Of course, if you’re new at this, most of what you write will be crap. In fact, even if you’re not new, the odds are that your first draft will be a mess. But if you have something to say, and you know what that is, then the story will shine through. You can polish it, revise, tweak and massage it until it’s something that you’re willing to let the rest of the world see.

It’s hard work, that’s for sure. At no point does King say that being a writer will be easy. He says that it’s sometimes thrilling, scary, exquisite, weird, toilsome, difficult, Sisyphean even. But never, ever easy. And there’s no guarantee that you’ll end up where he is. In fact, the odds are that you won’t be able to make a living as a writer. It’s certainly not impossible, of course – many men and women make that bar every year. But to write consistently at that level requires even more practice, patience and faith.

In the end, King is one writer who has most certainly made it big. He avoided destroying himself, and survived an accident that should have destroyed him, and he’s still writing. And if you get nothing else from this book, perhaps it is this lesson: a writer writes. No matter what, no matter why, a writer writes because that is what a writer must do to survive. If you’re willing to do that, if you have stories that you need to tell, then you might be a writer. It’s a scary thing to do, but who knows scary better than Stephen King? Take a read through this book, open up a fresh Word file, and get to work.

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“What follows is everything I know about how to write good fiction. I’ll be as brief as possible, because your time is valuable and so is mine, and we both understand that the hours we spend talking about writing is time we don’t spend actually doing it. I’ll be as encouraging as possible, because it’s my nature and because I love this job. I want you to love it, too. But if you don’t want to work your ass off, you have no business trying to write well – settle back into competency and be grateful you have even that much to fall back on.”
– Stephen King, On Writing
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Stephen King on Wikipedia
On Writing on Wikipedia
On Writing on Amazon.com
Stephen King’s website

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Filed under memoir, Stephen King, writing

Review 84: Story



Story by Robert McKee

Why are there so many bad movies out there? I mean seriously – you and I both know that of all the films that are released every year, we probably get only one or two that are actually good. There’s some that are good enough to spend an afternoon watching, maybe enjoyable enough that we’ll want to watch it again on DVD later. But so many are just… bad.

It is my own fault, I think, for seeing Transformers 2. I have no one to blame but myself.

The really scary thing is that, in the summer of Transformers 2 and G.I. Joe, these were the best stories they had available. Seriously. If they had a better movie to make, one that would get a bigger audience and thereby bring in more money, don’t you think they would have made it? The only reason you put a piece of misery like TF2 together is because you have no better options available.

Why, then, should this be so? What happened to the great scripts of long ago? You know, back in my day, when we had good movies, dammit, and we didn’t need all this fancy See-Gee-Eye to fill up screen time. When we could go home quoting movie lines and we had characters that inspired us and stories that shaped our lives?

Well, it’s probably important to note that even in the Good Old Days, the good stories were still grossly outnumbered by the mediocre and bad ones, and there’s a very good reason for that: writing is hard.

If you take nothing else away from this book, you will remember that – writing a good story is work, and if you’re not willing to do the work that it takes, then you’re not going to write a good story. Oh, you might luck out and write a story that’s good enough, and there might be enough truly bad stuff out there that someone will be willing to publish or produce your “good enough” story. But that won’t make people like it, watch it, read it or care about it. If you want your work to have real resonance, to have an effect on people long after they’ve put it down or walked out of the theater, then you have to be willing to do more than just type a couple thousand words every day. You have to know your story from the inside out, know the characters better than they know themselves, and have a clear vision of what it is you want to say.

A good story, McKee believes, is the writer telling us “Life is like this.” And if it’s a good story, well-told, then we’ll believe him.

And that’s the reason for the title of this book – STORY. Everything serves the story, McKee says, including you. But if you know how the story works, and how to make the story serve your own ends, then you can create a piece that will live on in memory.

This book is not an instruction manual, and the things that McKee talks about are not rules or even guidelines. They are principles of storytelling, guiding ideas that underpin every good story ever told, and the lack of which are what leads to mediocre or even bad storytelling. If you follow these principles, McKee believes, keep them in your mind and be willing to work with them, then you’ll be able to produce work that will sell.

One of the examples that gets used throughout the book is the idea of the Gap. People who want something, you see, will usually do the minimum required to get that thing. So if I want to get into my friend’s home, I won’t bring my lockpicks and jimmy open the door. I’ll probably just knock on it and ask to be let in. If that happens, then I get what I expected to get, and that scene should therefore be cut from the manuscript.

What if, however, I knock on the door and my friend refuses to let me in? There is the Gap, a difference between what I expected to happen and what actually happened. Now I have to react to that, and his reaction to my reaction will drive the scene on. By asking yourself what the character expects, and then asking, “Okay – what’s the opposite of that,” you can drive the story along, make it interesting, and provide your characters with more to do than just knock on doors.

He also talks about the Controlling Idea of a story – what is the meaning of your story? It could be something like, “Love brings people together through adversity,” or “Those who use others lead meaningless lives,” or “The best life is one where challenges are overcome.” It is the spine of your story, the idea that holds everything together. By knowing what your story is really about, you can make sure that every scene, every chapter serves that end.

From the big ideas of characterization, symbolism and the Controlling Idea, McKee moves to structure and the true nuts and bolts of screenwriting – the beat/scene/sequence/act structure that governs a film and determines how the overall structure works. He looks at different movies and analyzes how the story is structured, both in regards to the main plot and any sub-plots (which are really good for propping up a slower second act), points out different ways to introduce the Inciting Incident of your story, where the climaxes and turning points might go, and how to get there and keep your audience interested.

There’s so much in the book, it really is like a handbook of story-writing. While it’s geared towards screenwriters, the principles of storytelling can apply to any medium. He does talk a little bit about other media as well, mainly in the section on adaptation. If you’re a playwright or a novelist, there’s lessons in this book that you can definitely use, while ignoring the exhortations not to try and put stage and camera directions into your screenplay.

I’ve had an on-again, off-again love of writing since I was a kid. There have been times when I wrote non-stop, putting out stories left and right. Not necessarily good ones, mind you, but writing nonetheless. And then there have been periods – like now, for example – where there are no stories that burn to be told. I miss it, honestly, but reading this book kind of stoked the flames a little. I got to thinking about old stories that I could revise, and a couple of ideas that I had consigned to the filing cabinet of my brain proved to be good guinea pigs for some of McKee’s principles.

Does that mean I’m on my way to literary superstardom? Not without a whole lot of hard work it doesn’t. Much like with Stephen King’s On Writing, one of the biggest lessons you get from this book is that creating a story of any quality requires hard, consistent work, and lots of it. McKee gives some good tips on the kind of writing process you should use to shorten the writing time – making more efficient use of your time and creativity, essentially – but at no time does he claim that making a good story is easy. What he does do, though, is make you believe that the hard work is worth doing.

As much as I would like to heap praise on McKee, though, there was something that stuck in my brain like a splinter when I read this. It’s a little thing, it’s a very nerdy thing, but it’s a thing nonetheless.

At various points in the book, in order to illustrate one principle of storytelling or another, McKee uses the scene in The Empire Strikes Back where Vader reveals that he is Luke’s father. McKee is right in that it’s an excellent example of a perfect storytelling moment. At that instant, we re-think everything we’ve seen before with regards to Luke and Vader. We understand that Yoda and Obi-Wan weren’t necessarily worried that Luke needed training just to be a good Force user – they were worried that he’d turn out like his father. Everything we thought we knew about those characters had to be re-evaluated, and in terms of simple storytelling, it was a brilliant moment.

Take the Gap principle I talked about earlier. There’s Luke, at Vader’s mercy. Luke expects that Vader is going to kill him, but what happens? He says, “I am your father.” And then what does Vader expect? He certainly doesn’t expect Luke to throw himself off the antenna, choosing death over giving in to the Dark Side. The viewer doesn’t have any idea what to expect either, and that’s what makes for a great movie moment.

The trouble is, I don’t think McKee has actually watched that movie in a very long time. He gets lines wrong (“You can’t kill me, Luke. I’m your father”) and gets entire sequences of events wrong – he has Vader reveal his paternity to Luke, who then attacks him, forcing Vader to cut off his son’s hand. Vader offers to let Luke rule by his side, in response to which Luke hurls himself to what he imagines is his death. And every time McKee brings up Star Wars as an example, I found myself wanting to scream, “Did you even see the movie? Or at least look up the script??” I mean, I know the book was published in 1997, but if he’s big in Hollywood, he should at least be able to get his hands on one precious copy. Or go to Blockbuster and rent the damn movie.

Anyway, that was my one little gripe with McKee, and it did make me wonder what else he might have gotten wrong in his details. I mean, his reading of the scene worked, and wouldn’t have been any different if he had gotten it right, but still – it’s a pretty big mistake to make. I can only hope that he managed to fix it in later editions.

That much aside, the principles he puts forward are sound, and it’s the kind of book that you want to keep close at hand while you’re putting your story together. If you find yourself hitting a wall, just start browsing through the book again and something will come to you. Whether you’re a writer of screenplays, stage plays, novels or short stories, this is a book you really should read. It’ll help you see what you’re doing in a whole new light.

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“Story isn’t a flight from reality but a vehicle that carries us on our search for reality, our best effort to make sense out of the anarchy of existence.”
– Robert McKee, Story
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Robert McKee on Wikipedia
Robert McKee’s homepage
Story on Amazon.com

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Filed under nonfiction, Robert McKee, story, writing