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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.

“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

Robert McKee on Wikipedia
Robert McKee’s homepage
Story on Amazon.com

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