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Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting

Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting

4.7 29
by Robert McKee

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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. Quincy Jones, Diane Keaton, Gloria Steinem, Julia Roberts, John Cleese and David Bowie are just a few of his celebrity alumni. Writers, producers, development executives and


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. Quincy Jones, Diane Keaton, Gloria Steinem, Julia Roberts, John Cleese and David Bowie are just a few of his celebrity alumni. Writers, producers, development executives and agents all flock to his lecture series, praising it as a mesmerizing and intense learning experience.

In Story, McKee expands on the concepts he teaches in his $450 seminars (considered a must by industry insiders), providing readers with the most comprehensive, integrated explanation of the craft of writing for the screen. No one better understands how all the elements of a screenplay fit together, and no one is better qualified to explain the "magic" of story construction and the relationship between structure and character than Robert McKee.

Editorial Reviews


Robert Masello's Letter from Hollywood

Even though 16 people had already told me it was impossible to sell a pitch in Hollywood, I went ahead and tried it, anyway.

And darned if I didn't do it.

I pitched my little romantic comedy idea to an executive for a major movie producer, and he clapped his hands together and bought it on the spot -- or at least he promised me his boss would buy it, and then we'd work on developing it together.

Over the next couple of weeks, while deal memos flew back and forth between his company and my agents, we worked on the idea. But every time the exec said something like, "Let's work on your inciting incident," I'd have to stop and ask, "My what?"

Finally, after this had happened half a dozen times, he said, "You've got to take the Robert McKee screenwriting course. It's his terminology I'm using -- everyone in the business does -- and if you don't know it, we'll never be able to communicate properly."

So even though I'd never heard of Robert McKee until that moment, I forked out something like $400 to enroll in his intensive three-day seminar. McKee teaches them all the time, on a rotating basis, in different cities, even different countries, and whether it's official or not, McKee has certainly become Hollywood's screenwriting emissary to the world.

Does he deserve to be? Until recently, the only way to find out was to enroll in the class and hope for the best. For years, McKee resisted putting his lessons into printed form. But finally, one very persuasive editor managed to get him to do just that: The book is called Story; it's published by HarperCollins, and in some ways I'd have to say the book is even better than the class.

McKee is a dynamic speaker, with a lot to say, but he's not exactly affable. He doesn't stop for questions, he doesn't suffer fools gladly (or at all), and not everything he says is immediately crystal clear. That's where the book is an improvement. If all that stuff about one scene folding into another got by you in the lecture hall, you can read it here, slowly, and more than once if you need to. If you're still not sure what your inciting incident is supposed to do, you can find out in the book.

But what both the class and the book have in common, and this is the thing that I think makes them so valuable to anyone who wants to write for the screen, is a respect, indeed a reverence, for the art, and the craft, of screenwriting. We've all seen so many lousy movies and TV shows that it's easy to fall into the trap of thinking, "Oh man, I could do that. Just let me at it." But doing it right, doing something good and worthy and well-structured, isn't that easy. McKee, like so many of the other Hollywood screenwriting gurus, may not necessarily have all the right answers, but he does know all the right questions -- the questions you need to ask yourself, the questions you need to address in your script. What's your screenplay really all about? How do you kick it into gear? What are you trying to say? Why is the traditional three-act structure your best friend in the world? What does the climax have to accomplish -- and how do I make sure that it does what it's supposed to do?

If you can answer those questions in your own work, then you're a long way toward becoming a professional screenwriter -- and you're a lot more likely to understand the next studio exec who, in a typical attempt to appear creative himself, starts throwing the screenplay lingo around.

—Robert Masello

Library Journal
★ 02/01/2016
In this volume, McKee expands on the concepts he teaches in his screenwriting seminars with an inspiring and comprehensive explanation of how the elements of a screenplay work together. Still the go-to resource for beginners and veterans in the field.

Product Details

Methuen Publishing, Ltd.
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Edition description:
New Edition
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Product dimensions:
5.30(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.50(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Story Problem

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. Story is not only our most prolific art form but rivals all activities--work, play, eating, exercise--for our waking hours. We tell and take in stories as much as we sleep--and even then we dream. Why? Why is so much of our life spent inside stories? Because as critic Kenneth Burke tells us, stories are equipment for living.
Day after day we seek an answer to the ageless question Aristotle posed in Ethics: How should a human being lead his life? But the answer eludes us, hiding behind a blur of racing hours as we struggle to fit our means to our dreams, fuse idea with passion, turn desire into reality. We're swept along on a risk-ridden shuttle through time. If we pull back to grasp pattern and meaning, life, like a Gestalt, does flips: first serious, then comic; static, frantic; meaningful, meaningless. Momentous world events are beyond our control while personal events, despite all effort to keep our hands on the wheel, more often than not control us.
Traditionally humankind has sought the answer to Aristotle's question from the four wisdoms--philosophy, science, religion, art--taking insight from each to bolt together a livable meaning. But today who reads Hegel or Kant without an exam to pass? Science, once the great explicator, garbles life with complexity and perplexity. Who canlisten without cynicism to economists, sociologists, politicians? Religion, for many, has become an empty ritual that masks hypocrisy. As our faith in traditional ideologies diminishes, we turn to the source we still believe in: the art of story.
The world now consumes films, novels, theatre, and television in such quantities and with such ravenous hunger that the story arts have become humanity's prime source of inspiration, as it seeks to order chaos and gain insight into life. Our appetite for story is a reflection of the profound human need to grasp the patterns of living, not merely as an intellectual exercise, but within a very personal, emotional experience. In the words of playwright Jean Anouilh, "Fiction gives life its form."
Some see this craving for story as simple entertainment, an escape from life rather than an exploration of it. But what, after all, is entertainment? To be entertained is to be immersed in the ceremony of story to an intellectually and emotionally satisfying end. To the film audience, entertainment is the ritual of sitting in the dark, concentrating on a screen in order to experience the story's meaning and, with that insight, the arousal of strong, at times even painful emotions, and as the meaning deepens, to be carried to the ultimate satisfaction of those emotions.
Whether it's the triumph of crazed entrepreneurs over Hittite demons in GHOSTBUSTERS or the complex resolution of inner demons in SHINE; the integration of character in THE RED DESERT or its disintegration in THE CONVERSATION, all fine films, novels, and plays, through all shades of the comic and tragic, entertain when they give the audience a fresh model of life empowered with an affective meaning. To retreat behind the notion that the audience simply wants to dump its troubles at the door and escape reality is a cowardly abandonment of the artist's responsibility. 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.
Yet, while the ever-expanding reach of the media now gives us the opportunity to send stories beyond borders and languages to hundreds of millions, the overall quality of storytelling is eroding. On occasion we read or see works of excellence, but for the most part we weary of searching newspaper ads, video shops, and TV listings for something of quality, of putting down novels half-read, of slipping out of plays at the intermission, of walking out of films soothing our disappointment with "But it was beautifully photographed . . ." The art of story is in decay, and as Aristotle observed twenty-three hundred years ago, when storytelling goes bad, the result is decadence.
Flawed and false storytelling is forced to substitute spectacle for substance, trickery for truth. Weak stories, desperate to hold audience attention, degenerate into multimillion-dollar razzle-dazzle demo reels. In Hollywood imagery becomes more and more extravagant, in Europe more and more decorative. The behavior of actors becomes more and more histrionic, more and more lewd, more and more violent. Music and sound effects become increasingly tumultuous. The total effect transudes into the grotesque. A culture cannot evolve without honest, powerful storytelling. When society repeatedly experiences glossy, hollowed-out, pseudo-stories, it degenerates. We need true satires and tragedies, dramas and comedies that shine a clean light into the dingy corners of the human psyche and society. If not, as Yeats warned, ". . . the centre can not hold."
Each year, Hollywood produces and/or distributes four hundred to five hundred films, virtually a film per day. A few are excellent, but the majority are mediocre or worse. The temptation is to blame this glut of banality on the Babbitt-like figures who approve productions. But recall a moment from THE PLAYER: Tim Robbins's young Hollywood executive explains that he has many enemies because each year his studio accepts over twenty thousand story submissions but only makes twelve films. This is accurate dialogue. The story departments of the major studios pore through thousands upon thousands of scripts, treatments, novels, and plays searching for a great screen story. Or, more likely, something halfway to good that they could develop to better-than-average.
By the 1990s script development in Hollywood climbed to over $500 million per annum, three quarters of which is paid to writers for options and rewrites on films that will never be made. Despite a half-billion dollars and the exhaustive efforts of development personnel, Hollywood cannot find better material than it produces. The hard-to-believe truth is that what we see on the screen each year is a reasonable reflection of the best writing of the last few years.

Meet the Author

Robert McKee teaches his 3Story Structure2 class annually to sold out auditoriums in Los Angeles, New York, London and film capitals throughout the world. A Fulbright Scholar, this award-winning film and television writer has also served as project and talent development consultant to major production companies such as Tri-Star and Golden Harvest Films. He lives in Los Angeles and Cornwall, England.

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Story 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 29 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I am a novelist and bought the book hoping to pick up some tips. I underline things in books that are worthy of going back and reviewing, and I am very pragmatic. I almost underlined everything in the book! Chapter 19 (A Writer's Method) was the practical, day-to-day info on how to succeed that I had been in search of for years in a compact form from someone who knew what they were doing. You cannot go wrong buying this book, and I'm going to his seminar to learn more!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Those stories beat R.L Stine's Goosebumps horror level by 1000%!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
SEPTEMBER THIRTEENTH 2015 <p> Dear diary, this is the first day I am writing in you. Okay, perhaps I should say writing on the paper inside you. Whatever. Did I mention I sometimes write or say weird things, and often cannot decide what to say. Or write?<p> Today I went to school, DUH. The funny thing is , my friend Anne started calling me weird names like Tuppy. Think, TUPPY!! What next?? Like, Ergy ??? Seriously...? Actually, she called my other friend Ergy. That friend"s real name was Jasmine. Big difference!! Really. <p> HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!!! <p> Sorry. Had the laughing fit there for a sec. Hehe. Hehe. HEHE. <p> oop. I nearly got it again! I am writing in this because I am afraid. Our teacher, Mr. Simpson (oh yeah, tht is weird, but you have to take it) , told us a freaky story that TOTALLY scared me out of my wits. You wanna read it? Here: <p> Selena was happily playing on the steps of her house. Suddenly, a white ghostly woman arrived in front of her house. <p> Who was she??? <p> Selena looked carefully over the old lady who said ,"Child, the deserted house....you go...now...my...it was mine...the door...kitchen..." in a trembly and hollow voice. <p> Selena trembled. She did not understand! She wanted to ask the lady, but she dissapeared as sudden as she appeared. <p> Selena was a good girl, and so walked to the edge of the village towards the deserted house. She walked up the gray stone stairs and raised a trembling hand. Should she knock? Walk in?....<p> phew!! I have sweat on my hands.. our teacher wanted us to finish it and i said that the lady came and killed her. Nah, i am tooooooooooooo frightened to write. I wrote 13 "o"s on the too. I am good! <p>Really, diary, I suppose i have to write goodbye!! Mom says i gotta sleep. <p> Thanks for reading this!! Now the next few books will be on "Grace" all result. I will love it if you comment and give bios!! By: Abigail&#12485 I based this story on my friend Grace. Once again, go to grace all results to comment and do bios. My stories there too. Thanks!!!!!!!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A young couple were walking through the woods, just leaving from a late night movie. They were laughing and playfully arguing over which of the two movies was the stupidest. They were deep into the woods when Tanya suddenly covered Josh's mouth with her hand. He gently pulled her hand away. <p > "Whats the matter, babe?", he asked, kissing her palm. "I- i thought i heard rustling. From... over... there." She pointed towards a bush. Tanya then jumped in fear. She could have sworn she saw something move. She told Josh this. He laughed. "Its your imagination, hon." He leaned down to kiss her. <p> Just as their lips met, there /was/ a rustling, and suddenly a ghostly white figure came out of the bushes. <p> "EEEEEEEEE!!!!" <p> It screeched an eerie cry. As it came closer, the young couple grabbed each other and stared in horror. The thing had glowing red sockets, and dried blood on its cheeks and chapped lips. Its skin was chalky and saggy. And it had fangs. The couple noticed something else. It was swinging an axe! They started to run. <p> "EEEEEEEEE!!!!" <p> It chased after them. The couple were fearing for their lives. The creature caught up to them, and swung its axe at Josh. His head fell to the ground, pooling blood, his face frozen in a look of horror. Tanya was sobbing now. She ran faster. <p> "EEEEEEEEEE!!!!" <p> Screeching its eerie cry, the thing flew after Tanya. She was ahead of it... so far. Then it took an amazing burst of speed, catching up. It chopped at her neck, but missed and chopped off her arm instead! She screamed in pain, unable to run any more. The creature chopped off her head, and she fell to the ground, dead. <p> "EEEEEEE!!!" <p> It wailed a cry of victory and leaned its mouth down onto Tanya's bloody skin, digging its teeth deep and tearing her open. It sucked her blood dry, then smiled up at the full moon. It then faded into the darkness, hoping to kill and feed again... <p> TO ALL READERS: if youre afraid to go into the woods at night now that youve read my story, well... thats the point! You probably shouldnt have read my story! Happy nightmares! <br> Pokemon Girl :3
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the_protagonist1 More than 1 year ago
This book is very helpful if you are starting out. You have to know the rules before you get good enough to break them. I do not agree with his thoughts on the use of voice over. Some of the best movies ever made have voice over and the voice over, when it's done right gives the film a personal touch.<br /> <br /> Review by Curt Wiser Author of BOX CUTTER KILLER.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
In short, this book is what everyone else has said and more. I would love to go into details, but if I start I'll never stop. Just...get it and trust me on this one. It's amazing. Most books that instruct you suck and don't make sense and don't really seem to hit home. This one does. Trust me.