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

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

by Robert McKee

Paperback(New Edition)



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

ISBN-13: 9780413715609
Publisher: Methuen Publishing, Ltd.
Publication date: 11/28/2005
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 466
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.

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