Having it out with Robert

Review by Julienne van Loon


Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting
Robert McKee
New York: Harper Collins, 1997
ISBN 0060391685


You have to hand it to Robert McKee for his ability to put into simple, kick-ass prose many of the key narrative principles of use to writers of long narrative works. Some of his jewels of wisdom, simply put, include: "Dialogue is not conversation" (388); "We can turn scenes only one of two ways: on action or on revelation. There are no other means" (340); and "A protagonist and his [sic] story can only be as intellectually fascinating and emotionally compelling as the forces of antagonism make them" (317). McKee backs his own work up with similarly straightforward jewels from other writers. He quotes Hemingway, for example: "The first draft of anything is shit" (315).

Predictably, McKee's book suffers from the same disease many Hollywood-based scriptwriting "how-to" books suffer from. That is, it smacks of that You too could be rich and famous if you could only come up with the perfect Hollywood screenplay sub-text. And it frequently has that dreadful self-help/motivational tone about it. But if you have the strength to set those things aside (put them down to genre, if you will) then it's also a very useful book. Significantly, I did not pick up McKee's book for the purposes of getting advice on writing a blockbuster screenplay. I picked it up when, at the end of one of those first drafts of a 30 000 word novella, I felt I needed a damn good talking to. There were some questions I needed answers to: Why isn't my story working just now? What is wrong, structurally, with this work? Which scenes need throwing out? Which scenes are missing? It is in this sense that I am interested in reviewing McKee's book. How useful is Story, I ask here, for writers of prose fiction? The answer, in brief, is very useful indeed, particularly for writers of long fiction.

Despite the title, McKee uses the word "story" without strictly defining it. He certainly doesn't use it, as E.M. Forster would have it, to differentiate story (a sequence of events) from plot (the order in which they are narrated). McKee's first chapter explains, in a rather enigmatic way, what he thinks "story" might be about ("Story is about principles, not rules… Story is about eternal, universal forms, not formulas" [3]), but he doesn't pin the word itself down. Basically, this is a book about narrative structure and narrative design. So McKee's "story" is a complex dramatic narrative, and his pointers on structure and design are relevant to writers working across theatre, cinema and the novel.

As will already be evident from the quotes I have chosen to open this review, the kind of story McKee has in mind is also what some might call an Archetypal one. McKee's "story" is classically structured, it is comprised of scenes and acts, it progresses towards crisis, climax, and resolution. McKee's "story" has a protagonist (or multiple protagonists) who will confront a variety of conflicts. It has a "controlling idea" (116), it has dialogue based on "what is known in Classical Greek as stikomythia - the rapid exchange of short speeches" (390), and it has "true" characters ("True character can only be expressed through choice in dilemma" 375). If you have any post-structuralist bones in your body, you are already shifting in your seat, waiting for McKee to address other narrative possibilities or other approaches to narrativity. He doesn't.

In fact, one of the things I really enjoyed about McKee's Story is his capacity to make you want to argue with him even as you continue reading. I was reading his book while staying with a friend in Brisbane. "Having it out with Robert," she called it, because I couldn't help but scoffing "Oh, come on, Robert!" every little while, and getting up and pacing around the room before sitting down again. McKee believes, unashamedly, in genius. He doesn't like minimalist plots. He thinks art films "cling to the dark side for reasons more fashionable than truthful" (60). He emphasises the uselessness of formulae, even while providing us with several very useful schematics illustrating common narrative techniques.

McKee separates what he calls "literary talent" (by which he seems to mean a writer's ability to craft language effectively) from "story talent" (the capacity to structure a dramatic narrative) and proposes that the latter is more important than the former. He oversimplifies and anti-intellectualises, even in the midst of making what are otherwise some very valid and useful points:

Trends in literary theory have drawn professors away from the deep sources of story toward language codes, text - story seen from the outside. As a result, with some notable exceptions, the current generation of writers has been undereducated in the prime principles of story (16).

In my own experience as a teacher and an examiner of creative writing, I would have to agree with McKee that weakness in narrative structure is one of the most common flaws in work by beginning writers, and often it's the greatest weakness in novels by well-known authors too. But I doubt it's the fault of semiotics professors. I think it's more likely to be because narrative structure is a difficult thing to fully understand and an even more difficult thing to do well, whether you are resisting generic conventions or not. And as to whether "story talent" is more important than "literary talent" - bearing in mind the arbitrary nature of the dichotomy - in the case of longer works of fiction, I think Robert does have a point.

McKee spends over four hundred pages on relating narrative structure to genre, to plot, to character, to setting. He uses a whole swathe of examples in the way of Hollywood screenplays to illustrate key concepts, and one could argue that his tendency to oversimplify actually makes this a very accessible book. His extensive work on scene design and scene analysis, where he writes the sub-text in behind the dialogue in key scenes from Casablanca and Through a Glass Darkly, would be invaluable to use in teaching the principles of dialogue and scene design to new writers (as long as you don't mind scenes in which the women are either mad or hopelessly trapped).

You can imagine how relieved I was when, in preparing to write this review, I went to see Charlie and David Kaufman's Adaptation, directed by Spike Jonze. Aaagh! Somebody else has been driven a little mad by Robert McKee! I don't know that Adaptation is a great success, by the way (perhaps I've seen one too many Hollywood films about Hollywood filmmaking) but it's ironic that the Kaufman & Kaufman screenplay demonstrates, quite self-consciously, both the value and the limitations of so much of McKee's advice.

Whether McKee is aware of Barthes and Mulvey and various others on the pleasure of the text, I don't know. But I can't conclude this review without sharing with you his marvellously masculine moment in the chapter on composition. Here, McKee is discussing the finer points of building and releasing tension, of pacing along the path of the story:

It's just like sex. Masters of the bedroom arts pace their lovemaking. They begin by taking each other to a state of delicious tension short of - and we use the same word in both cases - climax, then tell a joke and shift positions before building each other to an even higher tension short of climax; then have a sandwich, watch TV, and gather energy to then reach greater and greater intensity, making love in cycles of rising tension until they finally climax simultaneously and the earth moves and they see colours. The gracious storyteller makes love to us. He knows we're capable of tremendous release… if he paces us to it. (291)

It took me a while to get that picture (McKee in pink track-suit swanning in front of a television, perhaps watching The Love Boat or something similarly eighties, and eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches between pre-coital sessions) out of my head. Especially when the sub-heading that immediately follows the above paragraph turned out to be "Rhythm and Tempo". Granted, McKee's habit of putting key concepts of conventional narrative structure into very simple language does sometimes fall flat!

On the whole, McKee's book is really worth reading, especially if you are at a crucial point in writing a lengthy manuscript and you have questions about design. That is, it is more than likely to motivate you to ask the right questions of your own work. It would also be invaluable to illustrate key narrative design concepts to students developing their own longer narrative works. A few years ago I was supervising a Masters student who was writing an autobiographical novel. Some way into the project, we had a series of lengthy discussions about the structure of her manuscript: precisely about things like building and releasing tension, and the importance of having scenes "arrive somewhere" and so on. "How do you know all this stuff?" she said. "How come I haven't learnt any of this already?" If only I had known of McKee's book then, I would have directed her to it. Even a resistant reading of this book is likely to problematise, in a useful way, crucial questions around the nature of narrative structure.


Julienne van Loon coordinates the undergraduate creative writing area at Curtin University of Technology, where she is a lecturer in the Faculty of Media, Society and Culture. She is currently completing her PhD in creative writing at the University of Queensland.


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Vol 7 No 1 April 2003
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Tess Brady