Film Non-Fiction

Story (1997) by Robert McKee

Robert McKee is one of those rare gems that illuminate the craft of writing like none other.

Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of ScreenwritingStory: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and The Principles of Screenwriting (1997) by Robert McKee is one of those rare gems that illuminate the craft of writing like none other. McKee focuses primarily on screenplays and films but the same principles apply to all forms of writers, including those who write books.

Part Two of Story focuses on Structures: specifically in Setting, Genre, Character and Meaning. These chapters inside “The Elements of Story” really take the writer into a deeper understanding of the basic storytelling terminology and how to shape these structures for the maximum affect.

In the chapter titled ”The Structure Spectrum”, McKee makes some clear distinctions about what kinds of plots are most successful. There are three widely used plots: the Archplot is the most common and most popular; Miniplot comes next; and Antiplot is the least popular and most artistic expression of the three (see pages 45 and 55 for more details).

Robert McKee, Creative Writing Instructor (born 1941)

Archplot is of the classical design and usually contains these elements: closed ending, linear time, external conflict, a single and active protagonist, and a consistent reality. Think about the hero James Bond and you can get the picture easy enough. McKee provides several examples: Big, Chinatown, Men in Black, and Dr. Strangelove.

Miniplot is from minimalism and contains these elements: open ending, internal conflict, and multi-protagonists who are often passive. McKee’s examples: 3 Women, Winter Light, Tender Mercies (a similar film that won its actor an Oscar was Crazy Heart), and Il Deserto Rosso.

Antiplot is the least popular of these three and contains these elements: Inconsistent realities, nonlinear time, and coincidence. McKee’s examples include: Waynes World, Bad Timing, Meshes of the Afternoon, and That Obscure Object of Desire.

Part Three: “The Principles of Story Design” is another section filled with nuggets of incite and wisdom into the often mysterious world of storytelling, especially in filmmaking.

Chapter 7: ”The Substance of Story” is very similar to what Christopher Vogler explains in The Writer’s Journey (relative to Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces). I like to have all three in my back pocket any day of the week and so I see these as compliments to one another. But this chapter is worth taking a close reading into, especially into the section on ”progression.”

The next chapter, ”The Inciting Incident”, is of extreme value for any writer. Basically, McKee explains that something needs to happen to push the main character into the story and to get things moving. Here McKee defines the inciting incident as an event that ”radically upsets the balance of forces in the protagonist’s life” (p 189).

In the James Bond flick, The Quantum of Solace, the inciting incident is when the SMERSH agent who is believed to be an MI6 agent shoots M and Bond begins his chase.

Chapters 9 and 10: ”Act Design” and ”Scene Design”, respectively, get into the real heart of storytelling and how to craft a story. In ”Scene Design” the section on ”emotional transitions” is of great import, especially when McKee explains ”the Law of Diminishing Returns” (p 244).

In regards to emotional transitions in characters, McKee explains that if a scene begins with a positive emotion (like happiness) in the character then the scene must end with an opposite emotion (like sadness). Now, this is a simplified explanation and there are many variations on kinds of emotions and how to structure these emotional transitions within the scene. For good measure, however, I would like to apply this method to a film I recently studied for my own benefit and it is The Quantum of Solace with Daniel Craig (a James Bond Film).

Before we begin to study the emotional transitions, I will explain what I mean by a ”scene”. Based on McKee’s idea of emotional transitions I am choosing the first several scenes from The Quantum of Solace, beginning with the opening shot, that begins with a negative emotion and ends with a positive one. The scene may include jumps in location as well as quick shots of action. But the scene begins with negative and can only end when it reaches a turning point and comes to the positive.

Scene 1: In a luxury car, Bond is chased by bad guys (a negative emotion, — , his life is at stake); Bond shoots out the tires of the car and kills the bad guys (Bond lives, bad guys die, and Bond gives a curt smile, a positive emotion, + ).

{Now based on McKee’s principles, since the last scene ending with a (+) positive emotion, the next scene must begin with the opposite emotion (which would be negative, — ). You will see that as the scenes progress throughout the movie, it becomes clear the + — + — + — + sequencing will have the movie ending much the same way as it began: Bond kills the bad guy and the emotion is +.}

Scene 2: M scolds Bond (– emotion). Bond steals a photo of Vesper and her lover and tells M that she can trust him, a slight victory, another quick smile (+ emotion).

Scene 3: Here is where the Inciting Incident happens and we are on our third scene and 10 minutes into the movie. The spy shoots M ( — emotion) and Bond begins the chase, and eventually Bond catches the bad guy and shoots him (+ emotion).

Scene 4-5: M scolds Bond once more, but this time in bad guy no. 2’s apartment, and they have no clue who the man was (– emotion). Cut to the lab, the geeks track down a 3rd bad guy and Bond is off to chase him, they now have some new knowledge (+ emotion).

Scene 6: Bond goes to hotel in a foreign country and the bad guy no. 3 tries to kill him, and they battle it out with their fists (– emotion). Bond kills bad guy no. 3 out on the balcony and wins by getting the bad guy’s briefcase, smiles at the good luck and gets some more new knowledge (+).

Scene 7: Outside the hotel, a beautiful girl and a car pull up and Bond gets in only for the girl to try and kill him (– emotion), but she misses and shoots out the window instead. Bond gets out of the car and steals the motorcycle and chases the girl… Bond is stopped by a ”Threshold Guardian” (see Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey for more details)…

—Here we have an interruption of Bond’s main plot line to enter the girl’s subplot—

Scene 8: The girl struts into the warehouse and tells the villain about him trying to kill her and how she is such a good girl (– emotion), the villain, Mr Greene, soothes her and gives her what she wants, the evil Colonel that killed her parents and they step onto the boat together as she waits for her revenge (+) and she just might get it if not for Bond… Notice that the subplot and the villain’s story is firmly set between the 25-30 minute mark…

—Here we jump back into Bond’s main plot line where he is still chasing the girl—

Scene 9: Bond jumps on the boat and resumes chasing the girl. He succeeds. He gets the girl and kills more bad guys (+) with another one of his famous smiles.

Scene 10: Bond is driving and is looking for the Colonel or a new suspect, where did all the bad guys go?? (– emotion). Bond does his thing and locates the bad guys and is off on his journey once more (+).

We will stop there. But in ten scenes we have ten negative openings and exactly ten positive closings. This is not a coincidence. The writers have taken great pains to have this method come off as seamless and it allows for a natural progression into the vivid story world.

Also notice that 33 minutes in, Bond has killed approximately 4 bad guys and has smiled that smile at least 4 times. Furthermore, in these ten scenes there is very little dialogue. The action of the archplot and the emotional transitions are fueling this story deeper and deeper into the story world. In Story, McKee offers his own examples similar to what I have done.

Moving on, in McKee’s ”Scene Analysis” there is a great in-depth look at a scene out of Casablanca. I recommend taking a close look at this chapter on how to shape a scene with dialogue and setting.

Chapter 17 is ”Character” and McKee defines it as such: ”true character can only be expressed through choice in dilemma. How the person chooses to act under pressure is who he is–the greater the pressure, the truer and deeper the choice to character” (p 375).

Chapter 19: ”A Writer’s Method” has some great insights as well. The section on writing from the Outside In versus writing from the Inside Out is profound. After reading this section, I have come to a clear and precise understanding in the relationship an author has with a film director. Before getting behind the camera to start rolling, the film director must know every critical detail. Who are the characters? What are they wearing? What are their hidden motivations and desires? What will they say or not say? Where is the scene to take place? What is the emotional transition of the scene? What is the arch of the entire story?

These are but a few of the many many questions the film director must know before cameras begin to roll or thousands of dollars will be wasted. A writer of novels who begins writing a scene without any forethought to such questions is the equivalent to an unprepared film director getting behind the camera and says, ‘Action!’ while the crew and actors and actresses ask the film director what to do, and the film director, like the novel writer, says, ‘I don’t know. Just say something. Move around,’ and then the actors ask what their motivations are and there is no reply and the actors then ask what is the story about and there is still no reply. Bottom line: whether you are writing screenplays or short stories, Story by McKee will be of immense use to you.

Story by Robert McKee is a remarkable guide to writing. I strongly recommend this book for anyone seriously interested in films and stories in general.

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CG FEWSTON

CG FEWSTON has been a Visiting Fellow at Hong Kong’s CityU, and a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome (Italy). He has a B.A. in English, an M.Ed. in Higher Education Leadership (honors), an M.A. in Literature (honors), and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing & Fiction. He was born in Texas in 1979 and now lives in Hong Kong.

He’s the author of several short stories and novels. His works include A Fathers Son (2005), The New America: A Collection (2007), Vanity of Vanities (2011), A Time to Love in Tehran (2015), and forthcoming: Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being; Little Hometown, America: A Look Back; and, The Endless Endeavor of Excellence.

You can read more about the author on Facebook @ cg.fewston – where he has 320,000+ followers

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