Review: Story

“The weakest possible excuse to include anything in a story is: ‘But it actually happened.’ Everything happens; everything imaginable happens.” ~ Robert McKee, Story

Story by Robert McKee
419 pages
Published by Harpercollins, 1997
Genre: Nonfiction
Rating: 4 out of 5

Re-readability: I may not sit down and read this one in its entirety again, but I’ll definitely return to sections for advice on characters and plot.


Review by Pete

This book has been sitting on my TBR since I was about seventeen. It’s a classic book on writing, and even though its focus is screenwriting, a lot of McKee’s discussions apply to fiction as well.

Character, plot, and scenes are the keys to powerful storytelling, according to McKee, and I found it hard to disagree with him. His points are simple and pithy, and his harsh rules are hard to deny. For example, he dismisses exposition as a waste of time and insists that for a scene to be a “scene,” it must be a reversal of some sort. A character’s mind must be changed, a plan must go wrong, a person must leave or arrive.

Another point that McKee drove home was that characters should never simply say what they mean. Every line of dialogue is an opportunity to disguise or reveal intent.

Screenplays have a lot less space and time to create a convincing story, but I found most of Story to apply well to writing prose. I do believe there are rules to storytelling. I think there are exceptions to these rules in the right situation, but for the most part, I believe in plot and characters operating as formulas. There are variables that are known and unknown to the reader and to characters, and I think McKee would agree with this.

One of my favorite pieces of his advice was this: give your viewer (or reader) what they want, but not in the way they expect.

This is the sort of book you can read in snippets over a long period of time. It doesn’t ask for too much of your attention, and McKee helpfully spells out his references and transcribes scenes for you, so my near-total lack of movie knowledge wasn’t an issue.

Story is accessible and straightforward, and it has something to offer to writers of just about anything.

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