Book review: Story: Substance, structure, style, and the principles of screenwriting

I read Robert McKee’s book, Story: Substance, structure, style, and the principles of screenwriting during my holiday last month. It is a fascinating insight into a crucial part of the film-making process, and has helped me understand movie storytelling much better. If that was all it did, I would recommend it wholeheartedly — by shedding light on the mystery of film, it actually enhances one’s enjoyment of the medium, rather than degrading it. If you are at all interested in film, read it — you won’t regret it.

Bee at work

However, McKee’s book raised two distinct issues for me. One is internal to the book and concerns the way in which we do work. The second is an external one — what makes an expert?

Towards the end of the book, having worked through the elements that make up a satisfying story, McKee turns to the actual mechanics of screenwriting. It’s not as simple as starting at the beginning and working your way to the end. This model is described by McKee as writing from the outside in.

The struggling writer tends to have a way of working that goes something like this: He dreams up an idea, noodles on it for a while, then rushes to the keyboard…

He imagines and writes, writes and dreams until he reaches page 120 and stops…

So the struggling writer gathers friends’ reactions and his own thoughts to start the second draft with this strategy: “How can I keep the six scenes that I love and that everyone else loves and somehow pretzel this film through them in a way that’ll work?” With a little thought he’s back at the keyboard…

He imagines and writes, writes and dreams, but all the while he clings like a drowning man to his favorite scenes until a rewrite comes out the other end. …

The writer then does a third draft and a fourth and a fifth but the process is always the same: He clings to his favorite scenes, twisting a new way of telling them in hopes of finding a story that works. Finally … back come reader reports: “Very nicely written, good crisp actable dialogue, vivid scene description, fine attention to detail, the story sucks. PASS ON IT.”

By contrast, writing from the inside out is a much more structured process in which the story stays at the heart.

If, hypothetically and hopefully, a screenplay can be written from first idea to last draft in six months, [successful] writers typically spend the first four of those six months writing on stacks of three-by-five cards: a stack for each act — three, four, perhaps more. On these stacks they create the story’s step-outline.

Essentially, the step-outline is used by the writer to describe a single scene on each card. These cards come and go — a scene may be written and rewritten a dozen times on a dozen different cards. The relationship between the cards — which are key scenes and which promote sub-plots, for example — may change over this time. Finally, when the writer is satisfied that the whole things hangs together properly. At this point, the story can be pitched to someone else.

The writer never shows his step-outline to people because it’s a tool, too cryptic for anyone but the writer to follow. Instead, at this critical stage, he wants to pitch or tell his story so he can see it unfold in time, watch it play on the thoughts and feelings of another human being.

Once the story is seen to work, it is time for the treatment: each scene is expanded into a readable description. That process allows the story to be honed further until it is ready to be turned into a screenplay — dialogue, directions and all.

The wise writer puts off the writing of dialogue for as long as possible because the premature writing of dialogue chokes creativity.

Writing from the outside in — writing dialogue in search of scenes, writing scenes in search of story — is the least creative method.

The description of this process is fascinating. I think there are elements that can be drawn out for wider use in the work that we do. Rather than draft agreements which are then batted back and forth between parties (in much the same way as the screenplay in the “outside in” example), could we envisage the legal documentation of a transaction from the inside out? Perhaps the following key points might be useful.

  1. Why is this deal being done? (In McKee’s screenwriting terms, this might be the “Inciting Incident”)
  2. What are the major points of agreement (and disagreement) between the parties? (Tension between protagonist and antagonist; character and characterisation)
  3. What other issues are at play? Are there any external pressures — time, regulators, etc?
  4. Can the deal (and the answers to the preceding questions) be summarised easily? (The pitch)
  5. Does everyone agree with the pitch? (Develop into a treatment)
  6. Once the treatment is agreed, the documentation (formal contractual provisions) should easily flow from the treatment.

To be honest, I have no idea whether this would work. However, I have seen enough frustration borne of endless argument over the minutiae of legal drafting to be interested in seeing if an alternative would be any better at conveying the commercial meaning of a transaction into legally enforceable wording. Just as dialogue restricts creativity, so does legal drafting. Once a clause is set in Word and becomes the subject of argument, it is difficult for lawyer and client alike to think creatively about alternative ways of achieving the same object, or even whether that object is actually a desired one — consistent with the ‘story’ of the commercial transaction that is being documented.

The other issue that McKee’s work (his book and the seminars that he runs) raises relates to expertise. McKee is an adept critic and analyst of screenwriting, but he is not a great screenwriter himself. His record at the Internet Movie Database indicates that he has written a couple of TV movies and some TV series episodes. Some of the comments on his work suggest that this apparent lack of success undermines his authority on screenwriting. Others use the traditionally snarky riposte “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” Both of these reactions miss, I think, the fact that McKee never says “copy me.” Instead, he brings a thorough reading of a range of good and poor films. (In fact, one could be concerned by the fact that he relies excessively on Chinatown for examples, were it not for the impressive list of films referenced in less detail but obviously equally well understood.) Out of that reading, he extracts incredible insight, which should be regarded more highly, not less, for the simplicity with which it is distilled into a set of clearly understood principles.

That, I think is part of the essence of expertise — insight translated into clarity, so that one’s audience can hope to achieve the same insight. That is the opposite of the traditional obfuscation which many experts (many in the field of law, I am sorry to say) typically indulge in.

Another aspect of expertise, which needs to be harnessed in the service of insight and clarity, is passion or enthusiasm for the subject. That passion is clearly evident in McKee’s book. He wants to eradicate poor storytelling in the movies by making the basic element — the screenplay — better. According to the Wikipedia article on him, McKee’s insights are not all especially original. I do not think this necessarily matters — his passion brings them to life more vividly than their originators were able to.

There is clearly more to expertise than just insight and passion, but McKee’s work shows how those elements in combination with even a limited body of material can generate real value.

1 thought on “Book review: Story: Substance, structure, style, and the principles of screenwriting”

Comments are closed.