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Robert McKee's Story

McKee's long-awaited book Story has arrived. It is a chronicle of his story structure seminar, where he illuminates the tenets of story and dramatic structure. His seminar is known around the world. His 25,000 former students include the writer's and/or producers of Forrest Gump, The Deer Hunter, Seinfeld, M*A*S*H and Ghandi. McKee covers almost every imaginable topics relevant to dramaturgists/storytellers/ screenwriters, and it's possible that he has put himself out of the seminar business with this comprehensive 400+ page tome.

The majority of the critics of Robert Mckee are of the philosophy, "Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach." But it seems to me that fans of this adage are people who can't teach. McKee's alleged status as a frustrated writer is irrelevant, because McKee can teach.

Using an Aristotelian approach, McKee doesn't prescribe a theory as much as describe a set of characteristics that have worked successfully throughout the history of Drama. For instance, McKee points out, all seven playwrights (of thousands) whose work survived in the Mediterranean from the 1000 year period from 500 BC to 500 AD each successfully followed (or fit into) the classic form he details.

He begins by defining and examining the smallest unit of dramatic structure, the beat. He then begins on a thorough process of expanding: showing how beats work together to make scenes; and how scenes make sequences; and how sequences make acts; and how acts make stories/movies. As the name of the book suggests, he unapologetically focuses on Archplot or Classical Design:

"a story built around an active protagonist who struggles against primarily external forces of antagonism to pursue his desire through continuous time, within a consistent and causally connected fictional reality to a closed ending of absolute irreversible change."

In fact, his five steps of dramatic structure (inciting incident, progressive complications, crisis, climax and resolution) may seem like your notes from eleventh grade drama class. But the brilliance of this book is not its revolutionary nature, but in its systematic explosion, analysis and microanalysis of the techniques and their lucid examples which show how they are valuable to all writers. For the reader who believes that the Classical Design doesn't apply to him/her, McKee defends the role of Classical design in all forms of expression by claiming that most Avant Garde or Minimalist films ("art films") are usually defined by a manipulation of Classical Design; either by subverting or minimizing its characteristics.

McKee's attention to the spine of the story and the structure is balanced with an emphasis on content and meaning. He is a big advocate of research as the solution to cliches. Most young writers should heed his explanation of how the controlling idea (theme) creates meaning through structure and action as opposed to characters' pontificating or philosophizing. He puts appropriate emphasis on the crisis (obligatory scene) and climax as the most important part of the story to dramatically and implicitly express all meaning and ideas.

McKee's reputation and notoriety may be enough to get people to listen, but his real strength is to be able to lead you logically to the understanding of his principles. It's almost like you're conceiving the material yourself as you read; he brings to concise elucidation what is instinct for most. His simple explanation about why feature-length films need at least three acts is so satisfying that it makes me regret the hours of post-movie coffee-house chats I had on the subject. And his concept and definition of the Negation of the Negation is a clear-cut analytical tool to put the forces of antagonism to the limit in your story.

He illustrates his points with lucid well-chosen examples from many films, even contemporary ones like Slingblade and Shine. Near the end of the book, he discusses Cast Design (character orchestration) and how minor characters act to bring out different personality traits of the protagonist. This is the one area where I wished he would have given specific examples from produced movies.

He follows his section on story design with a section on the methods of the successful writer. McKee believes a writer should spend months building the structure of the story, acts, sequences and scenes before even trying to write a line of dialogue. Although his opinion might seem slightly extreme, he, as always, posits a convincing argument for the problems inherent in rushing into a script without the structure already in place.

If you're someone who is afraid to step back and apply analysis and rigorous thought to your writing methods, or if you write brilliantly from pure instinct and don't want to fiddle with your success, then don't look at this book. The breadth of McKee's analysis can be daunting at first, but in the last chapter, he gives a comforting story. He recounts a story that his father used to tell him. One day, a humming bird pointed out to a millipede that it must be hard to walk with so many legs. Having never given thought to something so natural as walking, the millipede, upon applying his left side of the brain to the task, found himself unable even to move. The story goes on to show that eventually the millipede was able to think about how all of his legs worked together and he did something he never did before, dance.

If you take the time to read this book and savor its information, and have the patience to let the information assimilate from the left-side of your brain to the right side, Hollywood Beware.