Robert McKee's book Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting is amazing. I am literally in awe of McKee's wisdom about crafting stories. I can't recommend this book strongly enough - it has changed the way I think about storytelling.
You should reading all 418 pages cover to cover, because there is something to learn on virtually every page.
McKee had me from the first paragraph:
A rule says, "You must do it this way." A principle says, "This works ... and has through all remembered time." The difference is crucial. Your work needn't be modeled after the "well-made" play; rather, it must be well made within the principles that shape our art. Anxious, inexperienced writers obey rules. Rebellious, unschooled writers break rules. Artists master the form.
Throughout Story, McKee uses screenwriting terminology, but refers often to the commonalities between novels and screenplays. They intersect as different forms of accomplishing the same thing: telling a story. The story is something apart and different from the form (screenplay, novel, play, film, ancient rock carvings).
For just as glass is a medium for air, air a medium for sound, language is only a medium, one of many, in fact, for storytelling. Something far more profound than mere words beats at the heart of a story.
Story is key - McKee's emphasis is on understanding story first, then translating that to form.
Master storytellers know how to squeeze life out of the least of things, while poor storytellers reduce the profound to the banal. Story talent is primary, literary talent secondary but essential. This principle is absolute in film and television, and truer for stage and page than most playwrights and novelists wish to admit. Rare as story talent is, you must have some or you wouldn't be itching to write. Your task to is to wring from it all possible creativity. Only by using everything and anything you know about the craft of storytelling can you make your talent forge story.
McKee talks about the elements of story structure, down to the smallest beat of a scene, up to the largest sweeps of thematic imagery. He describes how structure is inextricably bound with setting, genre, and character. He lays out a plan to build story structure, from the inciting incident (and how to place that in your story) to the rhythm of each act, to the ultimate climax of the story. When McKee describes Crisis, Climax, and Resolution, for the first time I truly understood what these terms mean and how to craft a story that delivers a satisfying ending.
After talking about all the elements of a story, how to build those elements into a solid story structure, and how to attack common problems like developing dimensional characters and crafting compelling conflict, McKee finally talks PROCESS.
PROCESS is the reason I originally decided to read this book (also it was recommended by a writer I respect, which I've found is the surest way to find the gems). I wanted to do a better job of plotting my next novel, partly because I could sense some of the weaknesses of the stories I had written, but didn't have the tools to fix them.
McKee not only provided the tools, but he gives step-by-step instructions on how to use them. The method is deceptively simple: craft your story first; then begin to write. But there is much that goes into crafting, before the writing begins. This, according to McKee, is not only a speedier process, but also produces the best story. Essentially, he is a hyper-plotter who reserves the pantsing for when the story structure is already in place. This process may not work for everyone, but he makes a very compelling case for it.
He's sold me on trying this method for my next novel, but what of the stories I have already pantsed my way through? Just because I already have a strong intuitive grasp of storytelling doesn't mean that these stories cannot be improved (far from it). Writing intuitively can take you far, but having the tools to write intentionally will take you farther.
That is how an artist masters the form.
I'm excited to use the shiny new tools in my writer's toolbox - I'll let you know how it goes after the hammering is done.