Tuesday, January 4, 2011

What I Learned about Writing Novels from a Book on Screenwriting

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.


  1. I once took a screenwriting class that was similarly useful. Films are a challenge to write because you really don't have much space to tell your story, and if anything's off or out of proportion, the whole thing can be a miss. Notice how many movies you watch that are fatally flawed, usually because of one or two elements being off kilter.

    The key difference, though, is that film is a visual medium, not a textual one. A well made film is one you can watch with the sound turned off or in a different language and still understand it. Written fiction on the other hand requires you to evoke the images in the reader's imagination.

  2. @emily It's definitely true that film being a visual medium limits how much you can make correlations between screenplays and novels. But I was surprised how much they had in common, in spite of that - SHOW NOT TELL is a near absolute in film, but also a strong dictum for novels. Use of exposition - nearly the same problem in film and text (how not to dump, how to weave it seamlessly into the story). Even POV! I was surprised to see McKee advocating for a single POV, even though the camera allows you to flip back and forth between many perspectives. Since you're not "in the head" of any of the characters in film, you build empathy by sticking close to one POV per scene (same in novels).

  3. Very interesting! I'm going to have to read this one. Thanks for the suggestion. :)

  4. Yes, showing vs. telling is so central to film that a film course is one of the best ways to learn all the different ways to show something, from putting the character in a specific situation to juxtaposing two images, or even scenes. Each scene in a movie has to be so densely packed with information that you learn how to use every conceivable creative space.

    The other concepts that have stayed with me from my screenwriting course are reversals - which need to occur in every scene and keep the plot moving, and rhyming - playing on similarities between scenes, settings, characters, themes, etc.

    It always pays to take a look at the craft from a different angle. You'll always see things you never saw before.

  5. I have it on request at my local library. Obsessively checking e-mail to see when it gets in!

  6. Shannon Messenger swears by many of the screenwriting techniques. This book sounds like a good one. :-)

  7. @Emily Yes, I finally understand what 'reversals' are now, too. And I love the "different angle" approach - one reason I have a new appreciation for art as well.

    @Rebecca Yay! You'll have to let me know what you think.

    @Shannon It was an eye opener for me, for sure. And if Shannon M. approves ... ! :)

  8. Susan, I'm sold! Thanks for sharing, because like you, I find most of the best books through referral. Can't wait to read it!

  9. You have definately peeked my interest!


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