Book review: Story (Robert McKee)

I’ll sometimes buy a book to reserve the option of reading it in the future. I read slowly and thoroughly, so I have to be selective about what I read. I’ll often read the introduction and conclusion of a book when it arrives, then shelve it for a proper read later on.

I’ve had Robert McKee’s book Story sitting on my bookshelf for over a year. McKee wrote Story as a manual for movie scriptwriters. As such it’s a large book. I was expecting it to be slightly technical and mostly relevant for screen.

What I found instead was a deep, observant book; a book focused on the essentials of storytelling but with examples drawn from the movies. The following are a selection of ideas you might find helpful.

Structure and character are interlocked. The event structure of a story is created out of the choices that characters make under pressure and the actions they choose to take, while characters are the creatures who are revealed and changed by how they choose to act under pressure.”

I found this statement reassuring in some ways. The core of the storytelling process I teach is to plan the story events (i.e. the structure) out on a timeline with positive and negative value changes. In other words, what good and bad things happen over the course of the telling as a consequence of your decisions?

There are other elements that can be included on the timeline, such as context, suspense, conflict. A physical conflict may in the moment may be neutral, but the consequences negative. You can use the sequence of events that make up a story to demonstrate true character or changes in character.

True character is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure – the greater the pressure the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature.”

Broadcasting your true essential nature is surely a core function of business storytelling and a mechanism of trust. In key places you should select stories about times when you have been put under extreme pressure.

The role of great storytelling is to deliver spontaneous insight – a rush of knowledge inspired by key turning points in the story. The audience should feel these are their insights, not insights they’ve been told outright. The flood of insight pours out of a turning point.”

Identifying the key turning points in your story is critically important. You’re often the worst person to identify these turning points. We are all too close to our own story.

Story is, at heart, nonintellectual. It does not express ideas in the dry, intellectual arguments of an essay. But this is not to say story is anti-intellectual. We pray that the writer has ideas of import and insight. Rather, the exchange between artist and audience expresses ideas directly through the senses and perceptions, intuition and emotion.”

I love the concept of storytelling being ‘nonintellectual’. Although I have to say I still enjoy an excellent essay!

Talking about the responsibility of the storyteller (and referencing Plato’s autocratic tendencies), McKee says:

No civilization, including Plato’s, has ever been destroyed because its citizens learned too much truth.

Authoritative personalities, like Plato, fear the threat comes not from the idea, but from emotion. Those in power never want us to feel. Thought can be controlled and manipulated, but emotion is willful and unpredictable. Artists threaten authority by exposing lies and inspiring passion for change.”

I’ll share the rest of my insights from the book in the Story Copywriter Community, but for now I strongly recommend adding Story to your bookshelf.


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