Back then, my literary agent, who I had just signed a contract with to represent my novel, “Stash,” asked me if I’d ever heard of Robert McKee and his book, “Story.”
She suggested I get the book, read the book, and then work on my novel some more.
I had mistakenly believed the novel was finished. After all, she’d agreed to represent me, so she must have thought “Stash” could sell. But didn’t I want the novel to be the best it could be?
I got McKee’s book and in two months I learned more about story writing than I had in the two years I’d spent writing the novel.
I bring this up now because McKee, a former screenwriter turned teacher, just retired from giving his story-writing seminars. While most of his teaching principles were grounded in screenwriting, what he was really teaching was how to tell a story.
In a short profile (worth a quick read) that appeared last week in The New Yorker, McKee is quoted saying:
A story is a series of events building toward irrevocable change.Robert McKee
It sounds simple, but in reality is profound. All good stories result in change for the characters. I am indebted to McKee and the concepts he taught: the controlling idea, act and scene design, structure, the inciting incident, the sequence of crisis, climax, and resolution. And much more.
He didn’t espouse a formula for writing, but rather he presented principles every writer should know and in knowing them be free to violate them in the service of their story. Like any writer who considers themselves an artist, I learned the principles, applied the ones that made my story stronger, and left behind those that didn’t fit my vision.
His work made my work better. That’s what a good teacher does.
He was also an inspiration. While I never attended one of his live seminars (although many successful writers and famous actors did) in Los Angeles, New York, or London, I subscribed to his newsletter which always included concepts, tips, and short Q&A videos. And the newsletters always include a piece of wisdom to help a writer persevere and stay motivated. Like this, which I love:
Do not write something because intellectual friends think it’s socially important. Do not write something you think will inspire critical praise. Write the kind of story you would wait in line in the rain to see. Out of all the reasons for wanting to write, the only one that nurtures us through time is love of story itself.Robert McKee
The kind of story you would wait in line in the rain to see. Could it be said any better?
McKee also wrote a book for business leaders and entrepreneurs—“Storynomics”—about story-driven marketing. The business world loves stories too.