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Story: Substance, structure, style, and the principles of screenwriting

Originally published in September and October 2004, in 2 parts.
Book 32 in my first 52 books challenge.
Edited out some non-review stuff.

Author: Robert McKee
Year published: 1998
Pages: 466
Genre: Non-fiction. Story structure, screenwriting, practical film theory
Where got: Student book store

This is apparently one of the best books available to people who want to learn screenwriting, and is required reading for many courses on the craft. And no, I’m not about to run off to Hollywood to become a screenwriter. This is one of two set books for the university course I’m taking on media translation. Since a lot of media translation consists of translating movies and TV series the teacher thought it would be a good idea if we were well acquainted with the way such material is built up. In order to become a good screen translator, one needs to be aware of the extra-linguistic content of the story one is translating, not just the linguistic aspects. This is why I’m reading the book.

Reading progress, week 32:
Story is proving to be a harder read than I thought it would be. It is educative, but unfortunately it’s also about 100 pages too long. McKee seems to be the writing equivalent of those talkers who drone on and on, using 10 words where 2 would suffice, loving the sound of their own voices. Even though I’m learning a lot about screenwriting and story structure from reading the book, I can only read about a chapter before my thoughts begin to wander and I either start to yawn or become filled with a longing to skim, which is something that does not reflect well on the writing style.

I have therefore decided to give this book another week before I review it. Tomorrow I will nominate a book for this week, but it will be something short. I’m considering a collection of poems.

Screenwriting. Story structure. Things to keep in mind when attempting to write a good movie script. The author delves deep into the subject of ‘story’, and lays out the basic principles of movie storytelling. This is not about the practical sides of screenwriting, how the typed manuscript should look like, how to submit a manuscript, finding an agent and so on, but rather about the necessity of knowing the craft and knowing your story well enough to tell it to others in an impressive way. Movie scenes are analysed in order to deepen the reader’s understanding of the subject, and scenes from many movies are mentioned as examples of what McKee is talking about.

My impressions:
I have no doubt that to someone truly interested in screenwriting, this is a very useful book. I even found it useful, and I have never seen myself as someone who could (or would) write a movie script. My interest in the subject is twofold: one is the interest any moviegoer has in the mechanics of movie storytelling, and the other is as a student of translation. Should I ever go into translating for subtitles or dubbing, I will have to be familiar with this subject, because screen translation is not just about the words, it’s about a lot more than that. Screen translators do not earn a lot of money for their craft, and being familiar with story structure enables them to translate better and faster. But I digress.

I have already stated that I found the reading slow going. That is not to say it was boring, but the text is wordy. Not only does McKee like to see his words on the page - the more the better - he is also fond of overstatement, and his self-confidence is such that it borders on being arrogant.

Good guide to the principles of movie storytelling and script structuring, with a little bit of advice on working methods thrown in for good measure. Will not attempt to give stars.


Dorte H said…
I suppose it could also be useful for many crime writers. I am not of the school, though, that think that a novel should sound like a film (fast-paced, 99 % dialogue and absolutely no descriptions, adjectives or adverbs).

I prefer quieter stories, but when I write flash stories, I sometimes use a lot of direct speech, and it has been useful for me to learn how to write a convincing dialogue.

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