Structuring Story with Hollywood legend Robert McKee

Those of you who have read The Art & Craft of Fiction know that I first came to tightly-structured plot through Syd Field’s great book on scriptwriting, Screenplay.

Field is one of the top two scriptwriting teachers in Hollywood.

The other is Robert McKee.

So last year I finally read Story, McKee’s canonical work on writing. I know—kind of late to the party. McKee is credited with naming and defining such essential writing techniques as the ‘inciting incident,’ ‘plot points,’ and ‘set-ups and pay-offs.’ He’s been doing this work forever, and his name is probably the best-known and most-revered among scriptwriters. It’s worth knowing what McKee has to say.

However, I actually learned to use three-act structure for fiction from Field. When I wrote about three-act design in The Art & Craft of Fiction in 2010, structure was a dirty word in the online writing community. ‘Pantsing’ was the popular mode of creating stories. And prose structure based upon scriptwriting was considered just ridiculous. So I had mixed feelings about venturing into the piranha-infested waters of the blogosphere with what I already knew was an unpopular idea.

I did it.

But I was wary.

And I got pushback. “Entirely different forms!” I was told. “Novels and scripts can’t compare to each other.” “Don’t confuse yourself by writing for the wrong audience!” With perhaps the most insidious and spectacular of bad advice: “Don’t plot. It sucks the creative juice out of your story.”

By now we all know that this is craziness. Both forms of storytelling rely heavily upon dialog to establish and develop character while illuminating subtext; both are best shown in scenes rather than exposition*; and both need solidly-designed structure.

I’m not sure why, but these things were either unknown or simply ignored by a lot of writing teachers in those heady days of the mass explosion of aspiring writers onto the publishing scene, when the number of people hoping to become professional writers escalated so quickly that new writing terms had to be invented: “POV,” “WIP,” “pantsing.” (Writers who have been writing since before that era even now don’t necessarily know what those terms mean—they’ve only existed since the birth of mainstream blogging and its attendant rise in aspiring authorhood.)

Now there are plenty of books on writing that address structure. And this matters. . .because structure is the most important thing, I believe, that Robert McKee ever contributed to the teaching of our craft.

So check him out: An Interview with Robert McKee

* In fiction, exposition is a type of narrative summary that ‘exposes’ anything the reader can’t get from the sensory experience of a scene. In screenwriting, though, everything is set in scenes—so exposition is a term used for explanation and/or background information, which usually appears in dialog. And in playwriting, exposition refers to the second act, in which the first act is illuminated through essential backstory.