the net guide for creative
DOWSE Guide to the
by Tony Lee editor of
Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting
by Robert McKee
Methuen paperback 466pp £12.99
review by Gary Couzens
Wherever you go, particularly within spitting distance of Los Angeles, there'll
no doubt be someone who wants to write a screenplay. The promise of riches and
glamour is undoubtedly enticing, even if the real film industry - outside the
major studios and large independent companies which supply them - is a hand-to-mouth
business. Needless to say, there are a myriad how-to books on the market, but pride
of place has to go to Robert McKee's Story, derived from his celebrated course.
Unlike other books, Story takes a theoretical approach rather than the
nuts-and-bolts one of screenplay formats, agents and the like. Still, a good dose of
theory will benefit any writer, and there is plenty here which will stimulate writers
in other media.
STORY, in short, breaks down the story into its constituent parts. First
of all, there are McKee's three basic types of plots. Firstly, there is the Archplot:
what most people will think of as a plot: active protagonist, external conflict,
linear time-sequence, closed ending. This is undoubtedly the most common form of
plot, and certainly the most "commercial", but one good thing about McKee's book is
that he doesn't forget that mainstream Hollywood is not the only type of cinema
around. McKee draws on all of world cinema for his examples, and one of his
screenwriting heroes is Ingmar Bergman. In addition to the Archplot there are also
the Miniplot ("character-led", internal conflict, relatively passive protagonist,
open ending) and the Antiplot (coincidence rather than causality, inconsistent
realities, non-liner time sequence). These will normally attract a smaller audience
than Archplots, but people are still drawn to write them, and these forms have
produced their fair share of masterpieces.
From there, McKee goes on to discuss the elements of a story: an inciting
incident and a number of dramatic reversals or acts. This is not the three-act
structure beloved of Hollywood in the Eighties especially, resulting in an untold
number of formulaic scripts, but three is the minimum number for a full-length work.
He breaks down acts into sequences and scenes, and uses as examples extracts from
Casablanca, Chinatown and Bergman's Through A Glass Darkly.
Anyone writing narrative fiction of any kind (not only screenplays) would do well to
own a copy of this book. I found it quite enlightening.
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