In Praise of Robert McKee’s “Story”

In the past few years I have started, but not finished:

  1. A coming of age story with a strong musical element
  2. The first mystery in a new series with a rather artistic protagonist
  3. The first mystery in a new series with a female protagonist
  4. A Jeeves & Wooster/P. G. Wodehouse-inspired light comedy with a mysterious twist.

They are unfinished, not because they aren’t good, but because I didn’t know how to make the last 1/3 (or 1/2 or 2/3) as good as what was already written.

Not because I don’t know how to use words. Never been a problem. I was reading at college level when I started Kindergarten back in the Jurassic Era.

What I didn’t know was, once you start building a bridge of story from over here and it spans half the chasm, how do you keep it from collapsing into the ravine until you can make it land over there?

In other words, what is the structure of a story?

I worked in construction for some years. If pressed, I could probably build a house on my own. Once you know how something is structured, know its skeleton, putting it together is mostly a matter of avoiding dumb mistakes, and doing a solid workmanlike job of each piece.

If only story had such a structure. (Insert knowing looks from the reader here.)

I never thought to ask that question. Though I had already studied enough psychology to learn that luck is, not a mysterious force of the universe, but a natural consequence of our actions as driven by our thinking, I didn’t extend that understanding to story. I still thought stories came from a magical place — or didn’t come, more often.

Having discovered the work of Larry Brooks, Shawn Coyne, Steven Pressfield, and now, Robert McKee, I know that those books I haven’t finished can be finished by divining the rest of the story, excavating it from my mind, my life, my reading, my heart.

It’s there. I just didn’t have the tools to dig it out.

Much as I love the other gents I mention, McKee is the godfather. I realized in short order that I was going to be reading this book more than once: first, for an overview, and then multiple times to extract all the notes I needed to work on all those bridges.

Here’s one gut-punch of learning: story is about a gap.

Happily Ever After, But Right Now

Watched an adorable little movie with Best Beloved a week ago. Brilliant actors starting out in a very difficult situation filled with possibilities for tragedy and joy.

At the end, we agreed that it was nice enough but we wouldn’t bother sitting through it again.

The heroine of the movie was an aged rebel. She wanted to change her life: to thwart her controlling grown son, to bring joy to the cranky old widower next door, and to have one last great romantic fling before she died.

And so she set out to do those things, and handled them neatly the end.

Her son sputters and fumes, but puts up no real resistance.

The cranky old curmudgeon fends her off briefly, then surrenders to her charms.

Fortunately, he’s wealthy so he takes her on that last great romantic fling before she dies the end.

Not once did she experience any real resistance. Not once did she try and fail spectacularly.

Not once did reality differ from her expectations.

And it got boring. Yes, it’s funny when Willy Wonka says “Once upon a time there was a little boy who got everything he’d ever wanted, and do you know what happened? He lived happily ever after.”

But that’s how you end a story, not how you build one.

Enter “The Gap”

Painters use paint. Sculptors use wood and stone.

What is a writer’s tool? Not words. Words are the medium for story. Words are the canvas, not the paint; the glass through which light shines.

McKee spends 25 pages explaining that story is made of the gap between reality, as we think we know it, and reality as it happens to our characters. The exceptions. The day when you call Bob to get Donna’s phone number and instead of rattling it off and chiding you for interrupting, he curses you and Donna and everyone else and slams the phone down in rage.

Something you’ve done a million times doesn’t go as expected. A gap between what we think we know as reality and the reality of that moment; a gap caused by all the forces, internal and external, which . . . well, I could go on for 25 pages. McKee already did.

Stories are made of that gap. It’s the fundamental building block. Words are just the medium through which it passes.

You see it in every movie, every TV show, every book, every short story: guy or gal is strolling through life until wham! something out of the ordinary hits them. They push back, but instead of the happy obvious result, things get worse. Before long things have escalated to a place where our guy or gal is launched unwilling on a quest.

And that’s why we read and watch: the unwilling quest of a regular Joe or Jane, launched by a series of gaps.

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