The Writer’s Bookshelf – Part I: “Story”

Funny writing quote from the movie Adaptation via Diana Anderson-Tyler

There are boatloads of writing books available, all of which I’m sure can help you become a better, faster, sharper, heck, even a sexier, more marketable writer – basically a human iPhone 7. Right now on Amazon, 20,251 results have appeared under the Writing subcategory, “Fiction Writing Reference.” I don’t know about you, but I’d need to learn how to become a better, faster, sharper, sexier reader before I tackled all of those.

Since there are only so many books one can read in his or her lifetime – and we certainly don’t want them all to be writing books, do we? – I’m always on the lookout for recommendations for books that are clear, concise, and actionable.

In other words, I want a book that works more like a smartphone app than an encyclopedia from which one reads two paragraphs before storing it on an upper shelf, never to be opened or thought of again.

I prefer craft books that are light in my hands, easy on my eyes, and yummy to my brain (you know what I’m talking about). I know I’m a fan of a book on writing when I feel I can consider it an old friend, always there to give me a pep talk or a kick in the pants when I need it. These books are inspiring, yes (I’m always reminded of how powerful stories can be and how blessed we are to pen them), but more than that, they’re educational, an adjective that might make some cringe, but for writers like you and me who strive to improve every day, it’s a word we value and embrace.

Story, by screenwriting expert Robert McKee, is one such book that both inspires and teaches. I can’t recommend it highly enough and I’ll tell you why.

First of all, McKee is a master when it comes to understanding and explaining stories that work. He’s an award-winning screenwriter, as well as a former professor at the University of Southern California (one of the top film schools in the U.S.). He also hosts the venerated STORY Seminar twice each year in L.A., New York, and London, to which screenwriters in all stages of their careers flock to learn from the author of the illustrious “screenwriting bible.”

I actually first heard of McKee while I was studying screenwriting at the University of Texas. The funny thing is, I didn’t hear about him during a lecture, but during a movie: Adaptation (one of my favorites, by the way!). The movie, the premise of which sounds super confusing on paper, is about the actual screenwriter’s (the incomparable Charlie Kaufman) terrible case of writer’s block whilst adapting a real-life novel called The Orchid Thief into a movie. It isn’t a documentary, mind you, but a comedic metafilm – truly a work of cinematic art if there ever was one, in my humble opinion!

Moving on…

There’s a scene in the movie in which desperate Charlie, who once rejected formulaic plot structure, attends one of McKee’s conferences. Here’s the scene (rated R for language!):

 

 

I’m not sure if McKee is anything like that in real life (there’s not a single profanity – unless he’s quoting a movie, maybe – in his book, Story), but one thing he definitely does have in common with his on-screen persona is his passion for solid, time-tested, storytelling principles. Here are just a few of the gems I jotted down from the book’s intro:

“Story is about principles, not rules.”

“Story is about thoroughness, not shortcuts.”

“Economy is key. Brevity takes time.”

“Excellence means perseverance.”

“Story is about respect, not disdain, for the audience.”

“Storytellers want to touch their audience.”

“Story is about originality, not duplication.”

“Story structure reveals your personal cosmology – your map of life’s hidden order.”

“Stories are equipment for living.”

“Fiction gives life its form.”

 

Fantastic stuff, right!? I have those quotes stored as a note on my phone and reference them almost daily.

I’ve been listening a second time to the audiobook, all the while taking notes and pretending I’m in one of his lectures (I hope one day to attend one!). In the next few blog posts, I’ll share my Story SparkNotes, if you will, in which I’ll highlight some of my favorite takeaways. I hope they’ll be helpful to you as you seek to hone your craft and make your stories shine!

What’s your favorite book on writing? Let me know in the comments below or tweet me at @dandersontyler!

Keep Shining, (1)

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