Always fascinated by story

(This is a repost of something I wrote in 2006. I have long since finished reading the book referred to. In fact, I’ve reread it since. It’s very good. By the way, this is not really a review; it’s a first impressions piece.)

I’m currently reading Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee. While it’s about screenwriting I’m not really reading it for that, though in a sense I am (excuse the contradiction).

I’m reading it because, in a larger sense, it is about story (hence the title) and I am, and always have been, fascinated by that. The book discusses the idea of story while addressing the more specifc area of screenwriting.

I’ve never actually tried to write a screenplay. (Years ago, however, I did write some pretty dreadful radio plays.) One day I hope to try a screenplay though, to be any good at it, I imagine I would have to write quite a few turkeys first.

The fictional writing I’ve done has always been short stories and novels and odd things that fall in the middle (novellas?). But I’ve always been fascinated by movies and in particular screenwriting. From what I’ve seen, screenwriting is the one area of fictional writing where people really do put a lot of thought into the technical aspects of telling a story – structure, relationships, and so on. (I’m sure most writers do this but screenwriters actually discuss and debate it a lot.)

I also like screenwriting’s obsessive editing. I’ve always believed the best writing comes about by cutting it ruthlessly. And if my own experience is anything to go by, it tears out your heart because some of your best stuff must get tossed.

The one thing I would say about focusing on the technical aspects of writing is that you really do need to know what kind of a writer you are. In the special features on the DVD of the complete Fawlty Towers (I hope I remember this correctly) John Cleese speaks about how in writing he doesn’t understand how someone can begin writing without having it completely outlined so you know what needs to be written. And I completely understand that feeling. It seems the most logical thing in the world.

But no two people are the same and while it may seem a waste of energy I have found that I very seldom can write that way. I really do have to just start writing, though I’ve no idea where it’s going or who all the characters are. This is seems to be the only way I can figure out what the damn story is and who is in it (and who shouldn’t be). Of course, once done I have to start all over again because it lacks organization and there’s a lot of meaningless meandering. But that part is usually easy, if tedious.

Getting back to Story … I’ve only read about 80 pages at this point but it’s extremely good. Apart from being entertaining and informative (at least if you like film), it also has a good deal of practical information in it.

I think the book came out roughly ten fifteen years ago but it’s well worth tracking down and reading, at least if those first 80 pages are any indication.