Books on Story Stucture and Theory.
I wanted to start off this thread of posts by talking about some of the books that have most influenced me. I’ll list the first three here then tackle them one by one.
STORY by Robert Mckee
Anatomy of Criticism by Northrop Fry
Uses of Enchantment by Bruno Bettelheim
Lets start with
STORY by Robert Mckee
Honestly, this is the book that got me seriously interested in writing. I’d written short stories before that, and even taken creative writing classes, but I considered all of that as an exercise towards making cool little animated short films. That was my original career aspiration – make, blow your mind cool, artsy animated short films that took years to make and made little to no money. Ah, the ignorance of youth. So foolish, I was.
After reading Mckee’s story, the lights turned on. I could see how all these crazy little ideas I’d had floating around in my head for years could be developed into full length, fully thought out arching stories. I mean, for as long as I can remember I’d been thinking up crazy characters and crazy places without any real idea of how to take them any further. Now for the first time, I got it. Writing a concrete, meaningful story with well structured events and progression was not something you were born with. The great novelists and screenwriters didn’t get that way without effort. Writing was a craft that had to be studied and developed. And just like other forms of art, like figure drawing for example, it’s been around for a while. People are not just now inventing what a good story is. Mckee goes back as far as Aristotle. In Aristotle’s ‘Poetics,’ he talks a lot about what makes a good story and why. There are principles of story telling that tap into the human experience, he says. When the principles are obeyed, the story evokes an emotion connection with the reader. Why? Because the story then relates in some way to the readers own life and therefore has relevance.
There are basic fundamental experiences that most humans share. Mckee calls them Archtypes. Everyone has parents. A good percentage of the population have children. Most, if not all of us have experienced some form of loss, or abandonment, or the thrill of success, or the growth from adolescence to adulthood with its required trade of greater responsibility for greater freedom.
A good story taps into what life is, and life is what’s common between us.
Mckee spends a lot of time talking about these archetypal experiences, the nature of conflict, how the progression and development of story itself reflects the natural progression and development of an individual’s life. Story reflects life. We learn, we grow, we are in a constant struggle against conflict of every kind. We must work against natural forces just to breath.The moment we give into entropy, we die.
He talks about how important the ending of a story is in order to determine the meaning of the journey against conflict that you’ve just taken your readers. Everyone looks for meaning. We need it. There is nothing worse than looking at the end of our own battle through life and seeing no purpose at the end of it. At the end of it we are far different, for better or worse, than when we started. The same with a well told story. And the Why. Why are we different? That is what we look for at the end. Why did things end up that way?
According to Mckee, the best answer to that question is told through the actions of the characters. It is their choices that give meaning to the eventual outcome of events. In the final moments of the story, the choices are at their most critical. It is the crisis moment when true humanity is revealed, when there is no simple clear cut, right and wrong answer. There is dilemma. There is undesired consequences attached to the desired outcome.
There is value change. Evil is overcomes, or evil is set free. Love succeeds or love fails. The final choice of the protagonist seals that value change in a permanent way and attaches a choice to that value change. Love fails when a person refuses to forgive, or injustice triumphs when someone sacrifices truth for personal fortune.
And I’ve only scratched the surface…