Craft Book Review: Story by Robert McKee

Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee is a little older, but it was recommended by Jane Friedman, a publishing professional for whom I have a great deal of respect.  I am SO GLAD I read the book.  It is insightful about what makes a story work, helpful in explaining the details, and I loved the no nonsense voice of the author.  I tend to be a proponent of tough love, as my clients will tell you, so a straightforward approach lands well for me.

This post will not be a comprehensive dissection of the book here, as it is 468 pages packed with writing goodness.  The book is intended for screenwriters, but most of the lessons apply to novel writing as well.  Here’s the bottom line: Story Matters!  You can have great characters, an exciting plot, lots of action, but if you don’t have a message and a  story, it won’t work.  

Story has five non-negotiables: 

  1. The inciting incident
  2. Progressive Complications
  3. Crisis
  4. Climax 
  5. Resolution

These five elements exist in a big picture, overarching way, but they also exist within each act of a novel. 

I’ve written before about how all beat sheets, story structure outlines, etc are basically the same, and it is still true.  All of them include these five elements in some form or fashion.  It seems you just can’t write a book or watch a movie without them.  As writers, we would be wise to pay attention.

If you want more information about McKee, he was recently featured on the Thoughtful Bro podcast (I know…, but give it a listen) in which he riffs on the Hero’s Journey.  Keep listening if you fear he has forgotten the original question, he eventually gets back round to it.  I will respectfully disagree with his statement that there are no  female journeys.  See more about the Heroine’s Journey below. 

Outlining is a valuable tool at any point in the writing process: just getting started, revising your novel, or writing your summary to query.

Get your free copy of the Beats of the Heroine’s Journey with examples here.

If you wonder more about how all outlines are the same, check out the mini-course on Outlining.  It will help you figure out which one of the many variations on an outlining theme will work for you and your novel.

Get Robin’s Outlining Mini-course, which includes video lessons, a workbook, templates, and a deep dive into outlining once you have selected your beats.

Never be confused by outlining styles again.


Published by Robin Henry

Independent Scholar and Book Coach specializing in Historical Fiction and Literary Fan Fiction.