Robert McKee: Story: Style, Structure, Substance | Resources | Write for Stage & Screen

Niamh O'Connor

When he first moved to LA as a fledgling screenwriter, Robert McKee got work analysing screenplay submissions.

“The report I wrote over and over again went like this,” he explains in his book, Story: Style, Structure, Substance and the Principles of Screenwriting: “Nice description, actable dialogue. Some amusing moments; some sensitive moments. All in all, a script of well-chosen words. The story however sucks…It’s a lifeless collection of predictable, ill-told and clichéd episodes that wander off in a pointless haze. PASS ON IT.”

Such were Robert McKee’s insights into what makes a great story tick that he went on to become a Fulbright scholar and UCLA professor.

Hollywood even paid homage to the now 74-year-old’s script doctor’s ability to strip the surface of story back to its “deep form” in Adaptation by Charlie Kaufman.

More than 60 Academy Award winners and 200 Academy Award nominees have since attended his Story seminar delivered in cities all over the world to more than 100,000 students over the last 30 years.

And over four days in Killarney next month, Robert McKee will deliver his legendary lectures.

This is how comedian, actor, and author, Russell Brand summed up the Story seminar:

In his book, McKee explains: “At one end of reality is pure fact; at the other end, pure imagination. Spanning these two poles is the infinitely varied spectrum of fiction. Strong storytelling strikes a balance along this spectrum.”

McKee tries to teach writers how to arm themselves with the craft they need to tell any story. “Given the choice between trivial material told badly versus profound material badly told, an audience will always choose the trivial told brilliantly,” he states.

Here he describes the different approaches to story design:

Literary talent is not enough, he explains in his book. “Countless writers lavish dressy dialogue and manicured descriptions on anorexic yarns and wonder why their scripts never see production, while others with modest literary talent but great storytelling power have the deep pleasure of watching their dreams living in the light of the screen.”

In some literary circles plot “has become a dirty word, tarred with a connotation of hack commercialism,” he acknowledges, but to McKee it is pretty much everything. The difference for novelists is that they can describe what a character is thinking, he states, whereas the screenwriter doesn’t have that luxury.

Here’s McKee on the difference between a great novelist and a great screenwriter:

But in many other areas the different media overlap, as in portrayal of character, which is “revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure – the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature,” he says.

That’s why is seminar is aimed anyone interested in the world of story.

The Story Seminar comes to The Learning Resort, Killarney on November: 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th.



-The writer and the art of story

-The decline of story in contemporary film

-Story design: the meaning of story, the substance of story, the limitations and inspirations of story structure & genre, the debate between character vs story design

-Premise Idea, Counter Idea, Controlling Idea

-Story Structure: beat, scene, sequence, act, story

-Mapping the Story universe: Archplot, Miniplot, Antiplot

-Shaping the source of story energy and creation


-Putting the elements of story together
-The principles of character dimension and design §§ The composition of scenes
-Irony; Melodrama
-False endings
-The text: description, dialogue, and poetics
-The spectrum of story genres


-Act design: the great sweep and body of story

-The first major story event (the inciting incident)

-Scene design in Story: turning points, emotional dynamics, setup/payoff, the  nature of choice

-Ordering and linking scenes

-Exposition: dramatizing your characters, the story setting, creating back story

-The principles of antagonism

-Crisis, climax and resolution


-Story adaptations

-Scene analysis: text and sub-text; design through dialogue versus design through action

-The writer’s method: working from the inside out; the creative process from

inspiration to final draft.

-How it all works: the principles of the previous 3-1/2 days applied in a 6- hour, scene-by-scene screening and analysis of CASABLANCA

-The spectrum of story genres

(c) Niamh O’Connor

Niamh’s interview with Robert McKee will be coming to soon – she’s looking forward to attending the Story Seminar so watch out for her there!

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