8 Brilliant Insights About Story From Robert McKee

I am embarrassed to admit that after 15 years of preaching story to church people, I’m just now reading Story, by Robert McKee. No other book about story, including my own, should take precedence over this bible of narrative. The credentials that trail it around, while impressive, don’t begin to do justice to its inspiration. From chapter 1 alone come these eight brilliant nuggets:

1. The archetypal story unearths a universal human experience, then wraps itself inside a unique, culture-specific expression.

2. Screenwriters [storytellers of any kind] learn that economy is key, and brevity takes time.

3. No one can teach what will sell, what won’t, what will be a smash or a fiasco, because no one knows.

 – This is true of Hollywood and was true in my time in book publishing as well. If someone says they’ve got a guaranteed market killer, run. They’re just selling you the idea of selling itself.

4. The storyteller’s selection and arrangement of events is his master metaphor.

 – This belies easy comprehension, and requires a meta-awareness of the way a story unfolds, which has as much meaning as the narrative itself.

5. Story isn’t a flight from reality but a vehicle that carries us on our search for reality.

6. Values are are at the soul of our art. In decades past, writer and society more or less agreed on these questions, but more and more ours has become an age of moral and ethical cynicism – a great confusion of values. This erosion of values has brought with it a corresponding erosion of story.

7. Don’t mistake verisimilitude for truth. This writer believes that the more precise his observation of day-to-day facts, the more accurate his reportage of what actually happens, the more truth he tells. But fact, no matter how minutely observed, is truth with a small “t.” Bit “T” Truth is located behind, beyond, inside, below the surface of things, holding reality together and tearing it apart, and cannot be directly observed… What happens is fact, not truth.

Or as I say in Think Like a Five Year Old, 

Truth and honesty are not the same thing. Someone can be truthful and not be honest. A truthful response is precise but not necessarily honest, because it’s only concerned with the outcome. When we’re detached, we can be truthful and precise, but we may not always be accurate and honest. Honesty is deeper; it’s a form of soul alignment that marries intent and spirit with outcome. The creative life – and the spiritual life – is concerned not with truth as extrinsic precision but with honesty as intrinsic motivation.

8. Given the choice between trivial material brilliantly told versus profound material badly told, an audience will always choose the trivial told brilliantly.

– This last one is disheartening for most people I know. But do we dismiss story as a result, or strive for more brilliant storytelling to match our profound material?


About the Author

Len Wilson

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Christ follower. Storyteller. Strategist. Writer. Creative Director at St Andrew. Tickle monster. Author, Think Like a Five Year Old (Abingdon).