Every now and then you’ll get a famous writer slagging off Robert McKee’s Story. ‘He’s never written anything himself’, they’ll say. They’ll blame it for homogenised, predictable, formulaic storytelling. And then other people will misunderstand what the famous writer meant and will go, ‘Ah – you see – structure isn’t important.’
Structure is important. It should be instinctive. I’m not sure it can be taught, any more than an appreciation of fine music can be taught. But what can be taught – and what McKee’s Story is excellent on – is how to fix a story that’s not working. Story is a troubleshooting manual. It helps identify potential problems and find solutions.
The problem is when script editors, or producers, or whoever, use Story in a prescriptive way rather than a diagnostic way. Which is like using a car repair manual as a guide to constructing a car.
The other problem is that this leads to script editors, or producers, or whoever - who can’t tell if a script is working because their job is all about fretting about scripts not working – who use Story to find not problems but quibbles. One hears horror stories about writers being given notes that the b-plot should have its first beat half-way down page 7, not at the top of page 8... which is nonsense, because it’s a problem begging to be fixed by the writer sneakily fiddling with the layout settings. And which results in shows and films which feel over-formulaic and lifeless because they are structurally unsurprising.
That’s not to say writing can’t be planned out structurally. It can, just as when building a car you might first decide to stick a wheel in each corner. But what makes a story exciting is not how similar it is to other stories but how different.