How do you write a story? What’s the first step? At what point should you get feedback?
In his book Story, Robert McKee details what he believes to be the ideal writing process: Begin with an outline, flesh it out into a treatment, and then polish it into a final script. McKee frames this as a process for screenwriters, but you could apply it to stories in any medium.
Continue reading to learn McKee’s three-step story-writing process.
Step #1: Create an Outline
How do you write a story? McKee’s story-writing process starts with an outline: a detailed description of every one of your story beats and value changes. This outline is solely a description of plot and intentionally lacks dialogue or screenplay-style description. Since you’re essentially writing your entire story in outline form, this step will take up the majority of your time.
McKee recommends outlining many more scenes than you end up using. The way to find the best ideas is to write as many of them as possible, then select the very best and throw the rest away.
Keep writing compelling scenes, fleshing out the world of your story, until you find a climax that strikes you deeply on an emotional level. This climax will reveal to you what the theme of your story is: your story’s final change and the cause behind that change. Then, you can start building your story backward. Since every beat in your story should support the climax logically and thematically, the climax gives you the direction you need to start solidifying the scenes, sequences, and acts of your story.
Once you have a complete story, McKee recommends pitching it to a friend. Tell them the entire story, beat by beat. Keep fine-tuning your outline until you have a story that reliably delivers an emotional impact on your listeners. This way, you don’t waste time fleshing out a story that doesn’t work.
Step #2: Write a Treatment
McKee’s second step in writing a story is to turn your outline into a treatment: a more detailed description of each scene that takes care to outline both text and subtext. That is, you not only write in extreme detail what happens in each scene but also what each character is thinking and feeling.
Because of this difference between text and subtext, you must write down both textual layers to ensure you fully understand what’s happening in your story in every scene. According to McKee, this is the purpose of a treatment.
Step #3: Finish Your Script
The last step in writing a story is to polish it into its final form, explains McKee. This is when you’ll add dialogue, scene description, and everything else that will end up in the final product. If you’ve extensively outlined your story’s plot and subtext in the previous two steps, writing dialogue will feel extremely easy and natural, since you deeply understand your characters as human beings.
(Shortform note: If dialogue still isn’t coming easily to you at this stage, there are many places you can look for inspiration. Pay closer attention to how the people you know in real life speak. Research specific dialects or technical jargon to give your characters a more authentic vocabulary. Study how the characters speak in your favorite stories.)
McKee notes that any one of these three steps may require extensive revision. You may fail to realize that your story doesn’t work until after you’re halfway through writing dialogue. In this case, McKee asserts that you must work up the courage to throw out anything that doesn’t work, no matter how much time you spent writing it. After you’ve done this, you’ll be left with a powerful, well-written story.
(Shortform note: This idea echoes the often-repeated writing advice to “kill your darlings”—in other words, revise any part of your story that doesn’t work for the audience, no matter how much you want to keep it in. If you’re struggling to work up the courage to cut a part of your story you’re in love with, try temporarily moving that passage aside (rather than cutting it). Knowing that you can always put the original passage back will often give you the peace of mind you need to write something new to replace it—which may be even better.)
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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Robert McKee's "Story" at Shortform.
Here's what you'll find in our full Story summary:
- A guide for screenwriters on how to write a gripping story
- How to engage an audience on an emotional and intellectual level
- The three-step process for how to write a story