4 Robert McKee Quotes About Stories to Enlighten & Inspire You

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Story" by Robert McKee. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Why do humans seek out stories? How do stories impact society? What does Robert McKee think would make life a lunatic asylum?

Stories are mysterious. Like music, they have an emotional power over us that’s impossible to explain. However, in his book Story, screenwriter and storytelling expert Robert McKee argues that stories’ emotional power is not only explainable but also something you can learn to create.

Keep reading for four Robert McKee quotes from Story that capture the essence of the book.

Robert McKee Quotes

We’ve selected four Robert McKee quotes and provided them along with some context and explanation.

“When we want mood experiences, we go to concerts or museums. When we want meaningful emotional experience, we go to the storyteller.”

McKee argues that, contrary to popular belief, we don’t seek out stories primarily as a way to escape our boring or unpleasant reality. Rather, we’re obsessed with stories because they fill a core human need: We need to find meaning, truth about the world that influences how we live our lives. When we encounter new meaning, it’s an intense, emotionally satisfying experience, and it’s a craving for this experience that motivates us to seek stories. The best stories are rich in meaning.

“We can’t go around saying and doing what we’re actually thinking and feeling. If we all did that, life would be a lunatic asylum.”

McKee recommends outlining both text and subtext. You write in extreme detail what happens in each scene and what each character is thinking and feeling. If you’re creating a story that’s true to life, this internal subtext will often contradict what the characters superficially appear to be doing.

“Secure writers don’t sell first drafts. They patiently rewrite until the script is as director-ready, as actor-ready as possible. Unfinished work invites tampering, while polished, mature work seals its integrity.”

McKee notes that any one of the three steps of the writing process (outline, treatment, final draft) might require extensive revision. You might 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.

“A culture cannot evolve without honest, powerful storytelling. When a society repeatedly experiences glossy, hollowed-out, pseudo-stories, it degenerates. We need true satires and tragedies, dramas and comedies that shine a clean light into the dingy corners of the human psyche and society.”

Since stories are meant to fill the human need for meaning, McKee asserts that good stories are always true to life. This doesn’t mean that good stories have to be something that could realistically occur—rather, every detail in a good story reflects life as it truly is. McKee explains that even stories that are totally detached from reality convey truth about life.

4 Robert McKee Quotes About Stories to Enlighten & Inspire You

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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

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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