What Makes a Story “Good”? Robert McKee Explains

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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What makes a story good? What basic human longing does it fulfill, and how does it fulfill it?

Robert McKee began teaching stories in a university class and has since become one of the most sought-after lecturers on the topic. In his book Story, he discusses why people love stories and shows writers how to take advantage of this obsession. He also explains why writers should learn story theory.

Continue reading to learn McKee’s ideas on what makes a story good as well as the purpose of story theory.

Crafting a Good Story

Humans are drawn to stories, whether we hear them from our friends, movies, books, TV shows, plays, or any number of other mediums. But, what makes a good story so compelling?

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.

(Shortform note: In Man’s Search for Meaning, psychiatrist Viktor Frankl takes this idea further, arguing that meaning is more than a core human need—it’s the strongest motivating force in life for everyone. People who feel like they’re doing something important in life are happier, healthier, and can endure any amount of suffering, as long as they believe that pain is serving a greater purpose. Frankl explains that anything you find important can fill this need for meaning. With this in mind, we can see stories as tools that humans use to create meaningful lives. Truths told to us through stories help us identify what matters to us, making our subsequent actions feel more meaningful.)

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. For example, even though Pixar’s Finding Nemo is about a talking clownfish, it’s true to life in the way it reflects how a father traumatized by the death of his wife would truly react if his son was kidnapped. If, instead, the clownfish Marlin were to flippantly laugh about losing his son (perhaps a screenwriter’s attempt at a joke) the story would no longer be true to life.

McKee explains that even stories that are totally detached from reality convey truth about life. For example, a surrealist film in which characters change form and random events occur may convey that life is fundamentally absurd and has no unifying meaning—yet this in itself is still a truth about life.

Nietzsche’s Argument for Subjective Truth in Art

German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche disagrees with McKee’s assumptions here, arguing in multiple books that it’s impossible to accurately understand and express truth. Instead, art is valuable because it creates the illusion of expressing truth—the illusion that life is ordered and meaningful when in reality it’s neither of these things.

However, despite disagreeing with McKee’s assumptions, Nietzsche does agree with his conclusion—that we should attempt to create art that expresses a universal truth about life.

Nietzsche argues that, as long as your art creates the comforting, subjective illusion of truth, it’s a worthwhile, meaningful pursuit. This is because the alternative—using pure rationality to discover meaning in life—is a depressing and ultimately fruitless endeavor.

Judging by this philosophy, it’s possible that, ironically, Nietzsche may have preferred Finding Nemo to a surrealistic, nihilistic art house film. If the surrealist film represents (in Nietzsche’s view) a more rational yet pessimistic attitude toward life, it may have less existential utility than the more superficially meaningful Pixar film.

The Purpose of Story Theory

McKee argues that writers must learn story theory: what elements of a story make it meaningful and why. These aren’t rules dictating what you can and can’t write—rather, they’re an explanation of what elements in a story give the audience meaning and how they do so.

According to McKee, an understanding of story theory helps you write good stories in two ways. First, it clarifies the ideal writing process. When you have a process you can trust, you’re free to let your imagination run wild in the world of the story instead of constantly worrying about whether you’re “doing it right.” Second, story theory is necessary to understand how a story functions after you’ve written it. In this way, it helps you diagnose which parts of your story work and which you need to revise.

(Shortform note: These two benefits of story theory have one thing in common—they encourage you to write without judging what you’re writing as right or wrong. However, many writers try to use story theory to achieve the opposite: To determine what the “right” story events are while they’re writing. This often involves rigid story formulas and results in stories that feel mechanical and fail to reflect life as it is. For example, a writer might misuse story theory by thinking, “I need an Act One climax on page 30 of my script. What crazy thing could happen then?” Take care not to think in terms of abstract story principles while you’re writing—only while you’re revising.)

What Makes a Story “Good”? Robert McKee Explains

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  • 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, science, and philosophy. A switch to audio books 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 creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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