Quotes for Writers

Robert McKee - Story

This quote is specifically about screenwriting, but applies to novelists as well.

Literary talent is not enough. If you cannot tell a story, all those beautiful images and subtleties of dialogue that you spent months and months perfecting waste the paper they’re written on. What we create for the world, what it demands of us, is story. Now and forever. Countless writers lavish dressy dialogue and manicured descriptions on anorexic yarns and wonder why their scripts never see production, while others with modest literary talent but great storytelling power have the deep pleasure of watching their dreams living in the light of the screen.

Of the total creative effort represented in a finished work, 75 percent or more of a writer’s labor goes into designing story. Who are these characters? What do they want? Why do they want it? How do they go about getting it? What stops them? What are the consequences? Finding the answers to these grand questions and shaping them into story is our overwhelming creative task.

…But the love of a good story, of terrific characters and a world driven by your passion, courage, and creative gifts is still not enough. Your goal must be a good story well told.


 Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting

by Robert McKee, 1997, p. 19 and 21.

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


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  7. A Time to Kill…Your Novel | Rachelle Gardner on October 13, 2011 at 12:02 AM

    […] 2008-2011, after reading McKee’s Story, Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer, Snyder’s Save the Cat, and 12 other novel-writing […]

  8. bobbie on August 10, 2011 at 12:16 PM

    For years I struggled with the problem of how to make the pages turn. I wrote one novel that did, but was unsure how I’d done it and whether I could do it again. Then I read ‘Story’ by Robert McKee. Wonderful. At last the answers and simple advice on how to apply them! There are several other great books on screenplay – e.g. by Syd Field, Michael Hauge, Christopher Vogler, Blake Snyder -that are definitely for novelists too.

  9. Kaleen on August 8, 2011 at 10:25 AM

    I adore this book. It has a permanent spot on my nightstand, and I refer to it often. It’s definitley not just for screenwriters.

  10. Nancy S. Thompson on August 7, 2011 at 11:58 PM

    Which is why even mediocre writing is publishable. If the story is kickass, people will read it, regardless.

  11. Laura Pauling on August 7, 2011 at 11:54 PM

    This book is a bit technical but overall one of my favorite books on writing. If you want to understand story and how to make it come alive on the page this book is worth every penny!

  12. Donna K. Weaver on August 7, 2011 at 6:59 PM

    Love that. It’s interesting as I’ve been thinking about this very thing. I live in a community that is host to the 2nd largest storytelling festival in the U.S. and it’s happening in a month. They have classes all the time on storytelling, and they cover so much of the same things we learn as written storytellers (as opposed to verbal storytellers).

  13. Taylor Napolsky on August 7, 2011 at 5:31 PM

    Yeah it’s all about story, and characters, and promoting…actually, now that I think about it, everything is important.

  14. Jan Cline on August 7, 2011 at 10:45 AM

    I think this describes the very thing all writers long for – being able to write the illuminating, well-told story. A story that lasts through the ages.
    Great quote.

  15. J.D. on August 7, 2011 at 9:19 AM

    There is nothing new here. This is the equivalent of a football coach grabbing your face guard just before you go in the game and yelling, “Block!” It’s amazing how we need these reminders; how we must be told what is really a given. Yet, it is advice that is absolutely essential. This kind of thing, that touches my innards, will get me through the week.

  16. Matthew Wood on August 7, 2011 at 8:56 AM

    I agree totally. A bad story will always glare more brightly than a good story written in a mediocre fashion.

  17. Dominique on August 7, 2011 at 6:49 AM

    I definitely believe this. Whenever I see a movie with a bad story, no matter how good the writing or the direction or the performance, it really can’t escape the bad story. I seen the same thing happen to brilliantly performed plays or well-written books. Sometimes it’s just a bad story, and there was no hope for the rest.

    • colleen laquay urbaniuk on August 7, 2011 at 5:11 PM

      i’ve been to those movies too…if the story isn’t good, then nothing can save it. the best acting and the best writing can’t make up for a lousy story.

  18. Giora on August 7, 2011 at 5:41 AM

    “… while others with modest literary talent but great story power have the pleasure of watching their dreams living in the light …”

    I am in the category of this group, and hoping to watch my dream living in the light.

  19. Theresa on August 7, 2011 at 1:21 AM

    I love this book. There is so much for novelists in it, too. I believe any serious writer of stories–true, fiction, novels, screenplays–should read it and more than once.

    • Sharon A Lavy on August 8, 2011 at 4:51 AM

      I need to go find my copy of Story and read it again.

  20. Angie Dicken on August 7, 2011 at 1:02 AM

    I once heard a workshop speaker talk about finishing your manuscript so the agent/editor knows you can “write yourself out of a corner”. Story is so important…and to be able to tell a good story well is such a success!

  21. Amber Argyle on August 7, 2011 at 12:59 AM

    First and foremost, we are storytellers. And if we fail at that, the rest doesn’t matter.

  22. Michael Seese on August 7, 2011 at 12:52 AM

    This commentary underscores what I thought about both “Angels & Demons” and “Da Vinci Code.” I don’t think Dan Brown is an amazing writer, as in “wordsmith.” His ability to put words on a page is nothing out of the ordinary. But the stories he concocted made them spectacular novels.

  23. Colin Smith on August 7, 2011 at 12:45 AM

    “A good story well told.” That really does sum up what we’re trying to do. Sounds simple, like “love God, and love your neighbor as yourself.” It does seem that the hardest things in life can be summed up in the simplest of phrases. Thankfully the love of writing (and the love of God) compels me to persevere. Thanks for the reminder, Rachelle. 🙂

  24. joan Cimyotte on August 7, 2011 at 12:44 AM

    It is freaky that the blog today talks about screenplays. Even though I’m working to get my novel to an agent, I’ve had this play in my head ready to burst forth. Today I decided to start writing it. I appreciate this post.

    • Giora on August 7, 2011 at 9:58 AM

      Joane, your oil piantings of the Rockies and Denver are amazing.

      • joan Cimyotte on August 7, 2011 at 12:07 PM

        Thank you. I’m a painter that likes to write. Kind of a double whammy of difficult choices. :^)

        • Giora on August 7, 2011 at 2:23 PM

          The good news is that you can paint the cover of your book.

  25. Marty on August 7, 2011 at 12:42 AM

    Story is why I write, I THOUGHT for ten years about my screenplay before I set it down on paper. It turned out AMAZING. I have been working on my novel for the last 12 years and it is going to be GREAT!

    10 years? 12 years?

    Damn – it is SURE LUCKY that I have a day job. 😛