Story by Robert McKee
A Good Story, Well-Told
There is one fundamental test of a good story; after it is over, one finds him or herself saying, “That was a great story.” There are two things every great story does. First it transports us to a world—a time or place, we are unfamiliar with, and second, once transported, we find ourselves in the story. If it is true, that every great story accomplishes these two things, this mean that we can listen to and look at the stories Jesus told and find ourselves transported to a setting we know nothing about, say traveling on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, and secondly find ourselves somewhere in the story—the wayfaring victim, the Pharisee, the Levite, the Samaritan, the innkeeper or even the donkey. A story, well-told, gives the audience what they want but not necessarily what they expect. Who would have thought that a despised Samaritan would be the hero of the story? It’s not what the audience expected. But it most certainly gave them what they wanted in answer to the universal question, “Just who is my neighbor?”
In every good story, we find ourselves asking, “Then what happened?” or “What happens next?” Events unfold that beg for solutions or resolution or irony, where life lessons can be learned or readjusted. In a badly written or badly told story we find ourselves asking, "Where is this thing going?"
Our lives are much like stories. At this moment, events are unfolding before your eyes and you find yourself asking, “I wonder what is going to happen next?” As I’m putting these thoughts on paper, my family and I are in a “Then what happens” moment. My 24-year old son, serving in the Army National Guard was preparing for his second year-long tour of duty in Iraq six weeks from now. This week he got a call informing him that his National Guard unit was not being called up at this time. He re-enrolled at the University of Colorado where he is trying to finish his senior year. He is due to finish his 6 years of Reserve duty in March so there is a chance his unit will be called up. All of us find ourselves asking, “I wonder what will happen next?”
As I’m writing these thoughts, I am on a UAL 737 flying from Denver to Sacramento. It is the week after lowly Appalachian State knocked off #5 Michigan, at Michigan, in the opening week of the season. It has become the cover story for Sports Illustrated, complete with the headline, “Alltime Upset: Appalachian State stuns No. 5 Michigan. Quoting freshman quarterback, Armanti Edwards on what he was thinking at half-time when Appalachian State was leading 28-17: “We were up 28 points in the first half, in the Big House [Michigan’s home stadium]. I was thinking, How are we going to finish this up?” Armanti found himself in a story…no, better a compelling storyline that begged to be resolved. What happens next? If you must know, Michigan came back to take the lead, 32-31 with 4:36 to play in the game. “What happened then?” After the kickoff, Armanti Edwards threw an interception, seemingly ending all possibilities of a comeback. “What happened then?” After a missed field goal by Michigan, Appalachian State took over on their own 26 yard line with no timeouts and 1:37 left in the game. Edwards marched the team down to Michigan’s five-yard line with 20 seconds left. “Then what happened?” Kicker Julian Rauch kicked a wobbly field-goal through the uprights to take the lead, 34-32. “Then what happened?” After a decent kick-off return, Michigan’s quarterback threw a 46 yard strike to wide-out receiver, Mario Manningham and with six seconds left on the clock, the field goal kicker took the field. “Then what?” As the ball was snapped, Appalachian State senior, free safety, Corey Lynch, fought his way through the offensive defenders, flung himself into high into the air and into the trajectory of the rising football, blocking the kick. Recovering the ball, without breaking stride, he sprinted towards the end zone. His legs could not hold up. He was exhausted and was tackled short of the goal line but it did not matter. Time had expired and Appalachian State had won, pulling off what is considered one of the greatest upsets in College Football. The ending of the story was not what we expected but it was so satisfying because it gave us what we wanted (unless you are a die-hard Michigan fan). This story fits what screenwriter, Robert McKee, calls “classical design.” Look at his definition: “Classical design means a story built around an active protagonist (in this case the Appalachian State football team) who struggles against primarily external forces of antagonism (University of Michigan football team) to pursue his or her desire, through continuous time, within a consistent and causally connected fictional reality, to a closed ending of absolute, irreversible change.” Wow! Isn’t that the case? In Aristotle’s words, an ending must be both “inevitable and unexpected.” Isn’t this our case here?
Our lives are stories, but here is the difference: We are the protagonists who, wanting to accomplish something or obtain something, make choices that clarify our values and define who we are. We have the opportunity to serve as our own screenwriters. For a large part of our story, we get to write the last chapter with a satisfying ending.
The story of our lives, to be stories worth telling, must have certain elements and it is my belief that we can bring these elements into our lives or avoid these elements.
Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee, Reganbooks (1997).
Sometimes I'm asked what the best books I've read recently. Now that's an interesting question. Currently I"m listening to Ireland by Frank Delaney, and it is an incredibly written historical novel--greatly educational and entertaining. But "best book" has to have a different criteria. The books I find myself talking to others about are A Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell and Story by Robert McKee. These are the best books I have read this year because they have shaped my thinking about communication and the need to invite people into a great story. Below are some excerpts that help define a great story.
The master storytellers give us the double-edged encounter we crave. First, the discovery of a world we do not know….Second, once inside this alien world, we find ourselves.
But story is not life in actuality. Mere occurrence brings us nowhere near the truth. What happens is fact, not truth. Truth is what we think about what happens.
Structure is a selection of events from the characters life stories that is composed into a strategic sequence to arouse specific emotions and to express a specific view of life.
A story event creates meaning change in the life situation of a character that is expressed and experienced in terms of a value.
Story values are the universal qualities of human experience that may shift from positive to negative, or negative to positive from one moment to the next.
A story event creates meaningful change in the life situation of a character that is expressed and experience in terms of a value and achieved through conflict.
A scene is an action through conflict in more or less continuous time and space that turns the value-charged condition of a character’s life on at least one value with a degree of perceptible significance. Ideally, every scene is a story event.
A beat is an exchange of behavior in action / reaction. Beat by beat these changing behaviors shape the turning of a scene.
A sequence is a series of scenes—generally two to five—that culminates with greater impact than any previous scene.
An act is a series of sequences that peaks in a climactic scene which causes a major reversal of values, more powerful in its impact than any previous sequence or scene,
A story climax: A story is a series of acts that build to a last act climax or story climax which brings about absolute and irreversible change.
To plot means to navigate through the dangerous terrain of story ad when confronted by a dozen branching possibilities to choose the correct path. Plot is the writer’s choice of events and their design in time.
Classical design means a story built around an active protagonist who struggles against primarily external forces of antagonism to pursue his or her desire, through continuous time, within a consistent and causally connected fictional reality, to a closed ending of absolute, irreversible change.
A story climax of absolute, irreversible change that answers all questions raised by the telling and satisfies all audience emotion is a closed ending.
A story climax that leaves a question or two unanswered and some emotion unfulfilled is an open ending.
An active protagonist, in the pursuit of desire takes action in direct conflict with the people and the world around him.
A passive protagonist is outwardly inactive while pursuing desire inwardly; in conflict with aspects of his or her own nature.
Setting: A story’s setting is four dimensional:
Period is a story’s place in time
Duration is a story’s length through time
Location is a story’s place in space
Level of conflict is the story’s position on the hierarchy of human struggles
Creativity means creative choices of inclusion and exclusion.
True character is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure—the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature…. As he chooses, he is.
Two ideas bracket the creative process: Premise, the idea that inspires the writer’s desire to create a story, and the Controlling Idea, the story’s ultimate meaning expressed through the action and aesthetic emotion of the last act’s climax. A premise, however, unlike a controlling idea, is rarely a closed statement. More likely, it’s an open-ended question: What would happen if…” What would happen if a shark swam into a beach resort and devoured a vacationer? Jaws.
Storytelling is the creative demonstration of truth. A story is the living proof of an idea, the conversion of idea to action. A story’s event structure is the means by which you first express, then prove your idea…without explanation.
A controlling idea may be expressed in a single sentence describing how and why life undergoes change from one condition of existence at the beginning to another at the end.
Progressions build by moving dynamically between the positive and negative charges of the values at stake in the story.
Ironic controlling ideas—The compulsive pursuit of contemporary values—success, fortune, fame, sex, power—will destroy you, but if you see this truth in time and throw away your obsession, you can redeem yourself. Second, the negative irony: If you cling to your obsession, your ruthless pursuit will achieve your desire, then destroy you.
The protagonist has a conscious desire. The protagonist may also have a self-contradictory unconscious desire. The protagonist has the capacities to pursue the Object of Desire convincingly. The protagonist must have at least a chance to attain his desire.
The protagonist has the will and capacity to pursue the object of his conscious and / or unconscious desire to the end of the line, to the human limit established by setting and genre.
The protagonist must be empathetic; he may or may not be sympathetic.
In story, we concentrate on that moment, and only that moment, in which a character takes an action expecting a useful reaction from his world, but instead the effect of his action is to provoke forces of antagonism. The world of the character reacts differently than expected, more powerfully than expected, or both.
Life teaches that the measure of the value of any human desire is in direct proportion to the risk involved in its pursuit. The higher the value, the higher the risk. We give the ultimate values to those things that demand the ultimate risks—our freedom, our lives, our souls. This imperative of risk, however, is far more than an aesthetic principle it’s rooted in the deepest source of our art. For we not only create stories as metaphors for life, we create them as metaphors for meaningful life—and to live meaningfully is to be at perpetual risk.
The measure of the value of a character’s desire is in direct proportion to the risk he’s willing to take to achieve it; the greater the value, the greater the risk.
The story is a design in five parts: The inciting Incident, the first major event of the telling, is the primary cause for all that follows, putting into motion the other four elements---Progressive Complications, Crisis, Climax, Resolution. To understand how the Inciting Incident enters into and functions within the work, let’s step back to take a more comprehensive look at setting, the physical and social world in which it occurs.
What are the values in my world? What do my characters believe is worth living for? Foolish to pursue? What would they give their lives for?
The inciting incident radically upsets the balance of forces in the protagonist’s life.
The protagonist must react to the inciting incident…..What does anyone, including our protagonist, want? To restore balance.
For better or worse, an event throws a character’s life out of balance, arousing in him the conscious and / or unconscious desire for that which he feels will restore balance, launching him on a quest for his object of desire against forces of antagonism (inner, personal, extra-personal). He may or may not achieve it. This is story in a nutshell.
What is the best thing that could happen to my protagonist? How could it become the worst possible thing?
Writers at these extremes fail to realize that while the quality of conflict changes as it shifts from level to level, the quantity of conflict in life is constant. Something is always lacking. Like squeezing a balloon, the volume of conflict never changes, it just bulges in another direction. When we remove conflict from one level of life, it amplifies ten times over on another level.
A story must not retreat to actions of lesser quality or magnitude, but move progressively forward to a final action beyond which the audience cannot imagine another.
If the depth and breadth of conflict in the inner life and the greater world do not move you, let this: death. Death is like a freight train in the future, heading toward us, closing the hours, second by second, between now and then. If we’re to live with any sense of satisfaction, we must engage life’s forces of antagonism before the train arrives.
This dilemma confronts the protagonist who, when face-to-face with the most powerful and focused forces of antagonism in his life, must make a decision to take one action or another in a last effort to achieve his object of desire.
Meaning produces emotion. Not money; not sex; not special effects; not movie stars; not lush photography.
Meaning: A revolution in values from positive to negative or negative to positive with or without irony—a value swing at maximum charge that’s absolute and irreversible. The meaning of that change moves the heart of the audience.
William Goldman argues that the key to all story endings is to give the audience what it wants, but not the way it expects.
In Aristotle’s words, an ending must be both “inevitable and unexpected.”
True character can only be expressed through choice in dilemma. How the person chooses to act under pressure is who he is—the greater the pressure, the truer and deeper the choice to character.
An image system is a strategy of motifs, a category of imagery embedded in the film that repeats in sight and sound from beginning to end with persistence and great variation, but with equally great subtlety, as a subliminal communication to increase the depth and complexity of aesthetic emotion.
I read someplace recently that in every story where someone enters a new world the first thing they do is see if they can breathe. Once they discover they can breathe say, "Lets have a look around." They are poised for the adventure.