Literature / Story

"Story is about principles, not rules. A rule says, 'You must do it this way.' A principle says, 'This works... and has through all remembered time.' The difference is crucial. Your work needn't be modeled after the well-made play; rather, it must be well-made within the principles that shape our art. Anxious, inexperienced writers obey rules. Rebellious, unschooled writers break rules. Artists master the form."
Opening Lines

Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting is a 1999 book by Robert McKee about the elements at work in stories. Primarily concerned with film and television (McKee was a story analyst for United Artists and NBC back in the 80's), the text claims to be applicable to all storytelling mediums, such as stage plays and novels.

Story borrows heavily from older texts, most specifically Aristotle's Poetics; McKee not only notes this, but often suggests the older work is essential if a true understanding of narrative techniques is desired. Many of the tropes found on This Very Wiki are detailed at great length; notable emphasis is placed on Act Structure note , Genre Conventions, Conflict, and the relationship between Character and Plot.

The book is itself an adaptation of McKee's STORY seminar, a (sometimes) two-day event where he educates, curses at, illuminates, and brings to tears many of the aspiring screenwriters in attendance.

Passages from McKee's book are quoted and a reenactment of the seminar is presented in the Charlie Kaufman-penned Adaptation.. McKee himself served as a consultant on the film.

Rather than defining story structure through rigid paradigms or formulas, Story has a very flexible framework with plenty of deep philosophy into what goes behind storytelling.

Creative Limitations

To limit the limitless possibilities of a story, you first need creative limitations to act as guard rails so you don't fall off the road to your best possible story. They are made up of...

  • Placement on the Story Structure Spectrum: Is the story archetypal/realistic, minimalist, absurdist, or a combination?
  • Setting: Where does the story take place? When does it take place? For how long? What's the inherent level of conflict?
  • Genre: What is the focus of the story? What is the medium and the limits of that medium? Is there a combination of genres?
  • Characters: What are my characters like on the surface? What will they do under pressure to get what they want?
  • Value Charge: The lifeblood of a story, as changes in values (life to death or death to life, hope to despair, love to hate, etc.) create the very substances from which we shape pleasurable or painful experiences. What is at stake in my story? How can I express what is at stake in my story? How can I fairly show all sides of the value?

Building Blocks

From your creative limitations and your story value, you can begin organizing events into size and length to express the controlling idea, which is the idea that will be tested by showing events that bring that value into the positive or negative with building actions. These actions are organized like so...

  • Beat: A moment of action/reaction.
  • Scene: A series of building beats climaxing in a scene turning point. The ideal is to have every scene end in a turning point. Otherwise, scenes without turning points were surely there for an Infodump.
  • Sequence: A series of building scenes ending in a sequence climax, which has greater impact than a normal scene.
  • Act: A series of building sequences ending in an act climax, which has a far greater impact than a sequence climax.
  • Story: A series of building acts ending in a story climax, expressing the story value.

The Classic Story Design

A pattern emerges when you look at how value charges change within stories, resulting in the following five parts...

  • The Inciting Incident: The protagonist's life is more or less in balance until something happens to throw a value charge in his/her life out of balance, either in the positive or the negative. This first turning point sends the character on a quest to obtain an object of desire to restore the balance of life. They may have a conscious desire, or they might also have a contradictory unconscious desire.
  • Progressive Complications: There, the character will take a small, conservative step based on their experience of life, only to find that it won't work. Taking a risk, they take a larger action. It may work for the time being and bring the value back to the positive, but that brings about repercussions and new situations that force the character to take larger and larger actions.
  • Crisis: Once the character has exhausted all of his/her options, they're left with one final method to achieve their object of desire to restore the balance of life. This action takes the character into the climax. A crisis can be placed anywhere in the story. When placed within the climax, one final action solves the story. When placed before the climax, it fills the final Act or final Sequence with climatic action. When placed at the very beginning, you get an entire story of relentless pursuit of the object of desire, typical of action films.
  • Climax: The most meaningful event of the story, expressing the Controlling Value with one final action. The climax can result in an Idealistic Ending, ending on the positive and celebrating the good in life. The climax can result in an Pessimistic Ending, ending on the negative and reminding us of the horrors and perils of life. The climax can also end on two opposite charges, creative an Ironic Ending, which can be mostly good or mostly bad.
  • Resolution: The after-effects of the story, which can be used to clear up any remaining loose ends.

The rest of the book goes into detail behind the designing philosophies of each of these parts, how to use them, how to avoid pitfalls and other problems, and more.

This book provides examples of:

  • An Aesop: The Controlling Idea is the story's main lesson, illustrated through how the different scenes play it straight, why it doesn't, why both sides are wrong, and who exactly is worse than all of the sides combined.
  • invoked Anvilicious: Discussed and advised against...
    The writer, for example, may decide that war is the scourge of humanity, and pacifism is the cure. In his zeal to convince us all his good people are very, very good people, and all his bad people are very, very bad people. All the dialogue is "on the nose" laments about the futility and insanity of war, heartfelt declarations that the cause of war is "establishment." From outline to first draft, he fills the screen with stomach-turning images, making certain that each and every scene says loud and clear: "War is a scourge, but it can be cured by pacifism... war is a scourge cured by pacifism... War is a scourge cured by pacifism..." until you want to pick up a gun.
  • Beyond the Impossible: Advised against to keep the consistency of the setting unless the point of the work is to break the setting convention or story conventions.
  • invoked Big-Lipped Alligator Moment: Acceptable under Antiplot to comment on the absurdity of life or in Comedy if the rest of the story is held together by structure. See Rule of Funny.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Defined as an Ironic Ending, where two value charges (thematic statements) end on opposite charges; one being positive and one being negative, but not entirely cancelling eachother out.
  • invoked Bizarro Movie: Acceptable under Antiplot structure if the point of the work is to say that life does not make sense.
  • Captain Obvious: Any form of "on the nose" writing (writing subtext onto the text itself or pointing out the obvious) is strongly advised against.
  • Centipede's Dilemma: Discussed in the epilogue about how writers who understand the principals of story should not worry about how they write, but continue doing what they've been doing with greater skill and insight.
  • Cliché: The result of a writer's lack of research, calling upon how similar events happened in other stories.
  • The Climax: According to Story, this is where the Controlling Idea is most expressed.
  • Deadpan Snarker: McKee, both in the book and in real life, though he admonishes the use of snark in screenplay description, citing that snark does not make up for a good story.
  • Downer Ending: Defined as a Pessimistic Ending, where the story's main value charge (thematic statement) ends in the negative.
  • Ensemble Cast: Multiple main characters (aka Multiprotagonists) are acceptable in Multiplot stories (stories composed entirely of subplots) or as a Plural Protagonist striving for the same goal in an Archeplot.
  • Flat Character: Encouraged for bit parts and one-off characters. Endowing one-off characters with too many traits makes audiences wonder what happened to that character.
  • Flat "What.": When discussion The Terminator, McKee mentions the Stable Time Loop regarding Reese and John Connor, and ends the paragraph with only the phrase, "What?"
  • Hidden Depths: Referred to as Deep Character vs. Characterization.
  • Long List: From this example regarding using colorful and direct language:
    A typical line of nondescription: "He starts to move slowly across the room." How does somebody "start" across a room on film? The character either crosses or takes a step and stops. And "move slowly"? "Slowly" is an adverb; "move" a vague, bland verb. Instead, name the action: "He pads across the room." "He (ambles, strolls, moseys, saunters, drags himself, staggers, waltzes, glides, lumbers, tiptoes, creeps, slouches, shuffles, waffles, minces, trudges, teeters, lurches, gropes, hobbles) across the room."
  • Narrator: Despite what Charlie Kaufman said in Adaptation., narration is fine if it adds to or countpoints what is happening on-screen. Otherwise, narrating what is obviously happening adds nothing.
  • No Antagonist: Perfectly acceptable: conflict may come from within (internal conflict) or from a source other than people such as nature or societal laws (external conflict).
  • One of Us: Robert McKee knows about TV Tropes and says it should be used mainly to avoid cliches.
  • invoked One-Scene Wonder: Discussed. It is difficult to have an interesting character only show up one and then disappear, or else we'll be on the lookout for that character for the rest of the story.
  • Plot Hole: In the event of a Plot Hole, your options are to create a new scene, skim past it if it's completely unnoticeable and forgettable, or just outright admit it is a plot hole.
  • Random Events Plot: Acceptable under the Antiplot structure.
  • Rule of Funny: Although McKee says that both drama and comedy share the same structure, you may halt the narrative drive of a comedy just for jokes.
    How little story can be told and how much pure comedy can be worked into a film? Watch the Marx Brothers. A sharp story, complete with Inciting Incident, first, second, and third act climaxes, always holds a Marx Brother's film together... for a total screentime of about ten minutes. The other eighty minutes are surrendered to the dizzying genius of Marx Brothers shtick.
  • Static Character: Acceptable as the main character if they have deeper traits than they initially seem to have.
  • Strictly Formula: The introduction while some terrible films follow Hollywood formulas perfectly, great films have broken many so-called "rules" to great success.
    "All notions of paradigms and foolproof story models for commercial success are nonsense. Despite trends, remakes, and sequels, when we survey the totality of Hollywood film, we will find an astounding array of story designs, but no prototype. [...] No one needs yet another recipe book on how to reheat Hollywood's leftovers. We need a rediscovery of the underlying tenets of our art, the guiding principles that liberate talent."
  • Stylistic Suck: The synopses for the "personal story" and "guaranteed commercial success" bad scripts, along with many of the bad story examples throughout the book.
  • Subtext: The basic building block of all dialogue. At one point, McKee compares two love scenes: a candlelit dinner of two lovers declaring their love for eachother, and a scene where two characters change a tire on the car with all of the dialogue about fixing the tire on a car. The former scene actually imply its opposite: this couple is going too far to declare their love for eachother, and chances are, they're about to break up. In the latter, the actors get to portray the subtle nuances of two characters falling in love, and as an audience, we understand what's really going on.
  • invoked Values Resonance: Encouraged. A properly-told story can transcend cultural or chronological boundaries.