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The Structure of Story

Based on Robert McKee's 'Story, Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting'.

Scott Stockwell

on 15 December 2014

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Transcript of The Structure of Story

Image by Tom Mooring
The Structure of Story
This presentation is based on 'Story, Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting' by Robert McKee and looks at the key ingredients of story, how they're combined along with worked examples and some writing tips.
To tell a story is to promise you'll reward your audience's concentration with surprise followed by the pleasure of discovering life's pains and joys at levels and in directions they'd never imagined.
Acts are the largest grouping within your story, generally three or upwards, each peaks with a major change in 'value' (more on that later) for your central character. In the final act, this change is irreversible which makes your story.
These are collections of scenes, each has a 'turning point' that changes the 'value' for your central character in a moderate way. If you're skimming through a Blu-Ray or DVD, these are your 'chapters'.
Scenes area collection of 'beats' -- interactions between the characters, the world they inhabit and the objects within it. Each scene will have a minor change in the 'value' for your central character.
Every interaction each character has alone, with other characters, with organisations (family, school, work...), with society (the legal system, police forces, politics...) or with the environment is a 'beat'. Beats build to form scenes where the 'value' for a character changes. If there's no change in 'value' within a beat you probably don't need it in your story.
Here's the helicopter view of your story
Controlling Idea
The vital components of every story
Definition & Purpose
What would happen if..?
The premise sets up the purpose for your story, it's the core question that triggered your need to write the story.
Are the universal qualities of human experience which shift from positive to negative, negative to positive, from one moment to the next. Your story is the change in these values through scenes, sequences, and acts until the final climax when the value for your central character changes irreversibly.
Story Arch
What would happen if a shark attacked a holiday resort? (Jaws)
What would it be like to live within a computer program? (The Matrix)
What do toys get up to when we're not looking? (Toy Story)
This is the primary reason that the value has changed for your central character.
You should be able to express the core meaning of your story in one sentence made from the core value in your story and what causes it to change.
Tips and Examples
Ask yourself "As a result of the climactic action, what - or + value is brought into your central character's world?" - and
"What cause, force or means does that?"
e.g. Perseverance
triumphs over the powerful animal world
in 'Jaws'.
The human spirit's freedom
prevails over controlling technology
in 'The Matrix'.
Vital ingredients:
your protagonist and their world
Their world
Your protagonist is your central character--or characters.
If you have plural protagonists they:
i) share the same desire, and
ii) in their struggle for that desire, benefit and suffer equally (Thelma and Louise, The Lord of the Rings).
If you have multi-protagonists they have differing desires and benefit and suffer independently (Now You See It, Oceans 11).
Your protagonist will need sufficient quality or quantity of will to sustain their desire through conflicts, taking meaningful actions that create irreversible change by the end of your story.
If not, you'll lose your audience.
Your protagonists has an object of desire that compels them through your story, if you took them aside and asked "What do you want?" they'd know straight away. Kill the shark (Jaws), Liberate Mankind (The Matrix).
Some of the best characters have unconscious desires that conflict with their conscious desire. The audience can see it, but the protagonist doesn't until the story climax.
Capacity to
Your protagonist needs a believable combination of qualities and drive to be able to obtain his object of desire -- he may not, but your audience needs to feel that he could.
Chance to
Without a glimmer of hope, there's no point continuing on, your protagonist must have some chance to obtain their object of desire,
no matter how slim, to keep your audience engaged.
To the End
of the Line
Your audience will draw a boundary around your characters and expect you to take them to their limits and beyond, either inwardly in self-discovery, or externally in their worlds -- to their limits. Middle ground is safe and dull!
No other
Your story needs to take the audience to a full conclusion, you can't leave them thinking "He should have done X" or "Why didn't he Y?" You can have an open ending to allow for a sequel, but each 'episode' should be conclusive.
Empathy for
Your story will fail if your audience doesn't 'root' in some way to your central character. They don't necessarily need to be likable but the audience must see something in their quest they'd want to achieve for themselves to stay engaged.
Time based -- when your story is set: historic, contemporary, possible future, or does time have no meaning in your story?
Time based -- this is how long your story lasts within the lives of your characters:
A day (Groundhog Day), a lifetime (Benjamin Button) or some other period.
Physically based -- this is the material setting for your story, the geography, town, street, building, room where your characters live.
Human based -- this is the political, economic, ideological, biological and psychological forces of society that impact on your characters and the degrees of conflict within themselves (internal conflict), immediate friends and family (personal conflict), groups of people (social conflicts such as organisations, companies, schools), or environmental conflicts (justice, health service...)
Inner Conflicts
When a character battles with themselves
Personal Conflicts
Degrees of Conflict
When a character battles with others
Extra-Personal Conflicts
When a character battles socially
people in society (customer/waiter, doctor/patient)
institutions (government/citizen, corporation/client)
physical environments (time, space and every object within it).
Inciting Incident
The 5 parts of story design
Inner conflict
Personal conflict
Societal conflict
Object of
ups and downs
The Quest
Your character
is experiencing
life's ups & downs...
when an inciting
incident upsets the
balance of forces...
which your character wants to re-balance...
sending them on a quest for their object of desire.
Forces of
This is the essence of all stories.
ups and downs
The Quest
Forces of
Writing tips
Your protagonist needs to respond decisively to the inciting incident which...
Happens directly to your protagonist or is caused by your protagonist.
Sometimes there's a setup and a payoff (Jaws: shark eats swimmer, sheriff then discovers a body)
If you have a setup -- follow it swiftly with the payoff
Your protagonist should respond appropriately to their character and their world
Your central character needs to conceive the 'object of desire' that will bring their world back to 'normal'
The best characters have an unconscious desire too, usually opposite to their conscious object of desire
Your protagonist's desire, and effort to achieve it form the 'spine' of your story
If you have an unconscious desire, this will be the spine as it is more powerful than a conscious desire.
The inciting incident usually happens within the first 25% of your story.
If you ask your protagonist "What do you want?",
their answer is the spine of your story.
Your inciting incident gets your audience pondering the 'Major Dramatic Question':
"How will this turn out?"
The major
dramatic question
From the inciting incident when the audience asks "How will this turn out?", they know that they must see this scene where the protagonist battles the greatest forms of antagonism in the quest for his object of desire at the crisis of your story...
This is the essence of story
The obligatory
...which will also get them pondering 'the obligatory scene' where they'll find out the answer
to the question.
Progressive Complications
Once your protagonist sets off, nothing moves forward in your story without conflict
The conflict should continually build -- go backwards and you're likely to bore your audience
Conflict operates within a number of levels...
Inner Conflicts
Personal Conflicts
Extra-Personal Conflicts
Physical Environment
Individuals in society
Social Institutions
Your protagonist sets off on their quest, taking actions to restore balance and achieve their object of desire
Your character takes an action towards their object of desire
But things don't go as expected!
How your protagonist responds reveals their true character.
Write for the gaps, this is where the essence of story lies.
Actions here change the 'value' for the character and make each scene
Turning points are where the 'value' for your character changes in some way:
A minor way in scenes
A moderate way in sequences
A major way in acts
Irreversibly at the climax of your story.
Turning points get the audience asking "Why?",
and "What will happen next?", they drive the energy of the story towards the 'obligatory' scene
-- where they know they'll find the answers, and keeping them wondering what that answer is, keeps them 'hooked'.
Emotion is the engine that drives the changes in values
For emotion you need your audience to do three things:
1. empathise with
your protagonist
2. know what your
character wants --
and want them to
have it
3. to understand the
values at stake
Values are the soul of story telling
They are the qualities of the human experience that swing from positive to negative
Value changes happen within characters which create 'story events', no character = a non-event
Let's take a quick look at 'story events'
'Story Events' are the scenes within your story
Rain = event
Drenched character
= story event
If there are no characters involved you have a 'non-event' as far as the story is concerned.
Story events happen to characters, they get your audience wondering "why?" and "what will they do next?"
You protagonist comes up against the most powerful forces of antagonism, he can do no more and has to decide between the lesser of two evils or irreconcilable goods -- or between the two.
This is the 'obligatory scene' that your audience is eagerly anticipating.
A swing in the values of your story that's absolute and irreversible and moves the heart of your audience.
It illustrates your 'controlling idea' and is what gets your audience talking about.
There are three purposes to the resolution:
wrap up any sub-plots
show how the crisis for your main character affects your other characters
give your audience a moments pause before they leave - a 'slow curtain'
Based on the superb Robert McKee's
'Story Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting' http://mckeestory.com
What would happen if..?
What value has changed?
What caused it to change?
The inciting incident usually has your audience asking themselves the 'major dramatic question'.
Full transcript