According to Robert McKee, there are 8 essential stages every story moves through:
Target audience = A meaningful emotional effect
Subject matter = Balance
Inciting Incidence = Imbalance
Object of desire = Need
First action = Tactical choice
Reaction = Violation of expectation
Crisis choice = Insight
Climactic reaction = closure
He lays these 8 stages of story design out clearly in his book Storynomics. Here’s my summary:
Target audience = A meaningful emotional effect
Who is your audience? And how will the story make them feel and think?
Subject matter = Balance
What value is the protagonist’s life anchored in? What time, and in which physical and social world does he live in? While there might be minor ups and downs, overall the value it’s balanced, more or less neutral, it all evens out.
Inciting incident = Imbalance
What unforeseen incident upsets the balance of the core character’s life? It’s a radical change that puts the character under pressure. It can be a turn for the good or bad.
The object of desire = An unfulfilled need
How does the core character want to get his life back in balance? It’s the object of desire that the core character believes will help him accomplish this. The object of desire can be, but doesn’t have to be an actual physical object.
The first action = Tactical choice
What does the core character do to rebalance his life? How does he act in order to get a reaction from his world that will get him (or at least move him closer to) his object of desire?
The first reaction = The violation of expectation
What unforeseen antagonistic forces block the protagonist’s efforts? What’s the gap that cracked open between what he thought would happen and what did happen? How does this reaction move the protagonist farther from his goal?
The crisis choice = Insight
What does the protagonist learn from the first reaction? Now that he’s in even greater jeopardy of losing his object of desire, what second action does he choose? Note that this second action must be more difficult and more risky than the first action, but it’s the action that the protagonist believes gives him the best chances of getting him what he wants.
Climactic reaction = Closure
What climactic reaction happens that grants the protagonist his object of desire? How does it restore the core character’s life to balance, and end the story?
Every story has a core value, according to Robert McKee. With value, we do mean positive character qualities of a person like love, generosity, etc. In the context of storytelling, a core value is about the positive and negative charge of a binary:
truth / lie
love / hate
generosit / selfishness
hard work / laziness
loyalty / betrayal
life / death
courage / cowardice
hope / despair
meaningfulness / meaninglessness
maturity / immaturity
justice / injustice
any quality of human experience that can shift charge dynamically from positive to negative and back again
A telling may incorporate any number, variety, and combination of values, but it anchors its content in one irreplaceable binary—the story’s core value. This value determines a story’s fundamental meaning and emotion.
Suppose a story’s core value is love/hate. How and why a person moves from love to hate or from hate to love gives the events meaning. As the story moves back and forth between negative and positive charges, emotions flow, not only in the characters but in the audience as well. But if a storyteller were to extract love/hate from her characters’ lives and substitute morality/immorality, this switch in core value would evolve her work from a love story to a redemption plot with all-new meanings and all-new emotions.
If a crime story were to shift its core value from justice/injustice to life/death, it would stop being a crime story and pivot to an action tale—once again, new emotions, new meanings.
If a family story were to deemphasize the value of unity/breakup and instead emphasize maturity/immaturity in one of its children, the plot would radically change genre from domestic drama to a coming-of-age story.
Like in many areas of life, in writing and storytelling, you get what you want by sacrificing something you want less. You make hard choices.
Writers hoping for a best seller want their stories to influence the largest number of readers or audience members possible, so they generalize, opting for a one-size-fits-all, rather than one-of-a-kind, world. This unfortunate step actually shrinks, rather than expands, their future audience or readership.
Robert McKee. Storynomics
You choose the one-of-a-kind world when you write. And then you let your readers’ imagination do the generalization.
The mind works best when it moves from the specific to the universal—not the other way around. Consider, for example, the phrase a piece of furniture. As you read it, a vague image blurs your imagination and halts your thoughts because your mind has no inclination to go backward to the particular. But if I say, “A wingback Duchess chair upholstered in blood-red leather,” a clear image glows in your mind. Instinctively, your imagination moves forward from this particular to the general, slotting the chair into the mental category “furniture.” This applies to all aspects of a story’s world, physical and social. Therefore, the principle: The more specific the setting, the more universal the story’s appeal.
Robert McKee. Storynomics
This is a great lesson. Whenever you’re struggling with how to approach writing a certain piece, how to express a certain idea, how to elicit a certain feeling—ask yourself first: What specific situation could trigger this?
If you write on the most general level about it, what you get is dull text-book writing.
And whenever you’re reviewing and editing your own work, ask yourself: Is this general or specific? And how could I move this more to the specific?
Stan Lee shared some advice on writing when he spoke at Google a few years ago:
Read a lot. The more you read, the better.
Write what you yourself would love to read. Especially in television, companies are always looking to write something that would appeal to 13-year-olds, or 20-year-olds, and that’s fine. But what you want to write is something that you yourself would genuinely enjoy reading. If you write something that you yourself enjoy to read, then it’s very likely that there are other people out there who’d enjoy reading it as well—because none of us is really that different from everybody else. Don’t try to write something that other people would want to write. The great writers wrote to please themselves. And that’s why their stuff was good. Be your own best critique.
You can watch the entire session here, but the advice on writing specifically can be found at 26:25.
I’m currently reading Robert McKee’s Storynomics—like most of McKee’s books, he’s dropping storytelling wisdom, but in this case it’s specifically for marketers, and I love how thoroughly he covers the fundamentals.
If you would have asked me for example about the difference between a narrative and a story… I wouldn’t have been able to give you a clear answer.
Here’s how McKee described the difference:
Narratives tend to be flat, bland, repetitive, and boring recitations of events. They slide through the mind like juice through a goose, and as a result, they have little or no influence on customers. Stories, on the other hand, are value-charged and progressive. The mind embraces a well-told story; the imagination is its natural home. Once through our mental door, story fits, sticks, and excites consumer choice. The next time you’re bored to the bone by somebody’s “story,” in all likelihood you’re not being told a story. If you were, you’d be listening and engrossed. Instead the guy is torturing you with a narrative, probably a repetitious recitation of “. . . and then I did this and then I did that and then I did the other thing and then and then and then…”
WHAT STORY IS
What is a story, precisely? The essential core event in all stories ever told in the history of humanity can be expressed in just three words: Conflict changes life. Therefore, the prime definition becomes: a dynamic escalation of conflict-driven events that cause meaningful change in a character’s life.
McKee, Robert. Storynomics: 1 (p. 48). Grand Central Publishing. Kindle Edition.
So the tldr:
a narrative is chaining a bunch of events together through “and then this happened, and then that happened, and then this happened”
a story is a dynamic escalation of conflict-driven events that cause meaningful change in a character’s life
We humans are natural born storytellers. We are addicted to stories. We live, think, and feel in narratives, and stories have had a profound impact on us individually, as well as collectively. Our culture and society is in a large part defined by stories we tell ourselves: stories about our past, stories about our present, stories about our future, stories about others, stories about what could be. It’s been like this since the beginning of civilization.
But nowadays, we don’t sit around the campfire and tell each other stories anymore the way our ancestors did. Now, the stories we tell and consume are mostly movies.
The study of ritual process by the specialist may tend toward dry reading. But we may see it enacted colorfully in a number of contemporary movies. Movies are like ancient folktales and myths. They are stories we tell ourselves about ourselves—about our lives and their meaning. In fact, initiatory process for both men and women is one of the great hidden themes of many of our movies.
A good, explicit example of this can be found in the movie The Emerald Forest. Here, a white boy has been captured and raised by Brazilian Indians. One day, he’s playing in the river with a beautiful girl. The chief has noticed his interest in the girl for some time. This awakening of sexual interest in the boy is a signal to the wise chief. He appears on the riverbank with his wife and some of the tribal elders and surprises Tomme (Tommy) at play with the girl. The chief booms out, “Tomme, your time has come to die!” Everyone seems profoundly shaken. The chief’s wife, playing the part of all women, of all mothers, asks, “Must he die?” The chief threateningly replies, “Yes!” Then, we see a firelit nighttime scene in which Tomme is seemingly tortured by the older men in the tribe; and forced into the forest vines, he is being eaten alive by jungle ants. He writhes in agony, his body mutilated in the jaws of the hungry ants. We fear the worst.
Finally, the sun comes up, though, and Tomme, still breathing, is taken down to the river by the men and bathed, the clinging ants washed from his body. The chief then raises his voice and says, “The boy is dead and the man is born!” And with that, he is given his first spiritual experience, induced by a drug blown through a long pipe into his nose. He hallucinates and in his hallucination discovers his animal soul (an eagle) and soars above the world in new and expanded consciousness, seeing, as if from a God’s-eye view, the totality of his jungle world. Then he is allowed to marry. Tomme is a man. And, as he takes on a man’s responsibilities and identity, he is moved first into the position of a brave in the tribe and then into the position of chief.
Here’s the TLDR of a recent article in The Atlantic:
AI identified six kinds of story archetypes (narrative arcs of popular storylines / mapping the emotional trajectory of a story):
1. Rags to Riches (rise)
2. Riches to Rags (fall)
3. Man in a Hole (fall then rise)
4. Icarus (rise then fall)
5. Cinderella (rise then fall then rise)
6. Oedipus (fall then rise then fall)
How they came up with these categories:
Based on an idea from Kurt Vonnegut. They mapped “the narrative arc of popular storylines along a simple graph. The X-axis represents the chronology of the story, from beginning to end, while the Y-axis represents the experience of the protagonist, on a spectrum of ill fortune to good fortune.”
He’s discussed the idea in this video:
Here’s an example of what the Cinderella story arc looks like when mapped out this way:
Obama said in Charlie Rose interview that one of the biggest mistakes of his first terms was thinking that being president is about getting the policy right. But in reality, it’s also about telling a story to the American people.
The core idea of this podcast: Trump had a very simple story that people could buy into. Hillary did not.
And how you can bring narrative structure back into your world.
Randy Olson, Author and Independent Filmmaker, joins a special Business of Story Podcast to talk about how Trump intuitively utilized a surprisingly simple story template for creating compelling narratives to win the election.
Very simple. Fractal nature. Out of simplicity you can get complexity.
[Probably derived from a great screenwriting instructor in the 1980’s named Frank Daniel. Read more about his work here and here. Problem we always have with first drafts is that the default nature in our brain is the and and and mode. And then this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened. And the challenge is to go back into that first draft and replace the ands with the buts and the therefores. You could create a metric around this: ratio of ands to buts and therefores (or so)]
How did Trump do this?
Narrative intuition. Storysense.
Work with the rules so deeply that it moves to a deeper level of intuition.
Intuitive feel for how story is shaped in a way that pulls people in and holds people’s interest. Trump has great narrative intuition.
Problem solution dynamic.
Wizard of Oz. Problem: stuck in a place where she doesn’t want to be. Solution: how to get back to Kansas.
Trump is a dealmaker? But what IS a dealmaker? He’s focused on problem-solution.
He’s constantly speaking in ABT (AND BUT THEREFORE) form:
We love Mexicans. But we feel there’s too many illegals. Therefore we need to build a wall.
He gets to the therefore very quickly, without much nuance and without going into too much detail. That was Hillary’s downfall, because she is very intellectual and tried to communicate things in all the nuanced levels of detail, which doesn’t work on a campaign. Connect with the masses.
We got a problem with the tax code. Therefore, we’re gonna get the best people to solve it.
Very high narrative content.
Overarching Trump story: MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN.
A: Once upon a time we were a great and mighty nation.
B: But we’ve slipped.
T: Therefore, it’s time to make America great again.
3 fundamental forces in narrative:
Agreement: How we begin a story. Getting everybody on the same page. And, and, and…
Contradiction: But… everytime you hit a point of contradiction, a part in their brain lights up. It stimulates the audience.
Great orators have a very high ratio of buts to ands.
ratio of buts to ands = narrative index
Gettysburg address. 3 paragraphs. and but there structure. → one of the most popular speeches in US history.
Trump also gave people a label and then consistently stuck with it: Crooked Hillary. Little Marco. Lying Ted. Sleepy Eyes Chuck Todd. “Pocahontas” Elizabeth Warren. [Research has shown that the use of noun phrases creates a sense of permanence. It’s the difference between calling someone a chocolate-lover vs. saying someone loves to eat chocolate. The former is a more concrete description. It’s called “essentializing,” which is psychology-speak for coming to see a “trait or quality as an essential and indisputable feature.”]
Hillary was going on and on with facts and information.
Look at MLK I have a dream speech. First paragraph is ABT:
AND: I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.
Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.
BUT: But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land.
THEREFORE: And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.
Give speeches that could have a title to them!
Single narrative. Unified theme. E.g. equality. For Trump it was “Make America great again”.
Sentiment analysis. They throw out all the ands and buts.