The Story FormulaI've been reading Robert McKee's book on 'Story', where he outlines what he perceives to be ideal story structure - not just for movies but for novels and short stories too. He's based his theories on a lifetime of examining story form and structure - and from being employed to read story proposals for Hollywood studios.
His conclusions are interesting and educational - not least because they're so specific!
McKee is able to identify stories that work and why - but also how to structure them for maximum effect. Below I've tried to summarize his theories.
Defining Story Terms
First we need to understand the terms of reference Robert McKee uses, in order to fully grasp what he's saying.
An Emotional Exchange is the smallest fragment of drama within a story. It is a point at which a character openly deals with either his external world or his internal demons. It is commonly called a Beat.
Ideally, a Beat in a story should be non-coincidental, which means it arises as a result of the protagonist's actions or world view, or agenda, and that puts him in conflict with his surroundings (usually other characters).
A Life Value is a state of being that a character must represent or express in order to be interesting to a reader or viewer. It is changes in Life Values that the storyteller should be primarily concerned with.
For the purposes of Story, the writer needs to think in terms of Life Value Opposites - as in life or death, good or evil, happy or sad, bored or elated. A journey from one Life Value to its opposite is what constitutes a good Scene.
A Scene is made up of 4 or 5 Beats that take the character from one emotional state to another.
In order for a character to grow and change, the reader needs to show a series of 2 to 5 Scenes that become a Sequence.
A Sequence is a dramatic demonstration of the character's emotional path through the story. A Sequence should end with a Scene of more intensity and/or impact that any of the preceding.
A series of 2 to 12 Sequences then constitutes an Act.
Phew! With me so far?
To McKee, who has studied stories back as far as 3000BC, all stories are constructed around 2 to 4 Acts that take the reader, listener or viewer, on a logical - usually linear - journey from one emotional state to another that, throughout the story, is becoming consistently more intense.
He says the purpose of a story is to show that a believable main character can move from one point in his life to a time of absolute and irreversible change. Without this element, argues McKee, there is no story.
It is up to the writer to use the above story elements - beats, scenes, sequences and acts - to prove his theme: that there is a logical pattern and sense to life and that we, the reader, can learn through fiction.
In other words, writers teach us valuable lessons about life through story.
What About Plot?
You'll notice that in none of the above is there any mention of plot, indeed only a little reference to character. There's a reason for this.
Robert McKee believes that the story structure he presents is innate - it exists whether the writer wants to believe it -and even when he rejects it - which he says is acceptable, if not to be encouraged sometimes.
McKee believes that plot is simply the unique and personal way that the writer might choose to show the elements of Story.
I guess he's also saying that the writer can do what he likes but if the 'elements' aren't there, he's failed to create a convincing story - which is open to debate.
I suppose it depends on what the story is for.
Is it primarily to teach or entertain? Is it to show that life can be better? Or is it to show that life not only stays static but that change is not necessarily a good thing?
These are all personal issues that the writer must confront at some point in his story construction - and decide for himself.
So There You Have It
If you ever wanted a story template to hang an idea upon I think it's probably above. I'm sure McKee would argue that it's not so much a formula as a timeless universal structure that is somehow part of our DNA.
I think there's a reason why humans find satisfaction in fiction.
Because people need a sense of purpose in their lives. We all want to believe that ultimately things will make sense - that there's meaning to our existence.
Because what's the alternative?
Futile, infinite, godless chaos?
I think we, as writers, know better than that.
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