Adventures in Storytelling: McKee’s STORY {Part One}

Robert McKee

“Stories give meaning to life and help the reader to make sense out of life.”

“Story is a metaphor for life.”

If story is a metaphor for life, arguably this metaphor is strengthened by the interactive nature of the narrative of Video Games. Looking at Robert McKee’s STORY (some notes from the book, some from the seminar), we can find some guidance in creating spectacular, immersive and emotive narrative for games.

{This is Part One of a series on Robert McKee’s STORY}

The Story Problem

What is the stuff and substance that stories are made of? NOT words, or language. Anything that you copy will be insincere. If you want to write international work, you must write stories that can cross borders – become loved internationally, around the world and through time. The stories must be culturally specific – even if that culture is invented. Readers want to be like explorers in the jungle, in a world that is real, true and specific. 

Gives readers the anthropological joy of discovering a world, and the human joy of living in it.  Arguably the first story ever written was The Epic of Gilgamesh – written 4000 years ago. Writing is art, and there is no formula for art (music/painting/story). However, there is form. 

“A Good Story, Well Told.”

When you look at the world, you must have insight, inspiration, that no-one has had before. Find a hidden truth. Surround this insight with ‘AUTHOR’S KNOWLEDGE’. You should be able to instantly answer any question about your characters, your world and it’s history. You must write with passion for perfection.

Talent is discovering a hidden connection between things that already exist in your head – a connection that no-one else has ever seen.

Bad scripts are created by copying ‘Commercial Success Bad Scripts’, which are too complex and assault the senses with special effects, car chases, explosions etc.

“Write the Truth

Fact and truth are two different things. Truth is the “How and Why” of the facts. Truth is an interpretation of the facts, i.e. Homelessness is a fact, there is a Left Wing and Right Wing truth as to how and why this is a fact. To a writer, form and content are different things, but to readers they are the same. Even biography or documentary are fiction – because you are interpreting the fact to fit your truth i.e. fitting 100,000 hours of someone’s life into 2 hours.

The difference brilliant writing makes is:

“trivial material told brilliantly, versus profound experiences reduced to banality”

But how does the “Good Story, Well Told” rule of form apply to more interactive forms of narrative? We can attempt to keep a strong structure to the narrative by creating branching stories – but with one main ‘spine’ narrative. Branches of narrative can deviate from the spine, but will always return for crucial points. This can be made easier by classifying characters by function. Using The Walking Dead as an example, there could be an instance where the player is given the choice between 2 characters – which should they save? Further in the story both of these characters may have the same function (i.e. provide the protagonist with an item, or guide them somewhere), so the narrative can progress as the writer intended.  Using these methods, it could be possible to give the ILLUSION of decisions with great impact – without sacrificing gameplay.

Story represents the life story of a character. Characters, within their life story, will have hundreds of thousands of living hours. They will encounter many problems and conflicts throughout their life story:

  • Inner Conflicts
  • Personal Conflicts (e.g. Relationships)
  • Social Conflict
  • Physical Conflict (e.g. Mother Nature, weather etc)

To create good stories we must build a vision of everything in that character’s life story (from birth to death), including what was left out. In a game or film we may only focus on  1 year of the protagonist’s life, but using storywriting techniques we can picture that character’s past – at the end we have a clear picture of the future. Stories will often follow EVENTS in the protagonist’s life story – events that happen through conflict and action. This conflict or action can be both physical and verbal. Verbal will most often present itself in the story as dialogue – dialogue is, however, still an action. Language is the way in which that action is carried out.

Another definition of story can be outlined as:

“A series of events from a life story, put in strategic sequence to evoke particular specific emotion and impart meaning.”

In order to create great conflict and action in a story, change must occur for a character in that narrative. It cannot however be ‘just change’ – it must be a meaningful change. To give a change meaning, it must happen to someone. Events can change the binary of a story – for example from Love to Hate (breaking up of a relationship). There will usually be 40-60 scenes in an average 2 hour Hollywood film – and every scene should be an ‘event’. Every scene should have a Turning Point, or a moment of change. If there is no change, nothing happens – and if that is the case, why does it belong in the script?

“If there is no action, it is exposition.”

However this is an ideal that is hard to achieve. Examples of screenwriting where there are events in every scene include TV Show ‘Breaking Bad‘ and the film ‘The Fugitive‘. Using exposition in scenes is useful sometimes to add detail – for example when moving between time and places. BUT the event (i.e. the breakup of a relationship) could happen in ONE continuous time and place.

The Structure Spectrum

If a scene is an event with a turning point, a Beat  is a specific change in a character’s behavior. Beats build scenes, and scenes build a sequence (scenes in a series). A scene will create minor (although significant) change, whereas a sequence will bring moderate change. Sequences in turn build Acts – Act climaxes bring major and powerful change to a story. A series of acts will come together to form the story, and the climax of this story should bring absolute and irreversible change – hence why we must identify what that core irreversible value is.

Types of Plot

plot design diagram

Classical design is much more popular as it mirrors the human mind. Minimalism and anti-structure have a small but loyal audience. If you master the classical, you can approach the minimalist or anti-structured approach to design. Another common type of plot is the education plot – in which the arc takes place in the mind of the protagonist and the change is in their attitude to life – i.e. Up In The Air, Lost in Translation.

Setting

Setting is the Time, the Location and Level of Conflict in a story. It is also the creative straitjacket that defines and limits what is possible in the story. All stories are told in a small world – if it takes place in a large world, it is impossible to have “Godlike Knowledge”. When writers do not have godlike knowledge of their world, they recycle old known material, and this results in clichés.

“If you write beautifully, your particular will become universal”

When writing a scene, never take your first idea. Think – “how else could this be done?” It is necessary to avoid clichés. You will need to know a subject better than any writer before you – if you are not an authority on the subject, don’t write it. This will help to make your writing authentic and powerful.

Genre

Genre can come in two forms – Primary genre and Presentational genre. Genre will limit you because it has conventions, settings, characters, events values. A convention is different from a cliché – i.e. in a cop show where the partner or family member is killed the “Now It’s Personal” trope is introduced. This is a convention rather than a cliché as it is indicative of the genre. In a comedy, no-one really gets hurt – violence is usually comedic and slapstick as a convention to the comedy genre.

The audience will know the genre better than anyone. They will go to see a film (buy a book, play a game etc) because

they know that they love that genre. Arguably action is the toughest genre to get right because it has been done so many times. The “Hero at The Mercy of The Villain” convention shows the power of the protagonist – but how can we reverse this during a scene? One example from Die Hard is Bruce Willis’ character (the protagonist) making Alan Rickman’s character (the villain) laugh. Genre and conventions have to be contemporary and make sense in today’s world. They should reflect the way that people live now and how their attitudes are changing.

Character

Story versus Character is one of the great debates in story writing – which is more important? Aristotle argued that is was Story. In modern film and stories in general, it is also Story versus Character versus Spectacle. In Hollywood we can classify Spectacle as special effects, explosions, gun fights and car chases etc. Spectacle was classically the least important, but currently it could be argued that it is prioritized in modern film.

Overall, in the debate of Story Driven content and Character Driven content – both are important. 

Characterisation

Characterisation is used to identify all observable traits of a character. All humans are unique and credible and this intrigues the audience. Creating characters with mystery and intrigue helps to create an air of “Nothing is as it seems”. How the character acts under pressure shows their inner personality. Two people who are seemingly very different could turn out to react exactly the same under pressure. In many stories the “Mask of Characterisation” is stripped away to see the true character. Often this will reveal a contradiction between the characterisation and true character. The vast majority of stories do not change characters at all – they reveal the true character in contrast to their characterisation. However in some stories changes do occur – for example in the education plot, the dissolution plot, the redemption plot, the degeneration plot and the maturation plot (i.e. The Silver Linings Playbook). However, in most cases for a character to become a better person it is easier if it is instead a ‘return to their better self’. 

The choice and action of characters are the events of a story – this makes character actions ‘human’. Is the majority of the event in the character’s control? If the answer is yes, then we can potentially call the story ‘Character Driven’.

Meaning

When you are writing a story, it helps to write one sentence to describe the ‘controlling idea’ of the story – this will help you to understand what we should keep in the story and what to discard. The audience will search for meaning in every scene – even if there is none – so make sure that nothing is irrelevant. Story is an emotional experience, not an intellectual one. You want the audience to believe in the truth that you have expressed in your story. The story is the demonstration of an idea in action, without explanation.

The controlling idea is how and why things change, but specific to character and plot.

For example, the contrast between two detective/crime fighting stories:

Dirty Harry – Dirty Harry wins by being more violent than the criminals.

Columbo – Columbo wins by being smarter.

Another way to create meaning is through the use of Irony. As a writer you can use Idealism, Pessimism or a combination of both to create irony. For example:

Idealistic – Love is Sacrifice, Anonymously

Pessimistic – Love is Selfish and People Are Incapable of True Love

The irony in this could be that it is both? Stories which end in irony are usually our favourites. This is because we usually tend to think:

“Life is just like that – positive and negative.”

Adventures in Storytelling: McKee’s STORY is part of  a series based on McKee’s STORY Seminars. Notes based on the seminar from London, 2013. 

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