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

There are 3 rules that you must follow if you wish to write a bestselling script:

1. Entertain the Audience

2. Make Each Movie as if it’s Your Last

3. Never Compromise Your Integrity

An audience needs ‘Interest Curiosity (“What will happen next?”), Expectation Reversal (learning, new experiences), and a story that feels like life. Life has rhythm that alternates between pleasure, danger, tension, and relaxation.

What is a protagonist? A protagonist doesn’t have to be one character – but quite often is. If it is a group, they will all share the same goal, and will also share successes and failures. The protagonist must have willpower, a conscious desire, and a subconscious desire. They must be able to convincingly pursue this desire (at least have a chance – they don’t have to necessarily get it), and the character must be empathetic. They do not necessarily have to be sympathetic. If a character has empathy, the audience thinks they are “like me” – that they have human qualities. If they have sympathy, the audience thinks they are “like-able”. Having empathy leads the audience to root for them – but really they are rooting for themselves. They want the character to achieve everything that they desire, because they would want that for themselves.

One way to write a protagonist is for them to take “Minimal Conservative Action”. This means that the protagonist will always take minimal conservative – but sufficient – action. “Conservative” is relative to the protagonist’s point of view. For example, “Minimal Conservative Action” for Rambo would be machine gunning a door down in order to enter a house.


Characters will make action in order to bring them closer to the object of desire, based on what they know and expect to happen. Inner, personal, social and physical conflicts hinder the character so they must act again with greater risk. The more valuable the object of desire, the greater the risk. If the character cannot get what they want, life cannot go back to normal. Or, if there is no risk there is no value to the object of desire.

Writing in character creates real emotions and a living experience. “If I were a character in this situation, what would I do?”. This can also apply to games. If the writer creates a feeling for the player that is similar to the feeling he felt while writing, then it will create a more immersive experience for the player.

Inciting Incident – The inciting incident is the first major event of a storyline. It must happen in front of the audience. Subplot can have it’s own inciting incident too, but it can be off screen. The incident will be dynamic, and fully developed event which will radically upset the balance of life.

Research – When doing research for a new script, the writer should ask themselves “What are the economics of this world?”. It is not necessary to show people working as expectation meets result.

  • What are the politics of this world? – Arrangement of power.
  • What are the rituals? – Eating, Learning, Driving
  • What are the morals? – Ethics, Legalities, Good vs Evil, Values, Conventions
  • What is the backstory? – Previous significant events in the character’s back story. Could a multi protagonist story be told this way?

Cast – All characters should be unique and have different attitudes and reactions. Design a cast to optimize the chance of a conflict occurring. Polarize your cast. “Author” means to originate, whilst directors interpret.

Spine of Action – The spine of action is the protagonist’s constant change in pursuit of the object of desire, whilst trying to restore balance.

The protagonist must ALWAYS act – even if that action is CHOOSING not to act. Ask – what does my character want? What is the object of desire? The Inciting Incident is a change which can be a conincidence, an accident or a decision by the protagonist (or someone else!). It should throw life out of balance.

The inciting incident is “The Big Hook”. “The Obligatory Scene” is the crisis moment when the protagonist faces their forces of antagonism. There is only one action left to take. The audience knows this scene has to happen, so you need to show it to the audience – hence the “obligation”. Bring the Inciting Incident as soon as possible, but only when the audience is going react fully, i.e. Life Is Beautiful.



For a film that is 150mins long, the Inciting Incident can generally be at minute 1, 10, 20 or 30 in to the film. If you have a late Inciting Incident for reaction purposes, the subplot inciting incident will be early in the film, and the main Inciting Incident can be at 20, 30, 40, or 50 minutes in. To create an effective Inciting Incident you must ask yourself:

  • What is the best possible thing to happen to my character?
  • What is the worst possible thing to happen to my character?
  • How could it turn out to be the opposite?

The subplot and the central plot can have different protagonists.

Act Design – Progressive Complications 

Conflict is to story, as sound is to music. You should aim to carry your audience through time, unaware that time is passing, and hold their interest THROUGH the conflict. Every gap has a point of no return. Doing acts of the same magnitude every time will cause the audience to become bored in the middle of the film.

Complication vs Complexity:

INNER – e.g. Stream of Consciousness


PERSONAL – e.g. Soap Opera


EXTRA-PERSONAL (Society/Physical) – e.g. Action Adventure Farce Movie


3 acts is the minimum amount required to reach “the limit of things” – enough time to have 3 major turns. In subplot, you can have a mid act climax to prevent people getting bored during act 2. If your story has a happy ending, the penultimate act must always be negative. Subplot can be the key to a good story. Uses for subplot:

  • Thematic Contradiction creates irony by using a subplot that contradicts the main story.
  • Can also use subplot to resonate with the main plot i.e. a love story complimented by a comic love story.



  • Multiplot has no spine of action, so subplot is important.
  • Subplot can also be used to set up the main plot.
  • Subplot adds complication to a story.

Turning Points are where the characters make an action as a reaction to bring them closer to the object of desire.

“Insight is rewarding the audience for paying attention.”


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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