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

Allowing the audience insight can reconfigure their perception of the story’s reality.

Incorporating set up and pay off into your story will give the audience this insight. They will think – “It was all there, they just didn’t see it at the time”. The meaning of previous scenes (even though they made sense at the time) will take on new meaning. Setups have to make perfect sense in the first place – but then they take on new truth. Scenes should have layers of meaning. Writing for younger audiences requires setup with a heavier hand, so they don’t miss it! “Logic is retroactive” – if it’s not logical, you can go back and make it so.

Story creates meaningful emotion experiences.

When applying these theories to games, it is important to note that players must empathise to experience emotion.

Emotional Dynamics


Tell stories dynamically. The more times you experience something, it has less of an effect – this is called Diminishing Returns.  Mood is not emotion, it is feeling. Emotion is short term and chemical, and usually only positive or negative (pleasure/pain). Feeling is long term, and takes a background role. The mood surrounding the emotion makes the emotion specific. However, mood will not substitute for emotion.

The Nature of Choice

If the audience is presented with Good vs Evil or Right vs Wrong choices, they will know which is which and will pick depending on their nature or point of view. Real choice is dilemma. For example, two versions of Good – circumstance may force a character to choose only one, or the lesser of two evils. Even seemingly evil acts are right and necessary in the character’s head at that one moment – even if they regret it immediately afterwards.

To choose one, another must be lost. When one thing is sacrificed to gain something else, real change can occur.


Scenes have cycles of rising action to create a feeling of pacing throughout the story. The tempo of a story is the level of activity from scene to scene. Creating rhythm with scenes by edging closer towards the climax in cycles will prevent your audience from getting bored.

French Scenes” are an example of a type of scene where a major character enters or leaves creating a new scene in the same location due to major change. A great story should have Unity and Variety. An example of this is Casablanca, which is a love story, political drama, comedy and musical all rolled into one. Because of the inciting incident, the climax should be inevitable. The choice of actions of the core conflict at the heart of the story should feel as though it has much wider effects. Many other characters should get involved – the story should start privately before widening the consequence of action. If the progression cannot go wider, it should go deeper. Particular – archetypal, and specific – wider. The character’s actions become metaphorical and archetypal.

Principle of Antagonism

The protagonist is the empathetic heart of the story. They can only be as fascinating as the forces of antagonism force them to be. Therefore a writer should aim to force the protagonist to rise to the occasion. Antagonism is not always an antagonist – instead “Forces of Antagonism”. Against all these forces, the protagonist is ‘an underdog’, and so the forces must be designed to that limit at which they force the protagonist to react. To choose effective forces of antagonism we must identify the Positive, Contrary, Contradictory and Negation of the Negation of every situation. A good rule for identifying the negation of the negation is to take the exact opposite of the positive, but also to face it inwardly – or disguise it with a lie.

Examples of Principle of Antagonism

Positive – Justice
Contrary – Unfairness
Contradictory – Injustice
Negation of the Negation – Might Makes Right (Tyranny)

Positive – Love
Contrary – Indifference
Contradictory – Hate
Negation of the Negation – Self Hate

Positive – Truth
Contrary – White Lie or Half Truth
Contradictory – Lie
Negation of the Negation – Self Deception

Positive – Conscious
Contrary – Unconscious
Contradictory – Dead
Negation of the Negation – Damned

Positive – Faith
Contrary – Agnostic
Contradictory – Atheism
Negation of the Negation – Devil Worship, Hatred of God

Positive – Achievement
Contrary – Under Achievement
Contradictory – Failure
Negation of the Negation – Selling Out, Failure Masquerading as Success


A crisis is the decision moment of choice. Crisis is The Obligatory Scene – where there is only one action left to take. The greatest moment of tension in the story is this scene. When the character makes their choice, the audience gets revelation of who the character is. This is also the greatest moment of insight. The crisis decision is the most important pause.

Placement of Crisis

In the film ‘Rocky‘, the sub-plot inciting incident occurs in the first minute, the central plot inciting incident occurs at around 35 minutes at the end of act one, the crisis occurs around 95 minutes (end of act two) and the climax at around 115 minutes (end of act three).

What he really wants out of life is self respect” – The crisis decision is to fight without getting knocked out, even when he realises that he cannot win.

Many films follow a similar pattern –

Bond Films

Inciting Incident – Around 5mins

Crisis – Around 10mins

Climax – Around 120mins

Leaving Las Vegas

Inciting Incident – Around 10mins

Crisis – Around 15mins

Climax – Around 120mins

In The Realm Of The Senses

Inciting Incident – Around 10mins

Crisis – Around 20mins

Climax – Around 120mins

Climactic Action gives meaning. It can be just a gesture and a look (The Reader). “Give the audience what they want, but not the way they expect”. It doesn’t matter whether the story has a happy or sad ending – it is emotional expectation fulfilment, but not in the way they expect.


Ideally subplot would climax prior to, or with, the main plot. Meaning grows out of coincidence. For this reason it is wise to not use it too late in the story, and don’t use it to get out of a story (deus ex machina). Even the worst people consider themselves as good, so will see the centre of good. The audience can see the centre of good in the evil characters i.e. Mafia, The Godfather, Hannibal Lector. For example, Lector is portrayed as good with wit, charm and calmness, etc.

Mystery, suspense and dramatic irony creates audience interest.  Closed mysteries have red herrings to make the audience think they have solved it and then create surprise. The audience are deliberately misled – there will be multiple suspects with many motives – “means motive and opportunity”. In an open mystery, the audience can see who did it (for example, Columbo). Clues are the substitute for multiple suspects. Usually it will be a seemingly perfect crime but with one fatal flaw. The detective will always discover this before the audience, and counts on the arrogance of the criminal. In suspenseful stories the writer holds attention with curiosity and concern. The audience don’t know how it will end, unlike the mystery genre where they know the criminal will get caught eventually.  The audience struggle to identify with detectives, so there is no empathy, but there is with suspense and mystery.

With dramatic irony, the audience can be ahead of the characters. They know what will happen, so the fear turns to dread. This creates a feeling of compassion – i.e Sunset Blvd.

On watching a film for a second time, you have the point of view of dramatic irony. Historic dramatisation often open with the ending, and pure dramatic irony is very rare. The majority of writers will use all three – mystery, suspense AND dramatic irony.


You can usually tell whether an author is accomplished by whether you are aware of the exposition or not. “Show, don’t tell”. 

“Convert Exposition to Ammunition”

Parse exposition throughout the story. Give the audience only what they need to know, when they need to know it, and not before – and dramatise ALL exposition. All facts must further the conflict of the story and give the audience necessary facts. Create mystery about your characters, and save the best for last. The best pieces of exposition are the secrets of the characters and the story, and the best secrets come out during the ‘two evils’ dilemma.

Turning points can only happen on action or revelation. This comes from back story. Previous significant events can create powerful reveals that are often the biggest turning points of all. Flash backs are also exposition, so it is good practice to not bring in flashbacks until the audience needs to know – and want to know. Voice overs and narration must be necessary, and counterpoint wit can also be used. Writing character feelings directly into the dialogue is referred to as “writing on the nose”.

Text – Sensory, Surface (Words on the page). – THE SAID

Subtext – Real thoughts and feelings the character chooses not to express of cannot say. – THE UNSAID OR THE UNSAYABLE.


Nothing that characters (or people) do is intrinsically melodrama. Melodrama is a lack of motivation – when the motivation doesn’t match the action. Lift the motivation to match or exceed the action. Big scenes are good, but need motivation. Writers can lose credibility because of a gap in the cause and effect. It is possible to distract the audience from holes by making them look ahead, distracted.


Characters are not human beings – they are metaphor for humans, just as story is metaphor for life. Everything about them and their choices, attitudes and morals is characterisation. This is what makes the character credible, believable and intriguing. True character is revealed by the choices that they make under pressure. What does the character want, (Consciously and subconsciously) and why? The audience may interpret the character and their motivation differently from the writer – Shakespeare uses rationalisation instead of motivation – “what difference does it make why someone does something once they’ve done it?”. Have a sense of motivation but not mono-explanation. The audience gets deeply involved while they try to figure it out. They also get an impression of the character but will always wait to have it validated through that character’s action under pressure.

Character Dimension

To create dimension, the character should have deep inner contradiction, which is dynamic and consistent. Three dimensional characters will have three of these contradictions. Shakespeare is often credited with “the invention of the human” for his three dimensional characters.

Cast Design

The protagonist creates all other characters The cast of characters should be a solar system, with the protagonist as the star. People will behave differently depending on the nature of the relationship and its context. One dimensional characters will have only one contradiction. For example, The Terminator, who is part human and part machine. The contradiction here is between characterisation and true character. The audience will expect characters to always have dimension and these will be the characters that they expect to return later.

Cast Design Tips

  1. Always write for screen with an actor in mind, but leave room for the actor. For plays it needs to be character proof because of the number of actors. This is not the case for television. Encourage the actor’s creativity.
  2. Love your characters, especially the bad people. Otherwise you will create cliché.
  3. Where will you find your characters? Use observation and look within yourself.


Dialogue is not conversation. For film is should be short, simply constructed sentences, because you can only hear it once. Speeches should be short – there is no such thing as monologue in life. Action should create a reaction – characters will react to others, themselves and life. Dialogue is the “regretful second choice”.

Write Visually.”

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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