So it turns out that immortal, affecting stories tend to work for surprisingly universal and archetypal reasons. Understanding these archetypes and principles, and how to employ them, gives the storyteller seemingly magical powers. I feel like I have just gotten my first glimpse or two behind that veil; and am now at the very beginning of being able to do these things myself just, and fumblingly.
I read a fair number of books on these topics, and find McKee's to be the best of the lot it is nearly pure gold, and every line seems to drip with storytelling truths. He's powerful not because he is forceful, or has strident opinions but because he has seen beneath the veil. (*)
These are my favourite, twice-winnowed notes from that book, which I reread before every single book I write.
True character is revealed when we make decisions under pressure.
Characterization is NOT character.
A great work is a living metaphor that says, “Life is like this.” The classics make inescapably clear the problems all generations must solve to be human.
“Up-ending” stories express the optimism, hopes, and dreams of mankind, a positively charged vision of the human spirit; life as we wish it to be.
The proof of your vision is not how well you can assert your Controlling Idea [theme], but its victory over the enormously powerful forces that you array against it.
Once you discover your Controlling Idea, respect it. Never allow yourself the luxury of thinking, “It’s just entertainment.”
The PROTAGONIST must have at least a chance to attain his desire.
Most people waste their precious time and die with the feeling they’ve fallen short of their dreams. As honest as this painful insight may be, we cannot allow ourselves to believe it. Instead, we carry hope to the end.
Hope, after all, is not unreasonable. It’s simply hypothetical. “If this… if that… if I learn more… if I love more… if I discipline myself… if things change, then I’ll have a chance of getting from life what I want.” We carry hope in our hearts, no matter the odds against us.
The protagonist takes us to this limit. He must have it within himself to pursue his desire to the boundaries of human experience.
In a state of jeopardy, we must risk something that we want or have in order to gain something else that we want or to protect something we have - a dilemma we strive to avoid.
Life teaches that the measure of the value of any human desire is in direct proportion to the risk involved in its pursuit. We give the ultimate values to those things that demand the ultimate risks - our freedom, our lives, our souls.
For we not only create stories as metaphors for life, we create them as metaphors for meaningful life - and to live meaningfully is to be at perpetual risk.
In the most profound sense, the break between [each of the protagonist’s actions as he intended them] and the effect as [they] turn out marks the point where the human spirit and the world meet. In this gap is the nexus of story. Here the writer finds the most powerful, life-bending moments.
What do my characters believe is worthing living [killing] for? Foolish to pursue? What would they give their lives for?
The first principle of cast design is polarization - maximize the possibilities for conflict.
All the artists making ALIEN - writer, director, designers, actors - worked to the limit of their talents to create an authentic world. They knew that believability is the key to terror. Indeed, if the audience is to feel any emotion, it must believe. (Authenticity depends on the “telling detail.” When we use a few selected details, the audience’s imagination supplies the rest, completing a credible whole.)
The instant the [reader] has a sufficient understanding of character and world to react fully, execute your Inciting Incident. (Jaws starts with the shark. All the audience needs to know about the sheriff, his family, the mayor, city council, and tourists will be nicely dramatized in the town’s reaction to the attack.)
The Climax of the last act is far and away the most difficult to create. If it doesn’t work, the story doesn’t work.
The impact of the Inciting Incident creates our opportunity to reach the limits of life.
Progressions build by drawing upon greater and greater capacities from characters, demanding greater and greater willpower from them, putting them at greater and greater risk, constantly passing points of no return.
The Law of Conflict (Nothing moves forward in a story except through conflict) is more than an aesthetic principle; it is the soul of story. Story is metaphor for life, and to be alive is to be in seemingly perpetual conflict… Boredom is the inner conflict we suffer when we lose desire, when we lack a lacking…
An artist intent on creating works of lasting quality comes to realize that life is about the ultimate questions of finding love and self-worth, of bringing serenity to inner chaos, of the titanic social inequities everywhere around us, of time running out.
To achieve complexity the writer brings his characters into conflict on all three levels of life (inner conflict, personal conflict, extra-personal conflict), often simultaneously.
The dynamics of story depend on the alternation of its value charges. (Positive must follow negative must follow positive.) Repetitiousness is the enemy of rhythm. If the last act’s story climax is positive, then the penultimate act climax must be negative - you can’t set up an up-ending with an up-ending.
Uses of subplot. 1) contradict the theme; 2) resonate the theme with a variation on it; 3) set up the main plot’s inciting incident; 4) complicate the action of the main plot (i.e. make the protagonist’s life more difficult). Subplots must do one of these four. The audience understands the principle of aesthetic unity. It knows that every story element is there because of the relationship it strikes to every other element.
Never write a scene that’s merely a flat, static display of exposition; rather strive for this ideal: create a story design in which every scene is a minor, moderate, or major Turning Point.
True choice is dilemma - either a choice between irreconcilable goods; or a choice between the lesser of two evils. How a character chooses in a true dilemma is a powerful expression of his humanity and of the world in which he lives.
An old Hollywood expression goes: “If the scene is about what the scene is about, you’re in deep shit.” There’s always a subtext, an inner life that contrasts with or contradicts the text. Nothing is what it seems.
Act by act, we tighten and release tension until the final Climax empties out the audience, leaving it emotionally exhausted but fulfilled.
Make certain that by Idea and Counter-Idea every image, beat, action, or line of dialogue somehow relates to or sets up this grand payoff [the Climax]. All scenes must be thematically or structurally justified in the light of the Climax.
William Goldman argues that the key to all story endings is to give the audience what it wants, but not the way it expects.
For the vast majority doesn’t care whether a film ends up or down. What the audience wants is emotional satisfaction - a Climax that fulfills anticipation. Having pledged a certain emotion, it’d be ruinous not to deliver.
In Aristotle’s words, an ending must be both “inevitable and unexpected.”
The principle of antagonism is the most important and least understood precept in story design. A protagonist and his story can only be as intellectually fascinating and emotionally compelling as the forces of antagonism make them. [Or as Martell put it: the villain brings the story.]
Never include anything the audience can reasonably and easily assume has happened. Never pass along exposition unless the missing fact would cause confusion. You do not keep the audience’s interest by giving it information, but by withholding information.
We can turn scenes only one of two ways: on action or on revelation. There are no other means. Powerful revelations come from backstory.
As a rule of thumb, do not use coincidence beyond the midpoint of the telling. Rather, put the story more and more into the hands of the characters.
The dramatist admires humanity and creates works that say, in essence: Under the worst of circumstances the human spirit is magnificent.
Right this second, not quite incidentally, most of what I'm doing in life is trying to get two things right. This is the first one. (It may be the work of decades.)
And I think it is perhaps impossible to be so profoundly wise on story, without also being pretty savvy about life making the following arguably worth reading for storytellers and story-consumers (that's all of us!) alike.