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Mastering the inner life of stories

The elemental unit of human experience is the story. Yet few people know how a story works, or why, or how to make a good story. When I began this book I thought it was a manual for Hollywood screenwriters, which it is. There are scores of other books in the genre, but ignore them. Professional screenwriters all swear by McKee’s Story as the key guide to creating a story that works. Halfway through this book, it altered me as an audience; I was watching and reading differently. By the end, I realized that this was actually a book about living. Constructing a story that works is similar to constructing a life that works. For people trying to write a story, for people listening to a story, for people trying to compose an interesting life, this is a profoundly important guide. I find it worth rereading every couple of years.

I recommend using the four-cassette audio version of this book for several reasons. One, it is abridged, and improved by that, and two, you get more a sense of storytelling by listening, rather than reading, and three, the author delivers his message in his own strong voice, which in this case conveys his passion and intelligence more than his words alone do.From an instant to eternity, from the intracranial to the intergalactic, the life story of each and every character offers encyclopedic possibilities. The mark of a master is to select only a few moments but give us a lifetime.


Classical design means a story built around an active protagonist who struggles against primarily external forces of antagonism to pursue his or her desire, through continuous time, within a consistent and causally connected fiction reality, to a closed ending of absolute, irreversible change.


When an Inciting Incident occurs it must be a dynamic, fully developed event, not something static or vague. This, for example, is not an Inciting Incident: A college dropout lives off-campus near New York University. She wakes one morning and says: “I’m bored with my life. I think I’ll move to Los Angeles.” She packs her VW and motors west, but her change of address changes nothing of value in her life. She’s merely exporting her apathy from New York to California.

If on the other hand, we notice that she’s created an ingenious kitchen wallpaper from hundreds of parking tickets, then a sudden pounding on the door brings the police, brandishing a felony warrant for ten thousand dollars in unpaid citations, and she flees down the fire escape, heading West — this could be an Inciting Incident. It has done what an Inciting Incident must do.

The INCITING INCIDENT radically upsets the balance of forces in the protagonist s life.


The energy of a protagonist’s desire forms the critical element of design known as the Spine of the story (AKA Through-line or Super-objective). The spine is the deep desire in and effort by the protagonist to restore the balance of life. It’s the primary unifying force that holds all other story elements together. For no matter what happens on the surface of the story, each scene, image, and word is ultimately an aspect of the Spine, relating, causally or thematically, to this core of desire and action.

If the protagonist has no unconscious desire, then his conscious objective becomes the Spine. The Spine of any Bond film, for example, can be phrased as: To defeat the arch-villain. James has no unconscious desires; he wants and only wants to save the world. As the story’s unifying force, Bond’s pursuit of his conscious goal cannot change. If he were to declare, “To hell with Dr. No. I’m bored with the spy business. I’m going south to work on my backswing and lower my handicap,” the film falls apart.


A Turning Point is centered in the choice a character makes under pressure to take one action or another in the pursuit of desire. Human nature dictates that each of us will always choose the “good” or the “right” as we perceive the “good” or the “right.” It is impossible to do otherwise. Therefore, if a character is put into a situation where he must choose between a clear good versus a clear evil, or right versus wrong, the audience, understanding the character s point of view, will know in advance how the character will choose.


Good/evil, right/wrong choices are dramatically obvious and trivial. True choice is dilemma. It occurs in two situations. First, a choice between irreconcilable goods: From the character’s view two things are desirable, he wants both, but circumstances are forcing him to choose only one. Second, a choice between the lesser of two evils: From the character’s view two things are undesirable, he wants neither, but circumstances are forcing him to choose one. How a character chooses in a true dilemma is a powerful expression of his humanity and of the world in which he lives.

This collection of timeless principles I call the Archplot: Arch (pronounced “ark” as in archangel) in the dictionary sense of eminent above others of the same kind.

-- KK 08/13/03