Derek Sivers

Story - by Robert McKee

Story - by Robert McKee

ISBN: 9780060391683
Date read: 2021-12-26
How strongly I recommend it: 9/10
(See my list of 320+ books, for more.)

Go to the Amazon page for details and reviews.

A masterpiece about screenwriting. Everyone who writes fiction must read this book. Cinema fans should read this book, even if you have no intention to write. It’s a film school masterclass. It also has surprisingly good insights into life: the story we all create by living.

my notes

Stories are equipment for living.

A rule says, “You must do it this way.”
A principle says, “This works, and has through all remembered time.”

A story unearths a universally human experience, then wraps itself inside a unique, culture-specific expression.

Master storytellers give us the discovery of a world we do not know.

A fictional reality illuminates our daily reality.

We seek an answer to the ageless question: How should I lead my life?

Don’t hide from life. Live deeply. Observe closely.
The knowledge you gain from reading and study equals or outweighs experience, especially if that experience goes unexamined.
Self-knowledge is the key - life plus deep reflection on our reactions to life.

Writers shape stories around a perception of what’s worth living for, what’s worth dying for, what’s foolish to pursue, the meaning of justice, truth - the essential values.

Who are these characters?
What do they want?
Why do they want it?
How do they go about getting it?
What stops them?
What are the consequences?

Form does not mean formula.

Craft is the means used to draw the audience into deep involvement, to hold that involvement, and ultimately to reward it with a moving and meaningful experience.

When the conscious mind is put to work on the objective task of executing the craft, the spontaneous surfaces. Mastery of craft frees the subconscious.

First you enter your imagined world, and write.
Next you step out of your fantasy and read what you’ve written.
You analyze. “Is it good? Does it work? Why not? Should I cut? Add? Reorder?”
You write, you read; create, critique; impulse, logic; right brain, left brain; re-imagine, rewrite.

A storyteller transforms day-to-day living, inner life and outer life, dream and actuality, into a metaphor that says: Life is like this!
A story must abstract from life to discover its essences, but not become an abstraction that loses all sense of life-as-lived.
A story must be like life, but not so verbatim that it has no depth or meaning beyond what’s obvious to everyone on the street.

The weakest possible excuse to include anything in a story is: “But it actually happened.”

Truth is what we think about what happens.

Given the choice between trivial material brilliantly told - versus profound material badly told - an audience will always choose the trivial told brilliantly.

Life encompasses hundreds of thousands of living hours, hours both complex and multileveled.
Select only a few moments but give us a lifetime.

An event is caused by or affects people, thus delineating characters.
It takes place in a setting, generating image, action, and dialogue.
It draws energy from conflict producing emotion in characters and audience alike.
“Event” means change.
Story Events are meaningful, not trivial.
To make change meaningful it must, to begin with, happen to a character.

Although there’s a place for coincidence in storytelling, a story cannot be built out of nothing but accidental events, no matter how charged with value.

A Story Event creates meaningful change in the life situation of a character,
expressed and experienced in terms of a value,
and achieved through conflict.

Look closely at each scene you’ve written and ask:
What value is at stake in my character’s life at this moment?
How is that value charged at the top of the scene?
Positive? Negative? Some of both? Make a note.
Next turn to the close of the scene and ask, Where is this value now?
Positive? Negative? Both? Make a note and compare.
If the answer you write down at the end of the scene is the same note you made at the opening, you now have another important question to ask:
Why is this scene in my script?

If exposition is a scene’s sole justification, trash it and weave its information into the film elsewhere.

A story is simply one huge master event.

Note the value-charged situation in the life of the character at the beginning of the story, then compare it to the value-charge at the end of the story, you should see the arc of the film - the great sweep of change that takes life from one condition at the opening to a changed condition at the end.
This final condition, this end change, must be absolute and irreversible.

Every phrase of dialogue or line of description should either turn behavior and action or set up the conditions for change.

The novelist can directly invade thought and feeling to dramatize the tale entirely on the landscape of the protagonist’s inner life.
The screenwriter must lead the audience to interpret the inner life from outer behavior.

Movies are about making mental things physical.

Unanswered questions may trail out of the film.
The answers will be found in the privacy of postfilm thoughts.

Inconsistent realities are settings that mix modes of interaction so that the story’s episodes jump inconsistently from one “reality” to another to create a sense of absurdity.
Films in this mode are not metaphors for “life as lived,” but for “life as thought about.”
They reflect not reality, but the solipsism of the filmmaker, and in doing so, stretch the limits of story.

Americans are escapees from prisons of stagnant culture and rigid class who crave change.
We change and change again, trying to find what, if anything, works.
After weaving the trillion-dollar safety net of the Great Society, we’re now shredding it.
The Old World (Europe), on the other hand, has learned through centuries of hard experience to fear such change, that social transformations inevitably bring war, famine, chaos.

Classical design is a model of memory and anticipation.
When we think back to the past, do we piece events together antistructured? Minimalistically?
No. We collect and shape memories around an Archplot to bring the past back vividly.
When we daydream about the future, is our vision minimalistic? Antistructured?
No, we mold our fantasies and hopes into an Archplot.
Classical design displays the temporal, spatial, and causal patterns of human perception, outside which the mind rebels.

If you had something to say, you couldn’t stop yourself from writing.

Talent must be stimulated by facts and ideas.
Research is meat to feed the beasts of imagination and invention, never an end in itself.

Invent far more material than you can possibly use.

MATURATION PLOT: the coming-of-age story.
REDEMPTION PLOT: a moral change within the protagonist from bad to good.
PUNITIVE PLOT: the good guy turns bad and is punished.
TESTING PLOT: willpower versus temptation to surrender.
EDUCATION PLOT: a deep change within the protagonist’s view of life, people, or self from the negative (naive, distrustful, fatalistic, self-hating) to the positive (wise, trusting, optimistic, self-possessed).
DISILLUSIONMENT PLOT: A deep change of worldview from the positive to the negative.

List all those works you feel are like yours, both successes and failures.
The study of failures is illuminating.
Break each film down into elements.
Look through these analyses, asking:
What do the stories in my genre always do?
What are its conventions of time, place, character, and action?
Until you discover answers, the audience will always be ahead of you.

Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.

The most important question we ask when writing a Love Story is: “What’s to stop them?”

Plot or character? Which is more important?
Some think structure is merely an appliance designed to display personality, that what the reader wants is fascinating, complex characters.
True character is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure.
The greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature.

Age and IQ; sex and sexuality; style of speech and gesture; choices of home, car, and dress; education and occupation; personality and nervosity; values and attitudes:
Traits are characterization, but are not character.
Beneath the surface of characterization, regardless of appearances, who is this person?
At the heart of his humanity, what will we find?
Is he loving or cruel? Generous or selfish? Strong or weak? Truthful or a liar? Courageous or cowardly?
The only way to know the truth is to witness him make choices under pressure to take one action or another in the pursuit of his desire.
As he chooses, he is.

The revelation of true character - in contrast or contradiction to characterization - is fundamental to all fine storytelling.
What seems is not what is.
People are not what they appear to be.

Principals must be written in depth.
They cannot be at heart what they seem to be at face.

The finest writing not only reveals true character, but arcs or changes to inner nature.

Structure provides progressively building pressures that force characters into more and more difficult dilemmas where they must make more and more difficult risk-taking choices and actions, gradually revealing their true natures, even down to the unconscious self.
The function of character is to bring to the story the qualities of characterization necessary to convincingly act out choices.

Life is lived in time. Film, therefore, is temporal art, not plastic art.
Our cousins are not the spacial media of painting, sculpture, architecture, or still photography, but the temporal forms of music, dance, poetry, and song.

The first commandment of all temporal art is: Save the best for last.
Create the climax of the last act - the pinnacle and concentration of all meaning and emotion, the fulfillment for which all else is preparation, the decisive center of audience satisfaction.

In life, moments that blaze with a fusion of idea and emotion are so rare, when they happen you think you’re having a religious experience.
Whereas life separates meaning from emotion, art unites them.
Story is an instrument by which you create such epiphanies at will.

The source of all art is the human psyche’s primal, prelinguistic need for the resolution of stress and discord through beauty and harmony,
for the use of creativity to revive a life deadened by routine,
for a link to reality through our instinctive, sensory feel for the truth.

In life, experiences become meaningful with reflection in time.
In art, they are meaningful now, at the instant they happen.

A well-told story neither expresses the clockwork reasonings of a thesis nor vents raging inchoate emotions.

Bland and pacifying writers are a bore. We want unfettered souls with the courage to take a point of view, artists whose insights startle and excite.

Whatever inspires the writing need not stay in the writing. A Premise is not precious.

An artist must have not only ideas to express, but ideas to prove.

The audience must not just understand; it must believe.
They must be convinced that yours is a truthful metaphor for life.

Master storytellers never explain. They dramatize.

Dialogue is not a platform for philosophy.
Explanations of authorial ideas seriously diminish a film’s quality.

A great story authenticates its ideas within events.
The story’s meaning must be dramatized in an emotionally expressive Story Climax without the aid of explanatory dialogue.

The more beautifully you shape your work around one clear idea, the more meanings audiences will discover in your film as they take your idea and follow its implications into every aspect of their lives.
Conversely, the more ideas you try to pack into a story, the more they implode upon themselves, until the film collapses into a rubble of tangential notions, saying nothing.

Compose the scenes and sequences that contradict your final statement with as much truth and energy as those that reinforce it.

Controlling Idea:
The compulsive pursuit of contemporary values - success, fortune, fame, sex, power - will destroy you.
But if you see this truth in time and throw away your obsession, you can redeem yourself.
If you cling to your obsession, your ruthless pursuit will achieve your desire, then destroy you.
The protagonist either refuses to act on his obsession or throws away what he once desired. He or she wins by “losing.”
The writer’s problem in each case was how to make a nonaction or negative action feel positive.

Audiences sit in the dark, staring at a screen, investing tremendous concentration and energy into what one hopes will be a satisfying, meaningful emotional experience.

When forced to work within a strict framework the imagination is taxed to its utmost - and will produce its richest ideas. Given total freedom the work is likely to sprawl.

Just as glass is a medium for light, air a medium for sound, language is only a medium for storytelling.

The truly passive protagonist is a regrettably common mistake.
A story cannot be told about a protagonist who doesn’t want anything, who cannot make decisions, whose actions effect no change at any level.

The protagonist has a conscious desire.
The protagonist may also have a self-contradictory unconscious desire.

An audience has no patience for a protagonist who lacks all possibility of realizing his desire.
The reason is simple:
No one believes this of his own life.
No one believes he doesn’t have even the smallest chance of fulfilling his wishes.

Story is not about the middle ground, but about the pendulum of existence swinging to the limits, about life lived in its most intense states.

The audience’s emotional involvement is held by the glue of empathy.
If the writer fails to fuse a bond between filmgoer and protagonist, we sit outside feeling nothing.
When we identify with a protagonist and his desires in life, we are in fact rooting for our own desires in life.
Through empathy, the vicarious linking of ourselves to a fictional human being, we test and stretch our humanity.
It’s an opportunity to live lives beyond our own.

Audiences disassociate themselves from hypocrites.

Concentrate on that moment in which a character takes an action expecting a useful reaction from his world, but instead the effect of his action is to provoke forces of antagonism.
The world of the character reacts differently than expected, more powerfully than expected, or both.

What’s the worst thing that will happen to the protagonist if he does not achieve his desire?
Life would go back to normal?
This story is not worth telling.

The measure of the value of any human desire is in direct proportion to the risk involved in its pursuit.
True action is physical, vocal, or mental movement that opens gaps in expectation and creates significant change.

A story is a design in five parts:
1. Inciting Incident
2. Progressive Complications
3. Crisis
4. Climax
5. Resolution

When we use a few selected details, the audience’s imagination supplies the rest.

As a story begins, the protagonist is living a life that’s more or less in balance.
Then an event occurs that radically upsets its balance.
The protagonist must react to this Inciting Incident.

Protagonist next conceives of an Object of Desire: something physical or situational or attitudinal that he feels he lacks or needs to put the ship of life on an even keel.
The Inciting Incident propels the protagonist into an active pursuit of this object or goal.

No matter what the character consciously thinks he wants, the audience senses or realizes that deep inside he unconsciously wants the very opposite.

What is the worst possible thing that could happen to my protagonist?
How could that turn out to be the best possible thing that could happen to him?

Creating the inciting incident:
What is the best?
How could that become the worst?
How could that reverse yet again into the protagonist’s salvation?
Or: What is the worst? How could that become the best?
How could that lead the protagonist to damnation?

Story is not about the middle ground of human experience.

The Inciting Incident launches the protagonist on a quest for a conscious or unconscious Object of Desire to restore life’s balance.
To begin the pursuit of his desire, he takes a minimum, conservative action to provoke a positive response from his reality.
But the effect of his action is to arouse forces of antagonism from inner, personal, or social/environmental Levels of Conflict that block his desire, cracking open the Gap between expectation and result.
When the Gap opens, the audience realizes that this is a point of no return.
Minimal efforts won’t work. The character can’t restore the balance of life by taking lesser actions.

Generally, a feature-length Archplot is designed around forty to sixty scenes that conspire into twelve to eighteen sequences that build into three or more acts that top one another continuously to the end.
To create forty to sixty scenes and not repeat yourself, you need to invent hundreds.

Nothing moves forward in a story except through conflict.

The essence of reality is scarcity, a universal and eternal lacking.

While the quality of conflict changes as it shifts from level to level, the quantity of conflict in life is constant.

A story can be told in one act - a series of scenes that shape a few sequences that build up to one major reversal, ending the story.
But if so, it must be brief. This is the prose short story, the one-act play.

What is major is relative to what is moderate and minor.
If every scene screams to be heard, we go deaf.

A subplot may be used to contradict the Controlling Idea of the Central Plot and thus enrich the film with irony.

The storyteller leads us into expectation, makes us think we understand, then cracks open reality, creating surprise and curiosity, sending us back through his story again and again.

Self-expression occurs in the flood of insight that pours out of a Turning Point.

Insights must be shaped into Setups and Payoffs.

To set up means to layer in knowledge.
To pay off means to close the gap by delivering that knowledge.

Setups must be handled with great care.
They must be planted in such a way that when the audience first sees them, they have one meaning, but with a rush of insight, they take on a second, more important meaning.

In story, unlike life, you can always go back and fix it.

Nothing is what it seems.
Everything exists on at least two levels.
The scene should never be about what the scene is about.
That means writing “on the nose.”

Actors are artists who create with material from the subtext, not the text.

We rarely manage to take a step back and coolly observe what’s going on inside other human beings
In life our eyes tend to stop at the surface.

First ask, who drives the scene, motivates it, and makes it happen?
Ask: What does he (or it) want? Desire is always the key.
What forces of antagonism block this desire?
Ask: What do the forces of antagonism want?
When you compare the set of phrases expressing the desires from each side, you’ll see that they’re in direct conflict - not tangential.

When a story genuinely progresses it calls upon greater and greater human capacity, demands greater and greater willpower, generates greater and greater change in characters’ lives, and places them at greater and greater jeopardy.

Widen the impact of character actions into society.
Touching and changing the lives of more and more people.

Start with a personal or inner conflict that demands balancing, yet seems relatively solvable. Then, as the work progresses, hammer the story downward - emotionally, psychologically, physically, morally - to the dark secrets, the unspoken truths that hide behind a public mask.

Build the symbolic charge of the story’s imagery from the particular to the universal,

start with actions, locations, and roles that represent only themselves. But as the story progresses, chose images that gather greater and greater meaning, until by the end of the telling characters, settings, and events stand for universal ideas.

to point at irony destroys it. Irony must be coolly, casually released with a seemingly innocent unawareness of the effect it’s creating and a faith that the audience will get it. Because irony is by nature slippery, it defies

Six ironic story patterns:
* He gets at last what he’s always wanted… but too late to have it.
* He’s pushed further and further from his goal… only to discover that in fact he’s been led right to it.
* He throws away what he later finds is indispensable to his happiness.
* To reach a goal he unwittingly takes the precise steps necessary to lead him away.
* The action he takes to destroy something becomes exactly what are needed to be destroyed by it.
* He comes into possession of something he’s certain will make him miserable, does everything possible to get rid of it… only to discover it’s the gift of happiness.

Protagonists feel they know for certain what they must do and have a precise plan how to do it. They think life is A, B, C, D, E.
That’s just when life likes to turn you around, kick you in the butt, and grin: “Not today. Today it’s E, D, C, B, A.”

Decisions are far more difficult to make than actions are to take.
We often put off doing something for as long as possible, then as we finally make the decision and step into the action, we’re surprised by its relative ease.
Most of life’s actions are within our reach, but decisions take willpower.

Once the Climax is in hand, stories are in a significant way rewritten backward, not forward.
The flow of life moves from cause to effect, but the flow of creativity often flows from effect to cause.
Work backward to support it in the fictional reality, supplying the hows and whys.

The key to all story endings is to give the audience what it wants, but not the way it expects.
An ending must be both “inevitable and unexpected.”

Key Image of the film: a single image that sums up and concentrates all meaning and emotion.
An image that is so tuned to the telling that when it’s remembered the whole film comes back to memory.

A second use of a Resolution is to show the spread of climactic effects: the satiric title roll in ANIMAL HOUSE.

The first draft of anything is shit.

A protagonist should be an underdog. He has a chance to achieve what he wants - but only a small chance.

Story contain negative forces of such power that the positive side must gain surpassing quality.

Between the Positive value and its Contradictory, however, is the Contrary: a situation that’s somewhat negative but not fully the opposite.

Dramatize exposition.

Parse out exposition, bit by bit, through the entire story.
Exposition must have a progressive pattern.
The least important facts come in early, the next most important later, the critical facts last.
And what are the critical pieces of exposition? Secrets. The painful truths characters do not want known.

Do not use coincidence beyond the midpoint of the telling. Rather, put the story more and more into the hands of the characters.

Spring gaps of comic surprise - write a funny story.
For each action first ask, “What’s the opposite of that?” then take it a step farther to “What’s off-the-wall from that?”

Melodrama is not the result of overexpression, but of under motivation; not writing too big, but writing with too little desire.

True character can only be expressed through choice in dilemma.
How the person chooses to act under pressure is who he is.
The greater the pressure, the truer and deeper the choice to character.

Characters with lucid self-knowledge, those reciting self-explanatory dialogue meant to convince us that they are who they say they are, are not only boring but phony.
The audience knows that people rarely, if ever, understand themselves.
If they do, they’re incapable of complete and honest self-explanation.

Character Dimension means contradiction: either within deep character (guilt-ridden ambition) or between characterization and deep character (a charming thief).
Dimensions fascinate; contradictions in nature or behavior rivet the audience’s concentration.
Hypothetical protagonist: He’s amusing and optimistic, then morose and cynical; he’s compassionate, then cruel; fearless, then fearful.

A four-dimensional role needs a cast around him to delineate his contradictions, characters toward whom he can act and react in different ways at different times and places.
These supporting characters must round him out so that his complexity is both consistent and credible.
Character A, for example, provokes the protagonist’s sadness and cynicism, while Character B brings out his witty, hopeful side.
Character C inspires his loving and courageous emotions, while Character D forces him first to cower in fear, then to strike out in fury.
The creation and design of characters A, B, C, and D is dictated by the needs of the protagonist.

Writers don’t put dimensions in characters they’re not going to use again.

A comic character is created by assigning the role an obsession the character does not see.
Ridiculing the protagonist’s fixation.

Everything I learned about human nature I learned from me. - Anton Chekhov

It’s a mistake to copy life directly to the page.

The more you come to understand yourself, the more you are able to understand others.

When the screenplay has been written and the dialogue has been added, we’re ready to shoot.
Image is our first choice, dialogue the regretful second choice.
Dialogue is the last layer we add to the screenplay.

Create the story’s step-outline.
Using one- or two-sentence statements, simply and clearly describe what happens in each scene, how it builds and turns.
Indicate what step in the design of the story you see this scene fulfilling.
Which scenes set up the Inciting Incident?
Which is the Inciting Incident?
First Act Climax?
Perhaps a Mid-Act Climax?
Second Act? Third? Fourth? Or more?
Do this for Central Plot and subplots alike.

Create far more material than you can use, then destroy it.

Pitch your story and study people's reactions:
Is my friend hooked by my Inciting Incident?
Listening and leaning in?
Or are his eyes wandering?
Am I holding him as I build and turn the progressions?
And when I hit the Climax, do I get a strong reaction of the kind I want?

Some are not interested in the suffering poor as much as the picturesque poor.