Friday, September 30, 2005

Elements of Story

I've been reading Robert McKee's book on story (called, appropriately enough, Story). This book, as I mentioned a few days ago, is supposedly a text version of his famous seminars on story and the crafting of stories. Many very well-respected writers, producers, and directors (many that even I've heard of) have taken his course, and it comes highly recommended. Even though it's aimed at screenwriting, the fundamentals of storytelling don't inherently depend upon the medium chosen, so I figure there are likely some good insights here.

Chapter one basically expounded at length on why modern filmmakers have lost the ability to tell a good story. While it was somewhat interesting from a philosophical standpoint, I really felt he was preaching to the choir -- if I didn't want to tell a good story, I probably would be reading your book there, Mr. McKee. Chapter two starts to get into the meat of story, however. In this chapter, he introduces what he calls the "elements of story," so I thought I'd comment on those elements. By the way, when I capitalize a word, I'm refering to McKee's definition of that word, not necessarily it's common meaning.

McKee starts off by defining "Story Values," universal qualities of human experience that shift from positive to negative and vice versa from one moment to the next. All stories, McKee says, turn on "Story Events," defined as a change in a single Value that is achieved through conflict. I liked this last qualification a great deal. It's not enough for a person to win the lottery, pay off the creditors, and have a happy life. While this is indeed a change in Value (poor to not poor), it didn't occur as a result of conflict. In It Could Happen to You, the protagonist does in fact win the lottery, but it is the conflicts that his luck brings into his life that make the story, not the mere fact that he won the lottery itself.

Events themselves occur in "Scenes." Scenes are defined as action through conflict in (more or less) continuous time and space that is a Story Event. The example he gives is a couple that starts out living together and in love (positive), but have ended their relationship by the end of the scene (the Value has turned from positive to negative). Scenes, however, are not the smallest unit of Story. Each Scene is made up of a number of Beats, an exchange of behavior in action/reaction. For example, the break-up scene above might consist of the following Beats: teasing each other, give-and-take of insults, threatening and daring each other to leave, pleading and ridiculing, a minor exchange of violence, and the turning point, the decision to break up. Each Beat is a recognizable and definable interaction, but it takes all six beats to cause the change in Value that defines the Scene.

Scenes build "Sequences," a series of two to five scenes that culminate with an impact greater than any given scene. The end of each Sequence is a sort of mini-climax that has resulted from the turning of Values that occurred in the Scenes that make up the Sequence. An "Act" is a series of Sequences that build up to a major reversal of Values, more powerful than the impact of any previous Scene or Sequence. The end result of an Act is major, but is not necessarily irreversible. The "Story," on the other hand is a series of Acts that builds to a "Story Climax," an absolute and irreversible change.

It's an interesting way of looking at story structure. While on the surface it may seem obvious, I'm sure all of us can think of stories with scenes in which nothing really happens. Looking at everything as being built from Story Events (definite turning of Values), however, eliminates most of those scenes. Kind of cool. I'll be interested to see if he has more insights.

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