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My theory of what a story is

Recently I had the luxury of reading the brilliant Screenwriting manual "Story" by Robert McKee. The book has had a strong influence of what I believe a Story is, so I thought that I would share my thoughts here.

A story is effectively a question that can be answered either Yes or No, basically a varation of "Do the protagonists get what they want?" (Example: Does James Bond get the girl, kill the terrorists etc). The question is asked with what McKee refers to as the 'inciting incident', and the answer is presented with the climax.

A story does not begin until the question is asked. A crisis or opportunity that upsets the orders of balance in the life of the protagonist. Boy meets Girl. Someone makes an amazing find. The hero is trapped in the wilderness by a plane crash. The bad guy steals a Nuclear weapon, and so on and so forth.

Anything before the inciting incident is effectively prologue, even if not labelled as such. Prologue is useful for introducing the audience to the world of the story, and to the life of the protagonist, but can be dull if stretched out too far. If a prologue is long, then it should be made interesting by containing a story in it's own right.

Likewise, the story does not fully end until the question is answered with the climax. The crisis or opporunity is fully resolved, with no possibility that things could reverse. Boy either gets with Girl, or he doesn't. The amazing thing that someone found changes the world, or it doesn't. The hero escapes from the wilderness, or he doesn't. The Good guy stops the Bad guy from blowing up the world with a Nuclear weapon, or he doesn't. For a story to be interesting, both the 'Yes' and 'No' answers must at least be plausible. A quest that is either literally impossible to win, or literally impossible to lose, is not interesting.

Anything after the climax is effectively an epilogue, usually just to let the audience see the protagonist basking in glory or wallowing in defeat. Like the prologue, this can be boring if it is stretched out, so a common technique to keep it interesting is to bring back something from the main plot. For instance, that henchman everyone forgot about shows up again, and the protagonist must defeat him to remain safe.

What goes between the inciting incident and the climax are a series of actions taken by the protagonist, or the opposing antagonistic forces (Which may be real, something abstract like the forces of nature, or even imaginary). The plot is driven each time the protagonist scores a victory (Making the 'No' answer less likely) or the opposing forces score a victory (Making the 'Yes' answer less likely).

At the climax either the protagonist or the antagonistic forces have won total victory over the other. Like a sports game between two almost evenly matched teams that take alternative turns in the lead, a story will be more gripping if the upper hand frequently switches between the protagonists and the antagonists.

The story is also made more gripping when the actions taken increase in drama from beginning to end, McKee notes it is not realistic for people to take anything more than a conservative step as the first thing they try to fix a problem.

In summary, my theory of what a story is simply is: "A crisis or opportunity upsets the order of balance in the life of the protagonist(s), forcing them to take a series of actions against the antagonistic forces that oppose them, until the protagonists either succeed or fail to get what they want."

I plan to do a follow up post at some stage specifically on how this theory applies to stories told in games. Stay tuned.



Sam (not verified)

Thanks for that. Definitely something to think about as I continue to re-work the (long) prologue of my novel :/

Earok's picture
Joined: 02/06/2009

Cheers Sam, glad it could be some use.

An example of a story being told during a Prologue that Robert McKee gives is the film Rocky. The inciting incident, Rocky being challenged by Apollo, doesn't happen until roughly a third of the way into the film. The filmmakers needed to show how much of a loser Rocky was, so that we could appreciate the gravity of the situation. So they kept audiences interested by having the Adrian romance plot come first.

I think this concept equally applies to games. The inciting incident of Secret of Monkey Island was the kidnapping of Elane Marley, which doesn't happen until half way through the game, so the game is made interesting by telling the story of how Guybrush becomes a pirate first.

Sam (not verified)

There are also a lot of films that have, in my opinion, a much more enjoyable first act (before the inciting incident occurs). Sometimes it's a real shame to leave behind the fun place and characters that have been set up, so that our main characters can go off on a serious quest or whatever.

In games, a structure I really like that gets around this is the idea of a 'home base' that you can return to.

Earok's picture
Joined: 02/06/2009

Which movies in particular are you referring to?

I hadn't thought much about the 'home base' structure in some games before, but it does feel nice to have a place to call your own within a game. It's something we very rarely see in linear games I guess.