What quality is a must for your protagonist? What’s “subversion of expectation”? How can you create a story that involves high stakes?
Screenwriter and storytelling expert Robert McKee says that humans are obsessed with stories because they fill a core human need: We need to find meaning—truth about the world that influences how we live our lives. The best stories are rich in meaning.
Read more to learn the five elements of a story that provide and intensify meaning.
Five Elements of a Story
McKee discusses five elements of a story, and he puts them into two related categories that distinguish their function: elements that provide meaning and elements that intensify meaning.
The purpose of story is to give the audience the satisfying feeling of discovering meaning about the world. But how exactly does a story accomplish this? According to McKee, to engage an audience’s sense of meaning, a story needs three things:
- An active protagonist to empathize with
- Constant subversion of expectation
- Positive or negative change
That’s the specific storytelling structure that gives any given event in your story meaning and emotion for your audience: A protagonist pursues a goal, encounters a series of unexpected obstacles, and causes their life to change. However, to increase the meaning and emotional impact of your story, McKee argues that you need to include two additional elements:
- Escalating risk
- Thematic coherence
Let’s examine all five elements of a story that McKee discusses.
Element #1: An Active Protagonist to Empathize With
First, McKee asserts that the audience needs at least one protagonist to identify with. When you show the audience that your protagonist has the same universal human desires as they do, they’ll empathize with that character—that is, they’ll recognize themselves in that character and feel emotionally invested in that character’s fate. Additionally, this protagonist must constantly take action toward a goal, as this is necessary to engage the audience (as we’ll see next).
(Shortform note: It’s not just enjoyable to empathize with fictional characters—it’s good for us. Research has shown that stories can strengthen our ability to empathize with others in our lives. In particular, books that involve complex, multidimensional characters strengthen our ability to empathize, since they add depth to our flat, superficial understandings of the many strangers in our lives. While most of this research is focused on the empathy-strengthening effects of literary fiction, studies have shown that movies can promote empathetic behavior, too.)
Element #2: Constant Subversion of Expectation
The second element of a story is the subversion of expectation. This element is extremely important—McKee maintains that it’s the source of all energy in a story.
Stories need an active protagonist who constantly makes progress toward a goal. However, if events transpire exactly as the protagonist expects, they would simply achieve that goal, and you wouldn’t have a story. Therefore, the most basic unit of storytelling is this: The protagonist takes a single action toward a goal, and the world reacts in a way the protagonist doesn’t expect, complicating the protagonist’s plan to achieve their goal. This pair of action and reaction is called a beat.
How Subversion of Expectation Impacts the Audience
McKee asserts that beats of action and unexpected reaction need to occur constantly throughout your story because they engage your audience on both an intellectual and emotional level. On an intellectual level, subversion of expectation piques the audience’s curiosity.
Since what the audience expected to happen didn’t happen, each beat draws them further into the story as they wonder what’s going to happen next.McKee explains that subversion of expectation also engages the audience intellectually by giving them insight: They realize something about the protagonist’s world that they didn’t know before.
On an emotional level, a beat of action and unexpected reaction impacts the audience because of their empathy for the protagonist, McKee explains. When something unexpected happens to the protagonist, they’ll have some kind of emotional reaction, and the audience will feel it just as they do.
Element #3: Positive or Negative Change
The third element of a story is positive or negative change. It’s not enough for a beat to be surprising, it also has to be meaningful. That is, it must feel like it reveals truth about life. Mckee asserts that you create meaning by injecting change—whether positive or negative—into the events of your story. When a protagonist’s action causes their life to change, the writer is saying “When someone does this, it will cause that to happen.” This is the story’s meaning.
With this in mind, McKee argues that every beat in your story must lead toward some kind of change—otherwise, the beat is meaningless. For example, if the aforementioned beat from Finding Nemo resulted in Nemo returning safely, and the characters’ lives returned to normal, that beat would serve no purpose in the film. However, because Nemo is kidnapped, creating a devastating change in Marlin’s life, the story offers a meaningful truth: “When parents use fear to keep their children safe, they sometimes end up pushing them into more danger.”
McKee defines positive and negative change in terms of universal human values. These are states of being that you can gain or lose, such as love, safety, or social status. Value changes control your audience’s emotional response: Positive changes cause the audience to feel good for your protagonist, and negative changes cause them to feel bad for your protagonist. For example, a character whose romantic partner leaves them experiences a negative value change (the loss of love) and the audience feels bad. Anything you can imagine caring about reflects a universal human value of some kind.
Additionally, for a value change in your protagonist’s life to be meaningful, McKee explains that the change must occur because of your protagonist’s actions. A few random events that change your character’s life are fine to include in your story, but they don’t create meaning on their own. To communicate the kind of meaning that resonates with audiences on an intellectual and emotional level, writers must show the cause and effect of their protagonist’s choices.
|The Hero’s Journey: Finding Meaning Through Transformation|
While formulating these ideas, McKee was likely inspired by Joseph Campbell, author of The Hero WIth a Thousand Faces, whose ideas still circulate widely among screenwriters today. Campbell is most famous for popularizing the “Hero’s Journey,” a universal story structure that he asserts is consistent across ancient myths from cultures around the world.
In The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Campbell argues that myth-making is a universal phenomenon because myths give people meaning that helps us understand how to navigate life and are thus useful for every culture. Like McKee, Campbell notes that personally creating change is at the core of meaningful myths. In the Hero’s Journey, a hero departs into unknown territory, overcomes obstacles to achieve personal transformation, then returns and shares that change with the world they came from.
Rather than discussing change in terms of multiple universal human values, as McKee does, Campbell frames the Hero’s Journey as a quest for a single universal value: enlightenment, or the “ultimate boon.” This is a spiritual condition in which the hero sees through the world’s illusions and becomes godlike, perfecting their moral character and gaining the power to achieve any goal.
Arguably, McKee’s universal human values serve as more tangible, relatable representations of this ultimate boon of enlightenment. You could call any positive value change a “step closer to enlightenment,” since enlightenment is a state of perfection. And since the audience directly encounters these specific positive values in their own lives, they’re more emotionally impactful than stories in which characters literally achieve enlightenment. In this way, modern stories are all more approachable versions of the same ancient myth.
Every Scene Ends With a Value Change
A series of beats in which a protagonist’s actions eventually cause one or more significant values to change is what McKee calls a scene. The scene is the smallest unit of storytelling that feels like a complete story. In Finding Nemo, one scene would be the events in which Marlin finds Nemo on his class trip, accidentally goads Nemo into swimming out to sea, and fails to save Nemo from being captured by a scuba diver. The value change of Marlin losing his son marks the end of the scene.
|Alternatively, Pair Scenes With Sequels|
As with beats, writers disagree on an exact definition of the word scene. One common and potentially useful definition comes from Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain. What Swain calls a scene is closer to what Mckee calls a beat—a protagonist has a goal, an obstacle arises, and something happens to prevent the protagonist from achieving their goal. However, Swain includes an idea that McKee doesn’t, arguing that every scene must be followed by a sequel—the protagonist has an emotional reaction to their new obstacle, contemplates their new situation, then decides on their next action.
While McKee does acknowledge the importance of having your characters react to unexpected obstacles, he doesn’t frame these sequels as an equally important counterpart to scenes themselves, as Swain does. That said, thinking of your story in terms of sequels may help you remember to spend more time on your characters’ thoughts and emotions. If written well, sequels like this help your audience better empathize with your protagonist (the first element of a story), increasing your story’s emotional impact.
Element #4: Escalating Risk
To heighten the meaningful impact of your story, McKee explains that you must force your protagonist to risk losing what they care about most in the pursuit of a valuable goal. Why? In life, we judge how valuable something is by how much we’re willing to risk or sacrifice for it. Thus, creating a protagonist who’s willing to risk everything they care about is the most direct way to make an audience feel like the protagonist’s actions are important and meaningful. In contrast, if your protagonist has nothing to lose, the story will feel boring and inconsequential.
Furthermore, the pacing at which you escalate risk in your story is important: To make a story continuously interesting, you must incrementally heighten your protagonist’s risk over the course of the story, explains McKee. If you force your protagonist to take progressively riskier and more extreme actions, the audience knows that these actions will have new, interesting consequences, and they’ll be captivated.
Story Beats Naturally Escalate Risk
McKee notes that the need for escalating risk is another reason why the beat is the basic unit of storytelling. When a protagonist’s action meets an unexpected reaction, it can escalate the risk of the protagonist’s actions in a believable way. It’s a fact of human nature that we want to claim our desires with as little risk or effort as possible. However, when the easiest, most obvious way for a protagonist to reach their goal doesn’t work, they must then try a more effortful, riskier action if they still want to reach it. After this happens enough times in a row, you’ll have believably built a story with high stakes.
Element #5: Thematic Coherence
In addition to escalating risk, for a story to have the most meaningful impact possible on an audience, it must feel like every part of the story is conveying the same meaning. This meaning is your story’s theme, which McKee calls a “controlling idea.” Although some may assume that constraining your story with a single theme limits its meaning, McKee insists that focusing on one central theme gives the audience a multitude of implications to consider. In contrast, trying to include multiple main ideas will muddle your story and hinder the audience in finding meaning.
According to McKee, a theme is always a specific, truthful statement about the world that expresses cause and effect. This cause and effect will typically be the final value change of your story and the reason for that change. For example, the theme of Finding Nemo could be expressed as “Children live fulfilling lives when parents allow them to take risks.”
All Value Changes Reflect Theme
How do you connect every scene in your story to a cohesive theme? Recall that, to create meaning, every scene in your story ends with a value change of some kind. McKee explains that, to create thematic coherence, every scene’s climactic value change should either prove the truth of your theme, or the opposite of your theme, which we’ll call the anti-theme.
Furthermore, McKee claims that your story should alternate between the two, so it seems to prove one idea, then its opposite, over and over until the climax, in which the theme definitively triumphs over the anti-theme. This uncertain tension between two contradictory ideas reflects the complexity of life in a far more believable, meaningful way than if you were to make every scene in your story prove the same point. This allows your story to convey a specific message without ever explicitly telling it to the audience.
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Here's what you'll find in our full Story summary:
- A guide for screenwriters on how to write a gripping story
- How to engage an audience on an emotional and intellectual level
- The three-step process for how to write a story