Robert McKee: Story Structure 101

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Story" by Robert McKee. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What are the various pieces of a story? How do they all fit together?

According to Robert McKee, story structure is a critical element of the most impactful stories. They follow a consistent pattern that organizes all of the devices, such as escalating risk and a coherent theme, that make up the story.

Continue reading to learn what McKee teaches about story structure.

The Key Parts of a Story: Climax & Inciting Incident

According to Robert McKee, story structure is the pattern that all well-written stories follow. McKee argues that the most important scene in all stories is the climax: the final, most extreme, and irreversible change in your story. The climax of your story is the most meaningful scene and impacts the audience more intensely than any other scene because of the intensifiers we discussed in the previous section. The climax is where the protagonist risks the most and either succeeds or fails to achieve their goal. Additionally, the climax definitively “proves” your theme by revealing the ultimate consequences of all your protagonist’s actions.

To effectively create a meaningful climax, you also need to write a well-crafted inciting incident: a scene early in the story that creates the first major change in your protagonist’s life. This major change throws the protagonist’s life into chaos and uncertainty, causing them to take action toward the goal they believe will give them a predictable, desirable, normal life. This is the goal the protagonist will be chasing for the entire story, until the climax.

In short, your inciting incident raises the central question of your story, and the climax answers it. These two events form the core of your story. The inciting incident of Finding Nemo is when Nemo is kidnapped by a scuba diver, and the climax is when Marlin and Nemo are safely reunited.

Contrasting Western and Eastern Story Structures

Although McKee frames this story structure as universal, some argue that this structure is primarily a Western one, with roots in ancient Greece. For instance, many stories in China, Korea, and Japan follow a four-act structure called Kishōtenketsu, and they don’t include an inciting incident or climax as we typically think of them. You may be familiar with Kishōtenketsu from the anime films of Studio Ghibli, such as Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro, which typically follow this structure.

The focus of Kishōtenketsu stories is internal growth rather than external conflict. They often depict an ordinary time in their characters’ lives rather than a dramatic, life-changing turn of events. Thus, they don’t need an inciting incident that radically upsets the characters’ lives.

Similarly, there isn’t really a climax at the end of Kishōtenketsu stories. Although they sometimes end by resolving one of the characters’ main problems, this resolution is rarely intended to create a sense of closure or finality. Rather, it shows the audience the characters’ new normal—often the result of a subtle and incomplete character change—and hints at how their lives will continue from here on out.

Everything in Between: Scenes, Sequences, & Acts

McKee asserts that the parts of your story between the inciting incident and the climax also follow a consistent pattern. This pattern builds on the ways of creating meaning we’ve already discussed: In a scene, a protagonist pursues a goal, hits an obstacle that subverts their expectations, and causes something in their life to change. To write a full story, repeat this pattern at a big-picture level.

In other words, story is fractal: Just as beats build on one another to form a scene, McKee explains that scenes build on one another to form a sequence, which ends with a more significant change in your protagonist’s life than any single scene. Likewise, a series of sequences that leads to an extreme change is what McKee calls an act, and a very small handful of acts make up your whole story.

This design ensures that every single beat is contributing toward several consequential value changes: the next scene climax, sequence climax, and act climax. Therefore, every beat in every scene feels important, and your story’s beats feel progressively more important and meaningful as the sum of all your protagonist’s actions leads to bigger changes.

For example, Act Two of Finding Nemo involves a scene in which Marlin befriends a fish named Dory, creating a positive value change (gaining an ally). This scene-level value change (among others) helps Marlin achieve a larger sequence-level value change where Dory helps Marlin learn the address of his son’s kidnapper (gaining direction). This sequence (among others) helps Marlin successfully reach the dentist’s office where Nemo is being kept—only for Marlin to discover that his son Nemo is dead (or so he thinks) in a negative Second Act climax. Every decision Marlin makes in Act Two has directly led to this climactic value change (losing family)—if Marlin hadn’t befriended Dory, he wouldn’t have arrived at the dentist’s office.

McKee asserts that feature films need to have at least three acts to have the most meaningful impact on an audience: three extreme changes that turn your protagonist’s world upside down. You can include more than three acts if you’d like, but including fewer than three acts makes a movie feel incomplete.

(Shortform note: Although McKee argues that your story can have as many acts as it needs, many argue that all effective stories are told in no more than three acts. This idea was popularized by Syd Field in his book Screenplay, in which Field establishes the three acts of Setup, Confrontation, and Resolution. Aristotle also disagrees with McKee in Poetics, in which he argues that stories should have just two acts—before and after a tragedy occurs.)

Shortcut: Remove Everything You Can

McKee’s idea that every story beat should simultaneously contribute to several larger value changes may be more complex and confusing than it needs to be. There’s an easy way to tell if a story beat fails to fit into a larger structure—if you can remove a beat and the story still makes perfect sense, that beat doesn’t result in a change and thus isn’t contributing to the plot. This is because if a story beat causes a meaningful change, you’ll see that change later on in the story.

As long as you make sure your story has at least three significant, act-sized changes, and you’ve cut everything out of your story that doesn’t cause those changes, you’ll have a well-structured story. You can apply this same logic to scenes, sequences, and even entire acts, if necessary—remove anything that doesn’t contribute to a major change.
Robert McKee: Story Structure 101

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Robert McKee's "Story" at Shortform.

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

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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