This is Robert McKee’s STORY, first published in 1997. Many of you have read it. Though I do not agree with every idea McKee offers in this book, I have generally considered McKee superior to his competition in one particular area. This would be his approach to plotting. While most other “gurus” seem to treat plotting as a simple linear activity, putting scenes down one at a time, brick by brick, piece by piece, inevitably moving the story towards certain pre-set structural guideposts, McKee envisions plot as the interplay between character psychology and the reality of the character’s world. To McKee, plot is all about expectation versus result.
In an explanation similar to the one I use in Screenwriting Down to the Atoms, McKee’s protagonist begins his or her story intent to reach a far-off story goal. To reach this goal, the protagonist must start with a series of small, conservative steps that he or she believes will influence the outside world in such a way that will allow him or her to get closer to what he or she needs. In the character’s mind, these steps have every reason to succeed. However, things do not go as the protagonist plans. Rather than bend to the protagonist’s will, the outside world resists in an unexpected way. To hear it in McKee’s own words:
“The moment he takes this action, the objective realm of his inner life, personal relationships, or extra-personal world, or a combination of these, react in a way that’s more powerful or different than he expected. This reaction from his world blocks his desire, thwarting him and bending him further from his desire than he was before he took this action. Rather than evoking cooperation from his world, his action provokes forces of antagonism that open up the gap between his subjective expectation and the objective result...”
The outside world refuses to fall in line with the character’s personal expectations. According to McKee, whenever this happens there opens up what he calls the GAP. A metaphorical chasm splits open between the character and the result he or she wished to achieve. “On one side is the world as we expect it to be, on the other is reality as it actually is.” So to McKee, story conflict is all about thwarted desires and the characters’ inevitable reactions.
When the protagonist encounters this gap, this metaphorical canyon that separates him or her from a necessary desire, the protagonist faces a choice. He or she can quit out of disappointment or frustration, or the protagonist can choose to alter his or her approach with a new set of actions the protagonist believes will overcome the gap and allow him or her to continue. So the protagonist, armed with the wisdom acquired from the defeat of his or her first set of foolish expectations, chooses a new course of actions. With these new actions come a new set of expectations. The protagonist is certain that this time the world will conform to his or her desire and he or she will meet success. However, the world once again does not react as the protagonist wishes. Expectations again conflict with result, creating another gap. The protagonist must rise above again, and find way to get around this new gap so he or she may continue the character’s quest. But the world continues to reacts in a negative, hostile way, opening up gaps again and again. Using this pattern, McKee offers this diagram to illustrate the course of a plot:
In this way, McKee’s approach to plot seems to emulate the “Fool’s Journey” structure commonly found in folktales where a naïve young man leaves home for the first time to encounter a series of unexpected troubles and opportunities. These force the fool to become stronger and wiser, eventually allowing him to find success by understanding the world for what it is, not what he originally thought it to be.
If, as I propose, this approach to plotting is indeed better-suited to great dramatic stories than those taught by McKee’s predecessors, one must consider why. It is my assertion that plotting from an expectation/result frame of mind creates more engaging, more authentic stories because it is far closer to the way which we experience conflict our own lives. I realized this by noting right away the parallels between McKee’s approach to story and the ideas of a very different author writing on a very different and far more significant subject.
This is Albert Camus (1913-1960). Camus was the author of such esteemed works of 20th century fiction as The Stranger, The Plague, and The Fall. (The Fall is a mind-blowing piece of literature if read correctly. I highly recommend it.)
Camus was also a philosopher. Once considered a strong proponent of Existentialism, Camus grew dissatisfied with that school of thought and pursued a philosophy of his own, eventually known as Absurdism. (Do not let the name fool you. Here, “absurd” does not mean “silly.” In fact, the absurd is a very serious matter.) Published in his book The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus’s views on the nature of the universe and the condition of the human beings who must live within it, simplified for the purposes of this article, are as follows:
- Human beings have the instinctive urge to seek out systems of order and meaning in the universe. They want to believe that everything happens for a reason and that the world makes sense. Because of this desire, people construct systems of belief that place humanity at the center of the universe. We then create expectations based off of those beliefs and assume that reality will conform to our systems of order.
- Unfortunately, these expectations usually turn out to be little more than wishful thinking. The universe does not obey our rules. It is cold and indifferent, at times random and chaotic. It cares as little for individual human beings as an elephant would fleas on its back. Like the elephant, the world can shake us off at any time it pleases without even recognizing our existence. Humans are therefore at the mercy of the chaos of the universe, despite all their attempts to believe they are not.
- The most soul-shattering moments of a person’s life arise when events force the individual to face this contradiction head-on. The unexpected medical diagnosis, the sudden disaster, the abrupt death of a loved one causes one to wonder whether the system of order and meaning they have put their faith in might be a lie. The dissonance between one’s ordered and meaningful expectations of the universe and its actual cold and indifferent results causes a disturbing abyss to open up in the individual’s psyche that Camus calls the ABSURD.
- With their expectations shattered, human beings can react to the absurd in one of three ways. 1. Dispair (which often ends in suicide). 2. A Leap of Faith (in which one continues to trust in a system of meaning despite there being no objective evidence to support it). 3. Acceptance (by accepting a more accurate view of reality, the person abandons harmful illusions and comes to realize what means truly exist that will allow him or her to find happiness and success within reality’s bounds.)
Here we see that McKee’s views on plot development mirror Camus’s views on human existence. Human beings, both real and story-based, take action after goals they believe will bring happiness or success. However, much like an ant crawling its way across the kitchen floor, they have no way of truly understanding the true scale and magnitude of the world around them. They can only proceed based on personal expectations conceived by way of their very limited personal views. However, more often than not, these expectations are short-sighted or false. The world does not react the way they wish, and instead of yielding the way, it throws roadblocks in their path. When expectations are denied, people have three options: a. quit, b. keep their faith, lower their heads and try to plow through the resistance, or c. learn from the experience, adopt a new perspective of reality, and then find a new course of actions more likely to succeed.
I do have one major issue with McKee’s approach, however. His discussion on the subject leans far more to the metaphysical than the practical. He does little to create a systematic method by which writers can apply these concepts directly to their own scripts in a way that will provide effective narrative drive and structure. This is why I teach the concept of story sequences. As frequent readers of this blog know, I consider the Story Spine to be the unifying element of all successful storytelling. In long-form stories such as feature-length films, the Story Spine must be structured by means of story sequences. You can read a brief overview of story sequences in this article or a far more detailed explanation in Chapter 5 of Screenwriting Down to the Atoms. By replacing “expectation/result” and “the gap” with the concepts of sequence spines, obstacles, and turning points, the story sequence method maintains the spirit of McKee’s argument while executing it through a dramatic, easy to execute structure that has found success in great films for decades.