Tag Archives: Robert Mckee

Story Crisis & Climax

Scream

Crisis & Climax

What is the story crisis and how is it related to the climax? This post traces three variations of this most important relationship.

Crisis & Climax Back-To-Back

The climax of a story is generally preceded by a dilemma for the Protagonist in which a final life-changing decision has to be made. In Thelma & Louise, the crisis occurs moments before the end of the film, right after a climactic chase by the cops, which brings them to the edge of the Grand Canyon. The choice is simple: prison or death. They choose death.

Crisis & Climax Stretched-Out

In other stories, however, the climax stretches out across several scenes with its own beats, its own build-up. In his book, Story, Robert McKee provides an example from Casablanca where Rick pursues Ilsa until she gives in to him in the Act II climax. In the next scene, however, Lazlo presses Rick to rejoin the anti-fascist cause, precipitating a dilemma, which ends when Rick puts Ilsa and her husband on a plane to America, sacrificing his desire to be with her. The final part of the third act plays out the climactic action resulting from Rick’s (crisis) decision to help the couple escape at his own expense.

Crisis & Climax Separated Out

Although crisis-decisions and climactic action usually occur within the same location and within a short time interval towards the end of the story, it is not unusual for the two dramatic processes to occupy different spatial and temporal settings, although, in this instance, they should be delivered in close proximity to each other in terms of filmic time.

In Kramer vs Kramer Act III opens with Kramer’s lawyer saying that he has lost the case, but could win on appeal, providing Kramer is willing to put his son on the stand and ask him to choose between himself and his mother. The boy would choose his father, but at great psychological cost. Kramer simply states “I can’t do that.” This is the crisis decision in which Kramer decides against his own needs. We then cut from Kramer and the lawyer to the climax—an anguished walk in Central Park as Kramer explains to his son about their future life apart.

McKee points out that when crisis and climax occur in a different time and place, “we must splice them together on a cut, fusing them in filmic time and space,” or risk draining them of pent-up energy, reducing the effect to an anti-climax.

In Summary

The crisis leads to the Protagonist taking a decision which leads to the story climax. The timing of the crisis-decision and climax varies depending on the story, but should be delivered in close proximity to each other in terms of filmic time.

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How to Orchestrate Story Rhythm

Orchestra conductor

Story Rhythm

In his book, Story, Robert McKee offers good advice on how to manage story rhythm. This post explores this very important technique.

Story Rhythm

Story rhythm arises when values within a section of narrative alternate in charge. This can happen within a single scene, between scenes within an act, and between correlated scenes within different acts. McKee reminds us, for example, that the two most powerful scenes in a story are the last two act climaxes. Seen as a unit, they orchestrate a crucial rhythm, which can only arise if the value of the one scene differs from the other.

If the Hero achieves an aspect of his goal at the end of the second act, the climax of the next act must be negative—she must fail to achieve her goal in some important way. In the words of McKee, “You cannot set up an up-ending with an up-ending… (or)…a down-ending with a down-ending.” Things can’t be great, then get even better, or bad and get even worse. That’s slack storytelling devoid of tension. If you want an up-ending, set up the previous act’s climax to yield a negative charge, and vice versa.

Irony as Climax

If a story climaxes in irony, however, the result is an ending that contains both positive and negative charges, although one value tends to gain prominence over the other. McKee offers the example of Othello as an illustration of this. In the play, the Moor achieves his goal/desire to have a wife who loves him and has never betrayed him with another man (positive charge). But he only discovers this after he has murdered her (negative charge). The overall effect is one of negative irony. Positive irony is achieved when the positive charge prevails. In the film of the same name, Mrs. Soffel (Diane Keaton) goes to prison for life (negative irony). But she does so having achieved her life’s desire of having achieved a transcendent romantic experience (positive irony).

Summary

Story rhythm is established when important scenes alternate in value. If a scene ends with a negative charge, its correlating scene must end in a positive one, and vice versa. This, of course, need not be on a scene-by-scene basis. Correlation can exist between scenes that are separated by many others. Typically, the penultimate and final climax scenes are correlated, as are many others.

Story Mentors: Syd Field, Linda Seger, Michael Hauge, Robert McKee, Christian Vogler

Fist

The Power of Five

We are living in an age where information on just about any aspect of science or art is abundant. And so it is with writing. Sifting for relevance through this mountain of data, however, is now perhaps our biggest challenge. In an attempt to lighten this task, I offer a brief summary of five important writing mentors active in the Hollywood scene today.

Although each mentor emphasises different aspects of the screenwriting craft, the five mentioned in this post adhere to a similar structural approach that agrees with the well known film critic John Egan’s definition of a conventional screenplay telling ‘a story that involves a single plot, which entirely revolves around a single protagonist who is supported, opposed and offset by a cast of secondary characters.’

Of the five mentors mentioned here, perhaps only Christopher Vogler offers a somewhat different inflection at first glance – although even he employs a structural template in his use of the quest as a generic structure – but more of that later.

Syd Field

Simplifying for the sake of brevity, one may regard Syd Field’s contribution as focusing primarily on the structure of the main plot centered on a protagonist who struggles to achieve his chosen goal against mounting obstacles. Field, who claims to be one of the first mentors to package Hollywood codes and conventions into a single paradigm, asserts in The Screenwriter’s Workshop, that ‘before you can express your story dramatically, you must know four things: 1) the ending, 2) the beginning, 3) Plot Point I, and 4) Plot Point II. These four elements are the structural foundation of your screenplay.’ He later adds a fifth element, the midpoint, which he defines as ‘a link in the chain of dramatic action.’

Additionally, the midpoint ‘expands the character’s depth and dimension’. Field sees the typical film as comprising three acts, balanced by the midpoint, which breaks up the middle act into two units roughly of equal length. Each act is about 30 pages, or 30 screen minutes, in length and focuses on the vicissitudes of the protagonist’s fortunes.

Linda Seger

Linda Seger follows a similar line, but offers more detail about subplots. In Making a Good Script Great, she writes that ‘subplots give the protagonist an opportunity to smell the flowers, to fall in love, to enjoy a hobby, to learn a new skill.’ Emphasising that the function of subplots is to support and add density to the main plot, Seger stresses that subplots have their own beginning, middle, and end and are most effective when they intersect and connect with the plot line. Importantly, subplots carry the theme of the story. But no conventional story is possible without a central lead.

Michael Hauge

Michael Hauge lays down five essential requirements for crafting a successful protagonist or Hero, the inclusion of which he sees as the first essential element of a well-crafted conventional story. In Writing Screenplays That Sell, Hauge asserts that the Hero, as the vehicle that drives the story forward, must allow for audience identification, pursue a clear and visible goal, face seemingly insurmountable obstacles, and show some sign of courage.

Interestingly, Hauge does not place character growth, which he defines as the ‘character’s search for courage [which] results in greater self-knowledge, maturation, or actualization’, within the first five essential elements of his story-concept checklist, although he does include it at number thirteen, after high concept, originality and familiarity, subplots, genre, medium, and cost, and before theme.

Lastly, Hauge defines theme as ‘a universal statement about the human condition that goes beyond the plot. It is the screenwriter’s prescription for how one should live one’s life.’ Theme, then, is generated from the premise or argument of the story within a wider context of received moral and ethical values.

Robert McKee

Robert McKee’s Story, in addition to concepts already explored above, includes a survey of major non-canonical forms which he labels ‘anti-plot’ and ‘miniplot’, as well as a detailed examination of genres. McKee’s definition of the following terms is also useful: The Premise is that which shapes the dramatic context of the story by asking an open-ended question – ‘What would happen if…?’; a beat is ‘an exchange of behaviour in action/reaction’; a scene is ‘a story event, usually in continuous time and space’; an act is ‘a series of sequences that peaks in a climactic scene which causes a major reversal of values’; the inciting incident, as ‘the first major event of the telling, is the primary cause for all that follows’; and the ‘obligatory scene’ or crisis, is ‘an event the audience knows it must see before the story can end’, which most often takes the form of a final confrontation between the protagonist and antagonistic forces.

Christopher Vogler

Christopher Vogler, by contrast, employs a mythological approach in his thinking, inspired by the work of the American mythologist Joseph Campbell, defining the screenplay in terms of a quest. In A Hero’s Journey, Vogler describes each stage of the narrative as a journey undertaken by the Hero as he struggles to achieve his goal.

Thus the Hero starts in the Ordinary World, receives a Call to Adventure, which initially results in The Refusal. He typically meets with The Mentor, Crosses the First Threshold, is Tested by Enemies and assisted by Allies, approaches the Innermost Cave, suffers an Ordeal, is Rewarded, begins his Journey Back, is Resurrected, and finally Returns with The Elixir. In doing so, he is aided and impeded by a host of archetypal characters (or combination thereof); namely, the Mentor, the Threshold Guardian, the Herald, the Shapeshifter, the Shadow, the Ally, and the Trickster.

This approach to storytelling has much in common with Vladimir Propp’s description of the fairy tale put forward in his Morphology of the Folk Tale in terms of character function. Although some of Vogler’s offerings seem ostensibly different from other mentors, his definition of character and character action, in adhering to a predetermined template based on structuring narrative elements according to function, remains much the same as Field’s, Hauge’s, Seger’s, and McKee’s.

Summary

Syd Field, Michael Hauge, Linda Seger, Christian Vogler, and Robert McKee are five important story mentors who have packaged much of Hollywood’s conventional wisdom into their work. Collectively, they offer new and established writers an opportunity to deepen their knowledge of the writing craft.

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How to Use Theme to Orchestrate Your Story

A story typically comprises of a sequence of linked events, centering on a protagonist who pursues a difficult goal against a rising tide of obstacles orchestrated by the antagonist, (or antagonistic forces). In achieving the goal, the protagonist has to overcome an inner weakness or limitation, which results in his/her becoming a wiser and more accomplished person.

Conducting

Shaping the Art

But how do we, as writers, select the most appropriate incidents to relate? Certainly, verisimilitude, suspense, drama, excitement, and uniqueness play a role. But how do we choose between two actions of equal weight, in terms of this list? One way is to let the theme or controlling idea guide us.

In his book, Story, Robert McKee defines the theme, or controlling idea, as he prefers to call it, as a statement expressed in a single sentence that describes how and why life undergoes a change in value by the end of a story.

McKee explains that the controlling idea has two components: value and cause. The controlling idea identifies the change from a positive to a negative value (or, vice versa) at the story-climax as a result of the protagonist’s final action, and provides the main reason for this change. Value plus cause, McKee informs us, captures the meaning of the story.

Value

Value is the positive or negative charge found at the end of the story. In an up-ending, good triumphs, as in Groundhog Day, where cynicism and selfishness give way to love and selflessness; in a down-ending, negative values prevail. In Dangerous Liaisons, passion turns into self-loathing, resulting in hatred that destroys.

Cause

Cause, on the other hand, provides the reason why the protagonist’s world has been transformed into a positive or negative value. In writing a story, we work back from the end value, to the beginning, and trace the causes within the character, society, or environment that has brought about this change.

Theme as a Scene Creation Tool

In Peter Falk’s Columbo, for example, we track back from the theme or controlling idea — Justice is done because the protagonist is cleverer than the criminal — selecting for inclusion only those story beats that serve the theme. Sherlock Holmes style scenes in which Columbo uses deductive reasoning to corner the criminal are appropriate for a man of superior intelligence and observation skills. Reaching under his raincoat for a .44 Magnum in order to frighten the criminal into confessing, or beating the daylights out of him, is not, although it is a fitting action for Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry.

Summary

The theme or controlling idea encompasses a change in value plus the reasons for it. Keeping the theme foremost in our minds assists us in writing appropriate scenes that stay on track.

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How to Write Endings That Work

During my classes on writing, people often remark that they find the ending of a story the most difficult to write. The ending, after all, is where everything must come together to excite, explain, and validate that which has gone before. Shaky endings leave us feeling unsatisfied and render the entire story suspect. Writing a great ending isn’t easy. But it is, in my opinion, easier to write than the beginning.

Consider the start of the story – what we sometimes refer to as the “ordinary world”. Here, the right genre must be chosen, the dramatic question created, and the theme and moral of the story conceived. The characters must be crafted from scratch, and then established through pertinent traits; the world they inhabit, too, must be thought out and sketched in – in just the right detail to foreshadow the reveals that are to follow.

Of course, your endings, too, have much to achieve — generate heat and excitement, preferably in a do-or-die confrontation between the protagonist and antagonist, answer your story’s overall dramatic question, explain some of the riddles that have occurred along your story spine, show how the protagonist and other important characters have been changed by the journey, and provide the final twist to the theme, or moral premise. Yet, unlike the beginning of a story, the ending is driven by a sense of inevitability that may serve to guide the writer’s hand. Once the writer identifies the central premise, he or she should able to craft the conclusion as a surprising but inevitable result of that premise.

Unlike beginnings, which may commence at any point, endings are constrained by their point of origin and should therefore be easier, although not necessarily easy, to write. This analysis applies specifically to what we call closed endings, rather than open endings. Open endings are inconclusive or ambiguous by intent, as a way of suggesting the uncertainty and multiplicity of life, and are handled differently. (My novel, Scarab, for example, manages to present an open and closed ending simultaneously). In this post, then, we look at four of the most important characteristics of the closed ending – the second turning point, the crisis, the climax, and the resolution, or the return to the ordinary (but changed) world.

The Final Act

The third, or final section of your story, is intimately connected to the second turning point – the last big event that turns the plot around, leading to the obligatory scene. The second turning point causes a crisis which forces the protagonist to choose between what he wants (the outer goal), and what he truly needs (the two are often at odds). This decision leads to the climax – the do-or-die confrontation with the antagonist. The protagonist then returns to the ordinary world, changed by the ordeal, to find that his world has changed too. Let’s see how this works in the example below:

Unforgiven

The second turning point in Unforgiven occurs when William Munny (Clint Eastwood) learns that his friend Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) has been murdered by Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman) and his men. This leaves him no choice but to seek revenge over and above the job he was hired to do, which was to kill the men who cut up the face of a prostitute in the town of Big Whiskey. For a man who has fought hard to leave behind his days as a ruthless killer, this represents a crisis point. What he wants is revenge. What he needs is to leave his old violent life behind. His decision to avenge Ned’s death leads directly to his confrontation with Little Bill, which he wins hands down. His thirst for vengeance sated, Munny rides back to his ordinary world to raise his children in the manner his wife would have wanted. Although there are many embellishments and complications to each structural unit, the ending, as a whole, follows the classical pattern mentioned above – second turning point, crisis, climax, and resolution. Crafting your ending in this way ensures that your overall structure is sound, allowing you more freedom to add depth, colour, and resonance to your story.

Please feel free to add a comment, ask a question, or suggests further topics for forthcoming posts.

Foreshadowing

Foreshadowing, in story-telling, is a technique used for creating mood, supporting plot, and deepening character. Robert McKee defines it as the purposeful arrangement of early events intended to prepare us for later ones. The use of foreshadowing is not just limited to events, actions, or dialogue, however. Every decision a writer makes regarding setting and genre also plays a role in setting up the context for conflict — the essence of story-telling — and is, therefore, a part of foreshadowing.

How the Inciting Incident Foreshadows the Obligatory Scene

Foreshadowing creates anticipation, either directly or indirectly, through character predictions, warnings, and new information, and, through setting. Shakespeare, for example, uses inclement weather, and bizarre occurrences (such as horses eating each other — Macbeth: Act 2, Scene 4), to ramp up anxiety and foreboding in his plays. While foreshadowing takes many forms, perhaps its most important function is to heighten the sense of impending crisis to be played out in the obligatory scene — the climactic moment in which the protagonist confronts and answers the chief dramatic question of the story: will the primary goal be achieved, despite setbacks and opposition? In the example below, we look at foreshadowing with specific reference to a story’s overall dramatic question.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

In Eternal Sunshine, Joel Barish (Jim Carey) learns that his ex-girlfriend, Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet), has had her memory of their failed relationship erased through a new scientific process performed by Lucana Inc. Devastated, Joel decides to follow suit. While undergoing the procedure, however, he realises that he’s made a mistake. He attempts to hide memories of their relationship inside other more obscure ones, in order to preserve them, but ultimately fails. The story is an interwoven catalogue of Joel’s memories, wishes, fears, and influences stemming from the Lucana procedure, ending where it began — with Joel and Clementine running into each other again, as if by accident, destined to try again.

Foreshadowing and the Dramatic Question

The inciting incident, in which Joel learns that Clementine has had him erased from her memory, asks the question: how will Joel deal with the news? Prior to the story’s mid-point, Joel’s answer is to try and forget Clementine ever existed. This provides the dramatic context for the first half of the movie, allowing the scenes to rally around it. But this early version of the dramatic question also foreshadows the overarching question, which is answered only in the obligatory scene: will Joel and Clementine manage to get together again? Joel’s realisation, at the mid-point, that memories are precious, provides the context for the second half of the story. Seen in this light, foreshadowing is the pilot that keeps the story on track, endowing events with a sense of inevitability and truthfulness. In Eternal Sunshine, the suggestion is that love is transcendent — greater than the pain rooted in individual memories.

In Summary

Foreshadowing prepares us for the story climax and resolution. It takes its lead from the inciting incident and culminates in the obligatory scene. Used skillfully, foreshadowing helps to give cohesion and context to your stories by asking and answering the main dramatic question.

If you enjoyed this post, please leave a comment and let’s get chatting on the subject.

The Inciting Incident and the First Turning Point: what are they?

The first significant incident in any story (from a structural point of view), is the initial disturbance that sets everything in motion. In his book, Story, Robert McKee reminds us that this disturbance, usually referred to as the inciting incident (in relation to the main plot of your story), is an event that upsets the balance in the protagonist’s world. In seeking to restore the balance, he (or she) is forced to respond to the challenge, creating a domino effect, which culminates in the story’s first major turning point.

Magnitude and Direction

While the inciting incident and the first turning point are distinct entities, there exists a strong relationship between them — one of direction and magnitude, mediated by the injection of new information. The inciting incident is a result of the protagonist’s response to an outer (or inner) event, but the respose is either misdirected, or not strong enough to solve the problem or grasp the opportunity at hand. Indeed, the forces that have caused the disturbance, now regather to confront the protagonist more powerfully than before. In the light of additional information, this causes the protagonist to rethink the old goal, or to seek a new one. In this way, the story moves from lower to higher stakes to the first major turning point, the mid-point, the second turning point, and finally, on to the climax and resolution (the subjects of future blogs).

In The Matrix, for example, the inciting incident occurs when Neo meets Trinity in the club. Trinity surprises Neo by pinpointing the foremost question in his mind: what is the Matrix? This question is answered when Morpheus asks Neo to choose between the blue and red pills – essentially to choose between continuing to live a life of illusion or waking up to the truth in “the desert of the real”. Neo, of course, chooses the red pill. This choice/action bundle constitutes the first major turning point and leads directly to the end of the first act: Neo’s connection to the Matrix is broken and his body and mind are jettisoned into the real world. The question raised by the inciting incident – what is the Matrix – now becomes, how does Neo defeat the agent Smith and machines? These questions frame the dramatic context of future events and help to keep the story on track.

In Summary

The relationship between the inciting incident and the first tuning point is one of magnitude and direction. The inciting incident introduces the initial disturbance and asks an early version of the dramatic question, while the first turning point increases the stakes and reframes the question in the light of new information – a question answered only at the story’s climax and resolution. Mastering the use of these two important structural entities will help you launch your stories and keep them on track.