Rules, Forms, Principles, & Stories: Lessons from STORY by Robert McKee

There are no rules in storytelling because rules bind us in the ways we work but stories are the forms of art that need to flow free. Does that mean we cannot learn how to write great stories? Because there is nothing to guide us? Of course, not! Storytellers might not follow rules but they do follow principles and master forms. But what is the difference between rules, forms, and principles?

A rule says that your story must have a beginning, middle, and end.

Is this rule ever broken? Try flashback stories that start just before the end, take us back to the beginning, and suddenly we are back and very near to the climax. Some stories break this rule so dynamically that you don’t even realize if the rule was ever there. Take, for instance, the series ‘Once Upon a Time’. The story begins in the middle:

In a small town called Storybrookes, live all the fairytale characters but they are cursed by an evil queen who brought them to a land without magic, which is the land of normal humans and makes them forget their true selves. As the story unfolds, we slip into flashbacks every time a character progresses in the story. And then we are back to the middle and the story follows until another character is introduced and we go to the flashback again. We watch two timelines flowing together, one of the past, and the other of the present but the future is yet to come. In the season two of the story, another major twist is added some of the characters go back to the past and others remain in the present. The flashbacks start but this time, we are following three flashbacks, the present, the past, and the past that became the present.

Reading this, you might feel that the story will be too complicated to understand. On the contrary, I found it one of the most intriguing stories that unfolded itself so smoothly despite complexities that you not only follow through but also find yourself engrossed in it. It did not follow the rules. What about principles and forms?

As per Robert McKee, our stories may come in huge varieties but they follow certain universal forms that are eternal. What are these forms? In his book ‘Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting’, Robert discusses them.


Every story irrespective of its differences in audience, plot, and genre, has:

A structure with a strategic sequence of events

The sequence must be such that it has events weaved into a sequence that generates conflict-creating emotions in characters and express a distinguished view of life. These events can both be caused by characters and affect them in some way. The sequence should be such that it is not a list of random emotions and actions but a sequence that culminates towards a purpose. They must lead to something. In once upon a time, all the events there were triggered in the past were walking towards the creation of the curse. Different characters had different stories but they all smoothly flowed towards the day of the curse.

Events involving Snowwhite & Evil Queen:

  1. Snowwhite making a mistake of letting out the secret of Regina’s affair with a stable-boy, Daniel, to Regina’s mother, Cora lead to his murder by Cora
  2. Regina, after losing her love, begins to develop hatred for Snowwhite, learns witchcraft and tries to kill Snowwhite
  3. Snowwhite seeks help from a sorcerer, Rumplestiltskin who gives her a magic that restricts Regina from killing Snowwhite in their land called Enchanted Forest.
  4. Since, it is impossible for Regina to kill her enemy in the forest, she decides to take her to another land and thus, casts the curse.

All these events lead to the day of the curse where the story began.

Events involving Rumplestiltskin & Baelfire:

  1. Rumple is a coward who is bullied by a soldier who threatens to take away his kid, Baelfire to fight a war with ogres in which he is expected to get killed
  2. To save his son, Rumple takes the power of the Dark One by killing him and becomes powerful
  3. Rumple’s power is growing but is also making his son upset because no one wants to play with the boy as they are afraid of his father. He wants his father to get rid of the magic and discovers from fairies that it is possible if the two go to a land without magic
  4. Baelfire is trying to take his father to the new land but father, being too afraid to lose his power, ends up losing his kid and now, needs a curse to get to the land without magic.

Both series of events were about totally different set of characters with Rumple being one link between the two but everything that happened ultimately lead to the day of the curse. In the story there are more characters and their individual stories. And they are woven in away that leads all of them to the cursed land.

Events that create change

Every major event in a story must lead to some kind of change in the characters life. For instance, in ‘Once Upon a Time’ story…

  1. Death of Daneil, an event changes Regina from a good hearted-soul to a heart full of revenge.
  2. Loss of a son leads Rumple to create a dark curse that could take people to a land without magic

Scenes that have actions resulting from conflicts

Coming back to the story, WONDER why Rumple wanted Regina to cast the curse and not himself as he also wanted to go the land without magic for his son? Because there is a conflict: The magic needs the heart of a loved one to be crushed but Rumple was the most hated man in the land so he had to choose someone else to caste the curse. So, his action of teaching Regina his dark magic so she could kill Snowwhite and protecting Snowwhite from her through magic that did not allow Regina to take revenge was all resulting from this conflict that had to be resolved by making Regina cast the curse.

Beats that involve an action and a reaction

Regina tells Snowwhite, a little girl whose father Cora wants Regina to marry, to not tell Cora about Daneil – TRUST is developed between the two….beat 1

Snowhite talks to Cora who gives her confidence that she cares for Regina and poor Snowwhite ends up telling the lady about Daniel – SECRET IS OUT…beat 2

Cora goes to Regina and gives her confidence that she will let her marry her lover but takes the advantage of the situation and kills Daniel – LOVE IS LOST…beat 3

Regina talks to Snowwhite and discovers that she was the one to let out the secret because of which, she lost her love – HATRED is created in her heart for Snowwhite…beat 4

As these exchanges keep happening between characters, the story continued to beat until their sequence results into a great IMPACT.

Sequences of events in a scene that create great impact

The beats individually might not be sufficient to create a huge impact. Regina discovering Snowwhite’s mistake did not lead her to hate the girl to the extent of wanting her death but the beats that followed created a sequence of events that created a situation where Regina’s hatred began to develop, increase, and then become so large that all she wanted to do in life was to kill Snowwhite. That is a great impact which is not ther outcome of one beat or one event but a sequence of them.

Acts that has the sequence of events that lead to climax

The series of sequence that create the big impact as discussed form an ACT when they lead to Climax and create reverals of power and values. A simple story will normally have one climax but a story like ‘Once upon a time’, has multiple. The first climax is reached after Regina stops hating Snowwhite and instead embraces like a friend completing the Act of the story.

And finally, A story that compiles all acts until the climax.


While exploring these forms, storytellers discover principles that make stories click.

Robert says that stories are about…

Archetypes (not stereotypes): We must talk about universal human experiences that are felt by people across the globe like anger, fear and power instead of following only the local traditional settings that not everyone can relate to.

Thoroughness (Not shortcuts): Say more but with less words. Your story should not have more words but more depth and information that your reader needs to understand about the characters and the story you are weaving.

Realities (Not Mysteries of writing): It is not the magic of words but the magic of story that is to be displayed using the right words. Do not make the sentences a mystery but the events mysterious but also realistic so that that are easy to understand and create curiousity.

Respect (Not Disdain for audience): Do not think that the audience is a fool and cannot guess what would happen next. Instead, know this that your audience’s IQ raises by a level or two when they are reading, listetning or watching your stories and create the twists considering these capabilities.

Orginality (Not Duplication): Just because a story was hit in the market, doesn’t mean you can recreate and make your story also hit. No one wants duplication but something new. Your forms might be same and the plot can follow a similar sequence but something important has to be different – characters, their decisions, settings, twists, etc. There have been many movies created around the original story of Snowwhite and Seven Dwarfs including ‘Once Upon a Time’ but has a twist as the Snowwhite in this story is not an innocent damsel in distress but a fighter who claims back her land from the evil queen by defeating her.

 

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