Story: Review and Summary Notes


Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee

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Hands down the best guide to narrative writing. It’s about screenwriting but the principles are about any story you can tell through any medium.


The best stories are about archetypes that are universal to all human experiences across all cultures.

Story fundamentals

  • Who are the characters?
  • What do they want?
  • Why do they want it?
  • How do they go about getting it?
  • What stops them?
  • What are the consequences?


A selection of events that encapsulates a character’s life story

Story Event

Something that creates meaningful change in the life situation of a character, and is motivated by conflict between story values.

Story Values

Universal qualities of human experience. Examples:

  • courage/cowardice
  • truth/lies
  • loyalty/betrayal
  • alive/dead
  • love/hate
  • excitement/boredom
  • ethical/evil
  • hope/despair


Ideally, every scene is a conflict of a story event. If there’s nothing at stake, it’s not worth including.


A beat is an exchange in behaviour in action/reaction, and is the smallest unit inside a scene.

Story Climax

A story is over when the scenes build up to an absolute and irreversible change. Most commonly this is found in the character’s values, e.g. a business woman changing from hardworking, optimistic, and honest professional to ruthless, cynical, and corrupt corporate raider.

Controlling Idea (a.k.a. Thesis)

A single sentence that describes why life changes from one condition in the beginning to another at the end. E.g. Justice prevails only because the protagnoist is more violent than the criminals.


Deep within the protagonist the audience must recognize a shared humanity. The audience should instinctively want the protagonist to achieve what he desires. “I’d want the same thing if I were him.”

Principle of antagonism

A protagonist can only be as fascinating as the forces of antagonism make him. Human nature is conservative and we don’t want to change if we don’t have to.

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