What makes a story

Of all the books on writing that I have ever read, and I have read many over the years, the one which I class as my bible is called Story, by Robert McKee.

He says: “A culture cannot evolve without honest, powerful storytelling. When society repeatedly experiences glossy, hollowed-out, pseudo-stories, it degenerates. We need true satires and tragedies, dramas and comedies that shine a clean light into the dingy corners of the human psyche and society. If not, as Yeats warned, ‘the centre cannot hold.’


Robert McKee, has tutored thousands of aspiring script writers and story tellers. 200 have been nominated for academy awards and won 60. They have had 1000 Emmy nominations and won 200 Emmy awards. That is just the start.


According to McKee, a story has the following elements:

  1. A controlling idea is the story’s central idea. Some might call it theme, but theme can be too vague. If I asked you what your story was about and you came back to me saying love, hate, discontent, I would say. So what? Always avoid giving a reader cause to say ‘so what?’ The controlling idea is all about what drives characters and events and weaves through the entire story. One sentence should capture the story’s controlling idea. If you can’t write what your story is about in one sentence, re-think your story until you can. Here’s what my novel is about in one sentence: Two people caught in their own histories have to reconcile their differences or lose the love they share.
  2. The inciting incident sets the story in to action. It is dynamic and it turns the world, as the character knows it, on its head. Do not start the story with the inciting incident. This is something new writers often do. The wild car chase should happen after the drivers of each car have had a punch up in the car park over the girl they both love. The reader needs to see the world as it is in order to appreciate the chaos that follows the inciting incident. The character MUST react to this event, and this is what hooks the reader. Story is about action and reaction.
  3. Object of desire drives the character to overcome difficulties set in motion by the Inciting Incident. This quest can be conscious or subconscious.
  4. Progressive complications become more complex and cause greater havoc. Give the reader a reason to turn the page because they can see their character for whom they are rooting is not seeing danger and is forever making decisions that make his or her world more complicated. The reader worries for the character, knowing that he or she is becoming less likely to achieve the object of desire.
  5. Crisis is the point when the character has no other choices apart from one. This will be a huge moment. It is what stands between the character achieving his or her object of desire.
  6. Climax is the big moment when all the other parts of the story come together and the reader understands where every bit of the story was taking him or her. It echoes all that has happened before and brings it together.
  7. Resolution ties up all the loose ends and shows how the story affected characters in the community or wider world.

If your story has these element, you can be sure readers will pick up your novel and not put it down until they reach the final conclusion whether that is a tragic, heart-breaking farewell or a happily ever after ride into the sunset.


story telling
engaging readers