I’m slowly worming (bookworming!) my way through Robert McKee’s epic book on life and writing, “Story,” and have come to what I think is one of the most valuable concepts he’s covered, as well as one of the most difficult: composition.
When I see that word, “composition,” I think of all the dreary elementary school writing assignments I had to endure. But this is different.
When we compose an essay or a diary entry—or a story—we make decisions about how to order and link events.
Composition is about “selecting what to include, to exclude, to put before and after.”
This sort of patient ordering is something I’m especially bad at. On my first draft, possible alternate story lines like to bubble up in my thoughts like mushrooms after a rain. But that just leads to chaos (at least, it has with me!). I must impose an organizing principle, I must be selective.
McKee lists various principles that can help with this selection process:
- Unity and Variety
- Rhythm and Tempo
- Social and Personal Progression
- Symbolic and Ironic Ascension
- The Principle of Transition
Don’t worry! I’m only covering one of these today.
Unity and Variety
Let’s tackle unity first.
A story must be unified. As in Highlander, “There can be only one.” Yes, we can weave in numerous sub-threads, but there should be one overarching plot/arc/story thread.
What is this story thread? It follows a very simple organizing principle:
“Because of the Inciting Incident the Climax had to happen.”
In every story there’s an Inciting Incident. That incident changes the protagonist’s Ordinary World in such a way that, ultimately, it is impossible for him to go on with his life as normal.
McKee uses the movie “Jaws” as an example:
“Because the shark killed a swimmer, the sheriff had to destroy the shark.”
I would say that, in “Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark”:
Because the Nazi’s were in search of the ark, Indiana Jones had to get to it first and bring it home.
“We should sense a causal link between Inciting Incident and Story Climax. The Inciting Incident is the story’s most profound cause, and, therefore, the final effect, the Story Climax, should seem inevitable. The cement that binds them is the spine, the protagonist’s deep desire to restore the balance of life.”
Now, I’m not saying that this is true—or should be true—for every single story. As McKee points out, there are different kinds of stories. But it is interesting how many stories this applies to. Take, for instance, Margaret Atwood’s most recent book, “Stone Mattress” as an example.
Margaret Atwood wields her pen like a scalpel, honing her words, her meaning, to a sharp edge as she slices into her characters, revealing their still-beating hearts, their souls.
But I digress. One of the stories from “Stone Mattress”—The Freeze-Dried Groom—follows, or embodies, the principle McKee mentions. In this story, Sam, the protagonist, is a scoundrel who we meet the morning his wife finally wises up and gives him the boot.
That event, that severing of ties, is the Inciting Incident and sends Sam hurtling toward, not only the end of the story but, we feel, the end of his life. Or at least that’s how it unfolded in my imagination. Atwood hides the climax of her story; it occurs after the last word. She invites the reader—literally as well as figuratively—to spin out the story for themselves. It’s the perfect lead-in to a fan-fiction contest.
I mention Atwood’s story because it demonstrates an important aspect of this principle of unity: The writer’s challenge is to finish the story in such a way that whatever ending is chosen, it will seem inevitable—and come as a surprise.
That’s tricky to pull off, but the stories that do often go on to become reader/viewer favorites. For example, the end of Empire Strikes Back, when Luke finds out that Darth Vader is his father. It came as a surprise but, afterward, when I thought about it, it seemed to fit perfectly. It seemed obvious. Inevitable.
“Unity is critical, but not sufficient. Within this unity, we must induce as much variety as possible.”
Action/adventure stories are often also love stories—or contain within them this thread.
Yesterday I watched “22 Jump Street.” It was a comedy about two police officers who respond to the death of a girl by arresting a drug dealer, but it was also a bromance, a romance, and an action adventure.
McKee ends this section by writing:
“[...] we don’t want to hit the same note over and over, so that every scene sounds like every other. Instead, we seek the tragic in the comic, the political in the personal, the personal driving the political, the extraordinary behind the unusual, the trivial in the exalted.”
At some later date I’ll come back to a few of McKee’s other points, but that’s enough for today. Here’s my takeaway: Within unity, variety.
Good writing! Have a terrific and productive weekend.
By the way, I have been sending out writing prompts on my Google+ feed. If you would like to join in the fun, please do.Photo credit: "quiet" by 55Laney69 under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.