My theory of what a story isSubmitted by Earok on Sat, 04/03/2010 - 19:39
Recently I had the luxury of reading the brilliant Screenwriting manual "Story" by Robert McKee. The book has had a strong influence of what I believe a Story is, so I thought that I would share my thoughts here.
A story is effectively a question that can be answered either Yes or No, basically a varation of "Do the protagonists get what they want?" (Example: Does James Bond get the girl, kill the terrorists etc). The question is asked with what McKee refers to as the 'inciting incident', and the answer is presented with the climax.
A story does not begin until the question is asked. A crisis or opportunity that upsets the orders of balance in the life of the protagonist. Boy meets Girl. Someone makes an amazing find. The hero is trapped in the wilderness by a plane crash. The bad guy steals a Nuclear weapon, and so on and so forth.
Anything before the inciting incident is effectively prologue, even if not labelled as such. Prologue is useful for introducing the audience to the world of the story, and to the life of the protagonist, but can be dull if stretched out too far. If a prologue is long, then it should be made interesting by containing a story in it's own right.
Likewise, the story does not fully end until the question is answered with the climax. The crisis or opporunity is fully resolved, with no possibility that things could reverse. Boy either gets with Girl, or he doesn't. The amazing thing that someone found changes the world, or it doesn't. The hero escapes from the wilderness, or he doesn't. The Good guy stops the Bad guy from blowing up the world with a Nuclear weapon, or he doesn't. For a story to be interesting, both the 'Yes' and 'No' answers must at least be plausible. A quest that is either literally impossible to win, or literally impossible to lose, is not interesting.
Anything after the climax is effectively an epilogue, usually just to let the audience see the protagonist basking in glory or wallowing in defeat. Like the prologue, this can be boring if it is stretched out, so a common technique to keep it interesting is to bring back something from the main plot. For instance, that henchman everyone forgot about shows up again, and the protagonist must defeat him to remain safe.
What goes between the inciting incident and the climax are a series of actions taken by the protagonist, or the opposing antagonistic forces (Which may be real, something abstract like the forces of nature, or even imaginary). The plot is driven each time the protagonist scores a victory (Making the 'No' answer less likely) or the opposing forces score a victory (Making the 'Yes' answer less likely).
At the climax either the protagonist or the antagonistic forces have won total victory over the other. Like a sports game between two almost evenly matched teams that take alternative turns in the lead, a story will be more gripping if the upper hand frequently switches between the protagonists and the antagonists.
The story is also made more gripping when the actions taken increase in drama from beginning to end, McKee notes it is not realistic for people to take anything more than a conservative step as the first thing they try to fix a problem.
In summary, my theory of what a story is simply is: "A crisis or opportunity upsets the order of balance in the life of the protagonist(s), forcing them to take a series of actions against the antagonistic forces that oppose them, until the protagonists either succeed or fail to get what they want."
I plan to do a follow up post at some stage specifically on how this theory applies to stories told in games. Stay tuned.