The second of two parts

Last week, I explained how my writing group set up its own workshop, and the first part of our session on openings for stories. (If you missed it, it is here). This week I explain what we learned from McKee’s, Story, about what goes in the middle.

We don’t want rules to follow: we’re looking for a process to help us say what we want to say, in the way we want to say it. For most of us, this doesn’t come without some study. In McKee’s words: “Yes, you can write a story without studying the theory – even a good one – but to write consistently good stories, you must learn the craft.”

As we talked, laughed and scribbled our way through the afternoon, these are the main points from McKee that we found most useful.


The best plots derive from characters gaining or losing something of critical importance to them (sometimes more than once) – this is their conflict. We reminded ourselves that conflict can be psychological (within the character’s mind); with other individuals (spouses, siblings); with society (legal or economic injustices for example), or with the environment (the challenge of a mountain, an earthquake).

The most common causes of conflict are money, love and power, but the stakes must be high enough to allow for emotional intensity and a build up of tension, or why should the reader care.

Core human values

High-stake conflicts arise from core human values i.e. qualities of human experience that can change from positive to negative, from one moment to the next. For example, love/hate, hope/despair  justice/injustice, strength/weakness. They are expressed in pairs of opposites because stories are about the swings from one to the other brought about by characters’ actions.

The action of the story (what happens to the character and what he or she does about it) is the cause of this swing or change in the core value – e.g. from love to hate or vice versa.

The Central Idea

The core value + the cause of change = the Central Idea of the Story. McKee describes this as the root meaning or statement about an aspect of human experience around which the story revolves.  For example, love may turn to hate through jealousy; hope to despair through a character’s weakness.

Every story has a Central Idea that:

  • Holds the story together, gives it consistency, force and purpose
  • Keeps actions relevant (a reader assumes every word in a story to be significant)
  • Holds the readers’ attention and allows deeper meaning to emerge

If we write down this Central Idea in one sentence, we can ensure that character and action support it and are woven tightly around it. The single sentence describes in what way (core value) and why (cause) the character’s life changes from one condition at the beginning of the story, to another at the end. It describes the arc of the story.

For a crime story for example, the Central Idea might be: “Justice is restored because the protagonist is smarter than the criminal.”

For the story to be convincing, the protagonist would ultimately win through brain power and forensics rather than by wielding a gun or a karate chop to the back of the neck – the character of Sherlock Holmes rather than Rambo.

Character through Plot

The plot is the writer’s choice of events to achieve the story arc and Central Idea. Character is revealed by events – actions, thoughts, dialogue – that change something (or set up change) for the character and his achievement of the core value. They may bring him closer, or make it more difficult for him to get what he wants.

Each time a character has to respond to a new pressure, an additional layer of character is revealed to the reader – sometimes to the character herself. These should be new insights into character, not repetition of traits already seen, and they may be contradictory and complex.

Each event creates a change for the character, either towards success (positive), or failure (negative). Tension is created by the pressure increasing with each change – the stakes getting higher – and by alternating the positive with the negative.

The Climax

The end of the story arc can be positive (happy), or negative (tragic), or ambivalent (the protagonist finds her biological mother but is disgusted by her; a character wreaks revenge but at huge personal cost), but there has to be some sort of climax that dramatises the story’s Central Idea.

We found identifying the Central Idea, and writing it in one sentence, the most difficult part. But afterwards, someone said, “Yes, I’ve got the central idea down, it’s what I was really trying to say, but my story isn’t saying that…I’m going to write another story that does.” We all made revisions to our stories that day. And we came up with the following summary.

A Process for plotting and/or revising stories

(1-4 are not necessarily in this order or in single steps, but they need to be known before 5-8)

  1. Identify your main character/protagonist
  2. Identify his/her conflict/s
  3. Write down the story’s central idea
  4. Decide on events (including antagonists and/or subplot) that will create pressures for the character (not all antagonists are human e.g. traffic, mechanical failure)
  5. Determine sequence of events to give alternating positive/negative results for the character
  6. Check that both positive and negative forces are strong (struggle, not a walk-over)
  7. This might be the stage to decide which point of view reveals the story best
  8. Review the story arc – does it flow and focus around the Central Idea
  9. Does the ending reflect previous events, create a climax of ultimate change, logically fit with the Central Idea, and satisfy the promised arc?

To all of this we add – in our unique voice:

  • Rich characterisation
  • Visual language and metaphor
  • Sub-plots and settings
  • Meaningful dialogue

You won’t be surprised to learn that we have decided we need a follow-up session on this topic, aimed at revising stories that have been languishing in a dark draw.

Sorry this is rather a long post; I thought it easier to follow in one big mouthful even though the chewing may take a while. I hope you have found something useful in it somewhere. And if you’ve already tried these ideas, I’d love to hear from you.

Group Act 2:DIY Writers Workshop