A Good Story Well Told

Shawn Coyne genre-infographic
“All writers must come to understand the relationship of story to life: Story is the metaphor for life,” says Bob McKee in Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting:

“A storyteller is a life poet, and artist who transforms day-to-day living, inner life and outer life, dream and actuality into a poem whose rhyme scheme is events rather than words — a two-hour metaphor that says: Life is like this!

Therefore, a story must abstract from life to discover its essences, but not become an abstraction that loses all sense of life-as-lived. A story must be like life, but not so verbatim that it has no depth or meaning beyond what's obvious to anyone on the street.”

He goes on to explain that fact are neutral, thus writers' job is to represent not life as it happened — this is fact — but to show what we think about what happened — this is truth. It's not enough to tell a good story, our goal is “a good story well told.”

Michael Lewis knows how to tell a good story well. The author of Moneyball, Liar's Poker, and Flash Boys has been no flash in the pan. The Big Short, which he published in 2011, tackles the common theme of “outsiders with innovative ideas who find astonishing success.” On Fresh Air, Lewis says:

“Everybody [on Wall Street] was working with the same set of facts about subprime mortgage lending — about how subprime mortgage loans were turned into bonds and repackaged and turned into CDOs and so on and so forth,” Lewis tells Terry Gross.

“[And] the vast majority of the people in the markets took those facts and painted one kind of picture with it; it was a very pleasant picture. And a very small handful of people took the same facts and painted a completely different kind of picture with it. [I wanted to find out] 'What is it that enables [the people who bet against the market] to paint that picture?' and 'Why do these people look at the world differently?' ”

They “were able to see the failures of the market before the rest of the world did because they viewed the world differently.” A good story well told entertains, captures the imagination, and is hard to put down. Director Adam McKay found it compelling. In a “lively kitchen-sink approach,” he retells it for audiences.

McKee says the elements of story need to work separately and then together to achieve what he defines “a good story well told.” Among the many possibilities each character has:

The mark of a master is to select only a few moments but give us a lifetime.

An interview about the making of “The Big Short” with an all star cast says actor Christian Bale even “learned to play double-kick drums” for the part that took nine days to film — compressing a lifetime into a few key moments.

The choices a writer must make according to McKee include the elements, separately and together, so that the effect is symphonic unity.

Structure — a selection of events from the characters' life stories that is composed into a strategic sequence to arouse specific emotions and to express a specific view of life.

A Story Event creates meaningful change in the life situation of a character that is expressed and experienced in terms of value.

Story values are the universal qualities of human experience that may shift from positive to negative, or negative to positive, from one moment to the next.

A story event creates meaningful change in the life situation of a character that is expressed and experienced in terms of value and achieved through conflict.

A scene is an action through conflict in more or less continuous time and space that turns the value-charged condition of a character's life on at least one value with a degree of perceivable significance. Ideally, every scene is a story event.

A beat is an exchange of behavior in action/reaction. Beat by Beat these changing behaviors shape the turning of a scene.

A sequence is a series of scenes — generally two to five — that culminates with greater impact that any previous scene.

An act is a series of sequences that peaks in a climatic scene which causes a major reversal of values, more powerful in its impact than any previous sequence or scene.

Story climax — a story is a series of acts that build to a last act climax or story climax which brings about absolute and irreversible change.

This can take the form of a closed or open ending based on whether the change answers all questions raised by the telling and satisfies all audience needs or not.

To plot means to navigate through the dangerous terrain of story and when confronted by a dozen branching possibilities to choose the correct path. Plot is the writer's choice of events and their design in time.

The structure spectrum of story outlined by McKee includes much greater specificity. For example, in The Big Short we have multiple active protagonists, an external conflict, and change. By using the information on the image in this post created by veteran writer and editor Shawn Coyne, we can also learn to deconstruct the story genre in more detail.


The NYT interview with the cast of “The Big Short” shines a light on how the actors had to ramp up their experience, technical skills, and subject-matter knowledge with story-based improvisation:

STEVE CARELL It was a different kind of improvisation. No one was searching for a joke, for a laugh. It was all character- and story-based. That’s where the information that we had to bone up on came into play. You have to be on point with this kind of improvisation.


GOSLING Adam really expected you to know the subject matter, too. He’d yell out things like, “Lay into him about your negative carry,” and I’d be like, [timidly] “Now?”


GOSLING But it also bonds all the actors in the scene, because you’re all immediately working without a net.

CARELL It forces you to listen to one another. You’re not anticipating what you have to say or going through your jargon in your head trying to get it right before it comes to you. It was fun, and very similar in certain ways to “Anchorman,” because we had that freedom to explore.

The story itself is about four outsiders seeing something nobody else does — the subprime mortgage collapse — and betting against the market. This is the Story Event. Shawn Coyne says:

A Story Event is a meaningful change in the life of the central character. And that change must be expressed as a polar value—life/death, lie/truth, cold/hot, strength/weakness, courage/cowardice, loyalty/betrayal, wisdom/stupidity, known/unknown etc.


For a deeper dive to learn what good editors know about crafting a good story well told, I also recommend The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne, a 25-year veteran editor who set out to write the book he wished he had when he started.

Much of this material available at his blog for free. But the real value of having the book is the depth and breadth of his knowledge about why story works in one place, easy to reference and annotate. I'm a huge believer in using systems and frameworks to get things done — this is the essential framework to understand how to develop a proper draft so that the story works.


[image courtesy Shawn Coyne]


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *