According to Robert McKee, there are 8 essential stages every story moves through:
- Target audience = A meaningful emotional effect
- Subject matter = Balance
- Inciting Incidence = Imbalance
- Object of desire = Need
- First action = Tactical choice
- Reaction = Violation of expectation
- Crisis choice = Insight
- Climactic reaction = closure
He lays these 8 stages of story design out clearly in his book Storynomics. Here’s my summary:
Target audience = A meaningful emotional effect
Who is your audience? And how will the story make them feel and think?
Subject matter = Balance
What value is the protagonist’s life anchored in? What time, and in which physical and social world does he live in? While there might be minor ups and downs, overall the value it’s balanced, more or less neutral, it all evens out.
Inciting incident = Imbalance
What unforeseen incident upsets the balance of the core character’s life? It’s a radical change that puts the character under pressure. It can be a turn for the good or bad.
The object of desire = An unfulfilled need
How does the core character want to get his life back in balance? It’s the object of desire that the core character believes will help him accomplish this. The object of desire can be, but doesn’t have to be an actual physical object.
The first action = Tactical choice
What does the core character do to rebalance his life? How does he act in order to get a reaction from his world that will get him (or at least move him closer to) his object of desire?
The first reaction = The violation of expectation
What unforeseen antagonistic forces block the protagonist’s efforts? What’s the gap that cracked open between what he thought would happen and what did happen? How does this reaction move the protagonist farther from his goal?
The crisis choice = Insight
What does the protagonist learn from the first reaction? Now that he’s in even greater jeopardy of losing his object of desire, what second action does he choose? Note that this second action must be more difficult and more risky than the first action, but it’s the action that the protagonist believes gives him the best chances of getting him what he wants.
Climactic reaction = Closure
What climactic reaction happens that grants the protagonist his object of desire? How does it restore the core character’s life to balance, and end the story?