Seeing Our Secular Version of the Story We Are in Through the Eight Stages of Story

As you American’s say, “Let’s just take this bull by the horns.”

Here it is. We’ll lay out for you our story triangle tension. We’ll look square at our version of the story we are in—that is the secular version of the human story through McKee’s eight stages of story.

And remember, this is the story of those opponents of yours on the far side of your great divide…

Stage One: The Audience

Again, here is how McKee describes this first stage…

Robert McKee: Stage one of the creation of a story is deciding on the target audience, that target audience’s need, even if they don’t know what they need. You know what they need and once they have what they they’re be happy to have it. 

Why Is Robert McKee’s Marketing Strategy The Only One That Works?, By Bruce Weinstein, Forbes, March 20, 2018


Before an author composes his story, he needs a clear vision of his audience and the final effect his work will have on both their thoughts and feelings.

Storynomics, By Robert McKee and Tom Gerace

And that fits with what Shawn Coyne calls the Internal and External Content genres…

1. EXTERNAL CONTENT GENRES define your protagonist(s) external objects of desire. 

What they want. 

2. INTERNAL CONTENT GENRES define your protagonist(s) internal objects of desire. 

What they need. 

Shawn Coyne, The Story Grid

So, who is the target audience in the story?


We all have needs and wants.

We are driven through life by our needs and wants. So must the characters we create be motivated by what they want. The driving force of characters is their desire.

Sol Stein, Stein On Writing

Our culture tends to respond to the question “Who am I?” by asking “Who do you feel like?” and “What do you want?” Desire, especially sexual desire, is at least something that seems authentically our own. We identify with our consumption, sexual consumption perhaps most of all. And even in our de-divinized time, eros retains a hint of divine madness. But the death of God has made materialists of us.

Self-Creation or God’s Creation? Mistaken Identities and Nietzsche’s Madman, by Nathanael Blake, Public Discourse, June 20th, 2018

My core identity involves my deepest desires about who I am and who I long to be. When I give it careful thought, I realize that my deeper longings are not simply vacation longings. I want something more. I want to be a certain kind of person. I want a life that is centered on what is real, what is beautiful, and what is good. I want a life filled with relationships with other people that are characterized by trust, love, security, and fun. My deeper longings are for something much more than comfort and pleasure.

Gregory E. Ganssle, Our Deepest Desires

Stage Two: The Balance

So, here again is Stage Two…

Powerful stories will not grow in arid ground. A setting must be prepared. So once the reader/audience is in sight, storytellers build their tales from the bottom up, starting at the foundations of their story’s world, preparing for the telling step by step. 

Storynomics, By Robert McKee and Tom Gerace

Subject matter for a story contains three major components: a physical and social setting, a protagonist, and a core value. Life offers the storyteller an infinite variety of each. 

Storynomics, By Robert McKee and Tom Gerace

And you can see, by the following descriptions from McKee, how story begins with a balance – which then gets upset…

In McKee’s description, this is what a story is: a human being is living a life that is more or less in balance. Then comes the “inciting incident.” (McKee borrows the phrase from “Theory and Technique of Playwriting and Screenwriting,” which was written in the late forties by John Howard Lawson, the first president of the Screen Writers Guild, and an inspiration to McKee.) The protagonist reacts, his life falls out of balance, and he now has had aroused in him a conscious or unconscious desire for whatever it is that will restore balance—“launching him on a quest for his object of desire against the forces of antagonism.”

The Real McKee, by Ian Parker, The New Yorker, October 20, 2003

So what is a story?

Essentially, a story expresses how and why life changes. It begins with a situation in which life is relatively in balance: You come to work day after day, week after week, and everything’s fine. You expect it will go on that way. But then there’s an event—in screenwriting, we call it the “inciting incident”—that throws life out of balance. You get a new job, or the boss dies of a heart attack, or a big customer threatens to leave. The story goes on to describe how, in an effort to restore balance, the protagonist’s subjective expectations crash into an uncooperative objective reality. A good storyteller describes what it’s like to deal with these opposing forces, calling on the protagonist to dig deeper, work with scarce resources, make difficult decisions, take action despite risks, and ultimately discover the truth. 

Storytelling That Moves People, A Conversation with Screenwriting Coach Robert McKee by Bronwyn Fryer,Harvard Business Review, June 2003

Story is a whole other mode of thinking. Story is rooted in causal logic. A story is X happens, and in reaction to X, Y happens, and because of Y, Z happens. The story is a dynamic way of understanding life as a dynamic of positive and negative changes of value charge, driven by the forces of conflict in life, in an effort to restore the balance of life. And so a story begins when something throws life out of balance, and everything to restore the balance discovers the truth of life, which is that there are forces in opposition to you that will resist your efforts to restore the balance, counteract your effects, even reverse your efforts. As you struggle through that, eventually you will be able to know enough truth to be able to restore balance.

Thinking like that means thinking in stories.


Our Core Value Problem

Subject matter for a story contains three major components: a physical and social setting, a protagonist, and a core value. Life offers the storyteller an infinite variety of each. 

Storynomics, By Robert McKee and Tom Gerace

Paula caught my attention right away, when she showed me how the core value is the first step of Stage Two…

Identifying the consumer’s unfulfilled need in Stage One leads to the first step of Stage Two: identifying the core value that best dramatizes the solution to this problem, the cure to this pain.

Storynomics, By Robert McKee and Tom Gerace

That was shocking, because you can imagine how Paula and I began to feel uncomfortable as we explored the binary core value matter.

And after all, our nonplot narrative version of the story we are in has no core value.

What would it be?

Is it possible it is loyal love/betrayal, like it is in the Christian version of the story we are in?

If the deepest human desires line up with the Core Value of the Christian Story—loyal love/betrayal, wouldn’t you think there would be a pattern in the most popular movies coming out of Hollywood? Wouldn’t these be the best movies, the best stories, the ones crowds flock to? And wouldn’t those stories be enduring, famous, award winning shows over a long period of time?

Well, for icing on our loyal love/betrayal archplot human desire cake, let me show you something Paula discovered, which blew me away.

It looks like the story in every one of the films which have won an Academy Award for Best Picture involves love, loyalty, and betrayal, in some significant way.

Here is a list of movies which have won the award since it began in 1927…

1927/28  Wings

1928/29  The Broadway Melody

1929/30  All Quiet on the Western Front

1930/31  Cimarron

1931/32  Grand Hotel

1932/33  Cavalcade

1934  It Happened One Night

1935  Mutiny on the Bounty

1936  The Great Ziegfeld

1937  The Life of Emile Zola

1938  You Can’t Take It With You

1939  Gone with the Wind

1940  Rebecca

1941  How Green Was My Valley

1942  Mrs. Miniver

1943  Casablanca

1944  Going My Way

1945  The Lost Weekend

1946  The Best Years of Our Lives

1947  Gentleman’s Agreement

1948  Hamlet

1949  All the King’s Men

1950  All About Eve

1951  An American in Paris

1952  The Greatest Show on Earth

1953  From Here to Eternity

1954  On the Waterfront

1955  Marty

1956  Around the World in 80 Days

1957  The Bridge on the River Kwai

1958  Gigi

1958  Ben-Hur

1960  The Apartment

1961  West Side Story

1962  Lawrence of Arabia

1963  Tom Jones

1964  My Fair Lady

1965  The Sound of Music

1966  A Man for All Seasons

1967  In the Heat of the Night

1968  Oliver!

1969  Midnight Cowboy

1970  Patton

1971  The French Connection

1972  The Godfather

1973  The Sting

1974  The Godfather Part II

1975  One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

1976  Rocky

1977  Annie Hall

1978  The Deer Hunter

1979  Kramer vs. Kramer

1980  Ordinary People

1981  Chariots of Fire

1982  Gandhi

1983  Terms of Endearment

1984  Amadeus

1985  Out of Africa

1986  Platoon

1987  The Last Emperor

1988  Rain Man

1989  Driving Miss Daisy

1990  Dances with Wolves

1991  The Silence of the Lambs

1992  Unforgiven

1993  Schindler’s List

1994  Forrest Gump

1995  Braveheart

1996  The English Patient

1997  Titanic

1998  Shakespeare in Love

1999  American Beauty

2000  Gladiator

2001  A Beautiful Mind

2002  Chicago

2003  The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

2004  Million Dollar Baby

2005  Crash

2006  The Departed

2007  No Country for Old Men

2008  Slumdog Millionaire

2009  The Hurt Locker

2010  The King’s Speech

2011  The Artist

2012  Argo

2013  12 Years a Slave

2014  Birdman

2015  Spotlight

2016  Moonlight

2017 The Shape of Water

Loyal love/betrayal is there in every one of them.

That stunned us.

You see, our team is addicted to Korean dramas, so many of which are loyal love/betrayal stories.

But the movies which won the Academy Award for Best Picture?

That surprised us.

It looks like human beings are deeply connected to the core value of loyal love/betrayal.

This love, loyalty, betrayal stuff just seems like it doesn’t want to go away in our story.

But even considering that possibility creates such tension for our love relationship, because if meaning is our raw nerve in the secular version of the story we are in, how can love bring real meaning to our lives?

And yet, here in our stories, that loyal love/betrayal binary core value just doesn’t go away.

It’s there.

Our Physical and Social Setting Tension

Subject matter for a story contains three major components: a physical and social setting, a protagonist, and a core value. Life offers the storyteller an infinite variety of each. 

Storynomics, By Robert McKee and Tom Gerace

So, our team is now wondering if this change taking place in your society is somehow an indirect result of our story war victory…

The divine sources of transcendent identity and meaning were gone, along with the murdered God. The cosmos had been shattered; creation was no longer created. There is no higher meaning to life, the universe, and everything. Mankind no longer had a given place within the universe, but was merely a minuscule, purposeless development within it.

Self-Creation or God’s Creation? Mistaken Identities and Nietzsche’s Madman, by Nathanael Blake, Public Discourse, June 20th, 2018

Paula showed us some troubling things she found…

For if the created universe has no positive value whatsoever, then nothing in it has positive value. If the parts of the universe had value, then, as the sum of its parts, the universe would have positive value. But if nothing in the universe has value, human life has no value.

Thomas V. Morris , Our Idea of God: An Introduction to Philosophical Theology 

In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.

Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker

In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.

Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden

That’s right; that’s what I’m saying: We are not here for any purpose. Of course, we all have our own little purposes in life that we choose and that make our lives meaningful in the emotional sense. But if we’re interested in the question of whether life is ultimately meaningful, rather than whether it’s potentially emotionally meaningful, well after Darwin, there is no reason at all to suppose that it is – there is no reason to assume that life has any ultimate meaning or purpose.

The Meaning of Life Revealed! Evolution and the ultimate purpose of life, by Steve Stewart-Williams, Psychology Today, January 8, 2011

Our deep desire for meaning is so freaky, given the narrative we occupy.

Our Protagonist Problem

Subject matter for a story contains three major components: a physical and social setting, a protagonist, and a core value. Life offers the storyteller an infinite variety of each. 

Storynomics, By Robert McKee and Tom Gerace

So, who is the protagonist in our nonplot version of the story we are in?

There isn’t one.

And yet, because we all see our lives as a story, we see ourselves as the core character in our story.

Identity matters…

In the realm of narrative psychology, a person’s life story is not a Wikipedia biography of the facts and events of a life, but rather the way a person integrates those facts and events internally—picks them apart and weaves them back together to make meaning. This narrative becomes a form of identity, in which the things someone chooses to include in the story, and the way she tells it, can both reflect and shape who she is.  A life story doesn’t just say what happened, it says why it was important, what it means for who the person is, for who they’ll become, and for what happens next.

Life’s Stories, by Julie Beck, The Atlantic, August 10, 2015

And that moves us to wonder about the simple, but astonishingly powerful story question… 

Who are we, here in the story?

We just can’t run away from it.

Such a beautiful song. Yet, the reality of being nothing more than dust in the wind is incredibly depressing. This Toby Turner guy really gets it…

When you look through the simple lens of story, we are forced to face this reality: That question of our foundational identity as human beings is deeply connected to the raw nerve of meaning.

Nietzsche it was who showed in its fullest sense how thoroughly problematical is the nature of man: he can never be understood as an animal species within the zoological order of nature, because he has broken free of nature and has thereby posed the question of his own meaning – and with it the meaning of nature as well — as his destiny.

William Barrett, Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy

The admonition Know yourself was carved on the temple portal at Delphi, as testimony to a basic truth to be adopted as a minimal norm by those who seek to set themselves apart from the rest of creation as “human beings”, that is as those who “know themselves”. Moreover, a cursory glance at ancient history shows clearly how in different parts of the world, with their different cultures, there arise at the same time the fundamental questions which pervade human life: Who am I? Where have I come from and where am I going? Why is there evil? What is there after this life? … They are questions which have their common source in the quest for meaning which has always compelled the human heart. In fact, the answer given to these questions decides the direction which people seek to give to their lives.

John Paul II, Fides et ratio: To the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the relationship between Faith and Reason, 1998.09.14

Twenty-five hundred years ago, the Buddha taught his followers to ignore all such wonderings because they flow from the false premise that the self exists, when in fact it does not. The sense of “me,” he believed, is an illusionary side effect of uncountable, ever-shifting physical and sensory forces.

About the same time, Socrates argued the opposite view. He taught his students that the self not only exists, but you cannot live a meaningful, civilized life without making every effort to know who you are.

Robert McKee, Dialogue

So let me show you some of what we’ve found related to who we are, here in the Nonplot narrative version of our story…

Darwin showed that we don’t need to posit any kind of foresight or future-directed purpose underlying the apparent design in the biological world. In doing so, he showed us that there is no reason to think that there is a teleological answer to the question of why we are here. There is only a historical one.

Thus, evolutionary theory provides answers to both senses of the question of why we are here, the historical and the teleological:

Historical: We are here because we evolved.

Teleological: We are not here for any purpose.

The Meaning of Life Revealed! Evolution and the ultimate purpose of life, by Steve Stewart-Williams, Psychology Today, January 8, 2011

If man as the existentialist sees him is not definable, it is because to begin with he is nothing. He will not be anything until later, and then he will be what he makes of himself. Thus, there is no human nature, because there is no God to have a conception of it. Man simply is.

Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism Is a Humanism, Lecture Given in 1946

Philosophers consider Ockham the chief exponent of nominalism, a powerful philosophical movement which taught that universal concepts only exist in our minds – they don’t exist in reality. Thus, to take an obvious and crucial example, nominalists contend that there is no such thing as “human nature.” “Human nature” is simply the description, the name (hence “nominalism”), that we give to our experience of common features among human beings. The only things that exist are particulars.

George Weigel, The Cube and the Cathedral

And here’s a description of the balance in the secular version of the story which seemed to be in harmony with the way of seeing described above —  even though the author of the description doesn’t happen to be an atheist…

To the question, ‘Why are we here?’ the answer is silence.

We, members of the species Homo sapiens, are wrong to believe that our questions and answers, hopes and dreams, have any significance whatsoever. They are fictions dressed up to look like facts. We have no souls. Even our selves are fictions. All we have are sensations, and even these are mere by-products of evolution. Thought, imagination, philosophy, art: these are dramas in the theatre of the mind designed to divert and distract us while truth lies elsewhere. For thoughts are no more than electrical impulses in the brain, and the brain is merely a complicated piece of meat, an organism. The human person is a self-created fiction. The human body is a collection of cells designed by genes, themselves incapable of thought, whose only purpose is blindly to replicate themselves over time.

Humans might write novels, compose symphonies, help those in need, and pray, but all this is a delicately woven tapestry of illu­sions. People might imagine themselves as if on a stage under the watchful eye of infinity, but there is no one watching. There is no one to watch. There is no self-conscious life anywhere else, either within the universe or beyond. There is nothing beyond sheer random happenstance. Humans are no more significant, and less successful at adapting to their environment, than the ants. They came, they will go, and it will be as if they had never been. Why are we here? We just are.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning

And look at this…

A world without a Creator, without any inspiring intellect, with mockery for the human spirit and soul, views the human being as merely a lump of stuff with no more substance than a sack of earth.

Lose the Story, Lose the Culture, By Michael Novak, National Review, July 2, 2016

And there are plenty of people who recognize us as nothing more than animals…

Well, I wouldn’t say all of you dress up! But seriously, are you asking if humans are animals? If so, the answer is yes-s-s-s-s-s-s-s-s!!!

Are humans considered animals?

Well, I wouldn’t say all of you dress up! But seriously, are you asking if humans are animals? If so, the answer is yes-s-s-s-s-s-s-s-s!!!

Scientists describe virtually everything that is alive as animal or plant. So, if you’re not a plant then you are an animal! In fact, you are a specific kind of animal called a mammal. Know what you all have in common? Your mothers have breast milk that can feed young; you have hair or fur; and you are born live instead of inside an egg or case! In fact, human mammals are born not only alive — but kicking and screaming!

Discovery Kids, Discovery Channel

Even though you are reading this on a sophisticated electronic device, you are an animal. That’s the most radical idea to come out of Charles Darwin’s groundbreaking studies of evolution, and even today, it still freaks people out.

I know this because last week I wrote an article about all the pieces of evidence that suggest humans have become domestic animals, which I thought was a fairly non-controversial claim. Among evolutionary biologists, it certainly is. Just as agriculture and a sedentary life have changed the genomes of dogs, cows, sheep and chickens, they have also changed ours. But after the article posted, many people responded to say that they didn’t like my casual use of the phrase “domestic animal” to describe Homo sapiens.

Yes, Humans Are Animals — So Just Get Over Yourselves, Homo sapiens, by Annalee Newitz, io9, June 10, 2014

Contemporary secular society has rendered human beings less significant than at any time in Western history.

First, the secular denial that human beings are created in God’s image has led to humans increasingly being equated with animals. That is why over the course of 30 years of asking high school seniors if they would first try to save their dog or a stranger, two-thirds have voted against the person. They either don’t know what they would do or actually vote for their dog. Many adults now vote similarly.

The case for Judeo-Christian values: Part IV, by Dennis Prager, The Dennis Prager Show, February 08, 2005

And consider how the world’s most famous atheist (agnostic now?), Richard Dawkins, talks about human beings

“Human beings are not just like great apes. They are great apes. We are African apes.”

And in light of that, notice the following observation by the Christian philosopher Peter Kreeft…

If there is no God, there is no ultimate meaning to life. If we came ultimately from nothing and die ultimately into nothing, we are ultimately nothing. If we are made in the image of God, we are the children of the King of Kings. But if we are made only in the image of King Kong, we are only clever apes.

Peter Kreeft, Catholic Christianity

And now take a look at the following ESPN video clip about racism in European soccer. Notice how the Europeans often show their disrespect to the players by referring to them as monkeys:

So, if Dawkins believes the same thing about the European soccer players as the racist fans do, what would the European soccer players say about what Dawkins believes about them?

And what would Barack Obama say about what Dawkins believes about him?

And while we’re at it, consider the following from Darwin’s book, The Descent of Man …

At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world. At the same time theanthropomorphous apes, as Professor Schaaffhausen has remarked (18. ‘Anthropological Review,’ April 1867, p.236.), will no doubt be exterminated. The break between man and his nearest allies will then be wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilised state, as we may hope, even than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as now between the negro or Australian and the gorilla.

And connect all that to this, from David Walker’s famous Appeal …

See the inconsistency of the assertions of those wretches–they beat us inhumanely, sometimes almost to death, for attempting to inform ourselves, by reading the Word of our Maker, and at the same time tell us, that we are beings void of intellect!!!! How admirably their practices agree with their professions in this case. Let me cry shame upon you Americans, for such outrages upon human nature!!! If it were possible for the whites always to keep us ignorant and miserable, and make us work to enrich them and their children, and insult our feelings by representing us as talking Apes, what would they do? But glory, honour and praise to Heaven’s King, that the sons and daughters of Africa, will, in spite of all the opposition of their enemies, stand forth in all the dignity and glory that is granted by the Lord to his creature man.

David Walker, Walker’s Appeal, in Four Articles; Together with a Preamble, to the Coloured Citizens of the World, but in Particular, and Very Expressly, to Those of the United States of America, Written in Boston, State of Massachusetts, September 28, 1828

And consider the connection with the view of human significance held by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. 

Holmes is a pretty important guy in the American story. He used to be a United States Supreme Court Justice.In fact, although he died in 1935, he is regarded in many legal circles as America’s greatest jurist, and before the advent of President Obama, was perhaps the most famous alumnus of Harvard Law School.

Here is what he believed…

I see no reason for attributing to a man a significance different in kind from that which belongs to a baboon or to a grain of sand.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., quoted in A Century of Skepticism, by Albert W. Alschuler, First Things (February 2002)

Step back from that and see what he’s saying. You and I are no more valuable or significant than a grain of sand — or a baboon.

And it all means nothing.

That’s our version of the story we are in.

Stage Three: The Inciting Incident

Here again is some of what McKee says about Stage Three…

The inciting incident is an unforeseen event that starts the story by upsetting the balance of the core character’s life. The neutral charge of its core value turns sharply positive or negative. Either way, this radical change puts the character under pressure. 

Storynomics, By Robert McKee and Tom Gerace

Definition: The inciting incident launches a story by upsetting the equilibrium of the protagonist’s life and throwing the story’s core value either positively or negatively, but decisively, out of kilter. This turning point initiates the events that follow and propels the protagonist into action. 

Storynomics, By Robert McKee and Tom Gerace

And here is something else McKee says about Stage Three…

[T]he protagonist holds reasonable sovereignty over her existence – until something happens that radically upsets that equilibrium.

We call this event the inciting incident.

To incite means to start; “incident” means “event.”

This first major event starts the story by throwing the protagonist’s life out of kilter.

Robert McKee, Dialogue

So, if our Nonplot narrative version of the story begins and ends in nothingness, what is the inciting incident?

Is the point at which human beings became conscious beings?

For instance, consider this dialogue from the hit television series True Detective.

Notice how Matthew McConaughey’s character, Rustin Cohle, explains his version of the story and who he thinks we are in the middle of it…

Rust: Look I consider myself a realist, alright? But I but in philosophical terms I’m what’s called a “Pessimist.”

Marty: Umm… alright, what’s that mean?

Rust: It means I’m bad at parties.

I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self-aware. Nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself. We are creatures that should not exist by natural law.

Marty: Umm…that sounds G– F—ing awful Rust.

Rust:  We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self…a secretion of sensory experience and feeling, programmed with total assurance that we are each s-o-m-e-b-o-d-y, when in fact everybody’s nobody.

I think the honorable thing for our species to do is to deny our programming… stop reproducing. Walk hand in hand into extinction. One last midnight, brothers and sisters, opting out of a raw deal.

Marty: So (chuckling), what’s the point of getting out of bed in the morning?

Rust: I tell myself I bear witness. But the real answer is that it’s obviously my programming. And I lack the constitution for suicide. I’ve got a bad taste in my mouth out here….aluminum …ash.

So, is that our inciting incident?

It’s certainly massive change.

But is there really any ultimate meaning in that massive change?

What isn’t obvious is that nothing is really solved by getting rid of God, though that is the standard move at this point. I say this because removing God from the equation, though understandable, does nothing to eliminate the problem that caused someone to doubt God’s existence in the first place. God is gone, but the original problem remains. The world is still as broken. Atheism settles nothing on this matter. 

What now is the atheist to do? Nothing has really changed. Things still are not the way they’re supposed to be, so the atheist continues to be plagued with the same problem he started with. But given a Godless, physical universe, the idea that things are not as they should be makes little sense. How can something go wrong when there was no right way for it to be in the first place? 

Greg Koukl, The Story of Reality

Stage Four: The Object of Desire

Here again is Stage Four …

When the CORE CHARACTER senses that the inciting incident has thrown his life out of balance and into jeopardy, he naturally wants to set life back on an even keel. To do so, he conceives of an object of desire. This essential component of all stories is defined as that which the core character feels he must obtain to rebalance his life.

Storynomics, By Robert McKee and Tom Gerace

In the wake of this starting event, the protagonist senses a sudden, radical, possibly dangerous tilt in the ground he stands on, and so conceives of an object of desire, that which he feels he must have in order to put his life back on an even keel. This could be something physical like a hike in pay, a product innovation, or the right person to love; something situational like a job promotion, a divorce, or revenge for an injustice; or something ideational like a deeper insight into himself, a higher goal in his career, or a faith to live by. From story to story, no two objects of desire are quite the same; ideally, each is unique and specific to its tale. 

Storynomics, By Robert McKee and Tom Gerace

So in our version of the story, the object of desire, at its most basic level, is the need and desire to survive, since this life is all there is.

And as Robert McKee points out, from it flows the need for order…

McKee: The desire in human beings for order, for meaning, to understand causal connections, the desire to control your existence is genetic, all right? Because the underlying imperative of life is to survive, and chaos is the enemy. Therefore you must bring order. You must be able to predict, you must be able to take an action with a sense of what will probably happen when you take the action, and have some confidence that you’ll get the results you intended, or you’re out of control and therefore death is right around the corner. The classical model shows retroactively, when you get to the ending, how indeed everything was connected, and gives you a model for experience that, somehow, will help you live well.


But as real human beings live out their lives as protagonists in their story, they aren’t satisfied with the object of desire being simply bringing order out of chaos…

An artist intent on creating works of lasting quality comes to realize that life isn’t about subtle adjustments to stress, or hyper-conflicts of master criminals with stolen nuclear devices holding cities for ransom. Life is about the ultimate questions of finding love and self-worth, of bringing serenity to inner chaos, of the titanic social inequities everywhere around us, of time running out. Life is conflict. That is its nature.

Robert McKee, Story

Rumpus: But there are different truths. If you tell about truth from the point of view of the human, then yes, story makes sense, but you can also tell the truth about the universe as abstracted from the human.

McKee: Well there are certain things we do know, no matter what your point of view. You’re going to die. You live in the flux of time. Everything you create in this life is going to be destroyed, and you too are going to be destroyed. Those don’t change no matter what your point of view. But you’re obligated to make meaning, even if the meaning is absurd. 


But if the balance is that we just are, then that certainly contributes to the following tension…

“This comment, however, leads me to wonder: What do you mean by meant? Given the final futility of our struggle, is the fleeting jolt of meaning that art gives us valuable? Or is the only value in passing the time as comfortably as possible? What should a story seek to emulate, Augustus? A ringing alarm? A call to arms? A morphine drip? Of course, like all interrogation of the universe, this line of inquiry inevitable reduces us to asking what it means to be human and whether – to borrow a phrase from the angst-encumbered sixteen-year-olds you no doubt revile – there is a point to it all.”

John Green, The Fault In Our Stars

Stage Five: The First Action

Here it is again…


PRIME PRINCIPLE: TACTICAL CHOICE To rebalance his life, the core character takes an action, a tactic designed to cause a positive, enabling reaction from his world that will either deliver his object of desire or at the very least move him toward it.

Storynomics, By Robert McKee and Tom Gerace

So, in our boring, Nonplot narrative, what is the first action?

What would it have been? Since there’s no story there, it’s an absurd question because there is no meaningful action to take. Sure, you might be able to make a bit of difference here and there around the edges to lengthen your survival. But, why? What does it ultimately matter if you live this long…or that long?

See how depressing this is?

Stage Six: The Forces of Antagonism

Again, Stage Five, was the first action. And Stage Six is the first reaction…

Reality suddenly violates the CORE CHARACTER’S expectation. Instead of getting a helpful reaction from his world, the protagonist finds that antagonistic forces very different from and more powerful than he anticipated rise up to block the protagonist’s efforts. A gap cracks open between what he subjectively thought would happen and what objectively does happen. This unforeseen reaction knocks him back even farther from his goal. 

Storynomics, By Robert McKee and Tom Gerace

When a character’s world suddenly reacts differently and/or more powerfully than he imagined, this violation of expectation delivers a jolt of surprise, followed by a rush of insight. The clash between what he thinks will happen and the result he actually gets jolts him and splits open his reality. The character stares, as it were, into the gap between his subjective anticipation and its objective result. Then with a rush of insight, he suddenly glimpses how his world actually works; how its unforeseen forces of antagonism now block his path. 

The phrase forces of antagonism does not necessarily name a villain, per se. Villains inhabit certain genres, and in his proper place an archvillain, such as the Terminator, can be a wonderful antagonist. Rather, forces of antagonism simply refers to the various negative obstacles that arise out of any conflict, corporeal or situational. 

Storynomics, By Robert McKee and Tom Gerace

But if the first action, whatever it might have been, is ultimately meaningless, then the first reaction, whatever it may have been, was the same.

So, you picked this cancer drug instead of that one as an action to lengthen your life. It didn’t work…so what?

But, even more depressing, it did work, and it’s still…so what?

Stage Seven: The Crisis

Again, Stage Seven of story is about crisis…

Stage Seven brings the story to its crisis, the highest level of tension and suspense.

Storynomics, By Robert McKee and Tom Gerace

So, what is the crisis in our Nonplot narrative version of the story?

The answer’s no better than the ones before…another story question, another depressing nonplot problem for us. In fact, sometimes it feels like this is the answer to that question…

The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind

The answer is blowin’ in the wind

But, if survival is ultimately the object of desirein our Nonplot narrative version of the story we are in, is it possible the famous writer David Foster Wallace describes the crisis in our version of the story?

“Maybe it’s not metaphysics. Maybe it’s existential. I’m talking about the individual US citizen’s deep fear, the same basic fear that you and I have and that everybody has except nobody ever talks about it except existentialists in convoluted French prose. Or Pascal. Our smallness, our insignificance and mortality, yours and mine, the thing that we all spend all our time not thinking about directly, that we are tiny and at the mercy of large forces and that time is always passing and that every day we’ve lost one more day that will never come back and our childhoods are over and our adolescence and the vigor of youth and soon our adulthood, that everything we see around us all the time is decaying and passing, it’s all passing away, and so are we, so am I, and given how fast the first forty-two years have shot by it’s not going to be long before I too pass away, whoever imagined that there was a more truthful way to put it than “die,” “pass away,” the very sound of it makes me feel the way I feel at dusk on a wintry Sunday–

David Foster Wallace, The Pale King

I felt despair. The word’s overused and banalified now, despair, but it’s a serious word, and I’m using it seriously. For me it denotes a simple admixture — a weird yearning for death combined with a crushing sense of my own smallness and futility that presents as a fear of death. It’s maybe close to what people call dread or angst. But it’s not these things, quite. It’s more like wanting to die in order to escape the unbearable feeling of becoming aware that I’m small and weak and selfish and going without any doubt at all to die. It’s wanting to jump overboard.

David Foster Wallace, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again

He did jump overboard. And since our team has become a fan of Foster Wallace, we think about that choice all the time. My best friend, Hector Klumpp, says David Foster Wallace is his favorite author. And, as only Hector can put a phrase, he says,

“I carry him with me all the time…

So depressing, yet sublime…”

To see this more clearly, consider again what Robert McKee says about the crisis…

This scene reveals the story’s most important value.

Robert McKee, Story

So, shall we keep pursuing happiness here in the middle of our story… or simply end the story?

Would choosing to return to nothingness be a form of infinite jest? What will we decide? Because in the end it feels like the following song…

Stage Eight: The Climax

So, again, here is the last of the Eight Stages of Story…

At climax, the story’s final event changes the core value’s charge absolutely and the character’s life returns to balance. 

Storynomics, By Robert McKee and Tom Gerace

At climax, the protagonist’s final choice of action causes the reaction she hoped for. She gets what she wants and needs as her world delivers her object of desire and restores her life to an even more perfect balance than when the story began. The story achieves closure – all questions answered, all emotion satisfied.

Storynomics, By Robert McKee and Tom Gerace

So, consider how it fits with what Shawn Coyne writes…

Lastly, there is INTEGRATION, which I would call the very end of a Story — INTEGRATION dramatizes resolution. We’ve found a new stability, one that is vastly different than where we began. We’ve got a whole new outlook on life and we’re not the same person we once were. At INTEGRATION, we have come full circle and have recovered from the SHOCK of a big Inciting Incident in our life, no matter what, by the end of the Story we will never go back to where or who we were before.

Shawn Coyne, The Story Grid

And Robert McKee says that “Because of the Inciting Incident, the Climax had to happen.”

So, what if True Detective truly lays it out?… 

Rust: I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self-aware. Nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself. We are creatures that should not exist by natural law.

Marty: Umm…that sounds G– F—ing awful Rust.

Rust:  We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self…a secretion of sensory experience and feeling, programmed with total assurance that we are each s-o-m-e-b-o-d-y, when in fact everybody’s nobody.

I think the honorable thing for our species to do is to deny our programming… stop reproducing. Walk hand in hand into extinction. One last midnight, brothers and sisters, opting out of a raw deal.

Rust Cohle – Philosophy of Pessimism (True Detective)

And that, at least, would fit this insight from McKee…

Out of this upheaval, you must find, at Climax, a resolution … that rearranges this universe into a new order.

Robert McKee, Story

So, if all we are is animals, atoms, or dust in the wind, then the Climax of our story… is Death.

That’s the new order!

And here’s how the British writer Martin Amis, writing to his close friend, the now deceased atheist Christopher Hitchens, connected up with the climax of the story of humanity…

Anyway, we do know what is going to happen to you, and to everyone else who will ever live on this planet. Your corporeal existence, O Hitch, derives from the elements released by supernovae, by exploding stars. Stellar fire was your womb, and stellar fire will be your grave: a just course for one who has always blazed so very brightly. The parent star, that steady-state H-bomb we call the sun, will eventually turn from yellow dwarf to red giant, and will swell out to consume what is left of us, about six billion years from now.

Amis on Hitchens: ‘He’s one of the most terrifying rhetoricians the world has seen’, The Observer, April 24, 2011

And consider how Bertrand Russell takes us to a way of seeing the meaninglessness of it all…

All the labor of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noon-day brightness of human genius are destined to extinction in the fast death of the solar system. The whole temple of man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruin. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation, henceforth, be safely built.

Bertrand Russell, Mysticism and Logic

Since death and personal extinction is the climax of our version of the story, it means the ending of irreversible change for us is nothingness…

It is almost irresistible for humans to believe that we have some special relation to the universe, that human life is not just a more or less farcical outcome of a chain of accidents reaching back to the first three minutes, but that we were somehow built in from the beginning… It is very hard to realise that this is all just a tiny part of an overwhelmingly hostile universe … It is even harder to realise that this present universe has evolved from an unspeak­ably unfamiliar early condition, and faces a future extinction of endless cold or intolerable heat. The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless.

Steven Weinberg, The First Three Minutes: A Modern View of the Origin of the Universe

“There will come a time when all of us are dead. All of us. There will come a time when there are no human beings remaining to remember that anyone ever existed or that our species ever did anything. There will be no one left to remember Aristotle or Cleopatra, let alone you. Everything that we did and built and wrote and thought and discovered will be forgotten and all of this will have been for naught. Maybe that time is coming soon and maybe it is millions of years away, but even if we survive the collapse of our sun, we will not survive forever. There was time before organisms experienced consciousness, and there will be time after. And if the inevitability of human oblivion worries you, I encourage you to ignore it. God knows that’s what everyone else does.”

John Green, The Fault In Our Stars

And all that seems to connect with a view Donald Trump expressed in a Playboy interview…

After three of his most important casino executives were killed in a helicopter crash in 1989, this view took on a grimmer, even morbid tinge.

“My own sense of optimism and life was greatly diminished,” he told Playboy in early 1990. He called their deaths “a tragic waste.”

“You’re involved in so many activities, deals, promotions—in the deep of the night, after the reporters all leave your conferences, are you ever satisfied with what you’ve accomplished?” Playboy’s Glenn Plaskin asked him.

“Life is what you do while you’re waiting to die,” Trump responded. “You know, it is all a rather sad situation.”

“Life? Or death?”

“Both. We’re here, and we live our 60, 70 or 80 years, and we’re gone. You win, you win, and in the end, it doesn’t mean a hell of a lot.”

The ‘What, Me Worry?’ President, By MICHAEL KRUSE, Politico, June 08, 2018

The ending of our version of the story we are in is all meaningless. And that reality is a problem in the here and now…

To speak of a “search for meaning” is pointless unless that “meaning” endures beyond our lifetime.

David Goldman, How Civilizations Die

That’s it. That’s our weakness.