Storytelling is about behavior



Robert McKee


My life reached a turning point the day I attended Robert McKee’s seminar on storytelling for the first time. As I listened to him, I began to see everything as a form of storytelling. And I soon realized that while there are many techniques for teaching how to structure a story, the most effective one, by far, is to try to understand the human soul in all its positive and negative aspects.


Imagine: What would life be like if everything were the same? If we all woke up every morning to the same predictable day? What if all our wishes were to come true and we never had to face an obstacle? Well, okay, it might be great … for a while.  But repetition is boredom’s best friend. Soon we’d be needing some kind of emotional stimulation, a challenge, an adrenaline surge.




My son was watching a soccer match, Santos against Bolivar, where the outcome was 8-0 in favor of Santos. At the first goal, my son shouted. At the second goal, he yelled. At the third there was a fist-pump. At the fourth, he smiled in silence. By the fifth, he was leaving the room with an angry look. “What’s wrong?” I asked. “We’re winning.” “I never want to watch Santos play again!” he answered. “Why?” I asked. “It is boring!”


Children can teach us a lot. In this case, the lesson is that life without conflict is tedious and uninteresting. In this case, a sweaty and hard-earned 5-4 would have worked better to keep the attention and interest of my six-year-old. And this is why every good story is one with a script filled with conflicts and difficulties to challenge its protagonists.


This same son was at a Toys “R” Us store a few months ago – the American store chain. He had already bought all the Avengers and Justice League dolls, but he wasn’t satisfied because he couldn’t find the one group he now wanted: the bad ones! “Dad, how can I play with them if I only have the heroes?” he asked. And I guess the answer’s obvious, right?




If we think hard about it, we realize that our lives are made up of ups and downs. But there are always some moments that are higher and lower than the others. These are the moments when something happens and nothing else will be the same from that point on. A break-up with a loved one, the death of somebody special, the start of a new job, the decision to throw off everything and make a career change, winning the lottery – any big transformation that changes the balance of our lives is in fact one of those moments. In storytelling we call these Inciting Incidents.  The triggers for all the action to come.


With an inciting incident, a new page of our own story begins. We’ve all experienced this. And so has every company. And so have all the brands. From the moment of a major incident, new challenges will need to be faced, new objectives will need to be determined and worked toward.




Going one step further: there are usually forces working to prevent us from getting the object of our desire. Nothing in life has only a positive side. And every choice requires at least one abdication, which leads inevitably to another.  And with each alternative we have to deal with several reactions. If a company decides to invest resources in buying the competition, it can confront cultural problems, consumer reaction, a governmental anti-monopoly response, and even the possibility of a major economic crisis that could compromise the entire new venture.


So we face the forces of antagonisms every day. These can be internal, related to emotions; personal, regarding relationships; or external, relating to bigger institutional and outside forces.


To write a story, then, we have to understand and anticipate the negatives, the obstacles, the sum of all the forces of the antagonisms our hero’s desire will lead him to face.




It’s in moments of great pressure that we get to see and understand somebody’s true personality and character. Through the decisions somebody makes when under deep pressure. Some say people don’t change, that they only reveal themselves as they really are when put in stressful situations. Well, if we think about the arc of a story, the same principle applies. Characters may give the impression that they’ve changed, but what they’re doing is simply revealing who they really are … while the audience is thinking they’re seeing a major transformation.


Imagine if James Bond had an indecisive moment and, not being sure what to do, quit his espionage job and started a business. Can you imagine? Impossible! That is not our James. Nevertheless, we can watch this character and readily accept that a kind, gentle, flirtatious man under pressure can become a killing machine. He’s spontaneous, natural, and authentic. He doesn’t change; he simply reveals who he really is when he has to.


So when we decide we want something, we need to accept that we may have to deal with a series of not entirely pleasant situations and confront people conspiring to keep us from getting that thing we want. That’s just life. And the bigger the force that tries to stop us, the stronger we have to be. But in the process our story automatically becomes that much more interesting.


A company that makes a presentation of its successful cases is never telling the whole truth. At the very least, it’s committing the sin of omission! I’m in the audience, and I don’t want to know what went right. Of course the business will want to show only positive things. But I want to know what went wrong and how the company overcame its problems and failures. Only then will I be hearing a true, believable, story.




So during that first seminar, what I learned from Robert McKee is that in the clash of human behaviors we find the best arena for learning about storytelling, and that many times the resolution to our script problems lies in the world of the “dark forces” and not necessarily in the good-looking, great-sounding, purely positive things.


So if you think life has no conflict, that nothing interesting ever happens and that your own script if written would be plain-old boring and repetitive, listen to the words of the actor who portrayed McKee in the movie Adaptation.