Storytelling Workshop with Iain McCaig

I recently returned from Kansas City, Missouri, where I attended the Spectrum Fantastic Art Live (SFAL) event. The event was relatively small—being the first organised by Spectrum—which made it very intimate and personal. The cosy size also meant that it was easy to meet, learn and share ideas with some of the best contemporary illustrators and concept artists, including Mike Mignola, Phil Hale, Iain McCaig, Andrew ‘Android’ Jones, and BROM. SFAL will hopefully become an annual event, so I highly recommend following it on Twitter and Facebook to stay informed.

The lineup up of artists at Spectrum Fantastic Art Live was incredible, going beyond the headliners featured above to include, among others: Sterling Hundley, James Gurney, Paul Bonner, and Gregory Manchess.
The talk that I will remember most was Iain McCaig’s visual storytelling workshop. If you ever have the opportunity to attend one of Iain’s workshops—GO!—because his hyper-energetic personality and extensive experience are sure to inspire. As artist William Stout wrote:

“Iain’s infectious enthusiasm is extremely dangerous. In less than an hour with McCaig, the people in his presence soon begin to believe they can do anything.”

The workshop was particularly useful for me at this very moment in my career, as I’ve just begun working on my first full-length video game for which I must write a story; something I’ve never done before.

The following text contains my notes (and therefore may contain errors) from the workshop, along with additional content that I researched myself—such as the references to The Lord of the Rings, Aliens, and WALL-E.  If you find any mistakes or would like to contribute additional material then please feel free to get in touch.

Iain broke down the process of storytelling into very simple steps, developed through years working on feature films, and his experience with the 3-minute Hollywood pitch. The following is a basic guide for putting together a compelling story—using the story of Little Red Riding Hood as a simple case study.


In the first section, Iain laid out the main points of a story plot by asking the following questions. In the second section titled Plot Pacing, Iain applied the story to a typical film structure used in feature films.

1. What is the genre?
2. Who is the main protagonist?
3. What do they want? Why should I care?
4. What are the obstacles? What’s the goofy plan?
5. What’s the highest high?
6. What’s the lowest low?
7. What does the protagonist really need?
8. What is the resolution?

1. Genre
In which genre is your movie [or video game]? Is it a sci-fi/fairytale/romance film, etc?
Little Red Riding Hood (LRRH): Fairy tale

2. Who
Who is the main protagonist? Who is the story about?

LRRH: A young girl called Little Red Riding Hood 

3. Want
What does the protagonist want? The protagonist’s want, is actually not the crux of the story however it drives the majority of events. The character’s need is much more important, although the need is revealed later on in the story. 

Think of the want as the heart of story. Ask yourself, Why should I care about the protagonist?Making sure that the protagonist has a strong goal will ensure that your audience identifies with the character.
LRRH: To deliver food to her grandmother, who is bed-stricken. In a more developed rendition of LRRH, you would consider developing the relationship between Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother, highlighting the loving bond they have together, for instance.
The questions of want, and identifying the heart of the story are succinctly and clearly communicated in Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, from the moment when Leia’s hologram message is first seen by Luke; which establishes his goal to save the beautiful princess. The audience is made to care for Luke’s plight when he’s told by Uncle Owen that he’s needed on the moisture farm, preventing Luke—the farm boy—from seeking intergalactic adventure; which we can all identify with to various extents, of being stuck helpless in unhappy situations.

4. Obstacles
What’s stopping the main protagonist from embarking on their quest, or from fulfilling their goal? Obstacles distract the audience from what the protagonist really needs—as described in point 7—and are there for the hero to eventually discover something about themselves that they didn’t know they had.

An excellent companion to understanding obstacles and other storytelling devices is The Hero With a Thousand Faces (1949 Princeton/Bollingen) by Joseph Campbell, which examines the archetypal hero found in world mythologies. Campbell describes how the hero is usually aided by a mentor or mystic—think Yoda in Star Wars. This mentor represents the unconscious protective power of hope and destiny, giving the hero special abilities to overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges.
LRRH: Little Red Riding Hood’s obstacles are the Wolf and the dark forest. She is faced with the choice of walking the longer, safer route through the forest, or the shorter, more dangerous path. She chooses to take the shorter, more dangerous path, which Iain terms “the goofy plan;” a goal-defining stage in the story that every protagonist experiences.

Going beyond the fairy tale, Little Red Riding Hood could face successive obstacles during her journey through the forest, including the possibility of encounters with the Wolf that would have the potential to bring the story to a detrimental end.

5. Highest High
This is the point where the protagonist, having overcome all obstacles, seemingly arrives at their goal: the highest high

Films usually fail when the protagonist‘s obstacles weren’t big enough or the goal wasn’t strong enough.If the obstacles have been designed well, the protagonist‘s challenges will continue mounting and seem impossible to overcome, until the protagonist triumphs at the highest high accompanied by feelings of elation.

LRRH: Little Red Riding Hood safely reaches her grandmothers cottage in the woods, with the basket of food in hand.

6. Lowest Low
The lowest low immediately follows the highest high, effectively working as an emotional contrast. Think of this as the rebirth of the protagonist. Now that the protagonist‘s original goofy plan has failed, when all hope appears lost, she/he must formulate a new and decisive plan against all-or-nothing odds.

LRRH: This is the discovery that grandmother is actually the Wolf!

Illustration by Gustave Dore, showing the pivotal storytelling moment when the highest high evaporates to reveal the lowest low.

7. Need
The lowest low reveals the protagonist‘s actual need. The circumstances of the lowest low cause the protagonist to experience a revelation—a transformation.

Conflicting needs are even more emotionally engaging, tearing the protagonist between two equally important decisions.

LRRH: Variations of the original story have Little Red Riding Hood getting eaten by the Wolf, so her need is simply to be rescued. In a more developed version, the young Little Red Riding Hood could potentially realise that she needs to grow up; a ‘coming of age’ story. After her naive and irresponsible journey through the dangerous forest, she would find that she must take control of her own problems and act to save herself and kill the Wolf.

8. Resolution
What are the conditions that complete the story? The protagonist will have miraculously overcome all obstacles and, most importantly, reached their goal, but not the goal they had originally imagined.

LRRT: Little Red Riding Hood is saved by a passing lumberjack, who cuts open the Wolf to rescue her and her grandmother, who is found still alive in the Wolf’s stomach. In an alternative ending, Little Red Riding Hood would have come of age, single-handedly saving herself and her grandmother with powers she didn’t know she had; somewhat breaking established bonds with her grandmother and placing instating herself as the new matriarch of the family.

In Pixar’s great animated film, WALL-E’s want is communicated at the very beginning while he watches a scene from a musical. It’s made clear that he would like to hold hands with somebody, just like the couple on the TV. This, of course, seems to be an unattainable goal for WALL-E, since he’s alone on Earth (save his cockroach friend!). Despite the fact that his need eventually gets switched with EVE’s, the film concludes with the two characters finally completing the tender task.

After outlining the story, Iain McCaig turned to applying the main questions to story beats. Story beats are the events in the film that move the story along. The diagram below illustrates the typical beat layout of a 120 minute film.

Click to enlarge /// A diagram illustrating plot pacing along a timeline representing 120 min of an average movie. Included are the main beats, and a general visualisation of the dramatic highs and lows that the protagonist experiences (red).

Films are typically divided into 3 Acts. Act 1 is known as the exposition, which establishes the main characters, their relationships and the world they live in. Act 2 is the rising action, which typically depicts the protagonist’s attempt to achieve their goal or solve a problem, only to find themselves in ever worsening situations. Act 3 is the climax, where the main tensions of the story are brought to their most intense point and the central question is answered, leaving the protagonist and other characters with a new sense of who they really are.

An average film lasting 120 minutes will have a script 120 pages in length, as 1 minute of film footage is roughly equivalent to 1 page of the script. Therefore page 3 of a script represents a scene 3 minutes into the film. Below are the main story beats explained in more detail:

Genre –
page 1

The genre of the film is established in the opening scene of the film.

Central Question – page 3
The central question is proposed. For instance, Who will save the day? Who is going to be the hero?  The film will come to an end when the central question has been answered.

“Goofy Plan” – page 10
The audience meets the central protagonist and learns of the protagonist wants, her/his obstacles, and their goofy plan to overcome these obstacles. It’s important that the audience can identify with the protagonist, so an important question for every writer is to ask, Why should I care for the protagonist and her/his plight?

“Bridges Burned” – page 30
The point of no return. The protagonist accepts the challenge or is forced to move forward due to circumstances beyond their control. What happens here will drive all the events until the highest high at page 90.

Frodo’s bridges to the safety of Hobbiton are burned at the beginning of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings (2001), when Gandalf recites the account of Gollum’s interrogation during which he directs the Nazgûl straight to “Baggins” and the “Shire.” As a a result, Frodo is immediately forced to flee and embark on his quest, before the enemies imminent arrival.

Midpoint/Turnaround – page 60
The midpoint often features a reversal of fortune or revelation that changes the direction of the story. This turnaround is very important, because it maintains interest during Act 2, which is the longest of the 3 Acts.

A memorable turnaround happens in Aliens (1986), while the Marines are searching for colonists within the building of the Atmosphere Processor, and Ripley points out that they cannot use ammunition in case they should accidentally set off a thermonuclear detonation. Reduced to using flamethrowers and “harsh language,” the Marines soon get into serious trouble when they discover a living colonist moments before an alien bursts out of her chest. The Marines, who had been cocky till then, are forced to retreat once they’re attacked by the aliens.

Highest High – page 90 min
The climax at the end of Act 2, where the protagonist appears to have succeeded with their quest. This moment of elation is short-lived however.

Lowest Low – page 90+
The lowest low makes all hopes of success seem futile for the protagonist. The circumstances force the protagonist to discover their need, and this spiritual awakening heralds a new plan to achieve the goal.

Resolution – page 120
At the end of the film the central question is answered; the protagonist achieves their goal in a way that they had not originally imagined, emerging as a new person having developed through their hidden need.

The above order and pacing of the beats is just a general guide, for there are always exciting possibilities to subvert conventions. Directors who explicitly play with the formula include Quentin Tarantino in Pulp Fiction (1994), in which the beats are clustered up near the end of the film; and M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable (2000), which does away with Acts 2 and 3 altogether.

For further reading on beats, film producer, Tom Reed, has put together a “beat sheet” for Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, which gives a very insightful analysis into the film’s hidden structure. The beat sheet is in two parts, Part One and Part Two.

Although the above process is taken from established screenwriting techniques, and Iain’s experience in film production, video games are equally apt to benefit from such storytelling devices (as I’m sure many already do, and I welcome readers to share their knowledge on this topic).

Having had this initiation into storytelling I wondered whether games that break gameplay down into levels inherently suffer from a weaker story because the protagonists central goal may be diffused by the hackneyed end-of-level boss fights typical of many video games. However Iain suggests turning to TV soap operas for inspiration, and their climactic structure at the end of each episode as the protagonist overcomes an obstacle only to find themselves at a low, or cliffhanger, thus hooking the audience in for next week’s show [or level 2 of the video game]. This may be where many games fail to create an engaging story, opting to reward the player and finish on a high at the end of each level.

Iain’s workshop finished with some quick drawing, which is the subsequent stage after you have your story roughed out; turning the beats into storyboard images. Films and video games feature sound and dialog, but visuals must manage to tell the story on their own, so it’s important to develop strong images for your key frames succinctly communicate each beat.

For those who find drawing a challenge, Iain gives comfort in the fact that the first series of drawings is always crap. It’s important to put your ideas down nonetheless and make your ideas a reality. So just draw! In fact, whenever you have problem that needs solving, draw it!!

Once you’ve drawn the first series of drawings from imagination (which you’re sure to be unhappy with), draw a second series from life and research material. You’ll find that the third series of drawings—which combine ideas from series one (imagination) and series two (research and inspiration)—are excellent. The secret is to then burn the first two attempts, so that everybody thinks your a genius when they see series three!

For more information Iain McCaig’s current work visit his blog, which Iain promises to update soon!

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