Changing Story Values

This article first appeared as an Erica Writes writer blog post on Friday, April 13, 2007.

I’d like to start with an excerpt (possibly paraphrased, since it comes from my notes and not directly from the source) from Robert McKee’s book, STORY.

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.

Examples (these include some of his and some I made up): alive/dead, love/hate, freedom/slavery, truth/lie, courage/cowardice, loyalty/betrayal, wisdom/stupidity, strength/weakness, excitement/boredom, good/evil, right/wrong, life/death, justice/injustice, self-awareness/self-deception.

He further goes on to add:

STORY EVENTS create meaningful change in the life situation of a character that is expressed and experienced in terms of a value and is achieved through conflict.

On a surface level, this is a sophisticated way of saying, “The scene’s POV character must work for what he wants, and if the character/situation is unchanged at the end of the scene, there’s no point in including it.”

Ex: I had a scene in the first draft of Love, Lust Hi-Jinxedamp; Pixie Dust that I really loved. Trevor, the hero, had just lost a woman he really cared about. He revisited the site of their recent date (they’d gone multiple places: out for snacks, a walk in the woods, a road trip to visit teeth… ) in order to vanquish her from his mind by proving to himself he didn’t need her with him to enjoy those things. I felt like the whole scene was really poignant and felt sorry for all the angst I was putting my poor hero through.

My critique partner disagreed. She said something to the effect of, “It’s great and all for showing how pitiful he is without her, but what’s the point? He pined for her at the beginning of the scene and he pined for her at the end of the scene. You don’t find seven pages of pining to be, well, excessive?”

(I replied something along the lines of, “Aargh!”)

Robert McKee might’ve said, “Look. Your story values remained static. Story event=change. Angst is all well and good, but it needs to be angst/happiness or angst/anger or angst/determination… give us something.”

So, I chopped my seven pages of emo prose to maybe two pages or less, just to give a flavor of his emotional state without beating the reader over the head with it.

On a seemingly unrelated note, I was flipping through my copy of Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel) and happened to read a paragraph about making stakes matter, and then raising them even more.

That got me thinking about McKee’s story values again.

Sickness/Health would be considered values that matter, right? Life/Death could be considered values that matter even more. Maybe your character doesn’t want to get the virus going around the office. Big deal. But what if the virus is a blood infection that causes the infected to become a zombie? Bigger deal.

But what if you don’t want to write a zombie book? (Although I saw Planet Terror in the theatre and loved it!) What if you don’t even want to write about a life-threatening virus? What if your character really is concerned about not coming down with the common cold?

Well then, IMHO, the stakes can be raised by upping the motivation/risk rather than the end story value.

For example, if your surgeon hero gets a cold, will he be prevented from performing the emergency operation on the attacked-and-left-for-dead heroine? Or, if your astronaut heroine gets a cold, will she be prevented from making that trip to the moon with the big boys (and the sexy astronaut hero)? Or if your teenage hero gets a cold, will his overprotective mother refuse to sign the football team permission slip, preventing him from showing off on the field in front of the cheerleader heroine? Or if your teenage heroine gets a cold, will the entire prom night be ruined because she’ll be blurry-eyed, pink-nosed, and sneezing/snotting on the teenage heartthrob hero all night?

I think the key isn’t just that the scene’s POV character has to want something. They have to want it desperately. They have to be convinced that their life will drastically change for the worse if they don’t reach their goal. And at the end of the scene, if they still haven’t reached their goal (or if something else has gone horribly awry) then their life really should change for the worse, at least a little bit.

Surgeon hero has a coughing fit and is escorted from the operating room while his less-experienced nemesis takes his place. Astronaut heroine sneezes on her chart during the routine medical checkup and is waylaid from the pre-flight team meeting. Teen hero’s pollen-sensitive eyes water during dinner and his mom is convinced her poor baby is far too sensitive for rough sports like football. Teen heroine takes two Bendadryl to fight off the cold and sleeps through heartthrob hero ringing the doorbell to come get her.

The Fate, Fire & Demon Desire scene I plan to write later today has the aspiring politician heroine attending the funeral of her ex-campaign manager, accompanied by her new campaign manager (demon hero) and pestered by her rival (lovestruck villain).

In order to make this scene work, should I include McKee’s changing story values along with my rising stakes?

At the beginning of the scene, she wants to pay her respects to her late employee, especially because she knows he has no friends or family of his own. Except… sexy demon hero is there, making her think less about death and more about being alive. And… megalomaniac villain (the incumbent she’s trying to oust) is there, hitting on her in front of a camera crew and causing all sorts of havoc. She can’t let villain get away with his antics…

I hadn’t thought of this scene in terms of story values, but maybe her changes are calm/anxious, quiet/loud, inactive/active… and all the while conscious that if she screws up, she screws up on film, and risks ruining her campaign.

My previous scene was a villain POV sequence. I think he changed from insecure to secure, starting the scene unsure whether he’d win the election and ending the scene positive he’d win in a landslide, and further inventing a new plan to torture the poor heroine with. In my opinion, unlike hero/heroine scenes, villain scenes should tend to end with things going right for the POV character, not wrong.

This article first appeared as an Erica Writes writer blog post on Friday, April 13, 2007.

Erica Ridley