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Monday, March 30, 2020

Positive and Negative Scene Values

A well-constructed scene should work like a mini-story. But often when we are learning to write a book, we don't think of them as such.

In reality, a scene follows the same basic story structure--you know, the one I did a whole post on, about how it seems to permeate everything? Even things not writing related? (You can see that post here.)

I've also already done a post where I talk about how to structure that shape in a scene specifically. I focus on hook, setup, rising action, climax, and (possibly) a denouement.

But one of the key elements of writing a successful scene, is that change needs to happen. And not just any change, but significant change. Which (once again) means:

1 - It has important personal consequences, or
2 - It has far-reaching, broad consequences

In a scene, this will be on a smaller scale than in a whole story or novel, so don't think that everything needs to be shocking. A change doesn't have to be drastic to be significant. It needs to be relevant and meaningful.

Sometimes I will work with writers, or even look at my own work, and find scenes that feel . . . less satisfying than they should or they may even feel . . . annoying.

In writing, things often start to feel "annoying"--whether it's a character, scene sequence, plot, or thematic thread--when they aren't changing enough. Instead, they are hitting the same beat/concept/tone/idea over and over and over again. It's like when your sibling would say the same thing over and over again to annoy you when you were kids ("I'm not touching you. I'm not touching you. I'm not touching you. . . ."). One of the cures of "annoying" is to create change.

Other times I look at my scenes, and while they are somewhat satisfying, they seem to lack a kind of "zing" that other scenes have. A lot of times this is because not enough changed.

Now people write in all different ways--I'm aware of that. Some people don't want to even worry about making sure every scene has a change--it might feel too technical. Others may want to plan out the whole scene structure and its change before even writing the rough draft of it. Do what works for you. Whether you use this information to troubleshoot, or improve what you've already written, or to prepare what you are about to write, it's information you should be aware of.

As a general rule of thumb, every scene should have significant change. Remember, it's like a mini-story structure. And wouldn't you be annoyed if you read a whole story and nothing meaningful changed?

The good news is that since scenes are shorter, the way they create change will usually be simpler and more straightforward. In fact, the way you can monitor this change is to double check that the scene brings about significant change in one of these four ways:

1. Negative to positive
2. Positive to negative
3. Negative to double negative
4. Positive to double positive.

Pretty straightforward, right?

The keyword is significant. Sometimes as writers, we easily fool ourselves into thinking that scenes are fine because something changed. But it can't be just anything. It needs to be something significant.

Editor Shawn Coyne introduced me to this overall concept is his book The Story Grid, and in it, he talks about needing to find, what he calls, "the scene value." The scene value, is well, the value, something of the human experience that is an important focus of the scene. Some examples may include: home/homeless, friend/friendless, scared/brave, poor/rich, innocent/experienced . . . they can be all kinds of things.

However, I will say that as you work on the overall story, with the protagonist's character arc and the theme topic, you will find that, through the book, you will hit the same scene values quite a bit. For example, if I'm writing a middle grade book about an outcast who learns to make and be friends, there will be a lot more friend/friendless scene values than perhaps any other.

But let me illustrate how this works.

First, you look at your scene, and ask, what is the scene value and what changes? (or vice versa, if that is easier.)

For an example, I'm going to say I'm working with the scene value poor/rich--which can be pretty meaningful to my protagonist and what he's trying to accomplish in my story. Let's imagine that his goal is to move up in the class system. Here are some examples of significant changes that can play out.

1. Negative to positive --> Penniless, he discovers in this scene a way to make money.
2. Positive to negative --> He has money, but someone steals it from him.
3. Negative to double negative --> He has no money and finds out he owes a large debt.
4. Positive to double positive. --> Finding some cash in the gutter, he turns $10 into $30.

Do you see how each of these changes are significant? How they would have consequences that influence the story?

Now there is another feature Shawn Coyne talks about that I want to explain.

If every scene has significant change, that means every scene has a turning point, the critical moment of change--the moment that moves from positive to negative, negative to positive, positive to double positive, etc.

A scene's turning point can only come about one of two ways:

1. A revelation
2. An action

That's it. Those are the only ways a turning point can happen.

So let's go back to my examples above and identify them:

1. Negative to positive --> Penniless, he discovers in this scene a way to make money: Revelation
2. Positive to negative --> He has money, but someone steals it from him: Action
3. Negative to double negative --> He has no money and finds out he owes a large debt: Revelation
4. Positive to double positive. --> Finding some cash in the gutter, he turns $10 into $30: Action

Now, for some, whether it's a revelation or an action, will depend on how it is rendered on the page. The important thing is that you know which one it is. Why? Because if you have scene after scene after scene all turning on a revelation, it will feel repetitive, something will feel off, maybe even annoying--it won't have that zing. So you need to make sure the turning points aren't always action or always revelation. They need to be varied.

Same with the polarity of the scene value. If scene after scene after scene moves from positive to double positive, guess what? That story gets annoying! Same with any of the others. Positive to negative for a long stretch of scenes is bleh. Imagine me writing a story with the recurring scene value poor/rich, so that my protagonist just keeps getting richer and richer, with no real negativity (conflict) in the way.

Sure, an overall sequence may move from positive to negative, but on a scene by scene level, it should be varied.

Here's the crazy thing. If you aren't aware of these things, you may work and rework and rework scenes without fixing the underlying problem, because it is underlying. It's not the stuff, it's the value and turning point. A great way to troubleshoot a story is to go through scene by scene and note the scene value, polarity (positive, negative, etc.), and method of turning point. And this is exactly what The Story Grid helps you do.

Now, I've heard some professionals take this a step further, saying that even bigger structures should do this same thing. Overall scene sequences should vary from one another. Acts should vary, so that not every act moves from positive to negative overall, but sometimes from negative to positive. I'm still digesting that, but I think it's a good rule of thumb. However, I would like to add that in most stories, there are multiple plot lines, so one act could end on a positive for the primary line, but a negative for the secondary line, a double negative for the tertiary line, etc. Some day I want to do an article about structuring a big, fat story where I will touch on that idea. But for now, I'll end here.

* I want to make sure I give credit where credit is due--author David Farland influenced my concept of "significance" by his concept of escalation, and he also taught me about what makes something annoying. And Shawn Coyne does some amazing things with structure in his book (which I obviously found very helpful).


  1. This is an powerful concept for writing scenes. It's helping me write better scenes overall. Anyway, I read Robert McKee's Story where he mentions the positive and negative value of scenes. On the surface it looks like you and Robert McKee are talking about the same thing. If in fact they're not the same, what does Robert McKee mean by the positive and negative value of scenes?

    1. It's the same idea--much of Shawn Coyne's work from "Story Grid" is based on Robert McKee's work. But it is a great concept!

  2. I think it is interesting to keep in mind but change isn't the only motivator for the progression of a scene.


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