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To write a satisfying story, we need to have a solid understanding of both the global story and individual scenes. If one or the other isn’t working, your story might never leave the harbor. We often have a preference for the macro or micro because one comes more easily to us. If you find yourself in this boat, don’t panic because there are clear points of connection between the global story and scenes that will help you to better understand and execute both.
I’ve developed a bit of an obsession about the connections between macro and micro lately because a Roundtable listener asked how we determine if a scene starts positive and ends negative, and vice versa. In other words, when we decide the life value shift within a scene, how do we decide the polarity shift, which we track in the Story Grid spreadsheet? It’s a great question because the answer is not as clear as it seems.
Getting the Basics
If you’re already feeling a little unsteady on your feet, let me help you gain your sea legs with some basic definitions.
A life value shift describes a change in a state or condition of human experience, from the beginning to the end of a unit of story, described in a negative or positive way. For example, you can probably imagine a scene where the life value changes from injured to treated, run aground to afloat, or admired to reviled.
(For more information on life values, see “Value Shift 101″ from Valerie Francis and “Simply Irreversible: Quantifying Progressive Complications,” which she wrote with Kim Kessler.)
The global life value shift describes the genre-specific change that happens from the beginning to the end of the story. For example, life and death (Action), victory with honor and defeat with dishonor (War), success and failure (Status).
The polarity shift shows us how the life value shift in a unit of story impacts the global life value, and we describe it in one of the following ways:
- positive to negative (good to bad)
- negative to positive (bad to good)
- negative to double negative (bad to worse)
- positive to double positive (good to better)
The turning point is an unexpected event arising within a unit of story (e.g., a scene) when the life value at stake becomes clear. I’ll say more about this below, but for now understand that there is a moment when it becomes clear what’s really at stake for the character in the unit of story.
Polarity Shifts in Context
It should be simple to determine whether a life value shift is for the better or for the worse. But identifying a scene’s life value shift in isolation does not necessarily reveal its polarity shift. In other words, what appears to be a positive change in one context can be very negative in another.
If you’ve ever heard the parable of the farmer who gets a horse that soon runs away, you already know how this works, but you might not have applied it to your scene values before. When the farmer’s horse runs away, his neighbors say, “That’s bad news.” But the farmer isn’t so certain. Later, the horse returns with another horse, which seems good, but then the new horse throws the farmer’s son, breaking his leg. That seems quite bad, but when the emperor’s recruiter comes to conscript able-bodied men for the army, you can see how a broken leg could actually be a positive development.
So, the same event can represent a positive or negative result, depending on the larger context, or for our purposes, the global story.
Several life value shifts can arise from a single scene, but some are more relevant than others. We want to zero in on the ones that directly or indirectly affect the global life value at stake, which is what the polarity shift is meant to show us.
We track the polarity shift because a scene that doesn’t affect the global life value doesn’t move the protagonist closer to or further from their global objects of desire (what the protagonist wants and need). Of course, it’s also useful to know the extent of the effect on the global life value. If you’re curious about that, I encourage you to check out this post from Valerie Francis and Kim Kessler. The bottom line here is this: If a scene doesn’t have a discernible impact on the global life value, we have to wonder whether it belongs in the story at all.
Life Value Shifts and Polarity Shifts in Action
I’ll show you how this works in a scene from Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. In this clip, the HMS Surprise, a Royal Navy ship is caught in a violent story while chasing French privateer around Cape Horn. They must take in the sails to avoid damaging the ship. Warley is sent into the rigging to do that, and when he needs help Hollom is ordered to provide assistance. Hollom panics and freezes just before the inciting incident for this scene. This clip, which comes about 36 percent through the film, is an important and emotional scene that performs a lot of functions in the story, but it’s not one of the Five Commandments of the global story, nor is it one of the fifteen key scenes (the Five Commandments of the Beginning Hook, Middle Build, and Ending Payoff) or one of the genre’s Obligatory Scenes.
Micro: Scene Analysis
To evaluate the scene, first we identify the Story Event, or the essence of the scene in a phrase or sentence. We craft the story event from the literal and essential action.
1. What’s literally happening in the scene?
This is what’s happening on the surface, in other words, we identify what the characters are literally doing.
Warley falls in the ocean when the mizzenmast breaks during a violent storm, and Captain Aubrey orders the men on deckto throw items that float toward Warley.
2. What is the essential action of what the characters are doing?
This is what’s happening beneath the surface, in other words, what the point of view character wants, or their scene goal.
Aubrey wants to throw someone a lifeline, that is, to save Warley.
3. What is the Story Event?
Again, this is the essence of what’s happening in the scene distilled into a phrase or single sentence.
After Warley falls into the ocean with the mast and rigging during a violent storm, Aubrey orders the men to try to save him.
4. What is the turning point (progressive complication)?
This is the unexpected event that arises from the environment and makes it clear that the point of view character will not reach their scene goal, or at least not in the way they envisioned. While this isn’t necessarily the moment when the life value shifts, it’s when we come to understand what life value is truly at stake in the scene.
Pullings tells Aubrey the wreckage is acting as an anchor and will pull the entire ship down.
5. What is the life value at stake as revealed by the turning point?
Life and death
6. Which characters experience a change along the life-death spectrum of value?
Warley is an obvious choice here, and he begins with imminent risk of deathwhen he falls in the water. Even with the rescue efforts, his survivalis speculative at best. He moves to certain death by the end of the scene when the wreckage is cut away, removing any chance of rescue.
The officers and crew of HMS Surprise face potential death in the beginning, and this shifts to imminent risk of death when the wreckage begins to act as an anchor. The life value of those still aboard the ship shifts to something very near safety by the end of the scene when the wreckage is cut away and the ship rights itself. There is still a risk that something will happen to the ship in the storm, but at this point, neither the sails nor the wreckage create danger.
7. Which Life Value Shift should go in the spreadsheet?
8. What is the Polarity Shift?
To answer these questions, we need to look at the big picture, so we understand what they mean in the context of the global story. So I’ll turn to that now. Of course, by the time you’re analyzing scenes in your work in progress or masterwork, you should already have identified the global genre and its life value range.
The Global Story Context
1. What is the Global Genre? War Brotherhood
Master and Commander is about a Royal Navy captain and his crew pursuing a French privateer during the Napoleonic Wars. There are different varieties of War stories. Some deal with whether a particular war is just or not. But we’re not concerned with whether the war is just here. We’re told upfront that Bonaparte has conquered Europe, and that only the British Fleet stands in his way (whether you agree with this statement as a matter of history or not, this is the premise of the story before us). So Master and Commander falls within the Brotherhood subgenre, which fellow Rachelle Ramirez explains in her article “Secrets of the War Genre” is more internally focused.
The core values of this subgenre are honor and disgrace regardless of victory or loss in battle. Battle sequences are well realized. The trials of War are the external framework on which the internal genre is hung. Action and battle scenes are only used when needed to drive the internal transformation of the protagonist.
2. What is the Global Life Value Spectrum?
- Victory with Honor (positive)
- Defeat with Honor (contrary)
- Defeat with Dishonor (negative)
- Dishonorable Defeat Presented as Honorable (negation of the negation)
3. What is the Internal genre? Status Admiration
Because this is a War Brotherhood story, the internal transformation of the protagonist is important too. I’ve identified Captain Aubrey’s internal genre as Status Admiration. The Status Admiration protagonist is offered a challenge or opportunity that could lead to social betterment, but they refuse to allow the pursuit of success to compromise their moral code.
Captain Aubrey will rise in stature among other Royal Navy captains if he and his crew can complete the mission to defeat the Acheron. He and his crew will also achieve major financial benefit if they can take the French privateer as a prize. If I had to sum up his moral code generally, I would say it is to act with honor and discipline. He risks losing touch with his moral code and the lives of his men, when he begins to pursue the Acheron out of pride and vengeance, rather than his commitment to duty. In those moments, he becomes undisciplined, though with the help of Maturin, he realizes in time to save most of the crew and complete the mission.
4. What is the Life Value Spectrum of the Internal Genre?
- Success (positive)
- Compromise (contrary)
- Failure (negative)
- Selling Out (negation of the negation)
5. What is the Controlling Idea/Theme?
The controlling idea demonstrates how the global external genre and internal genre work together and express the cause and effect of the change in the global life value.
Royal Navy captains maintain honor in victory when they stay true to their values, sacrificing the mission for the benefit of their men when necessary.
With a clear understanding of the global story, let’s turn back to the questions about life value shift and polarity shift in the scene.
Back to the Life Value Shift and Polarity Shift
As a reminder the turning point progressive complication shows us that life and death is the value at stake in the scene, not just for Warley, but for every member of the crew.
Warley: imminent risk of death to certain death
Those still aboard ship: potential death to imminent risk of deathto safe
But what does this mean for the global story?
The global life value spectrum includes victory with honor and defeat with dishonor. So we need to consider how each possibility impacts this value.
Warley’s death is tragic, especially in light of his contributions to the eventual success of the mission. His death affects the morale of the crew going forward, but obviously if the ship goes down, there is no chance they will achieve victory (with or without honor) against the Acheron.
We also want to assess whether Aubrey’s choice was an honorable one because War-Brotherhood stories are not just about winning the war. Saving Warley would mean certain doom for the rest of the crew, and it’s hard to imagine how that could be considered honorable. Reasonable minds might disagree about whether the decisions that led to this moment were honorable (Maturin certainly did), but that is not the question in this scene. He makes the hard and honorable decision. The honor in his decision is supported by the fact that he pitches in to cut the wreckage from the ship.
In the global story analysis, you can see that Aubrey makes a different choice when the dilemma is to chase the Acheron again or saving Maturin, and the differences in his choices in these similar but distinguishable situations reveals a lot about Aubrey’s character.
7. Which life value should we add to the spreadsheet?
Those still aboard the ship: potential death to safe.
8. What is the Polarity Shift?
Given the life value shift we add to the spreadsheet and its impact on the global story, I would add negative to positive to the spreadsheet for the polarity shift, despite the way Aubrey feels at the end of it.
Warley’s individual polarity shift is negative to double negative, but of course, it’s not the polarity shift that reveals the most about the global story, so I wouldn’t add it to the spreadsheet.
This post is not about getting an A on the Story Grid spreadsheet. The goal is to better understand the tools so we can diagnose the problems in our stories and make them better.
Knowing how to see our scenes through the context of the global genre and its life value spectrum helps us revise the micro and macro elements of our stories. First, we can confirm that a scene works and belongs in the story. Then we can build on that foundation and look for ways to vary the intensity of the impact on the global life value so that the overall story builds and progresses to a satisfying end. Ultimately, we can innovate the way we move the protagonist closer to or further from their goals, crafting unique stories infused with meaning that resonate with the readers of our genres.
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