Value Shift is one of the most challenging parts of Story Grid theory to understand because it speaks to the very heart of story and human nature. That makes it also one of the most crucial aspects to master. Without it, your story isn’t about anything, your reader won’t become engaged and you will have devoted thousands of hours, hammering out a novel that no one (besides your mother) reads. Heartbreaking, right?
To begin our understanding value shift, we have to first recognize that life is constantly shifting along a spectrum of values. Rarely (if ever) is a situation neutral. Think about the conversations you’ve had with your colleagues today, with your family members, neighbours or especially with yourself. It’s easy to miss the value shift in our lives because we’re busy living our lives, not analyzing them.
Now that you’re an author, you’ve got to develop the habit of stepping back and looking at life the way a writer does.
Let me give you an example. As I was driving my daughter to school yesterday, she told me she needed five dollars for a class outing. According to her version of the story, I had signed the requisite permission slip but had forgotten to send in the money which was due that day. I knew that wasn’t true. I also knew that the money was really for the $3.99 whopper deal at Burger King. My daughter was moving along a spectrum of value that has to do with honesty. By asking for money in that manner she was moving closer toward dishonesty (a negative value) and further from honesty (a positive value).
Since stories reflect life and are about change, regardless of which genre you write in understanding the concept of value shift and all it entails, is vital. If your scenes don’t turn on a value, they won’t ring true for your reader. My goal in this article is to give you a foundational knowledge of value shift so you can begin using it in your stories right away.
Before we dive too deeply into the theory, let’s start by going over a few definitions:
A story value is simply a human experience (a judgement of reality) that can change from positive to negative or negative to positive. – Shawn Coyne, The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know, page 120
Global Spectrum of Value: Every story turns on a value, and that value is determined by the author’s choice of global content genre. In other words, every action story will turn on the value of life > death. Every morality story will turn on the value of selfishness > self-sacrifice. But life is rarely black and white. There’s a whole lot of grey area in between which means that these values exist on a spectrum.
To find the global spectrum of value for your chosen global content genre, check out the Story Grid Editor Roundtable podcast. We’ve examined all twelve content genres and have provided extensive show notes. If you need help figuring out your global genre, click here.
Value Shift: The movement between the positive and negative values along a global spectrum of value.
In life, people don’t usually flipflop between absolute positive and negative values. No one is purely good one minute and purely evil the next. Likewise, characters shouldn’t snap back and forth between extremes because, if they do, they’ll be melodramatic and tiresome. The character of Jonathan Harker does this in the first act of Dracula. Try giving it a read. Then, contrast Stoker’s approach to value shift with that of Vince Gilligan and his team of writers in Breaking Bad. The character of Walter White changes incrementally and the overall effect is a story that is nothing short of riveting.
Polarity Shift (aka Valence Shift): The polarity shift, or valence shift as it’s also called, is simply the movement from positive (+) to negative (-), or negative (-) to positive (+).
Turning Point: A turning point is a type of progressive complication and is therefore one of the five commandments. It’s not a separate commandment. Shawn Coyne refers to it as “the little buddy” and covers it at length in chapter 42 of The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know. I’ll go over it briefly here.
There can be any number of progressive complications in a unit of story. The first one the protagonist faces will be the easiest to overcome. The second one will be more challenging, the third more challenging still and so on until the last progressive complication. When the protagonist faces this last progressive complication he must change his tactic. The way he had been doing things before won’t work this time and so he must try something new. The last complication is the turning point and is called that because the protagonist has to turn, or pivot somehow — it could be a literal turn (a change of direction or strategy) or a psychological one (a change of attitude or awareness). It’s the turning point that causes the value shift because things are now different — the human experience they’d been having (i.e., the value) has shifted.
Value Shift and the Five Commandments
If you’ve been studying Story Grid methodology a while, you’ll know that the five commandments are in each unit of story. As a refresher, the units of story are the beat, scene, sequence, act, subplot and global story. The five commandments are inciting incident, progressive complication(s), crisis, climax and resolution.
The turning point is a progressive complication that turns the value of the unit of story and leads to the crisis question. There’s a whole lot of information in that sentence, so let’s unpack it by looking at some examples:
Example 1: Guardians of the Galaxy
When you’re learning to apply story theory, start with examples that are fairly straightforward, like superhero stories or romantic comedies. If you jump straight to the complex stuff, like Marathon Man, you might break your brain.
In this scene from Guardians of the Galaxy, the turning point is when Peter’s mother dies. Her shift is literally life to death, but since Peter is our protagonist we’ll track the scene from his perspective. Not surprisingly, Peter’s value is also shifting along the life > death spectrum of value. He starts out very much alive and healthy, but by the end he’s been captured. While there was no danger to his life at the beginning, by the end he’s at risk and so his value has shifted toward the negative.
Example 2: Gladiator
The global genre of Gladiator is status > admiration. Maximus is a principled protagonist who rises without compromise. We analyzed this film in detail on the Story Grid Editor Roundtable podcast and you can find the show notes here. Throughout the film, Maximus refuses to compromise his principles. Although at times he drops as far as failure, he never shifts to the completely negative value of selling out. In this scene he finally reaches success (ie., retains status).
In the podcast, Anne Hawley put it this way:
The CORE event or big moment is when the Protagonist chooses to do what’s necessary to attain status or reject the world that he or she strived to join. Maximus chooses to fight Commodus even when he’s been sabotaged. His dedication to his cause convicts Quintus to support him and not give Commodus a second sword. He overpowers Commodus and kills him. And then even when the promise of seeing his family is so close, he holds on to ensure that his men are freed and Gracchus is reinstated. Ever the servant of Rome, he doesn’t give up the ghost until Lucilla releases him, telling him to “Go to them”.
Value Shift and The Foolscap
On the Story Grid Foolscap, we track the 15 core scenes as well as the external and internal charge for each.
What are the 15 core scenes?
When we talk about the 15 core scenes, we mean those that we list on the foolscap; the five act-level commandments for beginning hook, middle build and ending payoff. They must all turn on the global value spectrum because they track the progression of the global story. Any of these scenes can also include values from secondary genres or subplots, but they don’t have to. When you’re working on your manuscript, it might be easiest to first write a core scene tracking the global value only. Then, on subsequent drafts, you can layer in secondary genre and subplot value shifts if you want to.
What does external and internal charge mean?
The external and internal charge tracks the polarity shift (also called the valence shift) for the external and internal content genres of your story. If your story doesn’t have an internal content genre, you can simply write N/Ain that box, or leave it blank.
It’s not surprising that Peter Quill is shifting along the life > death spectrum of value because Guardians of the Galaxy is an action movie, and this is the global inciting incident for the story. It’s the first scene that we’d list on our foolscap – the inciting incident of the beginning hook. The external charge column has a negative sign because the global value (life > death) has shifted slightly toward the negative. The internal charge column has N/A because Peter Quill doesn’t have much of an internal arc in this story.
In Gladiator, Maximus is shifting along the selling out > success spectrum of value, because this is the core event of the story and the climax of the ending payoff. Since it’s also one of the 15 core scenes that we track on the Story Grid Foolscap, it must turn on the global value. There are positive signs in both columns because he has succeeded without compromise (ultimate positive value in the status > admiration internal content genre story), and power has been restored to Maximus and to society (ultimate positive value in the society > political external content genre story – see the podcast show notes for more information).
Value Shift and Objects of Desire
When you’re filling in your foolscap, you’ll write a sentence for each commandment of each act, and then indicate whether that scene moves the protagonist closer to her objects of desire (+) or further from them (-).
Why did I suddenly start talking about objects of desire? It’s because the objects of desire relate directly to the content genres and the global spectrum of value.
Objects of desire are the protagonist’s wants and needs. The wants are conscious, which means the protagonist is aware of them. The needs are subconscious, which means the protagonist is (likely) not aware of them (at least initially). Just as the global spectrum of value is dictated by the genre choice, so are the objects of desire.
Let’s look at another example.
Example 3: Pride & Prejudice
Price & Prejudice is primarily a love story between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy. Therefore the global genre is love story (external content genre) and the secondary genre is worldview > maturation (internal content genre) because Elizabeth matures when she learns not to be prejudice. There are two subplots namely the Jane and Bingley love story, and the Lydia and Wickham love story, but these don’t get tracked on the foolscap.
Since Elizabeth is our protagonist, we track the love story value shift and the worldview value shift from her perspective. In terms of her objects of desire, she wants to marry the perfect gentleman. She is consciously aware of this and even says as much to Jane. However, what she’s not aware of (her subconscious need) is that she needs to mature. She has a prejudice against rich people that instantly colours her attitude toward Darcy.
So, when tracking the value shift on the foolscap, we’re tracking whether Elizabeth is getting closer to or further from love (external charge) and closer to or further from maturity (internal charge). The beginning hook of Pride & Prejudice therefore, looks like this:
The explanation of the external and internal value charges is as follows:
Value Shift and the Spreadsheet
When you analyze the draft of your manuscript using the Story Grid Spreadsheet, you’ll notice that Shawn Coyne has created columns for the story event, value shift, polarity shift and turning point. This is so that you can easily see whether your scenes work. If there’s no turning point, there’s no value shift. If there’s no value shift, you haven’t written a scene. You’ve written a passage of exposition in which nothing is happening. Too many of these and your reader will lose interest.
On the spreadsheet, the Guardians of the Galaxy scene would look like this:
Notice I’ve listed the value as safe to unsafe whereas above I talked about life to death. That’s because safety is on the life > death spectrum of value. If Peter is no longer safe, he has moved closer to the death value and further from the life value. Figuring out exactly what to list in this column requires a lesson on scene analysis, which I’m happy to do if it’s helpful to you. If that’s something you want to see, please let me know in the comments below. For now, write your best guess. It’ll be fine. Exact word choice is not important at this stage. What is important, is to know that the scene shifted. Focus on identifying the turning point and listing the polarity shift.
Questions From The Tribe
Our Story Grid Summer Semester program is in full swing right now, so I asked the participants if there was anything in particular they wanted me to address in this article. While I did my best, there are a few questions I couldn’t organically fit into the text above, so I’ll list them here in case you’re struggling with them too.
How do I decide on the names of the different values that my story is shifting through?
The range of value shifts is called the spectrum of value and it’s determined by your choice of genre. In terms of the names of the values that the story is shifting through, it will primarily depend on your story. If we use the analogy of a road trip, the start and end points are known, and a few major way stations might also be known but the exact route you take to get from Point A to Point B are up to you.
For example, in a crime story the two extreme values (Points A and B) are tyranny (negative) and justice (positive). The way stations would be injustice, neutral (which is a boring place for a story to be, by the way), and unfairness. How the story gets from unfairness to justice is up to the writer. If you study ten similar crime stories, you’ll no doubt see similar values popping up in the move between way stations. The question you need to ask yourself is, “Do I want to copy this approach, or is this an opportunity for me to innovate?”.
My story has multiple protagonists. How do I track the valence shift if the scene is a clear negative for one, but a clear positive for the other? Do I have to track the same protagonist from scene to scene?
If you’re writing something like a love story where both lovers have internal arcs, you can always add a second internal charge column to the foolscap. But remember, the bigger your story, the more challenging it will be to write. So think deeply about your story and decide whether both lovers are of equal importance. If one is dominant, track the dominant character. If you still want to go with two internal arcs, you will have to track both characters along his/her own value spectrum.
What’s the difference between scene-level value shifts, and global value shifts?
In the case of the 15 core scenes, global value shifts and scene shifts are the same thing. However, all the other scenes can shift however you want/need them to. This is where the secondary genre and any subplots get developed. These scene shifts will not have as great an impact on the global story as the global value shifts.
When I track scenes on the spreadsheet, my value shifts aren’t necessarily on the same continuum. Does that mean the scene doesn’t work and I should look at revising?
It depends on how the scene is functioning within the story. Core scenes need to shift along the global spectrum of value. Scenes to do with the secondary genre will need to shift on that value spectrum, and scenes relating to subplots will have to shift those value spectrums. In saying this, a core scene can also contain shifts relating to secondary genres and subplots.
If there are two shifts of value in a scene (negative to positive, and then positive to double negative), doesn’t that mean there are two turning points in a scene?
Yes, it does! The second one will have more weight because we always want to be increasing the stakes for our protagonist. This is a more complicated scene structure though, so I recommend mastering scenes with one turning point first.
If there are two shifts, do we need to identify the middle shift?
Yes, you need to track the middle shift because it helps you see the shape of the story. Also, if a scene starts and ends negatively, then the negative charges have to be of different weight so that the protagonist is in a different place at the end than he was at the beginning. For example, a character can’t simply be unemployed, then employed, then unemployed again because that kind of scene wouldn’t move the story forward. If, when he thought he had a job he went on a shopping spree, at the end of the scene he’d not only be unemployed but he’d also be in debt. The stakes would be raised and the story would be moving forward.