This past April and May, I read over 100 short stories as one of the judges in The Write Practice's Spring Short Story Contest. I kept track of how often I gave feedback on different writing and storytelling concepts. This post is the first in a series covering the common scene-writing mistakes I observed.
What’s the one concept central to every novel ever written, essential to every scene, and critical for every storyteller to master?
Read on to learn what it is, how it works, and how to avoid common mistakes with it in your stories.
WARNING: You’ll want to watch Guardians of the Galaxy (the first one) before reading. The post contains spoilers.
What a life value shift is and why it matters
What makes readers care about your characters are life value shifts. A life value shift is a change in life circumstances that occurs from the beginning to end of every unit of story — scene, sequence, act, global story. For example, from “single and not looking” to “just met someone new”. From “safe” to “in danger”. From “outcast” to “accepted by the group”.
Value shifts forge an emotional bond between the reader and protagonist because they inspire empathy for your characters. When a unit of story has a life value shift, editors say it works. For novelists, the first skill you must master is writing scenes with life value shifts. Why? I'm glad you asked.
How life value shifts relate to reader expectations
Your global story — the narrative that encompasses your entire novel—moves along a genre-specific spectrum of life values. For example, let’s consider Action and Thriller stories. Stories such as Guardians of the Galaxy, Die Hard, Harry Potter, The Bourne Identity, and Silence of the Lambs. In these stories, readers (or film-goers) expect a story with a life value shift along the spectrum of life and death.
This means that your protagonist will encounter a new, life-threatening danger at the beginning of the story and by the end of the story they will have defeated and escaped this danger. For example, in Guardians of the Galaxy, Peter Quill starts by stealing an artifact. Multiple characters immediately try to kill Quill. But at the start of the movie, the rest of the galaxy isn’t threatened. By the end of the movie, Quill sacrifices his own life to defeat the villain and save the galaxy from a villain who wants to destroy entire planets. We could say the value shift is from “Pursued by assassins” to “Saves countless lives”.
In Action and Thriller stories, the plot is always about Will the protagonist(s) survive the threat? Yes or no. Other genres of stories, such as Crime and Love have their own genre-specific key question and spectrum of life values at stake that come with their own key question and spectrum of life values at stake. Crime stories are about: Will the criminal be brought to justice? They shift on a spectrum of justice to injustice. Love stories are about: Will the couple commit? They shift on a spectrum of love to hate. Each of the 12 content genres has its own spectrum. Stories that work will have a change in life value along the genre-specific spectrum of values from beginning to end of the story.
Want a list of the key question and life value spectrum for every genre? Find it inside The Structure of a Page-Turning Novel.
Staying within the boundaries of reader expectations
At the larger units of story such as the global story and the act, writers must use life value shifts appropriate to their chosen genre. For example, if you're writing a love story, your global story must answer the key question Will the couple commit? Each act must have a shift along the spectrum of love and commitment to hate and rejection.
Here's a common pattern of act shifts for love stories. In the first act, the couple begins "unaware of each other's existence" and ends with a "first kiss or intimate moment". The second act shifts from "first kiss" to "getting serious" to "broken up". The third act shifts from "broken up" to "committed". Every content genre has a pattern like this. You can play around with the order of what happens, but your acts must start and end with changes that occur in the life values specific to your genre.
For smaller units of stories like scenes, writers have more freedom in which life values can shift. However, some scenes still have constraints. Your pivotal scenes (e.g. the inciting incident, the climax of each act), will also need to shift in ways that support the genre-specific shift happening in the act and global story.
For example, in Guardians of the Galaxy, four of the five Guardians are captured in the climax of the first act. This threatens their lives and makes it kinda difficult for them to save the galaxy. We know they’ll need to break out during the second act. Both the imprisonment and the breakout are pivotal scenes. Scenes that lead to a shift in the global story. We don’t want to get cute with unusual life value shifts for these pivotal scenes, we want to be clear: “free to imprisoned” and then “imprisoned” to “free”. (Another day, we’ll address how to make shifts that the audience expects surprising. Short preview: it’s all in how the value shifts happen, not what the values shift between.)
When to surprise readers with unusual life value shifts
Writers can get creative with the value shifts between pivotal scenes. Let's continue with the Guardians example, and look at the scenes in-between imprisonment and the prison break.
In Guardians, a lot happens while Quill, Gamora, Groot, and Rocket are in prison. They get into fights. A big blue guy threatens Quill, and Groot picks him up by the nostrils. Value shift from "threatened" to "saved". Drax almost strangles Gamora, but Quill steps in to save her. While on one level Gamora's shift is from "nearly strangled" to "released", she also shifts from "enemy of Quill" to "indebted to Quill". In another scene, Groot sets off alarms by grabbing a battery pack that Rocket needs for the escape. Value shift from “planning in secret” to “attacked by security droids”.
You can see that while some of these scenes have life value shifts along the life and death spectrum, other value shifts are about forming a team and being discovered by authorities. The general trend over the course of these scenes is that the Guardians are getting into increasingly more life- and galaxy-threatening trouble.
How writers break the emotional bond between protagonist and reader
Life value shifts create empathy for your characters in a reader’s mind. Writers mess up and break this emotional bond in five different ways.
Not having a value shift. A lot of scenes without value shifts are scenes to give the reader backstory. For example, let’s say your writing a romance where your protagonist’s family has had a long-standing feud with her lover’s family. You might write a scene that’s a conversation between your protagonist and her lover about how terrible their families are. That scene does NOT have with a value shift. It doesn’t change the lover’s chance of getting together or breaking apart. Instead, you might write a scene where a fight breaks out between the rival families, or one where your protagonist’s mother threatens to disown her if she sees her lover again, or one where the patriarch of the rival family plots arson. Or something less violent. Whatever you write, each scene needs to affect the outcome of the key question for your content genre. In this case, will it be harder or easier for the couple to commit by the end of the book?
Having too many values shifting at once. While multiple values may shift in one scene, all of those values need to support the same goal. If your protagonist tries to find her father, defeat the villain, and tell her love interest that she will marry them all in one scene, that's likely too much. When too many values shift at once, it's confusing to readers as to where they should place their attention.
Having a value shift that doesn’t have a clear contrast. Scenes with murky value shifts tend to use only the characters thoughts to convey the change. For example, let’s say your protagonist is “contemplating suicide” at the beginning of your scene. By the end of the scene, he’s decided not to go through with it. That’s a shift, but one that’s not likely to hold. People can debate whether or not to follow through on a decision repeatedly. It's better for the character to act. What would be a stronger shift is from “contemplating suicide” to “calling for help”. This commits your character to a path that is much harder to abandon. (Side note: If you're thinking about suicide, please reach out for help. The world needs writers like you, even if that seems hard to believe right now. If you're in the US, you can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or chat online with someone who can help. Wikipedia has a list of hotlines for many countries.)
Inappropriate for the genre. Every genre has specific scenes that readers expect. For example, the climax of every novel is a genre-specific scene which is also called the Core Event. If you’re writing an Action story, the Core Event is a Hero at the Mercy of the Villain scene. This is the scene where the hero or heroes face off against the villain and either win or lose. An inappropriate climax scene for Guardians of the Galaxy would be if instead of fighting Ronin, Quill and Gamora ditch the others Guardians and go off to start a bed-and-breakfast on a remote planet. Don’t be that writer.
Value shift not consistently attached to the same character(s). A life value shift is specific to a character or a group of characters. For example, let’s say that at the beginning of your scene your protagonist is arrested. At the end of the scene another character is released from jail. That’s a value shift of “arrested” to “released”. Except, that it’s not a true value shift, because your protagonist only has a starting point — “arrested” — and your supporting character only has an ending point — ”released”. We need to see a shift from beginning to end for one character or a consistent group of characters.
Want help making readers care about your characters?
Today, we learned about life value shifts, the essential ingredient to creating an emotional bond between your readers and your characters. We examined how life value shifts relate to reader expectations. We explored when to do what readers expect and when to surprise them. Finally, we reviewed common mistakes writers make in life value shifts in their scenes.
If you’d like help writing scenes that make readers care about your characters so that you can build a career as a fiction writer, check out Master Scenes.