Valuable Scenes

Several months ago on a blog just around the corner, Alex and I were discussing writing as we usually do, and she mentioned—nay requested—a post on value shifting in scenes because I hit that up every other second when it comes to feedback.

So, my people, I give you my own personal interpretation of Robert McKee’s value shifts. And hopefully this will give you enough reason to go buy this book already and hold it fast like the writing bible it is!


It doesn’t mean morals, if that’s what you’re thinking, although it could be related to a moral. This is part of the real guts of the scene. Think of it as what the character values most in that moment. It might be freedom, In some cases it will be the stakes of the story. Often it will be just the stakes of that scene.

How does Mr. McKee define it?

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.

I often think of it as the goal of that moment for the character or perhaps something that will create a goal. Take, for example, Ghostbusters. The big goal of the characters is saving New York from utter destruction from a Mesopotamian god (NEGATIVE).

It just popped in there.

While every scene should be working toward that ultimate goal, that won’t be the immediate goal of every scene. Nor do the Ghostbusters realize in the beginning that it will become the ultimate goal.

So if we were to simplify it, for the Ghostbusters the basic story value would be life/death. Some other examples of story values McKee lists are wisdom/stupidity, strength/weakness, true/lie, freedom/slavery—hopefully you’re starting to get the idea.

For Winston, when he’s interviewing, the value of his scene is job/unemployment. For Venkman when he’s flirting with Dana Barrett maybe his value is companionship/solitude or impressive/pathetic. Yet these scenes still tie into the ultimate goal of life/death. They needed another Ghostbuster to ultimately take down Zuul, and because Venkman built a relationship with Dana they were able to discover her role in Zuul’s return.

McKee recommends that values should be switched within scene. For Winston he started off jobless and by the end of the scene he got the job. For Venkman, the value shift came a little later, but ultimately it shifted to companionship, which then later shifted back to the threat of solitude when, you know, she became a dog. 😉

This makes for an awkward first date….


Sometimes I’m able to do this in rough drafts, but often this is advice I integrate in revisions. I find it especially helpful if I run into scenes that bore me. Take a look at those boring scenes and ask yourself what the values are and how they are shifting. If your character achieves things too easily, that might be a problem. Or perhaps the contrast between positive and negative wasn’t great enough. Or was too great.

I always think of Donald Maass’ advice (see Writing the Breakout Novel), which is if my character gets what they want, how can I make this the worst thing possible? Or if they don’t get what they want, how can I make this the best thing possible? I couple that philosophy with value shifts.

Okay, my character got the job she always wanted (POSITIVE), but now she has to move to a new city and a potential man of her dreams just moved in next door (NEGATIVE). Or everyone is picking on my protagonist (NEGATIVE) but luckily her boyfriend showed up (POSITIVE) only instead of defending her he does nothing (NEGATIVE) but then maybe in private he gives her the engagement ring she’s been waiting for (POSITIVE).

There is no predetermined guide to how far apart these shifts should be, only that they should happen. Being a great storyteller is knowing where they should happen to keep the pacing going and that will take practice and study. But I still find it valuable to know about shifts.

The stories I find the most boring are ones where characters, especially main character seem to always come out on top or always lose. They need at least small triumphs or small defeats sometimes, and hopefully some major triumphs/defeats in between.


For awhile, the Ghostbusters were struggling to make ends meet, then they catch Slimer and business is booming. But they don’t live their dream for long before the EPA shows up and destroys everything they’ve worked for. (Hopefully you’re seeing the shifts).

Or take Venkman’s relationship with Dana. First she’s a client who trusts him, then she thinks he’s a fool, then she finds him a little bit charming and hooray, he gets a date. But before he can even go out with her, she gets possessed by a demon and worse still, turns into a dog.

The whole will they, won’t they—not just of romance, but of success or achievement of any goals—is what drives story. Understanding your scene values is one of the keys of crafting great story, and can especially help with crafting tension that makes it hard for readers to put your book down.

You may even impress the Stay-Puft Marshmellow Man.


Go to your story—and it’s probably best if you already have at least one draft written—and look at your scenes. What shifts from positive to negative or negative to positive? What about chapters? Acts? The whole book?

Anything you could change? Can you identify the values? Some of these will be really easy to identify, others make take some thinking, and others still may yet be as well-developed as they need to be.

Anything you would add? Are there frequent values in your writing? Do you feel inspired to change up some of those dragging scenes? Maybe the murky middle is a little less murky?

And thanks Alex for suggesting the post!


20 thoughts on “Valuable Scenes

  1. Never really noticed these, but I can think back and see them now even in my own writing. I do a lot with fear/courage, doubt/confidence, and one storyline has love/lust. It’s interesting how these can be more scene-based than overall story-based. As in Ghostbusters, the main threat isn’t always in the foreground until the third act.

    • I really like how in Ghostbusters we know something is there lurking but as you said it isn’t as significant until the later act. It’s interesting to think how all the subplots build to the main plot. Glad to hear you already do the value switches in your own writing. I’m sure your readers really appreciate the tension build. 🙂

  2. Ooh, I remember my request – so long ago. Thanks for linking me 🙂

    I like how you’ve broken this down into the idea that there’s an ultimate goal and a scene goal. That makes sense. I think some story values are more difficult to define than black/white – or a combination of many.

    “The stories I find the most boring are ones where characters, especially main character seem to always come out on top or always lose. ” I so agree, especially for the latter. I don’t mind so much when characters have success or a string of good events (as long as that’s not the entire novel, of course), but when they’re always heading deeper into trouble it feels to me too cliché, especially for monsters and adventures. “Oh, look, so-and-so has escaped only to fall into more trouble. I kinda gave all my ‘oh dear’ feels to the last chapter.” Have you seen The Desolation of Smaug yet? I think that’s why splitting The Hobbit into three doesn’t work because the movies just feel like the same pattern over and over with different adversaries.

    Reading some of what you’ve put actually reminds me of my longest novel which is a contemporary romance. One of my WIP readers commented that she was sad about what was happening to the heroine but also looking forward to the next chapter because it had a positive-sounding title. Then she later posted another comment about being sad, because the chapter’s about the hero getting a better job but having to leave the heroine. I hadn’t intended a shift there, but I guess readers can pick up on these things better than writers.

    Whoops. I rambled a bit here! Again: cool post.

    • I have seen the Desolation of Smaug and I found myself extremely bored a lot of the time. I hadn’t thought of the same pattern being overused, but you’re totally right. It’s all so predictable, whereas in the book it seemed a lot more intense to me. It must be breaking it up that contributes to my boredom. Well that and Peter Jackson adding 70 million things from other sources because even he knows there’s not enough material in the Hobbit to make 3 movies. Go figure….

      • Yes, exactly. You know it’s a problem when you sit thinking “okay, THIS would be a good place for the movie to stop” and it doesn’t for another half an hour or so.
        I’ve not yet read the book, but it’s something I need to do when I have better time. Maybe over the summer.

        • You’ll be amazed at how little the hobbit is in the movies when he’s key to the book. I thought the title would have told them whom they needed to include most, but alas…

        • I almost feel like they squandered Martin Freeman. He’s a great actor and whenever he was on screen I was involved in the story. But whenever they went on side story tracks, zzzZZZzzzz…. I’ve hated twice now, leaving movies titled “The Hobbit” and wishing there was more hobbit in it… *sigh* It is what it is I guess. I don’t know if you’ve seen this. It about sums up my feelings.

  3. “Take a look at those boring scenes and ask yourself what the values are and how they are shifting” – Great advice. Thank you.

    • I think so. Seems like the character must either gain something or lose something in each scene. It probably especially works if your character values that knowledge or very much desires it or realizes how much they desire it after they’ve gained it.

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