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.

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SMC: Writing Action Scenes

How are your action scenes? Too long? Not descriptive enough? Let this forum presented by AUTHOR give you the tips to take your action from flab to fab. Even if action is your strong suit, I think there’s great tips for all.

And now, the NOTES:

Tip #1 Do what you write
Figure out the logistics of your scene. Act it out as much as possible and see if there’s anything else you notice that might give texture to the scene for your readers. Or, if it’s not something you know a lot about, sit down with someone who does.

Tip #2 Use your verbs.
When it comes to action scenes, use very strong words, not passive. Ask yourself, does this verb foreshadow? Often great writers will take language that is in the climax and put it in Chapter One. That way when readers reach the climax on a subconscious level it all makes sense.

Tip #3 Avoid passive voice at all costs
Action needs to be very present and very accountable. Passive voice is abdicating responsibility. It shows a character being acted upon rather than acting, and action 100% needs your characters acting (even if they’re getting smashed to bits).

Tip #4 Use dialogue strategically.
In real life you don’t do much talking when you’re fighting, so leave out unnatural long speeches or dialogue that just wouldn’t work in an action scene. However, that doesn’t mean ex out all dialogue. When dialogue breaks up the action it’s a good thing. Dialogue can frame the action you’ve written. (Remember Empire Strikes Back? Of course you do! Anyway, think of Luke and Vader fighting. A lot of that scene they aren’t talking, but as Luke is being defeated Vader starts to insert lines that give us insight into Luke possibly losing his internal conflict as well.)

Remember, part of the battle is the psychological. The first one to lose their temper is often the loser. But don’t use fight scenes to put in exposition (aka backstory or infodumping). A fight scene should be all in the present and all intense.

Tip #5 Make sure every sentence moves the action forward.
This is not the place to dwell, wallow, or describe a sunset. Every sentence takes us closer to the climax of this action. Every sentence is a continuation of action. Only use details you’ve already introduced, don’t introduce new details because it will slow the scene down.

But remember, you don’t have to give the wikipedia explanation of everything. Sometimes writers feel like they have to prove they’re knowledgeable of something when all it usually ends up doing is showing that they’re trying to prove they are knowledgeable. Keep it simple and keep it moving.

Tip #6 Read Other Writers
One of the best ways to learn how to write great action is to read other author’s action scenes. Ask yourself, how do they “grab” me? Bad examples can teach you a lot as well. If the writing drags, can you see why? Emulate those you admire and workshop your writing (I think she means, have it beta read) to find strengths/weaknesses.

Tip #7 Give it Tension (Don’t make it easy)
Give your enemy a brain. Remember: if the action scene wasn’t planned by your protagonist, it was planned by the opposition.

The opposition must be formidable in some way. They must want something from the hero. What gives them an edge is they are willing to do things your hero can’t or won’t do.

The hero cares more and hence has more to lose. Everything your hero has on the field they want to keep. The opposition is perfectly willing to sacrifice whatever he/she needs in order to defeat the hero.

Tip #8 Foreshadow the Protagonist’s success or failure

(At this point we were running short on time, so she went way faster. I’ll try and summarize what I believe she meant by her headings.)

Use language and/or symbolism to indicate whether or not your protagonist will succeed. You can also use this to misdirect readers into thinking one thing will happen and show them it’s quite the opposite.

Tip #9 Keep it Tight (In Scene) But Let It Breathe
Set up the scene for action and then let the scene play. Understand the time/space where they figure out things. (She mentioned one author whose name I can’t remember, sorry, who had people read her action scenes while people behind her acted them out. She said it shouldn’t take longer to read the scene than it does for them to act it out. Daunting eh?)

Tip #10 Have Stakes (What does the winner get?)

Make sure whatever the winner gets that it’s really good and it’s really devastating to the opposition, be it the hero or the villain.

Tip #11 Keep Track of Time (keep it real time)
(Ah, here’s where she actually mentioned it. But it never hurts to read this twice). An action scene should not take longer to read than to physically do.

Tip #12 Keep it Primal (instinct not intellectual)

(Someone mentioned the fight scenes in RDJ’s Sherlock Holmes as the contrary example to this. But we fully believe that Sherlock would be doing the play-by-play in his mind of a fight, so it works for him. It likely wouldn’t work for most of our characters).

Let your characters react to action scenes based on instinct. Let them mess things up, misjudge things, get more angry when they realize they’re losing, etc.


I really found this forum helpful and recently got feedback from a friend on a certain scene that wasn’t utilizing these tips. It’s been great timing for me to post it. 😉 I challenge you to look at your action scenes and see if there isn’t anything you can do to pep them up.

Did you find anything helpful? Do you feel more confident in writing action scenes? What do you do to research action scenes? Any of this advice you’re already utilizing?

Storymakers Conference

For the first time I attended Storymakers that they typically hold in Provo, UT, and now I’m wondering what ever kept me away for so long. There are tons of helpful workshops, forums, and opportunities available to us aspiring writers—and of course, I’m going to do my best to share the experience with all of you who aren’t able to attend as many conferences as you’d like.

On Thursday I attended what they call “Boot Camp” which is where you take the first 15 pages of your novel and work with a published author on ways you can strengthen it. Of course, I’ve been eagerly applying those tips and have a much stronger first chapter for it. We were helped by and had the opportunity to help other aspiring writers. The ladies at my table both had phenomenal stories. If there’s one thing you learn at a conference, it’s that great ideas abound, but the real trouble is getting it on the page in a way that conveys that idea best to the reader. You hope your peers get published as much as you hope for yourself, because those are stories you want to read when they’re ready.

Friday is when the conference officially began. First on my docket was a workshop taught by agent Hannah Bowman. And without further ado, the notes:


High concept means you have a premise that instantly engages. For example, the movie Alien was sold as “jaws in space.” It’s important to have an engaging premise and that’s the first step in writing an engaging novel.

Example: “His Majesty’s Dragon

  • A character can be part of the premise
  • Romance premises are often based on characters

The point of a first chapter is to hook you in with the premise. The first chapter is like a short story. However, in a short story the conflict is worked out, but in a chapter it’s meant to lead you into the next chapter.

You can have the best premise in the whole world, but if things don’t keep happening in an interesting way, your book will fall flat. Hannah sees a lot of interesting premises, but admits many of them fall flat because the author didn’t continue fostering tension and more good ideas.

There should be one good idea on every page. Just one good idea alone is not enough for an entire novel.


The climax should begin when the character is at their weakest point. All along the way to the climax, you should be making things worse for your character. Build your stakes gradually and show your audience why it matters so that when they reach the climax they’ll be fully invested in the story and find it “believable.” (For clarification, she means believable to the world of the story, not actually believable in reality.)


Your pitch should certainly include the premise, but that alone won’t make a good pitch. It should be the premise and something about the climax combined. Essentially you’re saying: here’s the premise, and here’s why it’s even more interesting.

She then had us take a break to work on creating a one-sentence pitch. You’ll want to identify how the conflict develops and what the climax is, but to take caution in making your pitch too plot-heavy. The point of the pitch is to sell the agent or person on reading the book. Your pitch won’t be a play-by-play synopsis. Also, it’s good if you can include some of the more unique elements of your book to make it feel less generic. There’s nothing new understand the sun, except perhaps for viewpoints. Show your agent why your book is that unique viewpoint.

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