Story Values

If there is anything in that stands out as the most useful bit of
technique you can learn, this is it. Story Values. Everything else in this book is
important or useful. But this is a concept that truly revolutionizes your work and sets it
above the pack.

Story values are how you demonstrate character arcs. It’s how
you demonstrate change. It’s how you make a story seem like it squeezed the last drop
of passion out of the conflict. Story values are the levels a conflict can pass through.
They are the limits of human experience. You need to take the Hero through all the levels
of human experience to craft a completely satisfying tale. Once you understand these
levels, you can then set the goals you need to meet by the story’s end. Values are
the points on a curve any given status or emotional state of being can take.

There are four levels of story values: Positive, Compromised,
Negative, Detrimental. Let’s examine what these are. When I list the examples below,
they will be in six categories. The next set of examples show you their alternates on the

Positive: This is the
value we all want our life to be experiencing. It’s when things are great. Everything
is coming up roses. You’re at the top of the heap. Examples of positive values are:
Love, Wealthy, Justice, Truth, Healthy, Free.

Compromised: When you
enter this plane of values, things are on the skids. You’re on a downward spiral but
haven’t hit bottom yet. Things could also get better. Examples: Indifference, Broke,
Unfairness, White Lies, Sick, Constrained.

Negative: When you hit
bottom, this is where you enter the territory of the Negative values. It’s the skids,
the pits, etc. This is a destructive value, but not the most destructive. Things could
still get worse. But worse is something you don’t even want to think about. Examples:
Hate, Bankrupt, Injustice, Lies, Dead, Imprisoned.

Detrimental: If Negative is when you hit bottom,
Detrimental is when the bottom falls out from under you. Once you’ve hit the realm of
detrimental, you can only lose or win. There’s no other way to go. You’ve
reached the end of the line. Examples: Hate masquerading as love, In debt to a murderous
loanshark, Tyranny, Self Deception, Undead, In a Concentration camp.

Exploring the Values

Let’s see how they work in terms of a story. The hero is named
Kyle. The villain is a loan shark named Rafe.

Kyle is a wealthy man. But in the beginning of the story he loses
his fortune. This is the turning point of the story, which propells us into the second
act. In the second act of the story, Kyle is broke. His girlfriend dumps him. His house is
in foreclosure. The IRS is claiming he owes a lot of money in taxes. he is facing some
serious problems.

He tries all sorts of things to get himself back on top, but they
fail. So he takes out loans to gamble in Vegas, hoping to win his fortune back.
That’s his goal in the story. But Kyle keeps losing at every game he tries and his
credit is cut off. He’s out of money. He’s bankrupt. No one will lend to him. No
one but Rafe, a loan shark.

Kyle takes the loan from Rafe. But he loses the money and can’t
pay Rafe back. Now Rafe is actively looking for Kyle. He plans to either break his legs or
kill him as an example. Kyle has no money to get out of town. He only has one quarter to
his name. He gambled his last few bucks on the slots. As he turns to leave the casino Kyle
sees Rafe across the room, looking at him. Rafe’s men are with him and they move to
block all the exits. Rafe approaches Kyle with deadly intent. Kyle has nowhere to run.

We’ve now reached the climax. The story began with Kyle being
wealthy, the positive extreme. We took the values down to an extreme low of being in debt
to a psycho. Imagine how effective this would play, fleshed out with characterization and
plot twists.

Now we can choose between three possible endings. Up, Down, or
Ironic. These will determine which path Kyle’s life will end up on.

UP: Kyle puts his last quarter in a slot machine as Rafe and his men
walk toward him. Desperate, Kyle pulls the lever. He sees Rafe draw his gun. Suddenly,
lights and alarms go off. Rafe stops in his tracks, surprised. Kyle turns to look at the
slot machine. He’s just won the big pay off! Two million dollars! Kyle is rich again!
Rafe puts away his gun and says: “Congratulations.”

DOWN: Kyle puts his last quarter in a slot machine as Rafe and his
men walk toward him. Desperate, Kyle pulls the lever. He sees Rafe draw his gun.
Rafe’s expression turns from bad to worse as he draws close and jabs the gun against
Kyle’s back. Kyle turns to look at the slot. He lost. RAFE: “You had your
chance, Kyle. Now you’re going for a ride!” Rafe’s men grab Kyle’s
arms and he’s dragged off into the night.

IRONIC: Kyle puts his last quarter in a slot machine as Rafe and his
men walk toward him. Desperate, Kyle pulls the lever. He sees Rafe draw his gun. Suddenly,
lights and alarms go off. Rafe stops in his tracks, surprised. Kyle turns to look at the
slot. He’s just won the big pay off. $100,000. Exactly the amount of money he owes
Rafe. Rafe puts his gun away and almost smiles. Kyle wipes the sweat from his brow.
He’s still broke, and in debt to other people, but at least he doesn’t owe Rafe
anymore. Just then, three security guards show up with a man in a cheap suit. The man
says: “I’m Mr. Finster from the I.R.S. You’ll have to pay the income tax on
that money.” Rafe can’t make a move with the guards there, so he leaves. Kyle
knows he’s been given some extra time. Will it be enough?

TRUTH: We can add on more values to the same story by choosing those
which are complimentary to the plot. Same exact story, but here’s how more values
adds to the plot. Kyle’s a successful man with his own business. He’s level
headed. He’s honest and fair. But he needs a big deal to make his business more
successful and he tells a white lie to a potential client. This is the Trigger event. The
white lie not only costs Kyle the deal, but he’s also sued by the client. He loses
the law suit during the Turning Point of act one and becomes broke. During the second act
he borrows money, using false information (lies) to get the loans. When this is discovered
his credit is cut off, so he starts gambling. As he loses, he goes into denial, telling
himself he is going to win it all back. And he lies to himself right up until the end,
wanting to believe that success is just around the corner.

As you see, the values serve several roles. They establish the
levels of conflict. They are the basis of motivation and causation. They raise the stakes
in the story. When you use values to go from one extreme to the other, you build a
powerful charge. And when the climax occurs you have things at such an extreme point, that
reversing everything in one final act, righting all the wrongs, setting things back to
where the hero wants them to be, creates a feeling of great exhilaration for the Audience.
Or it makes the Ironic ending funny. Or it makes the negative ending devastating.

Notice how the values are married to the causal effect. The Audience
needs to see that actions have consequences. They expect the Newtonian rules of physics to
apply to a story. When you do one thing, it causes another thing to occur. This principle
creates a feeling of realism.

So we use values to add more and more power to the conflict(s) of
the story. We can tie together three or four sets of values easily. Even more if we have
to. And by doing so we create a feeling of believability and complexity in the work. We
also make the story meaningful. When a character goes through the limits of human
experience, they really discover the meaning of the word “adventure.”

REMEMBER: Take us through the values and we’ll feel the full
range of human experience.