One of the things that fascinates me most about stories is the changes that occur throughout the telling. To better understand this, let’s look at one of the smallest elements that makes up a story.
In his book Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting, Robert McKee calls these elements “Story Values,”1 the positive and negative charges of life. For example, happy(+)/sad(-), alive(+)/dead(-), success(+)/fail(-), win(+)/lose(-), etc. are all positive charges alongside their negative counterparts.
McKee notes that each scene must turn on the value charged condition at stake in the character’s life. Not only that, but every sequence, act, and ultimately the entire story from beginning to end must turn on a value charge. The difference is that the change in an individual scene is usually small, but significant; the change from the beginning of a sequence of scenes to the end of that sequence is greater than any single scene before it; and the value change from the beginning of an Act to its Climax is greater and more significant than any change which preceded it. Ultimately, the story’s Climax contains the greatest, most significant change of all. And, this time, it is an irreversible change. It is a final statement that says, to quote McKee, “Life is like this.”2 This statement is your story’s main theme.
“No scene that doesn’t turn,” McKee writes.3 That is, every scene should turn on at least one value charge. The charge at the top of the scene should not be the same as the charge at the bottom of the scene. In fact, if nothing changes in a scene it is likely only there as exposition–i.e. to convey information to the reader/audience. Usually this information should be reworked into the story in such a way that it is embedded within scenes which turn on a value charge.
To conclude, let us remember that Scenes, Sequences, and Acts must turn on at least one value charge within the life of the character. We will explore this more in the second part of this article, offering an example from the film A KNIGHTS TALE, starring Heath Ledger.
1 Robert McKee, Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting (New York: HarperCollins, 1997), 34.
2 McKee, Story, 122.
3 McKee, Story, 36.