Previously on Parable Presents we have discussed story values in terms of positive and negative charges. Today, let’s talk about taking these story values to the end of the line. Again, I’m drawing from Robert McKee’s book Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting.
In the book, McKee notes that enduring stories take us to the end of line in terms of the value at stake. This means that our stories must not only touch on the opposite story value, but go beyond to the “Negation of the Negation.”1 McKee writes, “At the end of the line waits the Negation of the Negation, a force of antagonism that’s doubly negative” (my emphasis).2 Between the Negation of the Negation and the Positive story value are a couple of levels of negativity. There is the “Contradictory” or opposite story value. Then there is the “Contrary” story value–this value is negative, but not completely opposed to the positive value.
For example, let’s say our story value is: Succeeding at your dreams / at what you were born to do. This is the positive value. At the contrary value, it might be being mediocre at what you were born to do (i.e. not completely negative), and the negative/contradictory value is: Failing to achieve your dreams. But what is the doubly negative value? In this example, the negation of the negation might be: giving up on your dreams / giving up on what you were born to do.
What I’ve tried to describe is a value at stake in the film THE GREATEST GAME EVER PLAYED starring Shia LaBeouf.3 LaBeouf plays Francis Ouimet, a young man with dreams of playing the game of Golf. But playing Golf is not merely a game to Francis–it’s as if something is moving through him, coming from somewhere deep within and beyond him. In the film he is quite good at the game, but his dreams are cut short when he agrees to a deal with his father to quit the game and get a real job if he fails to win an Amatuer Open Tournament. As it turns out, Francis does indeed lose, but only because his father’s presence makes him nervous. The negation of the negation is therefore reached fairly early in the film as a heart-broken Ouimet must give up the game he loves.
But the story doesn’t end there. Later, Francis is faced with a choice when his hometown decides to host the U.S. Open Golf Championship. Will he play? At first, per the agreement with his father, he refuses. Yet the dream still burns in the embers deep in his soul–so, in a courageous decision, he enters the tournament and… I’ll let you watch this fine film to learn how it ends.
According to McKee, a story must reach the negation of the negation, must take the audience to the end of the line. It must move us through the contrary value, the negative value, and the doubly negative value. But not necessarily in that order (for more on this, take a look at chapter 14 of Story).4
1 Robert McKee, Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting (New York: HarperCollins, 1997), 319.
2 McKee, Story, 319.
3 The Greatest Game Ever Played, DVD, directed by Bill Paxton (Burbank, CA: Walt Disney Home Entertainment, Burbank, CA: Distributed by Buena Vista Home Entertainment, ©2005/2006).
4 McKee, Story, 317. (Chapter 14 of the print edition can be found on page 317).