Story Values

A writing concept I continue to be enamored by is the concept of values.

I suppose story values could be rolled up into the concept of theme, but I think it’s worth mentally separating the two, because values connect deeply to character, going right into their motivations. Expressed well, a story’s theme also ties into characters’ motivations. From understanding the theme of Shakespeare’s Macbeth to be “The pursuit of power can easily corrupt us,” we can understand political power as a value for both Lady Macbeth and Macbeth. But, in my opinion, working from the concept of values—as opposed to theme—is more likely to introduce nuance into your writing, and to help you avoid the pitfall of Pilgrim’s Progress-type dramaturgy.

John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story has a helpful conceptual tool called Four-Corner Opposition, in which he invites you to imagine a battle of different values held by different characters, or held by the same character through internal contradiction. I believe Truby was influenced by Robert McKee. As dramatists, they’re both predominantly concerned with screenplays, but many of their ideas can be extended to other forms.

What’s compelling to me about the Four-Corner Opposition tool is that it invites you to explore outside a values binary. To not simply write about liberty versus oppression, for instance, but to write about the spectrum of liberty, the illusion of choice, oppression, and self-repression.

It may be that such explorations are more realistic in long-form writing—in the novel, in television series, etc. But I don’t think that kind of nuance is impossible in short forms.

Indeed, one way to infuse nuance into a shorter form, is having two allied characters pursue different visions of the same value. I do this somwhat in my play Art & Class with the married couple of Riley and Lucía. They both want a sense of security after there’s trouble at work—and they want it in more than one way: they want social and financial security—but Riley wants Lucía to suck up to her boss, and to a helicoper parent, in order to guarantee that, and Lucía refuses to suck up. Partly because, for Lucía, there’s a deeper need (or value) in the mix: respect. She wants respect. And she will not be pacified by superficial gestures toward respect (false nicety). And she cannot accept the opposite of respect for a paycheck.

Better than to roll up values into theme, is rolling up values into the question of wants and needs. In my philosophy of writing, need is one of the first principles. From the deep unmet human need can come a whole story.