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What’s the core value of your story?

Every story has a core value, according to Robert McKee. With value, we do mean positive character qualities of a person like love, generosity, etc. In the context of storytelling, a core value is about the positive and negative charge of a binary:

  • truth / lie
  • love / hate
  • generosit / selfishness
  • hard work / laziness
  • loyalty / betrayal
  • life / death
  • courage / cowardice
  • hope / despair
  • meaningfulness / meaninglessness
  • maturity / immaturity
  • justice / injustice
  • any quality of human experience that can shift charge dynamically from positive to negative and back again

A telling may incorporate any number, variety, and combination of values, but it anchors its content in one irreplaceable binary—the story’s core value. This value determines a story’s fundamental meaning and emotion.

Robert McKee, Storynomics

He then proceeds to share some examples:

Suppose a story’s core value is love/hate. How and why a person moves from love to hate or from hate to love gives the events meaning. As the story moves back and forth between negative and positive charges, emotions flow, not only in the characters but in the audience as well. But if a storyteller were to extract love/hate from her characters’ lives and substitute morality/immorality, this switch in core value would evolve her work from a love story to a redemption plot with all-new meanings and all-new emotions.

If a crime story were to shift its core value from justice/injustice to life/death, it would stop being a crime story and pivot to an action tale—once again, new emotions, new meanings.

If a family story were to deemphasize the value of unity/breakup and instead emphasize maturity/immaturity in one of its children, the plot would radically change genre from domestic drama to a coming-of-age story.

Robert McKee, Storynomics

I’ve never really considered the core value of a story, and how a shift in the core value can transform a story into another, and change its entire meaning.

Robert McKee then proceeds to succinctly make a point:

The core value that pulses at the heart of a story determines its specific meaning and unique emotional impact.

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