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Changing Values

Daniel Schwabauer

I am frequently asked what I mean in The Map when I talk about changing values. Here is a brief explanation that has nothing to do with politics or morality.

Every chapter you write ought to propel your plot forward. Something should change as a result of your chapter, or it isn’t necessary. Furthermore, whatever changes ought to be important to the story goal.

Positive or Negative?

Think in terms of values expressed as a single word: freedom, enlightenment, loneliness, forgiveness. Such values are what your chapter (or scene) is really about, because that value will change as a result of the action of the scene, either in a positive or a negative direction.

For instance, say your hero is imprisoned in the villain’s dungeon at the beginning of a chapter. By the end of the chapter he escapes and finds his freedom in the surrounding forest. The value of the chapter is freedom because the chapter is about the hero’s escape.

Now let’s say your hero tries to escape, but fails. The value of the chapter is no longer freedom. Why? Because his imprisoned state doesn’t change. He doesn’t get freedom. This doesn’t mean the chapter can’t work; it only means it can’t work if the focus is on whether or not he is physically imprisoned. One could write such a chapter and focus on a different value, perhaps enlightenment. In that case, the value would change from ignorant to enlightened as a result of his attempt to physically escape.

What would this look like? Well, say your hero discovers something of interest in his escape attempt. Maybe he finds out where the princess is being held in an old tower. Or perhaps he learns something about himself that causes him to renew his commitment to defeating the villain. Either way would push the story forward and demonstrate a change of values. However, it would NOT mean a change of values regarding his freedom. The change of values would center on enlightenment.

Let’s return for just a moment to the idea of freedom. You do have a second option with your escape from prison chapter idea, and that’s to focus on the hero’s internal state rather than his external state. Instead of making the chapter about how he escapes physically, you could make it abut how he escape mentally or spiritually.

Haralan Popov’s autobiographical account of his 13-year imprisonment and torture at the hands of communist authorities in Bulgaria is an excellent example. At one point in the story he receives a letter from his wife telling him that they have made it out of Bulgaria. To Haralan this is the best news of his life; it means the authorities can no longer threaten to harm his wife and children. This is the change of values on which the whole chapter turns. The moment Haralan reads that letter, his whole outlook changes. Yes, he is still physically imprisoned. But now he feels free, and the difference is profound. His escape is emotional rather than physical, and the chapter works as part of the story. (Incidentally, the book, Tortured for His Faith, is well worth reading.)

One way to dramatically improve your manuscript is to go through it chapter by chapter and make sure the action of each brings about a corresponding change of values. Make sure the change of values you present to your reader is the one you intend.

Ask yourself three questions:

1. What’s different at the end of this chapter?

2. Is the difference because of the chapter?

3. Does the difference bring the hero closer to the story goal?

If the answer to any of the three questions is No, consider rewriting or deleting the chapter.

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