Value Shifts: How to Craft Compelling Change in Every Story


Stories are about change. In fact, change is one of the fundamental things—maybe the fundamental thing—that makes stories useful, interesting, and fun.

How do you make sure something changes in your story? And not just any change, but the right change?

Let me introduce you to one of my favorite editing concepts: the value shift. Master value shifts, and you’ll find that crafting the perfect change in every story you write becomes . . . well, almost easy.

Stories Are About Change

We tell stories to communicate with each other. We use stories to illustrate, “I was there, and now I’m here, and this is how I got here.” Or, “I encountered this problem, and then I overcame it, and here’s how.”

All of that is change. Things were one way in the beginning and another way in the end, and stories show us how that change happened.

Without change, you have no story.

With change—and more specifically, with the right change—you can craft an incredible story.

And that’s what this article is all about. I’m going to share with you the way that I think about change in every book I edit.

I’ll share tons of examples of change, including breaking down the movie How to Train Your Dragon.

I’ll share not one, not two, but three exercises you can do today to develop your awareness of change in stories—and your ability to spot the changes, or lack of change, in your own stories.

And I’ll share a resource I’ve created that I think you’re going to love. It’s the Value Shift Word Bank, and in it, I’m sharing an enormous list of all the values that change in the books I’ve edited lately.

I’ll tell you more about it later in the article. But if you want to go ahead and grab it, you can get it by sharing your email address below:

Ready to see how change really works in stories? Let’s dive in.

What Is a Value Shift?

The first thing I want to do is define terms. I keep using the word “change” because it’s straightforward: we all understand it instantly.

But the phrase I use when I’m editing, the phrase I use with my clients, is actually the “value shift.”

What is a value shift?

In this context, “value” is a little like “a state of being.”

And a value shift means that it changes.

So, for instance, if I’m sad and someone plays a song I like and it cheers me up, I go from sad to happy. That’s a value shift.

Or, if it’s raining outside, and I walk out the door of my house and get soaked, I go from dry to wet. That’s a value shift.

In other words, when I say value shift, I’m specifying what change has occurred.

4 Best Practices for Great Value Shifts

Now, a few best practices about value shifts:

1. Specify values in one word

First, I aim to describe each value in one word: a single-word starting value, and a single-word ending value.

This isn’t a long-winded description of all the nuances of how something changed. This is a statement: at the beginning, things were one way, and at the end, they were a different way.

Sad to happy. Dry to wet.

2. Make sure both values are related

The beginning and the ending values must be related to each other.

Think about walking into the rain. I didn’t say that at the beginning, I was dry, and at the end, I was happy. Dry and happy are not on the same scale.

Let’s look at dry for a moment. You can think of dry as a spectrum, from dry to wet. Here are some words on that spectrum:

Dry, damp, wet, soaked.

And then let’s look at happy. Here’s how that spectrum might go:

Depressed, sad, cheerful, happy, ecstatic.

When you’re identifying a value shift, you want to pick two values that are on the same scale. So I could say that the value shifts from dry to wet when I walk outside. And maybe it shifts again, from wet to damp, when I come back in and take off my wet jacket.

But I wouldn’t say that I went from dry to happy. Those values aren’t on the same scale. They’re not related.

Now, when I go outside and get drenched, I might also have an emotional reaction to the experience. Which brings me to the third best practice:

3. Look for multiple value shifts

Multiple value shifts can happen at the same time.

Maybe I was really looking forward to a walk in the sunshine. I’m excited. I’m also inside and dry. I walk outside without looking, and I get soaked by the rain.

In that moment, a few things have changed:

I was dry, and now I’m wet.

I was excited, and now I’m disappointed.

I was inside, and now I’m outside.

I could even say a fourth thing has changed: I was unaware that it was raining, and now I’m aware.

  • Dry to wet
  • Excited to disappointed
  • Inside to outside
  • Unaware to aware

Four values that have shifted all at once.

And that brings me to one more important note about value shifts:

4. Values shift internally and externally

Values shift on two levels: internal and external.

External value shifts happen in the outside world, outside of your characters. In this example, of me walking into the rain, the external value shifts are dry to wet and inside to outside. Those are experiences I’m having in the world around me.

Internal value shifts happen inside your characters. They’re shifts in the things your characters think, shifts in their emotions, shifts in the ways they make decisions.

In this case, I noted two internal value shifts:

  • Excited to disappointed
  • Unaware to aware

Excited to disappointed is an emotional shift. My emotions have changed—I felt one thing, and now I feel another.

Unaware to aware is a shift in thoughts and knowledge. At first, I didn’t have knowledge about something, and now I do.

You can have multiple internal value shifts and multiple external value shifts at the same time in the same moment. And both are really important to your story: the external shifts are important to your plot, and the internal shifts are important to your character development.

So when I’m looking for value shifts, I like to look for both. I start with looking for external changes. And then I look for how those external events impact the characters—what internal changes have they experienced?

Our Example Story: How to Train Your Dragon

So that’s your introduction to value shifts. You see the concept: a state of being has changed, and we can identify the before state and the after state in one word each.

Now, let me show you an example of how this works in a story. I’m going to examine my absolute favorite movie: How to Train Your Dragon. This movie instantly became my favorite movie when I first watched it in theaters thirteen years ago, and nothing has knocked it out of that top spot since.

If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it. You’re in for a treat.

That said, I am about to spoil the whole entire thing for you. It’s thirteen years old. You’ve been warned.

I’ll start off with a quick synopsis of the movie:

Hiccup is a teenage Viking who lives with his Viking community on the island of Berk. Berk has a pest problem: dragons attack all the time and steal their sheep. So the Vikings, being tough, strong warriors, fight them off.

But Hiccup isn’t tough or strong. He’s scrawny and has never been able to help fight off dragons.

One day, during a dragon attack, he shoots a dragon down. But when he goes to kill it, he finds that he can’t bring himself to do it. So instead, he befriends this dragon, bonds with him, learns to ride him, and discovers that everything his community knows about dragons is wrong.

Meanwhile, Hiccup is awarded the honor of killing a dragon in front of his entire village. But instead of killing the dragon, he uses the opportunity to try to show everyone that dragons can be befriended.

That all goes terribly wrong, and his dad captures Toothless, Hiccup’s dragon, and sails away to the island where all the dragons live with the goal of killing them all and being done with dragons forever.

So Hiccup and his friends gather the few dragons left behind and fly off to the island after the Vikings. There, Hiccup frees Toothless, and Hiccup and Toothless fight this enormous, monstrous dragon that threatens both dragons and Vikings alike.

And by the end of the movie, Hiccup and Toothless defeat the dragon, the Vikings and dragons are safe, and best of all, the two communities are at peace. The dragons go from being the pests putting Viking lives at risk to pets that they love to coexist with.

So there you go. That’s the movie. You’re welcome.

What Values Shift in How to Train Your Dragon?

A lot changes over the course of the movie! Let’s look at some values that shift from the beginning to the ending.

First, we’ll look at external value shifts, and then we’ll look at internal value shifts.

External Value Shifts in How to Train Your Dragon

At the beginning of the movie, dragons are pests that the Vikings need to exterminate. At the end, they’re pets that the Vikings care for. Pests to pets.

At the beginning of the movie, Vikings are regularly fighting off attacks from dragons in this ongoing war between them. At the end, they’re at peace. War to peace.

At the beginning of the movie, Vikings are in constant danger, always living with the threat of another dragon attack. At the end, they’re safe. Danger to safety. 

At the beginning of the movie, Hiccup has this secret: he’s befriended a dragon. At the end of the movie, that’s no longer a secret; everyone knows. Hidden to revealed.

At the beginning of the movie, Hiccup’s community looks down on him as an incompetent disappointment who can never live up to what Vikings are supposed to be. At the end, they welcome, honor, and celebrate him as not just one of them, but as one of the best Vikings. Rejected to accepted. And also, shamed to honored.

Oh, and here’s a really simple, straightforward external value shift, but also a really important one: at the beginning of the movie, the enormous, monstrous dragon that lives on the dragon island and controls all the smaller dragons is alive. At the end of the movie, Hiccup and Toothless kill it. Alive to dead.

So those are all external shifts that happen. Here they are again:

  • Pests to pets
  • War to peace
  • Danger to safety
  • Hidden to revealed
  • Rejected to accepted
  • Shamed to honored
  • Alive to dead

Internal Value Shifts in How to Train Your Dragon

At the beginning of the movie, Hiccup believes he needs to change who he is and become like the other Vikings in order to fit in and be respected in his community. At the end of the movie, he’s fully embraced the things about himself that make him different from the other Vikings. Self-rejection to self-acceptance.

At the beginning of the movie, Hiccup feels like a failure as a Viking for not being able to live up to the Viking ideal. At the end, he’s proud of his unique strengths. Ashamed to proud.

At the beginning of the movie, Hiccup is awkward, shy, not very good at Viking skills, and generally lacking confidence around his peers. At the end of the movie, he’s confident in his strengths. Unconfident to confident.

So those are all internal shifts that happen within Hiccup. Here they are again:

  • Self-rejection to self-acceptance
  • Embarrassed to proud
  • Unconfident to confident

Values Shift on Every Level of Story

Now, all the shifts I’ve just described—both the external and the internal shifts—happen on the scale of the movie as a whole.

But value shifts happen everywhere, at all levels of story.

They happen in the story as a whole. They happen within acts. And they happen within scenes.

So let’s zoom in for a moment and look at the opening scene of How to Train Your Dragon.

Value Shifts in the Opening Scene of How to Train Your Dragon

I’m not going to give you a synopsis of this opening scene; I’m actually going to share the whole scene with you below so you can watch it right now. And I highly recommend that you do, because even just this opening scene is a real masterclass in storytelling.

Here are a few value shifts in the opening scene:

At the beginning of the scene, dragons are attacking Berk; at the end, the attack is over and the dragons have left. Attacking to not attacking.

At the beginning of the scene, Hiccup has a clever plan to use a machine he’s built to shoot down a dragon and contribute to the fight. At the end, he has not succeeded in helping fight off the dragons, but has actually made things much worse. Success to failure, or even helping to harming.

At the beginning of the scene, Hiccup’s dad is annoyed with him for coming outside to join in the fight. At the end, his dad is angry that he’s interfered with the battle with disastrous consequences. Annoyed to angry.

There are loads more shifts even in just that one scene. Watch it, and I’m sure you’ll be able to spot many things that change. But hopefully, even just those three examples help to illustrate how these value shifts are present at every level of story.

Value Shifts Are Foundational to All Great Stories

I hope you’re tracking with me as I go through this. I’m spending a lot of time here and really breaking this down with a ton of examples because this whole concept, the concept of value shifts, is absolutely foundational.

It is at the core of all the editing I do. It’s the tool I use to edit everything from the whole plot arc of a seven-book series to a single sentence tucked away in the middle of a scene.

I am always, always asking:

What’s the value shift? What changes?

Now, there is no comprehensive list of all the possible value shifts you could have in a story. And honestly, you don’t need one. You don’t need to reference some “correct” list of value shifts.

What you need is to develop an awareness of change in stories.

You need to develop the skill of being able to identify what changes in your story—and to identify when the answer is that nothing is changing yet, so you’ll need to incorporate a change.

But I know that what you need and what you want are not always the same things. And I’m going to give you both things.

Free Resource: The Value Shift Word Bank

I have a resource you’re going to love. It’s called the Value Shift Word Bank.

I have looked back through the last few books that I’ve edited, and I’ve pulled every single value shift that I marked throughout those books. I’ve put them all in a spreadsheet, and I’m sharing that sheet with you so that you can reference it and get inspiration for value shifts in your stories.

Again, this is not a comprehensive list of every possible value shift. But it is a really long list, with over a hundred value shifts.

It won’t cover every single scene that you write. But it will give you a lot of ideas for possible value shifts. You’ll get tons of examples of one-word changes (and a few examples that are more than word—I fudged it just a bit!). And you might even get some ideas for the kinds of things that could change in your story.

You can get the Value Shift Word Bank by entering your email right here:

Your Turn: Find the Value Shifts Around You

And in addition to the Value Shift Word Bank, I have a whole slew of exercises for you to help you practice finding and applying value shifts in your stories.

Because remember: the real skill here is not reading a list of value shifts, but developing your awareness of change in stories.

1. Find more value shifts in How to Train Your Dragon

Here’s your first exercise: I want you to go watch the opening scene of How to Train Your Dragon. Click here to watch it on YouTube (or just scroll up!).

And as you watch, I want you to pull out a piece of paper and write down every value shift you see in the scene. Every time something changes, make note of it.

Look especially for things that are one way at the beginning of the scene and another way at the end of the scene.

For instance, I’ll give you another one: at the beginning, the village is perfectly fine, and at the end, half the village is on fire. Not on fire to on fire. A wonderfully visual value shift.

And be sure to watch for both internal and external changes. Remember, both kinds of change can happen at the same time, and both are really important for your story.

2. Find the values shifting around you in daily life

So that’s exercise number one. Here’s the second exercise:

I want you to observe value changes in your daily life.

For the next twenty-four hours, keep a pen and paper on hand, or have the notes app open on your phone. Throughout your day, watch for moments when things change.

These could be really straightforward.

You’re hungry, you eat dinner, and then you’re full. Hungry to full.

It’s raining, and then the sun comes out and the sky clears up. Rainy to sunny.

Or they could be a little more tricky to observe.

You have a sort of low-grade anxiety about a big work project all morning. And then you have a conversation with a coworker, you get a helpful piece of information, and your anxiety goes down. Anxious to relaxed. (Or maybe anxious to less anxious.)

Whenever you notice a value shifting throughout your day, write it down. Write down the starting value and the ending value—that is, the value at the beginning and the value at the end. See if you can describe both sides of that in one word each.

I think this exercise is really powerful because it’s such a great reminder that all the story theory concepts we use to craft stories are not made up out of a void. They’re not rules that some gatekeeper somewhere decided we all have to follow, or no one can be on the best-seller lists.

No—stories reflect real life. Stories are about change because life is about change. We need change in stories because we experience change every single day in our regular lives.

So that’s your second exercise: look for the value shifts happening all around you every single day.

3. Find the value shifts in your scenes

And here’s the third exercise, the one where the rubber meets the road:

Pull out a scene of your novel.

Read it.

And then write down every value shift you can find.

What changes externally in your scene? Look for any external changes you can find and write them down.

And what changes internally, inside of your character? How are they different at the end than they were at the beginning? Write those values down.

If you can find value shifts, that’s fantastic! And it’s a sign that your scene is working.

If you can’t find a value shift, ask yourself:

What is the purpose of this scene? What needs to change in this scene in order to move the story as a whole forward?

And then brainstorm ways that you could incorporate that value shift into the scene.

Value Shifts: The Essential Elements of Fantastic Stories

And there you go: three exercises to help you practice identifying value shifts in the stories you read, in the stories you write, and in your own life every day.

This article was a whole, whole lot. And like I said, this is foundational stuff, a really powerful tool for your editing process. So I recommend saving this article as one you’ll come back to, study, and reference again.

Before I wrap up, though, I want to give you a quick recap:

Value shifts are changes in a state of being.

When you’re identifying value shifts, keep in mind four best practices:

  1. Do your best to describe each value in one word: the starting value and the ending value, one word each.
  2. Make sure that the two values are related to each other. Dry to happy isn’t a good value shift, but dry to wet is.
  3. Remember that multiple value shifts can happen at the same time.
  4. Look for value shifts on two levels: the external and the internal. What changes in the external world around your character? And what changes inside your character, in the way that they feel and think?

And if you’d like a handy reference to help you spot some value shifts, be sure to get the Value Shift Word Bank. Grab it here:

All right, there you have it: your crash course introduction to value shifts.

Now, I invite you to go out into the rest of your day and keep a sharp eye out for the values shifting all around you.

I’ll give you a hint at one coming up in just a moment: you reading this article to you not reading this article.

Until next time, happy editing!

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