Scene Turns or Polarity Shifts

I am deep in writing Pair Alleles, Book Four in my Derivatives of Displacement series. I’m just under a third of the way through and on a tight schedule. I’m writing more by feel and less by outline for this novel as I work to find my story and I’ve been thinking a lot about what Robert McKee calls scene “turns” or what Shaun Coyne of Story Grid fame calls polarity and value shifts.

According to McKee and Coyne, every scene in a story or novel must have a turn or polarity or value shift in order to give the scene purpose and the story forward movement. Shifts can be from positive to negative, negative to positive, positive to negative and back to positive, negative to even more negative, and positive to even more positive. There just has to be a shift, or reversal of circumstance. Each scene should start with a polarity, either positive or negative—things are either going well or according to plan, or they are going badly. By the end of the scene, that should have changed.

If thinking in terms of polarity and shifts is too complicated and you failed math and don’t ever want to think of whether two negatives make a positive again. Just think of these shifts as turning points, or “turns” for short.

Every scene should have a turn

So for example, the hero starts the scene dangling from a cliff and is saved by a donkey in a hot air balloon (negative to positive), a couple is having a romantic dinner and end up in a heated argument (positive to negative), the main character enters his new school alone and meets a friend (negative to positive), the main character enters his new school alone and meets an enemy (negative to more negative).

Turns introduce drama and conflict

The idea is that turns/shifts/changes introduce drama and without at least some drama, your story might not have life. If a scene does not include a polarity shift or turn, if it is neutral, then chances are it may be boring and not serving a clear purpose and should be edited or cut. There are exceptions here of course, but a book full of scenes without turns will not likely entertain anyone.

Lee Allen Howard observes:

“The effects of turning points, according to McKee, include: surprise, increased curiosity, insight, and new direction. The turning point provides new information and a goal for the next scene.”

What changes in turns?

That which changes can be the character’s circumstance, knowledge or emotions. Thus shifts can occur through action (the Death Star is destroyed), revelation (Harry discovers he is a wizard) or a change of heart (Maverick finds the courage to go back and help Goose).

Often the change is related to something that is of value or importance to the character. Some larger ideal or goal is at stake, such as freedom, love, trust, or survival. This relates back to the idea of character motivation and what is driving your characters. Most turns should reflect your character’s motivation and the key values that they hold dear. Your character can go from despair to hope, frustration to relief, trust to doubt, or anxiety to certainty.

Your turns need to have variety

If needing to have turns in every scene doesn’t make it hard enough, Coyne advises ensuring that you switch up what changes and the mechanism through which it changes. If you continually turn your scenes through revelations, your readers will get bored. Similarly, you should vary the direction of polarity shift from scene to scene. In other words, you do not want to have three consecutive scenes where the shift is from positive to negative.

Depending on what you are writing, turns can be small and subtle or or very evident. But even with literary fiction, the degree of charge (or change if you’re not a math person) should ramp up as the story develops so the shifts near the end of the story are more stunning than those at the beginning.

So what do turns mean for your writing?

Some writing coaches suggest going through each scene in your book and recording the direction and nature of the polarity shift. I’ve tried this and can assure you it is a mind-bendingly tedious task, and it’s hard, but it is worth doing for a few scenes to ensure you understand how it works.

Some writers advise being very conscious of your turns—planning them out in advance of writing the scene and tracking them as you go. I’m just not that organized in my writing. I am conscious of turns and for the most part I do them instinctively, and I feel most writers can get away with that approach. But it is worthwhile if you feel a scene lacks energy or just isn’t working for some reason to step back and ask yourself if there is a turn.

What do you think? Do you track turns in a spreadsheet or on index cards, or just try to ensure that they show up when needed?

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