The Power of Negative Thinking

[I’ll return to my Love Story mini-series in my next What it Takes post in the new year.  In the meantime, this oldy by goody from 2015 is worth another look.]

So just how do you take your story to the end of the line…to the limits of human experience?

The storyteller needs a tool to not only understand this concept, but to evaluate whether or not they have successfully done so. And if you’re writing a big story, you have to go to the end of the line.

Positive Thinking Gets All the Press

The trick to figuring out how to do that is discovering what Robert McKee calls the negation of the negation of your global story value.  Once you understand the negation of the negation of a global story value you will discover whether or not your draft or your murky foolscap sketch for a story has legs.  And in the process, if you do this work early and often, you’ll be able to clearly understand the obligatory scenes and promises that you are making to the reader by your choice of genre and or mix of genres.

Let’s take a step back and look at Story values again.

What the Hell am I talking about when I use the phrase “story value?”

A Story value has nothing to do with “family values” or financial currency.  A story value is simply a human experience (a judgment of reality) that can change from positive to negative or negative to positive.  It’s best to just list a whole slew of them so that you’ll get the gist.  Alive/Dead, Truth/Lie, Love/Hate, Justice/Injustice, Hope/Despair, Good/Evil, Right/Wrong, Happy/Sad, Naïve/Experienced, Young/Old, Smart/Dumb, Rich/Poor, Freedom/Slavery, Honor/Shame, Chosen/Ignored, etc.

Where one goes off track is in forgetting that these story values aren’t just black and white polarities.

There are progressive degrees of positivity or negativity for each.

For example, the opposite of love may be hate, but there is something in between love and hate that is worse than love but less than hate.  That in between is called indifference.  And there is also something worse than hate.  That something is what Robert McKee coined as the “negation of the negation.”  And for the love/hate spectrum, the negation of the negation is “hate masquerading as love” or “self-hatred.”

Let’s look at a very popular external content genre, crime fiction, and examine the core value at stake in four different ways. [It’s not necessary, but if you’d like to dive deeper into what I mean about external content genres, click here]

The story value at stake for crime fiction is JUSTICE.

A crime has been committed.

Will the crime be solved?

Will the perpetrator be brought to justice? That’s basically it.

By choosing the crime genre the first promise you are making to a reader is an answer to these two fundamental questions.

But we’d all agree that there are varying degrees of crime right?

Stealing a piece of candy from a drugstore is far less of a crime than the wholesale slaughter of an entire village.  There is a wide spectrum of mendacity. Because there is such a wide band, the writer has a choice of how far to take his story.  As every story must progressively complicate, a crime story needs to begin one place, get more and more difficult to solve, and then end in a surprising but inevitable final solution or conundrum. Just how far you take the crime (how globally threatening it is) requires you to figure out exactly where the line ends in terms of the JUSTICE value.

To do that, we need to look at the negative progression (or degradation) of the value at stake.

So let’s begin with the POSITIVE end of the spectrum, which is JUSTICE, and place that at the very left of our degradation line. And we know that the opposite of JUSTICE is INJUSTICE, so let’s put that down the line on the right hand side, further away from the epitome of positive.

JUSTICE                    INJUSTICE

But we also all know that there’s more to the negative world than injustice.  There’s crime with extenuating circumstances…like the thief who steals a loaf of bread to feed his starving children.  Did the man steal the bread and did the owner of the store lose a valuable asset?

As Arnold Schwarzenegger would say: “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, that is true.”

But is this an offense that threatens society?


So somewhere between JUSTICE and INJUSTICE lies a nether region of unfairness.  It’s unfair to the owner of the store not to be compensated for his bread. But the fact that the bread was used to feed starving children—a good outcome from a bad act—lessens the act’s venality. So between justice and injustice, let’s put UNFAIRNESS, which is something in between black and white.


Now the question arises, is there something worse than an Injustice?

The bad mojo that off the charts sociopathic narcissists bring into the world is something more than just unjust, isn’t it?  The serial killer or warlord or fascist genocidal perpetrator is emblematic of a world that is always unjust. In this kind of world, there is no justice.  By definition, it is run with complete unpredictability.  The rules are changed whenever it suits the whims or desires of a central body or figure.

That kind of more negative than the opposite JUSTICE is the world of Tyranny.

So on a straight line spectrum from positive to negative, let’s put Tyranny even further to the right of injustice.


To recap, while there is a direct opposite of Justice (injustice), the value has far more nuance than purely positive or purely negative.  There is the degree of negativity less than the direct opposite, unfairness, and the degree of negativity far more abhorrent than the direct opposite, Tyranny.

It is the darkest of the dark that McKee has termed the Negation of the Negation.

Here’s the way I would chart the spectrum of positive to negative

JUSTICE  (+)   UNFAIRNESS (+/-)     INJUSTICE (-)     TYRANNY (- -)

If we were asked to assign a power of ten number for each of these (the number one being the most positive and number ten being the most negative), it would look like this:


If you’ve ever seen the movie SPINAL TAP, I think you know where we should try and reach by the end of our crime story.

Using the power of ten system by assigning a numeric value to the degree of negativity can help you track the progression of your story.

The beginning section of your story should progress from say a 1 to a 4, the middle from 4 to an 8 and the end from an 8 to an 11. The resolution of the story would then bring the story full circle, back to 1, or end on a more somber note, ending on 8 or even 11.

If your crime story is a straight action James Bond kind of thing like THUNDERBALL or LIVE AND LET DIE then your resolution will circle back to Justice, 1…all’s well again in the world.  James Bond has fixed it. Major positive ending.

But if your story is APOCALYPSE NOW of CHINATOWN, you’re going to end on a 11 on the negativity scale. The world is a mess and we’ve gone completely to the dark side.  It’s every man for himself.

What about those stories that have a positive ending for the global story, but have an ironic twist?

Is there a way for a crime story to somehow return the global story value back to Justice (or life back to life in the case of the thriller, action story or horror story) but do it ironically?  That is, bring a criminal to technical justice, but lose something in the process?

If your story is DIRTY HARRY, you can accomplish this irony through your choice of theme/controlling idea.

DIRTY HARRY ends on a positive/negative combo plate of irony.  Our cop gets the guy and justice is served but he breaks the law doing it and leaves his job in disgust (remember he throws away his badge at the very end). The world no longer has a vicious killer in it, but the kind of man who can take him out has been lost too. The only way to stop the killers is to empower fascists/”good” killers is one interpretation of the theme/controlling idea of DIRTY HARRY.

Another way to add irony to story is to add an internal genre along with its inherent value progression underneath the global external genre.  That is, the protagonist undergoes an internal quest as well as an external quest in the story.  The external genre ends on the positive, while the internal genre ends on the negative, thus producing irony.

An example of that scenario would be the movie THE SOCIAL NETWORK…  The lead character wins the Business Performance external genre (Facebook is a huge hit) but fails his internal morality test plot (he succumbs to the temptations of wealth and power at the expense of real connection to fellow human beings).

Bottom line, should you wish to reach the pinnacle of your chosen genre/s (don’t we all?) you must think deeply and clearly about the negation of the negation and how best to express its arrival in your story.

[Join to read more of Shawn’s Stuff]

Posted in


Steve shows you the predictable Resistance points that every writer hits in a work-in-progress and then shows you how to deal with each one of these sticking points. This book shows you how to keep going with your work.

do the work book banner 1


A short book about the writing of a first novel: for Steve, The Legend of Bagger Vance. Having failed with three earlier attempts at novels, here's how Steve finally succeeded.



Steve shares his "lessons learned" from the trenches of the five different writing careers—advertising, screenwriting, fiction, nonfiction, and self-help. This is tradecraft. An MFA in Writing in 197 pages.



Amateurs have amateur habits. Pros have pro habits. When we turn pro, we give up the comfortable life but we find our power. Steve answers the question, "How do we overcome Resistance?"


A Man At Arms is
on sale now!

Don't miss out on exclusive bonuses available to early buyers!


  1. Joel D Canfield on January 16, 2015 at 6:13 am

    This is one of those fundamental concepts I wish I’d learned before I’d written my first words.

    Especially noting the progressive scale of degradation; how bad it should be at each phase of the story.

  2. Mary Doyle on January 16, 2015 at 6:38 am

    Thanks for clarifying this concept for me – I struggled with McKee’s explanation in “Story.” This is a great follow-up to your post on Story Grid yesterday too. The power of ten is really helping things click into place for me. As always, Shawn, a big Thank You!

  3. Alex Cespedes on January 16, 2015 at 6:39 am

    Negativity had never produced such good results!

  4. Debbie L. Kasman on January 16, 2015 at 6:39 am

    Hi Shawn. I’m not sure if you are responding to posts here but I’m hoping you are. I have a question as I try to figure this out for my own writing.

    I know from your posts at The Story Grid that the value for a Woman’s Social Drama with Rebellion plot is patriarchy/feminism.

    I’m trying to figure out the progression with this value and the negation of the negation.

    I’ve come up with this:

    Move from Conditioned Belief in Patriarchy to True/Justified Belief in Patriarchy to Doubt in Patriarchy to Disillusionment in Patriarchy to Belief in Feminism to belief in Human Equality.

    Does this work and if so, what is the negation of the negation? Is it tyranny? And if so, where does tyranny fit in?


    With thanks,


    • Shawn Coyne on January 16, 2015 at 8:02 am

      Hi Debbie,

      My gut is that you are going to have an INTERNAL CONTENT GENRE for your protagonist in play here too. But for the EXTERNAL CONTENT GENRE Global Value at stake, here’s my guess.

      When you’re dealing with large social issues like PATRIARCHY versus FEMINISM, or DEMOCRACY versus FASCISM or whatever, the global value at stake is POWER. So, I’d move from

      Having POWER would be the positive. Having a little bit of POWER but not absolute POWER would be something akin to being a BUREAUCRAT or APPARATCHIK (Limited Power). The opposite of having power is having no power or IMPOTENCE, the negation of the negation would be IMPOTENCE PERCEIVED AS POWER or POWER PERCEIVED AS IMPOTENCE.

      The critical moment in Power Stories is REVOLUTION. The Godfather, although perceived of as a crime story, is really a political drama. And the climax of the story is when Michael Corleone takes out the other heads of the Five families.
      Hope this helps

      • Debbie L. Kasman on January 16, 2015 at 5:20 pm

        Hi Shawn. That helps a great deal. Thank you so much!

        I neglected to mention that the Internal Content Genre is Worldview Revelation.

        I see the Global Value at Stake for Revelation like this:

        No Trust (in Internal Power) (-) to Partial Trust (in internal power) but see it as pointless (-+) to Partial Trust (in internal power) but fear it (+) to (Full Trust (in internal power) and accept/appreciate it (++)

        This will play off against the Global Value at Stake for the External Content Genre (as you’ve suggested) like this:

        Absolute Power (+) to a little bit of power (bureaucrat) (+-) to Impotence (-) to Impotence Perceived as Power (–)

        The External Genre ends on the negative, while the Internal Genre ends on the positive and will produce irony.

        It’s an external shift from having external power to Impotence Perceived as Power with an internal shift from having no trust in internal power to full trust and appreciation of internal power.

        Does this make sense? (I find this idea particularly challenging and want to be very sure I’ve got it!)

        Thank you so very much once again!


        • Shawn Coyne on January 17, 2015 at 5:41 am

          Remember these are things to look at if your story isn’t working. You can totally overwhelm yourself with them if you aren’t careful. It looks to me that you are on the right track. Having said that, I wouldn’t really know until I read your book. And unfortunately I’m completely overbooked and outrageously expensive. I’ll wait until your book is on sale.
          All the best,

          • Debbie L. Kasman on January 18, 2015 at 4:39 am

            Hi Shawn. Thanks again for the helpful response. I had a dream a few years ago that didn’t make any sense. I dreamed that a man came along in some sort of powerful rocket on wheels. It was fuel-injected and together we co-piloted the thing. Through this co-piloting, I learned how to drive it. When the man got out, I blasted like a rocket through the streets on my own. Thanks for being the “man of my dream,” for co-piloting with me through your posts, and for sprinkling my engine with fuel injected dust. It empowers me. I know I have lots more to learn and I can’t wait for more posts and the book but I feel I have enough technical ability and confidence now to start driving on my own. I’m looking forward to being one of those people who hand you a published book, just as Jule said in the comments at The Story Grid, not to review and not to edit, but simply to say thank you, I learned how to drive this thing because of you.

            With much gratitude,


  5. John Reps on January 17, 2015 at 1:04 pm

    This is a wonderful post and empowers me in my current writing, giving me a swipe of a yard stick to see where and how negation of the negation exist…..Thank you for this knowledge.

  6. Doug on January 20, 2015 at 5:52 am


    Bravo! That post was both clear & concise. As a reader & writer of crime fiction, I think you hit the nail on the head with this explanation.

  7. Sonja on January 20, 2015 at 9:34 pm

    This was great Shawn. I have a lot of thinking and re-working to do. THis was incredibly helpful. As always, thank you. (even though my head hurts) ; )

  8. PJ Reece on January 22, 2015 at 6:46 pm

    Shawn… I too was in awe of McKee’s “negation of the negation” when, three years ago, it helped me finish my novel “Roxy” to my satisfaction. But what’s missing from this discussion is what that dark moment does to the protagonist desperately trying to hold himself together — he surrenders. When you loathe yourself, there’s no reason to proceed with strategies that are no longer in service of one’s true happiness. Surrender means surrender — of thought, thinking, deciding, choice. There is no choosing, only “seeing.” Until we acknowledge this, there is no understanding of how fiction really works and why were addicted to it. The negation of the negation brings the story to a halt. The protagonist is in a hole, a chasm, in which time doesn’t exist. Logic doesn’t apply. Story mechanics are all left behind. This is a reader’s nourishment. This is soul food. I’m waiting for writers to start talking about this, this special moment in fiction, which Leonard Cohen called the “sacred mechanics” of storytelling. The ecstatic moment. Why is no one talking about it? As K.M. Weiland says, “Structure is the box that holds the gift.” and the gift is the hole in the story where the hero “sees.” Henry Miller put it like this: “Our destination is not a place but a new way of seeing things.” This is every protagonist’s trajectory. Respectfully submitted. Amen.

    • Jerry Ellis on December 31, 2016 at 4:22 pm

      Great response to Shawn’s post, insightful, and beautifully written. I’m also big on L Cohen and H Miller. As the author of several books, I tend to feel so much of storytelling is guided by the gut like a missile. The control panel, craft, can do a lot. But once that baby blasts off…

  9. Sandy Brown Jensen on December 30, 2016 at 7:54 am

    I am an essayist, but this post moved some pieces around in my brain with an audible “thunk.”
    Gotta thank you for that!

  10. Scrivener on December 30, 2016 at 8:12 am

    Interesting cognitive tent poles. However, can’t help but think that an emotional spectrum and progression isn’t going to be more helpful in a story. I take it you are talking about stories here and not an academic thesis?

  11. Madeleine D'Este on December 30, 2016 at 12:01 pm

    Perfectly timed. I’m in the midst of a Story Grid analysis right now with Justice as the value.
    Thanks for the tips, now I feel like I’ve got the inside scoop. Mwa ha ha.

  12. Jerry Ellis on December 31, 2016 at 4:23 pm

    Good post, Shawn!

  13. Veleka on January 1, 2017 at 8:09 am

    Shawn, I’m listening to “Turning Pro,” and almost everything Steve is saying is hitting home.

    When I’m writing, my mind can go to some dark places, and I tend to shut it up. I worry that the negation of the negation in my current story is just too dark for most people.

    The last thing I wrote, a screenplay, had a mixed bag of responses that was puzzling. Some hated it, some thought it was great. I myself thought it was kind of perfect, so those that hated my protagonist confused me since what I want to do is SELL. So pleasing the people has got to be the way, yes?

    All this to say that despite Steve’s admonitions about not having anyone else define me or my work, I’m still concerned about public acceptance and support for my writing, and I am wondering if test marketing would have any value? Meanwhile, I have created a nom de plume that I may use. I just don’t know. Struggling with this. Thanks for any advice you care to share, and happy New Year to you, Steve, Callie, and your readers. ♥

  14. Amanda on April 30, 2021 at 6:48 am

    Very well said. This is an interesting topic for many because the power of negative thinking affects our lives. And we are looking for ways out of this trap. Recently reading the essay about “The Handmaid tale” at I realized that it is in this work that there are strong motives for negative thinking. And that it is possible that if we had a simpler attitude to life, then everything would be different than the maids, and our lives would be more positive.

Leave a Comment