The Story Grid methodology has proved to be a useful tool to analyze story, and even though I use it almost daily and even went through 15 weeks of training, one particular aspect continues to stir confusion. It swirls around the term “negation of the negation” — hence NotN so I don’t have to write out the whole thing over and over. (more background in this interview with Shawn Coyne on Joanna Penn’s blog)
In Story Grid terms, NotN is usually defined by an example, and perhaps the most common example is:
…the extreme of life/death values, the end of the line, what Robert McKee calls the Negation of the Negation, the fate worse than death…damnation.Shawn Coyne, _Story Grid_ p 97 (italics from original)
OK, but what is NotN?
There’s a long history behind this phrase. As mentioned, its appearance in Story Grid derives from Robert McKee, who explains it thus. McKee is great, but from this 3:24 clip, I’m still not able to extract a working definition. The curse of knowledge: It seems to be difficult to describe NotN to someone who doesn’t already know what it is.
Digging back further, NotN is found in Marxist discourse, and seems to have originated with Hegel. Philosophy is pretty far outside my wheelhouse, but this research pointed to one possibly important clue: in the context where NotN originated, “negation” can be a synonym for “contradiction.”
How about the simpler case of a single negation? In Story Grid terms, there are three plausible definitions:
- “Making it worse” or from whatever starting point, progression in the negative direction.
- A polarity shift; from whatever starting point, progression in the opposite direction.
- Contradiction; the previous movement in the negative direction now seems positive in retrospect.
In language, double negatives are inherently confusing, because they require context to figure out whether the intent is the same as a single negative, or maybe the opposite. People outside a “in”-group might take the wrong meaning. Anyway, plausible definitions of NotN could be:
- Making it even worse than once thought possible; progression to not-previously-charted depths on the bottom of the +/- value scale.
- Something that gets so bad that it becomes good again (polarity reversed twice).
- A contradiction of a contradiction (leading back to a refined version of the original idea/value).
In my research I located a better example in McKee’s book, in the chapter _The Principle of Antagonism_. Take Justice as a core value. There are multiple directions to move from there:
- Justice –(contrary) –> Unfairness
- Justice –(contradictory) –> Injustice
- Justice –(negation of the negation) –> Tyranny
Negation of the Negation means a compound negative in which a life situation turns not just quantitatively but qualitatively worse.Robert McKee, _Story_ page 320 (italics from original)
So the first of the above options looks like the right one in this case. Always make it worse for your characters. Given that the goal of Story Grid is to illuminate the architecture of story and make it more understandable to a broad audience, I humbly submit that NotN is not the best possible term for the concept in embodies. A modest proposal for something more inclusive:
- More clearly define (single) negation, in particular contrasting it with the “polarity shift” concept that features heavily in Story Grid.
- Find a contemporary alternative to the term NotN, especially one that can be immediately “grokked” without much mental effort. Perhaps “overnegation.”
Trying it on in a sentence: This story’s values go from life, to life’s negation which is death, and from there to the overnegation–a fate worse than death.
I’d love to hear more from Story Grid practitioners and newbies alike. Please comment below or link to your own blog. Let’s discuss.
Production note: I started writing this for the Story Grid Round Table, but I’m posting it here for more general discussion.