Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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May 20, 2022

The Frame of a Story: The Forces of Antagonism

by Lynette M. Burrows

Photo with a man and a woman, each has a hand extended and thumb and first finger frame a simple line drawing of the frame of a house which is much like the frame of a story.

In constructing a story, I am both a pantser and a planner. I plan the frame of a story, then place the characters in that frame and discover what they will do in that situation. It’s taken years for me to figure out a method that works for me. I share it here, not so you have a blueprint to borrow, but to illustrate one way to build your own frame.

As I explained last month, the first step in building a story’s framework is the story sentence. The next step I take is to decide on the Forces of Antagonism that will best express my story.

I first came across the idea of forces of antagonism in Robert McKee’s book, Story. No disrespect to Mr. McKee, but I didn’t get it at all. I had a more narrow definition of antagonist that I conflated with the word antagonism. Plus, his terminology didn’t resonate with me. In fact, I barely understood what he was saying. Then a friend reintroduced me to the concept. 

The Forces of Antagonism 

“… the principle of antagonism is the most important and least understood precept in story design.”

Story, by Robert McKee

The first part of the principle is easy. It’s about people. Humans conserve energy, all kinds of energy. It’s part of our DNA. If we see two choices ahead of us and one seems easier than the other, most of us will do the easier thing. We avoid taking risks, if we can. 

Mr. McKee explains “the principle of antagonism is that a protagonist and his story can only be as intellectually fascinating and emotional compelling as the forces of antagonism make them.” He says the more powerful and complex these forces are, the more completely realized the character and story must become. 

If you’re like me, you read antagonism and think antagonist. Most likely you are thinking of a single person or group who will oppose your protagonist. But that’s not quite right. 

What are the Forces of Antagonism?

The Forces of Antagonism include all the opposition the protagonist faces. Even in stories with simple antagonists, there’s more than the actions of the antagonist that slow or block the protagonist’s movement toward her desired goal. When a child begs her mom to stay home or a sidekick gives her a strongly worded warning or a flood forces her to change her route, those are all expressions of antagonism. If you are still stuck on the word antagonism, call it the forces of opposition

Who cares? You, the storyteller, do.

The power of the Forces of Antagonism is that they are a way to be certain there are at least two layers of growth in your story. With more opposition, your protagonist grows as she faces tougher and tougher challenges. But the Forces of Antagonism can do more. You can use them to make certain her opposition grows stronger as she is growing stronger. Bear with me, we’ll get to the how to use it.

Mr. McKee divides these forces into four parts or values that are cross connected. He labels them positive, contradictory, contrary, and the negation of the negation. He sets it up as a square, the four corners that form the frame of a story.

Image shows a box with the word Positive in the upper left corner, contrary in the upper right, the negation of the negation in the lower left and contradictory in the lower right. These are the forces of antagonism, the four corners of the frame of a story

This is where he lost me until I looked at them as values or principles of behavior. 

The Positive and the Contradictory Forces

When you sit down to write a story, you may think of it as a story about your protagonist seeking justice or love or some other positive value. That’s a great place to start, but it won’t power your story very far without some opposition or a contradictory force. 

Contradictory: a proposition so related to another that if either of the two is true, the other is false, and if either is false, the other must be true. 

Merriam-Webster.com 

Mr. McKee uses the example of Justice. If Justice is the “true” (positive) side of the contradictory forces, injustice is the false or contradictory.

Added under the word positive is the word Justice. Under the word contradictory is the word injustice. A red arrow draws a diagonal line between the two words, two corners of the frame of a story

Simple Isn’t Bad

Many stories are told at this level. A simple back and forth between two opposing forces, such as justice and injustice, good and evil, right and wrong, or winning and losing. Those aren’t bad stories, they can be quite enjoyable.

But using two forces makes a weaker frame for your story. You need a solid, four-sided frame, if you want to construct a story that is richer, more textured and layered in a world peopled with characters who leap off the page as if they are real. This is where the Contrary and Negation of the Negation comes in.

The Contrary

This is also where I got stuck over and over until I understood the terms better. To clarify the next two forces, I’m splitting them apart. 

According to Mr. McKee, the Contrary Force of Antagonism is “a situation that’s somewhat negative but not fully the opposite.” Taking his example again, what would be the contrary of Justice? He says it’s unfairness because some things are unfair but not illegal. Such as nepotism, bias, bureaucratic delay, etc. 

The clearest explanation I’ve found for the Contrary is that it is a state of compromise between the positive and the contradictory.

Contrary is somewhere in between justice and injustice or true and false, like an exaggeration. An exaggeration is not the truth because it’s inflated, but it’s not all false either. For me, thinking of it as “between” the Positive and Contradictory Forces helps. It also gives the storyteller lots of room to explore many values.

This frame of a story has the added word of unfairness under the word Contrary.

The Negation of the Negation

Oh boy. This one stumped me. Mr. McKee explained this as being “at the limit of the dark powers of human nature.” In his example of Justice, he said tyranny was the negation of the negation. I agreed with him that tyranny is bad, but still didn’t get it. After a long discussion with my friend, I saw it in a different light. 

The negation of the negation expresses a negative that is disguised as a good thing. Ah, ha! Tyranny is often justified as being “good” for the people when in fact it is one of the worst injustices in existence. Another example is that someone can say they love their child, but privately, they hate or resent that child. 

The Strength of the Four Forces

Now Mr. McKee’s example is a completed square. 

The lines show how one may move between the forces. The power of this is that you can put these forces together in a way that builds the power and layers of the story.

Perhaps you start with an injustice done to your primary character. She sets out to find justice, but the legal system isn’t fair, then perhaps she discovers a lawmaker who wields his power in a tyrannical way. Slowly, you build each case of unfairness and injustice and reveal the tyranny. How can she win against tyranny?  

Putting the Frame to Work

Let’s say I want to tell a story about a young woman who learns to empower herself. I’ll call my positive force empowered and my contradictory force powerless. I always find the positive and contradictory forces to be pretty easy.

Image shows a box with the word Positive in the upper left corner and the word empowered under it, the word contrary is in the upper right, the negation of the negation in the lower left and contradictory in the lower right with the word Powerless under it. These are the forces of antagonism, the four corners of the frame of a story

The Contrary and Negation of the Negation are often more difficult for me and require brainstorming with another writer. There are many points between empowered and powerless. For my story, I’m going to choose Safe. Safety meaning walking the line between empowered and powerless, not challenging anyone or anything in order to be safe.

Are there other choices I could have made? Of course. You choose the forces that will illustrate the growth you want to see in your story.

Image shows a box with the word Positive in the upper left corner and the word empowered under it, the word contrary is in the upper right and now has the word safe under it, the negation of the negation in the lower left and contradictory in the lower right with the word Powerless under it. These are the forces of antagonism, the four corners of the frame of a story

What would be my Negation of the Negation?

Or, let’s put it in my terms, what negative is being portrayed as a positive? The story I want to tell is about a character who becomes empowered or chooses her own path. So what would be the negative—not the opposite—of her power to choose? A brainstorming session resulted in the power to self-destruct. 

Image shows a box with the word Positive in the upper left corner and the word empowered under it, the word contrary is in the upper right and now has the word safe under it, the negation of the negation in the lower left with the words the power to self-destruct under that, and contradictory in the lower right with the word Powerless under it. These are the forces of antagonism, the four corners of the frame of a story

Now that I have all four of my Forces of Antagonism, I can plan my story in a way that allows me to be a pantser.

I choose to start with my character in Safe. Every character, every scene, every conflict I write will challenge or reinforce my character’s need to stay safe. It will also show my antagonist as empowered and desperately needing to keep my character in Safe.

The end of that first quarter or first act will be some move by the antagonist that forces my primary character to move out of safe and into powerless. Rinse and repeat until the challenges force my character to be empowered or retreat into one of the other forces.

The Power of the Frame

The Forces of Antagonism are a powerful tool for the planner and the pantser. Each of you could use the same four forces as the frame for your story, and none of the stories would be the same. You can apply the forces as you write the first draft, or during the editing and shaping of your story. The order of the forces you choose builds a story and conflict unique to you. Will there be similarities? Maybe. Consider the dozens, if not hundreds, of variations of the story Cinderella. Similar doesn’t mean bad.

Use the forces, writers. The frame of a story empowers you to build a story and conflict with a depth of character and conflict that compels your reader to find out what happens next

Writers, how do you frame a story? Do you use the one I mentioned above, or another construct entirely? Please share it with us down in the comments!

* * * * * *

About Lynette

Lynette M. Burrows loves hot coffee, reading physical books, and the crack of a 9mm pistol—not all at the same time, though they all appear in her books. She writes action-filled science fiction with characters who discover their inner strength and determination and make courageous choices for themselves, their family, and their world.

In Book One of the Fellowship Dystopia, My Soul to Keep, Miranda discovers dark family secrets, the brutality of the Fellowship, and the deadly reality of rebellion. Book two, If I Should Die, continues Miranda’s story with heart-wrenching choices and page-turning action. If I Should Die is available for preorder now and comes out on May 24th.

Owned by two Yorkshire Terriers, Lynette lives in the land of Oz. When she’s not procrastinating by doing housework or playing with her dogs, she’s blogging or writing or researching her next book. You can find Lynette online at her website, on Facebook, or on Twitter @LynetteMBurrows

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9 comments on “The Frame of a Story: The Forces of Antagonism”

  1. This is a fascinating framework, Lynette! (Love your covers SOOOO much) I don't have a standard framework that I use from story to story, but more of a loose structure where I focus on getting the tension points where I want them. I'm still too much of a pantser! I get a draft down, then analyze the existing structure and modify as needed. THAT is where I get caught up and where I spend too much time. This is why editing takes me SO long.

    1. Thanks, Deleyna. And thank you about my covers! Don't beat yourself up so much. You have a system that works for you. That's a GOOD thing. I can sympathize with frustration at the amount of time and effort editing takes. I used to live under that curse, before I found this system. Your frustration at your editing process may be a sign for you to try another way. Whatever you choose to do, honor your process.

  2. Thank you for the fascinating information. I’m thinking contrary could be defined as the gray area between right and wrong and negation of the negation could be evil that masquerades as good?

    1. You are welcome, Jeris. I think your definitions would work nicely. With a solid understanding like that, you might find this tool helpful. Good luck on your writing journey!

  3. I love how you explain this to make it easier to understand. I'm a pantster, (although I do have an idea of where my story is going, and usually of the end) but this idea of a framework is brilliant. Thank you for this, and the last one about a sentence.

  4. Interesting that every single element in plotting with Dramatica has that same four-square structure (though I haven't compared the content). I use something like this for every element of a story, in plotting and in filling in the plot (the almost-pantsing part, call it pantsing within limits or within a structure) that I find so satisfying. With a solid plot set up, the steel in the skyscraper, filling in the structure doesn't wander hopelessly, and I'm always happy with the end result.

    I'm an extreme plotter - but find the characters are not cardboard cutouts just executing that structure. Instead, I work hard to find out HOW and WHY they do what I need them to do, if that makes sense. Then I can write the actual story. Makes for a lot of extra words in my Workspace files for each scene, but after I do the work, the story finds a way to flow through, including everything - and far more.

    I think what you wrote in this post comes very close to what I do, and is the closest of any other writer's process I have seen, to mine.

    Fascinating.

    1. Alicia, very interesting. Our methods do sound quite similar, though I am not as detailed as you. I do make certain I understand why the characters do what they do, believe what they believe, and are as close to real as I can make them. I wish you all the best in your continuing writing journey.

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