Using a high concept theory like Robert McKee’s Forces of Antagonism to frame a story isn’t easy. Recently a friend reached out to me after reading my original post on this topic. She tried to follow the idea but found it too high concept. Answering her questions, I realized I hadn’t told the entire story about how I frame a story.
Robert McKee developed the Forces of Antagonism (FOA) in his book Story. The FOA is a tool for fiction writers. It helps develop the opposition and obstacles on the protagonist’s journey toward her goal. Stated another way, it gives you the forces that influence all your story characters’ actions and reactions.
McKee divides the FOA into four high-concept parts, or values: Positive, Contrary, The Negation of the Negative, and Contradictory. These Forces help you determine what the Path of Antagonism in your story will be. You may remember the chart I used in my previous article.
Too high concept, for my poor brain, I “translated” McKee’s terms for the forces into words that are more understandable (even better than in the original post).
Still too high concept? Read on to learn how I use this tool.
Instead of stopping at a value word, I take it another step. I make each Force personal to my story characters. Before I go further, please know the examples I offer are not perfect. My process usually involves long discussions with other writers who understand McKee’s concepts before I settle on how to personalize the forces of antagonism. That understood, let’s play…
When I start a story, I usually have a vague idea of who my characters are and how I want the story to end. For this article, I’ll say my protagonist is a young man, orphaned and living with an elderly couple, his aunt and uncle. I envision his story to be one of him rising above his tribulations. To build the tension of the story, I choose to move from unfairness to injustice to tyranny to justice. Sound good so far?
Where does my character start? If he starts off whining about the unfairness in his life, he might turn off readers. Plus, if he’s a complainer who doesn’t act but whines, transitioning to a triumphant justice will be difficult.
Instead, I’ll start my character in a place where he’s trying to rise above the unfairness in his life. He’s a good guy at heart and trying to do the right thing in trying circumstances. In this set-up, the Compromise could be: Denial of unfairness, even though it’s there.
Since I like to work these things out in pairs of opposites, the Negation of the Negation, what I call Delusion, is next. The delusion is something negative twisted into a positive. I don’t want my protagonist to become a true tyrant. Instead, I’ll give him a touch of tyranny, one that he’ll think of as a “good thing.” Let’s say that he uses his awareness of unfairness in a destructive way. This means that the antagonist and obstructions along my protagonist’s path will include actions or obstacles that encourage behaviors that are destructive, including self-destructive. The protagonist will choose destructive actions and reactions convinced that he’s doing these things for good reasons.
Following the path I’ve chosen, we come to the Contrary or Negative Force. In this story, Injustice is in the third quarter of the book. That means it needs to be powerful odds against the protagonist to the point the protagonist believes he’s lost. How can I do that? By pushing my protagonist to the extreme. In other words, escalate his self-destructive behavior to the point of attempting to get justice with injustice. After his dark moment, is the fourth and last quarter of the book. This section details the preparation for and the ultimate battle where the protagonist finally achieves victory with justice.
There are many ways to use the FOA frame to write this or any story. I could decide that the forces of antagonism are all the planning I need. If so, my next step is to write.
If I felt I needed more, I could extend my metaphor and add studs. A skeletal outline based on the forces can work to keep your story on track. The outline developed from this basic frame would can be anything from lightly detailed to planned down to the tiniest detail. Below, I give you examples of how I might use the forces to develop specific and non-specific scenes.
With our forces filled out, the first quarter of my story is about my insecure protagonist’s denial of unfairness, even though it’s there. I will create scenes that show how unfair his life is and show him acting as if it’s not. The first scene could show a male teen wearing glasses (our protagonist) running after his school bus, desperately trying to get it to stop. After the bus stops, he gets on and immediately gets hit by paper wads and taunts from the other students. The bus takes them to a science museum where he geeks out over an exhibit and the bullies push and trip him. Next, his best friend, who is a good looking rich kid, flirts with the pretty girl our protagonist moons over. Then there’s a scene where he finally gets the attention of the girl and she gets called away. And so on, until the turning point when he discovers he has super powers.
Note these scenes don’t tell you he’s denying unfairness. It shows him being treated unfairly, and he carries on as if this is normal and nothing unpleasant is happening. Also, the antagonist himself isn’t clear, but the protagonist faces many obstacles to what he wants to believe.
The next quarter of the book will be all about choosing to use awareness of unfairness in a self-destructive way. This section of the book will need scenes that show him reacting to his awareness of the unfairness in a self-destructive way. These scenes will show him use his super power to get even with some of his and other people’s tormentors. He’ll become so enamored of his super power that he’ll let his school work slide and use his powers to win the admiration of his dream girl. His aunt and uncle find his behavior alarming and try to advise him, but he shrugs it off as old-fashioned. And so on, until the mid-point of the book, when something terrible happens to his uncle and the protagonist realizes he needs to make a choice.
The antagonist and antagonistic forces really come into play in the third quarter of the book. Here, the antagonist pulls out the stops, attempting to achieve victory over the protagonist. Scenes can be one-sided, meaning the antagonist leads action against the protagonist toward an injustice. Or they can be a mix of the antagonist’s actions toward injustice and the protagonist can convince himself that the only way to win is to use injustice against the antagonist. The protagonist might use his superpowers to beat up underlings, in order to get information. The antagonist creates impossible choices for the protagonist: Choose who lives: a bus full of strangers or your loved one. Ultimately, the hero tries to win by cheating, by creating an injustice that hurts the protagonist as much or more than it does his foe. In his darkest moment, the protagonist realizes only by being just to everyone will he will the true battle of good and evil.
It will take an ultimate moment of crisis and a face-off confrontation with the antagonist that bears a personal sacrifice (large or small) before the protagonist gets the justice he desires. Then, wrap up the story by tying off loose ends or hinting at more stories to come.
Don’t take my examples to mean you can only move your story to the positive force. If you write a darker tale, you can start with Justice and move toward Tyranny. In fact, you can start with any of the forces as long as the movement of the story builds a believable character who takes believable steps in that direction.
I am a pantser at heart and have used this process in writing everything from short fiction to novel-length fiction. As I learn and grow more confident in using this tool, I roughly outline each scene for novel-length stories. For shorter length stories, I do no more planning than developing the four forces. I “pants” the writing from then onward. For flash fiction, I don’t plan at all. I start with a prompt and write to discover the story. Sometimes when I "pants" a story, I'll use the FOA to help me edit that story. All of that is to reinforce the idea that the FOA is a tool. You don’t have to use. You don't have to use it for every story you write. Use it when it’s helpful.
What story planning tools do you use?
Did you guess what story I used to model how I work? (Hint: it’s a movie.)
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Lynette M. Burrows is an author, blogger, creativity advocate, and Yorkie Wrangler. She writes thrilling science fiction about women who make courageous choices.
In My Soul to Keep, Book One of the Fellowship Dystopia series, a young woman discovers a dark secret, a family secret, a secret that may hold the key to toppling Fellowship America’s totalitarian regime. Book one along with book two, and If I Should Die, and the series companion, Fellowship, are available now wherever you find books sold online. The third book in this trilogy, And When I Wake, will be published in 2024.
Lynette lives in the land of Oz. When she’s not procrastinating by avoiding housework and playing with her dogs, she’s blogging or writing or researching her next book. You can find Lynette online on her website, Facebook, or on Twitter @LynetteMBurrows.
Top Image purchased from DepositPhotos.com
Chart images by Lynette M. Burrows
Final image by Paul Brennan from Pixabay
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Confusius (or someone) said, When the student is ready, the teacher will appear. McKee's take on antagonism will greatly improve the story I'm beginning. Thank you of reminding me what a great teacher McKee is.
You're most welcome, Brian. Good luck with your WIP.
I like your simplified version, Lynette. I can wrap my mind around that one.
Thank you for writing about Forces of Antagonism. I can see how this is a valuable tool.
I'm glad you found my version helpful, Ellen. We writers need a variety of tools to help us craft our stories.
I try to incorporate opposing forces in my stories through character traits and mishaps. I love how deeply your post goes into more ways to accomplish this.
Thank you for sharing your process!
Thank you, Kris. Character traits are a great way to incorporate opposition or tension between characters. For me those often develop in the process of writing the story. Isn't it wonderful that writers can develop and use the tools they find most helpful to tell the stories they write?
Thanks for this simplified version. I think I can work with this.
I have a stalled novel. I'll try looking at it from this standpoint.
You're welcome. I hope it helps unstick your stalled novel.
I'm glad you agree, Denise. It really helps me. Hope it helps you, too.
No one answered your question on who's story you used as an example so i'm going too. It was Superman. Lol!! I love antagonistic stories but unfortunately there is not enough of them in the world. Thank you for this article, you've given me hope that i can write these too.
Thank you, Annette. Your comment made me smile. You are partially correct. I was actually thinking of another "super" story, but what I've included here works for Superman, too!