The Frame of a Story: The Forces of Antagonism

This is the beginning of my contribution to The Writers in the Storm blog this month. I share my understanding of Robert McKee’s Forces of Antagonism and how I use those forces as the frame of a story.

This photo is a shot of the grass and blue sky visible between the backs of a man and a woman standing side-by-side. Each has an arm extended in front of them with their thumb and index finger framing the ghostly outline of a house illustrating the frame of a story.
Dreaming Couple Framing Hands Around Ghosted House Figure in Grass Field.

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. 

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. 


The Frame of a Story

Read the rest of this post and learn about the principle of Antagonism, how I interpret the four forces, and how I use them as the frame of a story so I can be both a planner and a pantser on The Writers in the Storm.

Celebrate Your Creativity

Host J. Alexander Greenwood of the Mysterious Goings On Podcast interviewed me a couple of weeks ago and one of his questions and my response, inspired this post. If you haven’t listened to the podcast, go ahead. I’ll wait… Thanks for listening. Can you guess what inspired this post? It was my last comments about my belief that nearly everyone is creative. And that we, society in the USA, don’t value creativity very much. Even a lot of creative people don’t value their creativity as much as they might, myself included. If that’s true, then what are ways you can value creativity more? Celebrate your creativity.

Image shows a colorful fireworks exploding above a cityscape, we celebrate many things but rarely do we celebrate creativity.

We celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, new jobs, graduations (particularly this time of year), and the purchase of a new house or car. But we rarely celebrate smaller accomplishments. When was the last time you celebrated writing a page of words? Did you celebrate trying a new twist on an old recipe? Or how about the color you painted on the wall? You wrote a piece of coding that did more than the customer asked is a creative solution. Celebrate.

Why Celebrate the Small Creative Wins?

It’s easy to berate ourselves for mistakes or errors and not just call them failures, but label ourselves as failures. Our caveman DNA means we are on the lookout for problems 24/7. But in modern times, when the problem isn’t a saber-toothed tiger wanting to eat you, we sometimes see ourselves as the problem. And when we don’t celebrate the small wins “we end up diminishing our motivation, and motivation is what keeps us on the right path and gives us the strength to soldier on to the top of the mountain.” (lifehack.org)

You can’t acknowledge what you’ve done if you don’t track your progress. Track it in a journal or on the calendar or by scratching off items on a to-do list. Acknowledging what you’ve done helps you see progress, especially in long projects. Celebrating your accomplishments gives you a dopamine hit, which increases your desire to work on the next step to get another hit. Not only that, when you increase your dopamine, you increase your pleasure and your happiness throughout the day. Celebrating the small successes gets us “addicted to progress” because we want to repeat that dopamine hit. We want to feel that pleasure and happiness.

The progress principle: Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work. And the more frequently people experience that sense of progress, the more likely they are to be creatively productive in the long run.”

Havard Business Review

We are wired to respond to rewards… it’s another way how our brain works. So those small-step celebrations boost our self-esteem and our self-confidence. When we feel better about ourselves and our projects, our productivity increases.  

The positive psychology research has shown that celebrating the small wins, the small accomplishments, and more frequently has a bigger impact than waiting for that one big thing to celebrate. It keeps you engaged. It helps you to remember that you’re on a path that’s working and you feel good when you get a chance to celebrate the small thing.”

Denise Stromme, University of Minnesota Extension.

How to Reward Yourself

Collage image including an image of one daisy, two star flowers, and a bouquet of pink and purple tulips demonstrating graduated rewards for your creativity.

The trick in rewarding yourself is to make it meaningful, but also to keep it tied to the progress you’re making. 

How do you do that? You create small-step goals. For example, use things you consider rewards, but it would work something like this: a coffee at the end of the week of successes, an hour of television at the end of the month, and a fancy dinner out at the end of the quarter. 

If you have a goal aversion, tie your rewards to your efforts. Three hours of focused work on the project earns a reward. Six hours win a bigger reward, etc. Up the “ante” of your rewards proportional to the amount of effort or work you’ve accomplished. 

Got it? So what do you use for rewards?

Reward Your Creativity

Photograph of a woman silhouetted jumping for joy against a sunrise demonstrating another way to celebrate your creativity.

Your rewards don’t have to cost money. They do have to be specific to you, feel like a reward to you. Still need examples? There are literally thousands of ways you can reward yourself.

  • Raise your arms in triumph and literally jump for joy.
  • Give yourself a gold star. X number of stars and you get a “bigger” reward.
  • Write yourself a note of praise.
  • A cup of your favorite beverage (like coffee or chai latte).
  • A window shopping trip.
  • TA trip to a museum or zoo or a movie.
  • An accessory—jewelry or scarf or fancy belt buckle or shoes.
  • An extra half hour of sleep.
  • A long bubble bath.
  • An extra hour of reading.
  • An hour of watching stupid pet tricks on YouTube. 
  • Watching an episode of your favorite reality show.
  • An extra play date with your kids or pets.
  • An occasional dinner out can be a reward
  • Tickets to the next game played by your favorite local sports team
  • Play a video game or a game of hopscotch.

One caution: don’t reward yourself when you haven’t done the work. That doesn’t mean you can never have a dinner out or play a video game except as a reward. It means be aware of what your “fix” is. If you get addicted to the reward (a glass of wine, or a favorite food—chocolate anyone?), then your focus isn’t on the goal (finishing the painting or the sweater you’re knitting.) 

What happens when you celebrate your creativity? 

You may feel awkward or dismissive of the celebration the first time you celebrate your creative small step. Remind yourself that your creativity is of value to you and to others. You earned the reward because you did something creative. 

Besides feeling better about your creativity, you are giving your creativity positive feedback. And that positive feedback perks your creativity up and leads to another idea and another. So celebrate your creativity. Heck, spread the joy and help another creative celebrate their creativity. Let’s change our corner of the world and teach ourselves and others how to value creativity.

What’s one way you’ll celebrate your creativity today?

Shifting Reality into Fiction

From the behavior of certain politicians to the war in Ukraine to the leaked draft of the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe vs. Wade, the real world and the fictional world of The Fellowship Dystopia series are moving closer and closer together. When I started writing this series, it was fun shifting reality into fiction. Today, it appears we are shifting reality again. History became fiction and now fiction appears to be shifting into reality. You may see it too when you know the actual history that I shifted and sifted into a fictional world for my books, My Soul to Keep and If I Should Die.

Neutrality First

World War I, often called the Great War, began when a Bosnian Serb nationalist assassinated Franz Ferdinand, the Archduke of Austria, and his wife, Sophie, on June 28, 1914. Back then, most Americans believed the nation shouldn’t get involved in foreign affairs. They watched the conflict uneasily but weren’t concerned because the war was an ocean away. Then On May 7, 1915, an Imperial German Navy U-boat sent a torpedo into the passenger ship, the RMS Lusitânia, sinking it and killing 1,198 passengers, including 128 Americans.

Image is a black and white illustration of the passenger ship Lusitania being struck and destroyed by the U-boat torpedo an act shifting reality for many Americans

This unprovoked attack on civilians raised the concern of some Americans. In addition, news reports of atrocities perpetrated by Germans against Belgian civilians reached American papers. Some reports were accurate, some were exaggerated. They stirred anti-German sentiment in the United States. A sentiment that concerned President Woodrow Wilson, who believed the nation shouldn’t get involved.

On August 4, President Wilson gave a speech about how he felt the nation should react to the growing conflict in Europe.

The United States must be neutral in fact as well as in name during these days that are to try men’s souls. We must be impartial in thought as well as in action…”

President Woodrow Wilson

The nation’s policy may have been neutrality, but that didn’t stop commerce. Over the next three years, American businesses and banks made huge loans to the Allies fighting the Germans.

As the war dragged on, it was clear that America would lose a lot of money if Europe lost the war with Germany.

The End of Neutrality

In January 1917, the British intercepted and decoded a telegram from the German Foreign Secretary sent to the German diplomatic representative in Mexico. It proposed a secret alliance between Mexico and Germany should the US enter the war. “The British passed the document to Washington, and it appeared on the front page of American newspapers” on March first.

During February and March 1917, the Germans resumed their aggressions at sea. German submarines sunk several US cargo vessels without warning.

On April 2, 1917, President Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war. On the fourth, 82 of 88 U.S. Senators and 373 of 423 members of the House of Representatives voted to declare war.

The first US infantry troops landed in France on June 26, 1917. And so the U.S. entered the Great War.

The End of the Great War

Black and white photograph of Woodrow Wilson in tailed coat onboard a Navy ship on the way back from peace talks after the Great War ended shifting reality once again

World War I, the Great War, ended on November 11, 1918 (now called Armistice Day or Veteran’s Day in the U.S.)

Some experts estimate that military and civilian deaths on both sides combined reached 24 million people. Of those, about 117,000 were Americans. The numbers are arguable, but the fact is a massive number of people died and the property loss was tremendous.

Many veterans and survivors of the war suffered disabilities or were “shell shocked.

It should be no surprise that by the 1920s, many Americans swore their nation should never enter another foreign war.

In 1928, the United States signed the Kellogg-Briand Pact renouncing war as a part of national policy.

The Isolationist Movement

Image of an orange flyer from an America First Rally scheduled for April 4, 1941

During the 1930s, the losses of the Great Depression (1929-1933) and the physical, mental, and emotional scars of the Great War visited most Americans. Many of them vehemently advocated non-involvement in European and Asian conflicts and international politics. Called Isolationists, they felt the US needed to focus on issues at home like rebuilding the nation’s economy. By 1941, they held America First Rally’s across the nation.

The Isolationists had historic precedence to bolster their position. America’s founding fathers saw the ocean separating them from Europe as an ideal situation to create a new nation. Even President George Washington had advocated for non-involvement in European wars and politics.

The Isolationists also had the support of many powerful Americans. Pilot Charles Lindbergh strongly and vocally supported isolationism. Former Presidents Herbert Hoover and James Monroe each voiced support for isolationism. As the Isolationist movement grew, another movement was sweeping through America.

The Third Great Awakening

The Third Great Awakening (1850-1920s) was a period of religious activism in America. Dwight Moody (1837-1899), Billy Sunday (1862-1935), and Father Charles Coughlin (1891-1979) were some of the major players.

During his 1932 bid for the presidency, Franklin D. Roosevelt welcomed Father Coughlin’s support and influence over urban Catholics. But Father Coughlin soured on FDR after the president did not give Coughlin a position on the president’s cabinet.

In 1933, Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany and Dachau, the first concentration camp, opened.

FDR worried about the rise of fascism and totalitarianism and wanted the US to be more involved in Europe and Japan. Most Americans were overwhelmingly against such action.

In 1935, Congress passed the first of a series of neutrality acts to protect the United States from world problems.

Father Coughlin began expressing anti-capitalist, anti-banker, anti-Wall Street, and anti-Semitic views. He blamed those ‘forces’ for America’s entry into World War I and worried those same forces would involve America in the turmoil in Europe.

Shifting Reality to Create a Fictional World

In the Fellowship Dystopia’s history, Giuseppe Zangara assassinates FDR before he can take office. This empowers the Isolationists and the Third Awakening. They join and become a religious-political machine, the Fellowship.

In tents and on the streets, a preacher’s sermons are full of the message that the Great Depression is punishment for America’s sins. People desperate for relief flock to his revival tents. The Fellowship seizes the idea and opportunity. They declare the preacher a prophet and “the way” to peace and prosperity. The Fellowship becomes a source of solace, a source of rules guaranteed to bring relief. With each passing year, more and more laws remove the people’s power and freedom.

America never enters World War II. Europe struggles valiantly, but the Federation of Germany assumes power. Japan rules Asia and the Pacific. And in America, the Fellowship and its Councilors grow more and more powerful.

Miranda, daughter of America’s premier preacher-politician, lives a charmed life as one of the Fellowship’s elite. Until she faces a life that will rob her of all rights.

The story of the Fellowship Dystopia is a story of a fight against tyranny in all its forms. The fight isn’t easy. It ranges from tiny and very personal to national to global. Miranda’s fight starts small and grows in My Soul to Keep. But it frightens her, so she chooses another path and in If I Should Die, events force her to choose different paths. And every path is a test that costs her dearly.

Pre-order If I Should Die now.

And The World Goes Round

At first, the changes in American sentiment over the past handful of years surprised me. I was shocked by how we seem to be on the way to creating a theocracy in reality. Reviewing my notes, reviewing our actual history… I am no longer surprised. I am saddened that we can’t seem to learn lessons bought with blood and tears.

The Pendulum Swings

To anyone who studies history, it is apparent that human behavior and belief systems, especially political ones, swing from one extreme to the other. It’s a pattern we follow to the detriment of us all.

Perhaps that’s where we are in today’s shifting reality. Perhaps we’re being tested. Will we pass these tests?

What choice will our nation make? What choice will you make?

Image Credits
  1. Illustration of a torpedo hitting the Lusitania: Winsor McCay, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
  2. Front page of newspaper, Houston Post, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
  3. President Woodrow Wilson on Navy ship: Naval History & Heritage Command, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
  4. Flyer for 1941 America First Rally: America First Committee, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
  5. Father Coughlin on Time Magazine Image: Keystone, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

First Lines by Nebula Nominees

First Line Friday is a series of blog articles posted on the first Friday of every month. The first line of a story, we’re told, must hook the reader. Implied is that the reader will not buy the book if the first line isn’t great. These first lines by Nebula nominees represent the books and authors who are up for the 57th Annual Nebula Award® for best novel. The awards ceremony will be held later this month. Do these first lines hook you? Do you want to read more?


The first book cover representing the first  lines by Nebula nominees is the Cover of the Unbroken with is in tones of brown, a person with a sword in its scabbard stands in an archway arms stretched out, each braced on pillar with some tall dark non-organic form behind them.

A sandstorm brewed dark and menacing against the Qazali horizon as Lieutenant Touraine and the rest of the Balladairian Colonial Brigade sailed into El-Wast, capital city of Qazali, foremost of Balladaire’s southern colonies.

The Unbroken (Magic of the Lost Book 1) by Cherae Clark

Second book cover representing the first lines by nebula nominees is A Master of Djinn with steampunk gears overhead beyond which is blue sky. Below is a lone figure walking up an opulent and middle eastern looking staircase.

Archibald James Portendorf disliked stairs. With their ludicrous lengths, ever leading up, as if in some jest.”

A Master of Djinn by P. Djèlí Clark 

Third book cover for first lines by nebula nominees is the cover for Machinehood. with a bluish silver background with gears and lines as if it's a computer chip, in the fore ground is a white hairless humanoid robot with a feminine waist.

Welga stared a coffee the color of mud and contemplated the irony of the word smart.”

Machinehood by S.B. Divya 

The cover of A desolation called peace shows a massive triangular window with a diamond shaped framework and a lone man stading in the center looking out at a planet surrounded by a man-made space station-like structure

To think—not language. To not think language. To think we, and not have a  tongue-sound or cry for its crystalline depths.

A Desolation called Peace by Arkady Martine

The world fell flat. The world fell exhausted. The world fell to rainbow-colored static, which rang through Derena’s mind as she ran from her death.

Plague Birds by Jason Sanford

If you liked those first lines, I hope you’ll love this one:

Miranda Clarke guided her yacht, Lady Angelfish, alias Serenity, down the Illinois River, desperate to deliver the package on time.

If I Should Die by Lynette M. Burrows 

Pre-order now at your favorite online book seller.


Clarification

There are no affiliate links in this post. I don’t make a cent off of the books listed on this page. Usually these titles are pulled at random. They are here for your enjoyment. And to entice you to buy more books.

Do You Want to Read More?

Check out a previous First Line Fridays featuring science fiction books.

What do you think of these first lines by Nebula nominees? You’ll put an enormous smile on my face if you tell me in the comments below—

Have you read any of these books? Which first lines spoke to you? Which ones are now on your TBR list? 

The Blessing and Curse of Research and Inspiration

The more you practice creativity, the more you realize the blessing and curse of research and inspiration. It happened again while I was planning and writing my Fellowship Dystopia series. When we left Miranda at the end of My Soul to Keep, she had sworn off shooting to kill and taken to the water to help rescue fugitives from the tyranny of the Fellowship. So I had an obvious place to start book two… on the water. But the inspiration for her yacht, the Lady Angelfish, came from writing a completely different book. 

Blessing and Curse

The blessing and a curse, research and inspiration come hand-in-hand for me. I can dive Marianas Trench deep down some of those research rabbit holes. When I do that, I lose time… days and days… All right, not days, but I definitely lose hours.  

Some of you may have read a sneak peek at another novel I’ve started, Paladina. I needed information about life in Greece told from both natives and non-natives. While researching that, I came across blogs and vlogs of expats living on boats as they explored life outside the U.S. Life abroad and aboard a boat fascinated me. Their blogs gave lots of details about the benefits and challenges of that life. Their vlogs added to those details.

The Great Loop

I ate up those blogs about life on boats, and that led to a revelation. I discovered that there are boaters who take a year-long epic boating adventure in the U.S. They call it the “Great Loop.” 

The Great Loop is the name of a continuous waterway that allows boaters to explore Eastern North America using the Atlantic and Gulf Inter Coastal Waterways, the Great Lakes, Canadian Heritage Canals, and the inland rivers of America’s heartland. Anyone who completes the journey becomes an official ‘Looper.’ Boaters can travel all or part of it.  

The blessing and curse of inspiration hit me when I saw this map of the Great Loop that show the primary and longest route in purple that travels from the great lakes down the Mississippi to the gulf, around florida and up the east coast to the hudson then the great lakes again and a shorter version in green that avoids the Hudson and half the Mississippi.

Research Stretched into Inspiration

You know, with a name like Looper, I was hooked (wordplay intended.) I didn’t know it then, but that the blessing and curse of research and inspiration had hit me for a book I hadn’t even outlined yet. That rabbit’s hole took me on vicarious journeys via blogs and vlogs. Some shook loose memories of short boating trips I took as a kid. And boy, some of those blogs and vlogs were super educational. 

A Little More Research

I learned about locks and I learned the rules of boating etiquette. Previous to my research, I hadn’t thought about who policed the waterways. I learned that, too. (Do you know which U.S. Agency patrols our inland waterways?) I used as much real detail as I could. 

I also researched what size and type of boats travel the Great Loop. Then, I had to factor in the alternate world of the Fellowship Dystopia and determine what Miranda’s boat looked like. Fortunately, there are a ton of online marinas that sell boats with lots and lots of pictures and details. At the time, sYs International Yacht Sales had exactly what I had hoped to find.

Here are a couple more of the photographs I used to help me plan Miranda’s yacht. Some of these details appear in If I Should Die. But for the story, Miranda’s boat has more interior space and a few special features. 

If I Should Die

Image of the cover of If I Should Die on the paperback cover and the ebook on a smart phone. In the background are the red and yellow flames of an explosion.

If I Should Die, is book two of the Fellowship Dystopia, now available for pre-order on AmazonKOBO, and Barnes & Noble. But the clock is ticking on the pre-order period. Order your copy now.

The protagonists from My Soul to Keep, Miranda and Beryl, return two years after their battles in book one. Although the rebels didn’t uproot the tyrannical Fellowship Council, Miranda kept her promise to herself and hadn’t picked up a gun to shoot another person. She’s piloting the Lady Angelfish through the inland waterways of the U.S. and rescuing fugitives from the Fellowship. She never expected to have to make a choice between sister and brother, peace and war.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll give you a taste of locations and characters from book two. You can read If I Should Die as a stand-alone novel, but you’ll enjoy it more if you’ve read My Soul to Keep.

Research and Inspiration

No matter how much research I did, I could not get my poor brain to remember nautical terms. In early drafts, I used port and starboard as if they were interchangeable. SIGH. Inspiration doesn’t mean you don’t have to work at it. To avoid confusion, I kept a cheat sheet beside me during revisions.

If you are a Looper, and you read If I Should Die, know that the book takes place on a very small portion of the Great Loop. I hope I did enough research I didn’t make any glaring errors, but whatever errors I made were mine and mine alone. 

A writer’s life isn’t a comic book. We don’t get cartoon bubbles of lightbulbs above our heads. But we have the blessing and curse of research and inspiration being linked. Linked and a possible “waste of time.” A waste of time that often brings inspiration. 

Had you heard about the Great Loop before? Are you a Looper? Even if you aren’t a Looper, I’d love to hear about your boating or inspiration experiences.