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.

One Plotting Tool for All

I’m on Writer’s in the Storm Blog today, talking about my favorite plotting tool. Link is at the end of this excerpt.

Whether you’ve just finished a project or you’ve just started writing, facing the blank screen (page) is daunting. It can make even the best ideas shrivel in your head and freeze your fingers. Some believe that story structure is essential for success and advise all writers must plan their story in advance. Others believe spontaneity is crucial to creativity and advise that everyone should pants their story. What is a writer, especially a new writer, to do? Consider that both are correct. Story structure is important and spontaneity can be a boon to creativity. Neither are the only right answer. There are tools that can help writers regardless of their preferred story development method. One plotting tool for all is the story sentence.

Image of the top several pieces of paper wadded up into balls near a notebook of blank lined paper, you need one plotting tool to get started.

Where Do You Start?

You stare at the screen and think that the great idea you had is really a cliché, or it’s too slight to be the epic novel you envisioned, or that the idea is only a two-step plot. Hold on. It’s not that bad. All you need is one sentence. But before we begin that, we need a common understanding of what plot means.

What is Plot?

To paraphrase and meld together definitions by Dwight V. SwainDonald Maass, and Jessica Page Morrell

Plot is a series of scenes where something changes. Each change builds intensity and tension and increases your reader’s sense of foreboding until there is a devastating fear that your focal character may not attain her goal. When the intensity reaches its maximum, there is a release of tension in a satisfying manner. 

It’s a mouthful, but all of those things are part of the word plot represents. What changes, how things change, how intense or tension-filled your story is comes from the situation, genre, and tropes you select to build your plot. Overwhelmed yet? There are a lot of pieces to plot and it can be overwhelming. So let’s pare it down to a bite-sized chunk—the story sentence.

What is The Story Sentence?

It is not a tagline. A tagline is a tease. That’s not what we want right now…

Find this familiar? I wrote about it back in 2018. I’ve learned more about The Sentence that I share in this post. Visit WritersintheStormBlog to read all about it.

Image Credits

Top image by by Markus Winkler from Pixabay 

Better Characters through Lies, Secrets, and Scars

This week I’m revisiting and improving a post I wrote in 2019. Lies, Secrets, and Scars Create Better Characters appears today on the Writers in the Storm Blog. You may remember this post but it’s been improved with examples. If you check it out on the WITS blog, please say hi. 

Image of a train coming around the mountain full of fall foliage is one kind of train that depends on rails to keep it moving like lies, secrets, and scars keep your character and story moving forward.

Lies, Secrets, and Scars Create Better Characters

Many writers spend days, weeks, months, even years creating characters using complex character profile worksheets. The best characters aren’t a collection of data points on a worksheet. Depending upon data points like the genre, physical attributes, favorite desert, or what he’s wearing may disrupt story flow even to the point of what many call writer’s block. Not that those data points are unimportant, but focusing on the lies, secrets, and scars of your characters will give your stories power. That emotional journey ties everything together into a book your readers can’t put down.

The Why

Lisa Cron calls it your character’s misbelief. KM Weiland calls it your character’s lie. Brandilyn Collins calls it inner values. And Donald Maass says it’s how we get readers to make their own emotional journey. What are they talking about?

Most people have morals, values, or other belief systems that guide them in their choices. It’s the reason they choose B over A when A and B are equal. Call it an inner guidance system. Most of us don’t think about it much, it just is.

When we read a story or watch a film, we connect with characters whose inner guidance system is like ours. Choices the character makes, and the possibilities rejected by that character, fascinate us. The more we wonder, “would I have done that” and “what’s he going to do now,” the more we are hooked….

The Rest of the Story

To read more of the updated the Lies, Secrets, and Scars Create Better Characters post, go to Writers in the Storm. I hope you find it helpful.

Image Credit: Balazs Busznyak on Unsplash

Good News During My Most Difficult Year

This year has been beyond difficult. But once in a while something wonderful comes along. I am supremely happy to share that a dear friend recommended me to the Writers in the Storm (WITS) team. And they invited me to join them! So there is good news during my most difficult year.

image of a dark tunnel that ends with the sun rising and a silhouette of a bare tree with the words Good News During my Most Difficult Year printed across the top.

It is my honor and pleasure to let you know that my first WITS blog post is on that site today! I’ve shared a portion of it here, but if you’re interested in learning more, please go to the Writers in the Storm blog (link at the end of the excerpt).

If you’re unfamiliar with the WITS blog, it is a blog created in 2010 by a group of seasoned writers. Its focus is on writing craft and inspiration. And has been in the Writer’s Digest list of top 101 blogs for writers many times. Want to know more? Visit their about page.

Turn Your Weaknesses Into Strengths

Clothespin holding white paper note several clothespins wooden floor. Text on white paper reads Turn Your Weaknesses Into Strengths.

There are writers whose characters jump off the page to live in your head. Lyrical writers can make music on the page that goes straight to your heart. And writers of intricate plots with twists and turns that thrill and delight. Every writer, no matter their experience, has strong skills in at least one area. Every writer also has skills that are weaker. It’s up to you to discover your writing strengths and weaknesses so you can develop more powerful writing.

Why

Your strengths are those things that take less energy to do and do well. You can use your strengths to seek opportunities and work more efficiently.

It’s scary to admit you have areas where your writing is weak. Often we think weak is bad. It’s a problem when we focus so much on our weaknesses that it disempowers us. If we focus on our weakness, we lose self-confidence and enthusiasm. As a result, our performance goes down, which reinforces our negative feelings.

Weak doesn’t mean bad. It simply means that skill takes more of your energy and focus to use. That part of writing is not a thing that will help you stand out from the crowd.

Don’t try to “fix” your weaknesses, but don’t ignore them either. Improving your weakest skills will improve your work overall. Improving your strengths will make your work shine. But before you can improve, you must discover your writing strengths and weaknesses. Unfortunately, you may not be the best judge of your own skills.

To read more of this post go to Writers in the Storm.

Thank you

puppy dog holds Thank You note

Don’t worry, I’m not going away. But I hope from time-to-time, I will post another excerpt and a link to the Writers in the Storm.

This is an exciting development for me. One that you, my readers, are partially responsible for. You’ve helped me grow as a blogger and a writer. (Are they separate? Kind of, but not really.) And if you take a link from here to my WITS blog post, you get an extra big heaping of thank you!

Breathe Life Into Your Characters

Writers are told to breathe life into your characters. But how? Some how-to experts claim that to write believable characters you must fill out page after page identifying every mundane detail of their lives. Is it wrong to do so? No. Some writers may need tool to learn who their characters are. Unfortunately, many writers take this advice to heart and spend days, weeks, months crafting the “perfect character” whose wooden speech and actions leave readers cold. There are four basic points you need to understand in order to create realistic, relatable characters.

Photograph of of a wooden, blank-faced figurine controlled by strings. Breathe life into your characters by making them more than a wooden marionette.

The Basics

Yes, your character needs a name, a background, and likes and dislikes. But details will not make your character real. Breathing life into your characters takes understanding people and, dare I say it, liking people. More importantly, it takes understanding yourself. If you don’t understand why and how you react to the triumphs and tragedies of your life, your characters will fall flatter.

No, you don’t need a degree in psychology, but you need to understand basic personality types and how they are likely to react to different trials and triumphs.

Don’t know where to start? Document your daily emotional reactions. Explore why you reacted that way.

For resources in print, go to your public library. Look for resources in the juvenile section. Ask your librarian for a recommendation. Another great resource is Stanislavski’s books on Method Acting (An Actor Prepares, Building a Character, and Creating a Role.)

Inner Life

Once you understand how distinct personalities respond to different pressures, you have the beginnings of motive and the beginning of your character’s inner life.

Everyone has an inner life. It can be voices in our head or pictures or a movie complete with a soundtrack. Inner life is a melding of our past, our present, and our dreams. Rarely are inner voices all positive or all negative.

That inner life often conflicts with the outer life. And that conflict is often the source of the lie we tell ourselves. To give your readers a character they care about, give your character a lie. Intertwine their lie with their desire and the theme of the story and you have the makings of a memorable character.

Notice, character roles like protagonist, heroine, antagonist, or villain are important to the story, but not what makes your characters come to life.

The Rhythm

A wooden marionette with hair, a painted face and a dress but still attached to strings.

Every person has a rhythm to the way they move and speak and live. You know people who speak slowly or rapidly. They often move in the same rhythm in which they speak. They see the world differently. And they don’t trust the same things, nor do they attack problems in the same way.

Give your characters unique rhythms. The college educated kid uses words differently than the kid who’s street smart. 

To the college educated kid, the world is a game to outsmart. The street kid sees the world as something out to get him if he doesn’t move fast enough. They each move, speak, plan, and react in a different rhythm.

Be mindful of the rhythms you give your characters. Sometimes the rhythm of sets one character in conflict with another. 

What Is Extraordinary

Great Characters are the key to great fiction.

Donald Maass, Writing the Breakout Novel

In Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass also said that it’s possible to create the breakout novel. All it requires is to find what is extraordinary in ordinary people. I’d go a little farther. I’d say that most people have a bit of extraordinary in them. Many of us never find that one extraordinary thing within us. To find it, the writer has to be a keen observer of other people and themselves. Especially of themselves. 

There is a spark in most people. The thing that lights them up and spreads the joy or enthusiasm they have. Or maybe it’s the tiny spark that keeps them going no matter how badly life piles it on.

Often in great juvenile fiction, the character’s extraordinary bit is pretty clear. What makes Sherlock Holmes extraordinary? It’s more than magic that makes Harry Potter extraordinary. Before you decide you know what that is, as a non-writer who reads a lot. If their answer doesn’t match yours, dig deep and figure out why.

Breathe Life into Your Characters

Photograph of a young woman with natural hair, sitting on the curb one leg extended, one elbow on her bent knee and her chin in her hand

To breathe life into your characters, the writer needs to understand basic personalities, the inner lives of people, the rhythms people use, and what is extraordinary about ordinary people. When a writer is told they’re young and haven’t lived enough life to write about it, it’s often because of a lack of understand these basics of character building. Basic personalities with rich inner lives and specific rhythms along with that one extraordinary train will breathe life into your characters.