Crafting a Story with the Forces of Antagonism,Part Two

Photo of over the shoulders of a man and woman standing next to each other. They are looking at an expanse of green grass reaching to the horizon. Their hands are extended and thumb and index finger shape an L. Inside the frame made by their fingers is the outline of a a house.

Using a high concept theory like Robert McKee’s Forces of Antagonism to frame a story isn’t easy. Even in my description of it last month, it remains pretty high concept. It’s difficult for a writer to translate that into a guide for story development. At least, it was difficult for me and a friend of mine. Let’s take a closer look at how I finally made sense of it in how I develop 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.

McKee’s Antagonism Chart

Image divided into four equal parts by a vertical and a horizontal line.  On the top left is the word Positive over the word Justice. The top Right it reads Contrary Unfairness, the bottom left is the Negation of the Negation which is Tyranny in this example. On the bottom right it's Condradictory which is Injustice. Lines with arrow heads on each end point diagonally from Positive Justice to Contradictory Injustice and The Negation of the Negation tyranny to Contrary unfairness.

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).

Modified Antagonism Chart

This Second chart is also divided into four parts, in the top left is Positive Justice, the top right is Compromise (between positive and negative) unfairness, the bottom left is Delusion (a negative is a positive)  Tyranny and on the bottom right Negative (direct opposite of positive) Injustice.

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. 

The Compromise

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.

Contrary = Compromise

To left to right, then bottom left to right it reads: Positive injustice; Compromise (between positive and negative) denial of unfairness, even though it's there; Delusion (that a negative is a positive) Tyranny and Negative (the direction opposite of the positive) injustice.

The Delusion Force

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 ones. The protagonist will choose destructive actions and reactions convinced that he’s doing these things for good reasons.

The Negation of the Negation = Delusion

Chart with four equal parts reading top left to right then bottom left to right: Positive Justice; Compromises (between positive and negative) denail of unfairness, even though it's there; Delusion (that a negatie is a positive) using awareness of unfairness in a destructive way; Negative (direct opposite of positive) Injustice

The Negative and Positive Forces

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.

Positive and Contradictory = Negative

Chart with four equal parts reading top left to right then bottom left to right: Positive Justice; Compromises (between positive and negative) denail of unfairness, even though it's there; Delusion (that a negatie is a positive) using awareness of unfairness in a destructive way; Negative (direct opposite of positive) Victory with Injustice

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 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.

The First Quarter of the Story

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 Second Quarter of the Story

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 Third Quarter of the Story

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 truly just to everyone will he win the battle between good and evil.

The Final Quarter of the Story

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.

Photo of partly framed house under construction

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.)


This post first appeared on Writers in the Storm 

Image Credits:

Top Image purchased from

Chart images by Lynette M. Burrows

Final image by Paul Brennan from Pixabay 

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