When you start writing a story it can be a lot like panning a river for gold. When you put your pan into the river of ideas, you’ll get a lot of pebbles and sand and debris. You have to rock the pan back and forth until only the good stuff remains. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of fools gold found when panning for story ideas. If you don’t know structure your story you may end up with a lot of fools gold instead of a solid story. But wait, you say. I’m a pantser, I don’t plan my story. Whether you’re a pantser or a planner, you can construct a solid gold story.
Forces of Antagonism
One of the early things I do in constructing a story is to create what Robert McKee calls the Forces of Antagonism. This was a concept I struggled with for a long time. In his book, McKee says the forces of antagonism represent “the sum total of all forces that oppose the character’s will and desire.” Huh?
He contends that the more powerful and complex the forces of antagonism are, the more realistic the character becomes.
THE PRINCIPLE OF ANTAGONISM: A protagonist and his story can only be as intellectually fascinating and emotionally compelling as the forces of antagonism make them.”
Furthermore, he states that there are degrees of negative values. Confused? You aren’t the only one. A little more explanation is in order.
The Value at Stake
Whether you know it or not, there’s a value at stake in your story. Let’s go with an easy example. Think about any murder mystery book or tv show that you’ve read or seen. Most likely the main character is seeking justice in one way or another. Justice is the value the protagonist holds dear. It motivates them to solve the crime and bring the criminal to justice. We humans tend to think of justice as a positive thing. So, Justice is the positive value of the story.
So in our example story, the legal system fails and the criminal gets away with murder. In other words, there’s an Injustice. That represents the value that is the direct opposite of justice.
Between Justice and Unjust are other negative values. Most of us think unfairness is a negative thing, but it’s not as “bad” as Injustice. McKee calls this “not as negative” value the Contradictory value.
And there are negative values that are worse, or more negative, than Injustice. McKee calls this ultra-negative value the negation of the negation. This ultra-negative value is a double negative. My mentor calls this double negative the Perversion. It’s a negative value that’s either disguised as a positive (as in “hate masquerading as love”) or it’s turned inward (as in “self-hate”).
McKee uses a table to help identify the forces of antagonism. This is what McKee’s table looks like:
Unfortunately, McKee’s labels and arrows still confuse me, so this is what I use:My terms make it clear for me. If you need a little more help, instead of perversion use the wordier explanation: “opposite disguised as the positive or opposite turned inward.”
Why bother with all this? Because this helps focus everything you write. With these forces of antagonism you can construct a series of events or struggles of increasing difficulty. The story develops more and more tension and gives the reader a character who struggles through to a satisfying ending. Let me make up a simple example.
Say our heroine believes in justice. We show this belief at the beginning of the story. She does some small, ordinary act that demonstrates her belief. But something clues her in that things aren’t quite right at home. She spends the first part of the story discovering her husband has had an affair and seethes at the unfairness of how he’s treated her. She attempts to get even by serving him a bit of unfairness—she gets drunk and sleeps with a stranger. When she gets home she finds her dead husband. And she gets convicted of his murder. Now she’s struggling against injustices trying to survive being in jail. When she’s released from jail, she can’t get a job and can’t forget about the injustice she’s suffered nor the fact that the murderer has gotten away with it. Now she wants to deal some injustice of her own. She buys a gun from a shady character and tracks down the murderer. She kidnaps him and threatens him. We’ve moved her from justice to unfairness and injustice to tyranny. He taunts her. She realizes she isn’t a tyrant, she really does believe in justice so she releases him. But he then terrorizes her. She finds a sympathetic detective, confesses what she’s done, and agrees to wear a wire. Allowing the murderer to think he will get away with everything, she gets a confession out of him. The guy’s arrested and she’s finally achieved justice and restored balance to her world.
Planner or Pantser
That’s a very simplistic explanation but I hope it gives you the idea. You can read a more detailed explanation with film and book examples in McKee’s book, Story.
Knowing the forces that are working on your character isn’t planning out your story. It’s knowing what your story’s about. When you have these four forces, you can construct a solid gold story whether you pants your way through the story or you plan some or all of your scenes in advance.
If you missed the first post in this series you can go back and read The ABCs of How to Write a Good Story.
Was this information helpful for you? What questions do you have? I hope you understand the McKee’s forces of Antagonism a little better. Next time you’re panning for story ideas construct a solid gold story with the Forces of Antagonism.
Thanks for this, Lynette. Developing tension is the key for me, there cannot be too many strategies to do that.
Thank you, KM. I’m delighted you found this helpful. You’re so right. Tension is the mainspring of the story, isn’t it?