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 

As the Plot Turns

As the plot turns, so turns your story. Pantser or Planner, HOW you choose to write the story MAKES NO DIFFERENCE. Fine tune the plot in the second draft, the revision. The first draft is to get the story down on paper. It’s the revisioning that matters. This is where you take that diamond in the rough and cut away everything that gets in the way of your reader seeing the shining gem inside. In the final analysis, for your story has to have some kind of structure, some thread of a plot, that will keep your reader engaged.

Lesson 5: Re-Visioning Your Story

More than Just a Beginning, Middle, and End

First, let’s agree upon a definition of plot. Wait a minute, you say, everyone knows a plot is: a Beginning, a Middle and an End. Some of you may think you’ll outwit me by quoting a dictionary, such as The American Heritage Dictionary, which says the plot is “the plan of events or main story in a narrative or drama.” I’d argue that plot is more than that.

To paraphrase and meld together definitions by Dwight V. Swain, Donald Maass, and Jessica Page Morrell: plot is a series of scenes where something changes, each scene building intensity and tension, increasing your reader’s sense of foreboding, until there is a devastating fear that your focal character may not attain his goal, followed by a release of tension in a satisfying manner. It’s a mouthful, I know. But all of those things are part of plot.

Then there is the issue of subplots. For the purposes of this post, we’ll use the same definition for subplots with a little less intensity and tension. And we could go into plot patterns such as the quest, the chase, the coming-of-age stories, and so on. From there we can go into genre specific plot patterns or we could get to the nitty-gritty of plot: scene and scene structure.

But this post is not intended to teach you how-to-plot, that’s a whole series of posts in and of itself. If you need to learn more about what plot is, how-to-plot, the various patterns of plot, etc., I highly recommend Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell. If you need to know how to construct an effective scene Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain is the book for you. And to learn more about story arc, read Robert McKee’s Story. In fact, I recommend you read a whole slew of books about plot. Just as with all the other parts of a story, the how-tos about writing, there is no ONE RIGHT WAY. It doesn’t exist. However, if you read a bunch of different books about plot, you will find the way that works for you in the particular story you are writing.

Your Assignment

What we are talking about today is how to evaluate your plot, how to see the holes and the common mistakes that sink manuscripts. This week you will be analyzing your story based on your story sentence and your scene sentences that you wrote in the first Re-Visioning Your Story post. You did write those sentences, didn’t you? You will also need your notes about goals, character, and conflict. Plus you’ll need a black or blue ink pen, a colored pen or felt-tipped marker (any color other than black or blue), paper to write on, and your manuscript. Got them? Good. Then, clear off your desk or your dining room table and let’s get to work.

First, re-read your story sentence. Your story sentence represents your main plot. Now, re-read your scene sentences. Go ahead, I’ll wait. *hums to self*

Having just read your sentences, you are going to categorize your sentences according to plot and subplot by putting a ‘P’ or an ‘S’ after the sentence. By using a colored pen or felt-tipped marker, you will be able to easily spot these indicators when you need to. If you have more than one subplot, just indicate it by a number (S-1; S-2, S-3 . . . ). Some scenes can do double-duty by advancing both the plot and subplot. Mark your sentences accordingly.

Divide one sheet of paper into columns titled scene number, plot, subplot, and ???. (Make as many columns as you need.) You will be listing the situation, action, and reaction for each scene under the appropriate column. The example I’m using below is from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

As the Plot Turns, Plot Spreadsheet for revising your novel.

If you have situations or actions and reactions that you cannot label as plot or subplot, list them in the column marked ???. Flashbacks, information dumps, and low tension or non-action scenes should be listed in the ??? column also.

According to Donald Maass in Writing the Breakout Novel, “The most common flaw I see in manuscripts from beginners and mid-career novelists alike is the failure to invest every page of a novel with tension. Low tension equals low interest.” He lists things like: thinking while driving from one place to another, taking a shower, fixing a cup of tea or coffee, love scenes, and exposition as being predictably low tension.

When you have finished evaluating all of your scene sentences, look at the columns. Which one has the most S-A-R units? If it’s the plot column, then you’ve done a reasonable job of keeping your story focused. If it’s one of the subplot columns or the ??? column, then you’ve some work to do in your near-future. (Hint: the general rule of thumb is no more than 3-4 subplots.)

Next, study each column, one at a time, asking yourself the following questions.

· Do your characters take action? (Hint: if not, your story is not making forward motion.)

· Is there some action that has taken place off-stage? (Hint: if it has, you may need to add a scene.)

· Is there some missing action that has to be explained in a flashback, info dump, or by one character to another? (Hint: long flashbacks are ‘deal-killers’ according to agent-author, Jessica Page Morrell.)

· Does someone other than your protagonist or antagonist take the action? (Hint: These two should do

most of the action.)

· Is the action, or reaction, predictable? (Hint: if it is, your reader is probably bored.)

· Should your character have taken any other action, or reaction? (Hint: you don’t want the reader shouting, ‘call the police, stupid!’)

· Does the action, or reaction, lead naturally to the next situation-action-reaction unit? (Hint: if it feels forced or like a sudden left turn to you, it will to the reader.)

· Is your protagonist driven closer to or further from his goal with each action and/or reaction? (Hint: there should be some scenes that bring him closer, but more scenes that drive him further from his goal.)

· Does the action, or reaction, place your protagonist under increasing pressure? (Hint: if anything worse could have happened to your character, it probably should have.)

· Does the action and reaction match one another in tone or emotional effect? (Hint: having your detective kissing his girl while standing next to the corpse is probably not a good idea.)

· Is the action and reaction related to the story sentence? (Hint: even subplots should reinforce your primary plot or theme.)

· Does the action and reaction demonstrate a change? (Hint: at least one or the other should.)

· If you took this situation-action-reaction unit out, would the story suffer? (Hint: if it can be taken out without hurting the story, it should be deleted.)

· Does the whole of the action-reaction units for the plot increase reader tension and foreboding? (Hint: tension should rise and fall like foothills leading every higher until you’re in the mountains before there is a release of tension?)

· Is the protagonist in real jeopardy of not reaching his goal during the final action? (Hint: if it doesn’t, you need a different climax.)

Make any notes you need either in your colored-ink pen in the appropriate column or on a separate piece of paper. (Be certain you label your notes on the separate piece of paper with scene number, situation, action or reaction to avoid confusion later.)

How did your plot turn?

“Many beginning writers don’t want readers to feel uncertain, and so load the story with predictable events or feature elements in the story that are glaringly obvious to everyone except the characters in the story. Suspense comes from a reader worrying about characters under pressure as the writer delays outcomes.’ (Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us by Jessica Page Morrell)

So, did you put the pressure on your characters? Did you find you had too many subplots? How many low tension scenes did you have? Didn’t have any? Brag about how your plot turns in the comments below.

Next week we’ll discuss time and place.

ETA: Additional posts on Re-visioning Your Story

Lesson 1: Re-Visioning Your Story

Lesson 2: : Are Your Character’s Goals Golden?

Lesson 3: Twist the Knife Slowly

Lesson 4: Do Your Characters Play Well with Others?

Lesson 5: above

Lesson 6: Is There a Time and Place in Your Story?

Lesson 7: From the End to the Beginning

Lesson 8: Putting the Pieces Together