The Frame of a Story: The Forces of Antagonism, Part One

Photo of a man and woman standing shoulder to shoulder, camera view is from behind them looking between them at a large field of green grass. Each person holds a hand out in front of them with thumb and index finger shaping an L between the two Ls is the ghostly outline of a house.

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’ve explained before, 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. 

… 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 Forces of Antagonism include all the opposition the protagonist faces. Even in stories with simple antagonists, there’s more than the actions of the antagonist that slow or block the protagonist’s movement toward her desired goal. When a child begs her mom to stay home or a sidekick gives her a strongly worded warning or a flood forces her to change her route, those are all expressions of antagonism. If you are still stuck on the word antagonism, call it the forces of opposition. 

Who cares? You, the storyteller, do.

The power of the Forces of Antagonism is that they are a way to be certain there are at least two layers of growth in your story. With more opposition, your protagonist grows as she faces tougher and tougher challenges. But the Forces of Antagonism can do more. You can use them to make certain her opposition grows stronger as she is growing stronger. Bear with me, we’ll get to the how to use it.

Mr. McKee divides these forces into four parts or values that are cross connected. He labels them positive, contradictory, contrary, and the negation of the negation. He sets it up as a square. The four corners that form the frame of a story.

a vertical line and a horizonal line divide the image into 4 equal rectangles, each with a word in it. Reading left to right and top to bottom: Positive; Contrary, The Negation of the Negation, and Contradictory

This is where he lost me until I looked at them as values or principles of behavior. 

The Positive and the Contradictory Forces

When you sit down to write a story, you may think of it as a story about your protagonist seeking justice or love or some other positive value. That’s a great place to start, but it won’t power your story very far without some opposition or a contradictory force. 

Contradictory: a proposition so related to another that if either of the two is true, the other is false, and if either is false, the other must be true.

Mr. McKee uses the example of Justice. If Justice is the “true” (positive) side of the contradictory forces, injustice is the false or contradictory.

The same 4 equal sized rectangles with words inside them this time the Top left Positive and the bottom right Contradictory have extra words. Under Positive is the word Justice. Under Contradictory is Injustice. A double headed arrow points diagonally between those two rectangles

Simple Isn’t Bad

Many stories are told at this level. A simple back and forth between two opposing forces, such as justice and injustice, good and evil, right and wrong, or winning and losing. Those aren’t bad stories, they can be quite enjoyable,. But using two forces makes a weaker frame for your story. You need a solid, four-sided frame, if you want to construct a story that is richer, more textured and layered in a world peopled with characters who leap off the page as if they are real. This is where the Contrary and Negation of the Negation comes in.

The Contrary

This is also where I got stuck over and over until I understood the terms better. To clarify the next two forces, I’m splitting them apart. 

According to Mr. McKee, the Contrary Force of Antagonism is “a situation that’s somewhat negative but not fully the opposite.” Taking his example again, what would be the contrary of Justice? He says it’s unfairness because some things are unfair but not illegal. Such as nepotism, bias, bureaucratic delay, etc.

The clearest explanation I’ve found for the Contrary is that it is a state of compromise between the positive and the contradictory.

Contrary is somewhere in between justice and injustice or true and false, like an exaggeration. An exaggeration is not the truth because it’s inflated, but it’s not all false either. For me, thinking of it as “between” the Positive and Contradictory Forces helps. It also gives the storyteller lots of room to explore many values.

The Negation of the Negation

Oh boy. This one stumped me. Mr. McKee explained this as being “at the limit of the dark powers of human nature.” In his example of Justice, he said tyranny was the negation of the negation. I agreed with him that tyranny is bad, but still didn’t get it. After a long discussion with my friend, I saw it in a different light. 

The negation of the negation expresses a negative that is disguised as a good thing. Ah, ha! Tyranny is often justified as being “good” for the people when in fact it is one of the worst injustices in existence. Another example is that someone can say they love their child, but privately, they hate or resent that child.

Now Mr. McKee’s example is a completed square. 

The four equal rectangles now each hold two words, first word is positioned a line above the second word. Top left to right, to bottom left to right reads: Positive Justice; Contrary Unfairness; The Negation of the Negation Tyranny; and Contradictory Injustice. Two double headed arrows criss cross in the middle so that the Contrary and The Negation of the Negation are paired and the Positive and Contradictory are paired.

The lines show one way to move between the forces. The power of this is that you can put these forces together in a way that builds power and layers of the story. Perhaps you start with an injustice done to your primary character. She sets out to find justice, but the legal system isn’t fair, then perhaps she discovers a lawmaker who wields his power in a tyrannical way. Slowly, you build each case of unfairness and injustice and reveal the tyranny. How can she win against tyranny?  

Let’s say I want to tell a story about a young woman who learns to empower herself. I’ll call my positive force empowered and my contradictory force powerless. I always find the positive and contradictory forces to be pretty easy.

This time the four rectangles contain the words: Positive Empowered, Contrary; the negation of the negation and contradictory powerless.

The Contrary and Negation of the Negation are often more difficult for me and require brainstorming with another writer. There are many points between empowered and powerless. For my story, I’m going to choose Safe. Safety meaning walking the line between empowered and powerless, not challenging anyone or anything in order to be safe. Are there other choice I could have made? Of course. You choose the forces that will illustrate the growth you want to see in your story.

Now the four rectangles read: Positive Empowered;Contrary Safe; the negation of the negation; contradictory powerless.

What would be my Negation of the Negation?

Or, let’s put it in my terms, what negative is being portrayed as a positive? The story I want to tell is about a character who becomes empowered or chooses her own path. So what would be the negative—not the opposite—of her power to choose? A brainstorming session resulted in the power to self-destruct. 

Now the four rectangles read: Positive Empowered;Contrary Safe; the negation of the negation the power to self-destruct; contradictory powerless.

Now that I have all four of my Forces of Antagonism, I can plan my story in a way that allows me to be a pantser.

I choose to start with my character in Safe. Every character, every scene, every conflict I write will challenge or reinforce my character’s need to stay safe. It will also show my antagonist as empowered and desperately needing to keep my character in safe. The end of that first quarter or first act will be some move by the antagonist that forces my primary character to move out of safe and into powerless. Rinse and repeat until the challenges force my character to be empowered or retreat into one of the other forces.

The Forces of Antagonism are a powerful tool for the planner and the pantser. Each of you could use the same four forces as the frame for your story, and none of the stories would be the same. You can apply the forces as you write the first draft, or during the editing and shaping of your story. The order of the forces you choose builds a story and conflict unique to you. Will there be similarities? Maybe. Consider the dozens, if not hundreds, of variations of the story Cinderella. Similar doesn’t mean bad.

Use the forces, writers. The frame of a story empowers you to build a story and conflict with a depth of character and conflict that compels your reader to find out what happens. 

Writers, how do you frame a story?


This post first appeared on the Writers in the Storm Blog

Image Credits

First image purchased from

All remaining images by Lynette M. Burrows.

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