The Frame of a Story: The Forces of Antagonism


by Lynette M. Burrows



Photo with a man and a woman, each has a hand extended and thumb and first finger frame a simple line drawing of the frame of a house which is much like the frame of a story.

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. 

The 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. 

What are the Forces of Antagonism?

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.

The Frame of a Story: The Forces of Antagonism

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. 

Merriam-Webster.com 

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

Added under the word positive is the word Justice. Under the word contradictory is the word injustice. A red arrow draws a diagonal line between the two words, two corners of the frame of a story

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.

This frame of a story has the added word of unfairness under the word Contrary.

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. 

The Strength of the Four Forces

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

The lines show how one may move between the forces. The power of this is that you can put these forces together in a way that builds the 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?  

Putting the Frame to Work

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.

Image shows a box with the word Positive in the upper left corner and the word empowered under it, the word contrary is in the upper right, the negation of the negation in the lower left and contradictory in the lower right with the word Powerless under it. These are the forces of antagonism, the four corners of the frame of a story

The Contrary and Negation of the Negation are often more difficult for me and require brainstorming with another writer. There are many points betwee

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