A World of Speculation

More applications of Story

Today’s great revelation from Robert McKee: The principle of antagonism.

Take a story value, any story value, e.g. Justice. What’s its opposite (he calls it the contradictory)? Injustice. Now think, it’s possible to have a negative of Justice that’s not exactly Injustice: Unfairness. (He calls this the contrary.) So Unfairness might be bureaucratic snafus, red tape, excessive or insufficient regulation; not malicious but problematic. Injustice would be deliberately opposed to justice: a corrupt official or something. Now, says McKee, take Injustice to its extreme, what he calls the negation of the negation, and you’ve got Tyranny, systemic Injustice from which there is no escape.

He says that to raise a story to the level profundity is to raise the level of antagonism to the negation of negation. Most stories go through the levels in this sequence: contrary, contradictory, negation of negation, but some fine stories are organized in other ways. (He must have expected his readers to be as thick as I am, because he gave 13 examples, and I needed all of them.)

So I’ve been thinking about this in relation to a short story I wasn’t happy with and didn’t know quite why. Without going into detail (because if I tell it here, I won’t tell the story as a story), I was starting with a very trusting heroine who is betrayed. So my positive value is Trust. The sequence in the three scenes of the story is betrayed expections (contrary), betrayal (contradictory), betrayal by her mother (negation of negation). That was all latent in the draft so far, but now that I understand it, I can tighten the thread running through it, so that the antagonism is stronger, more focused, and (I hope) finally, more effective.

We’ll see.