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LDS Fiction: The Negative of the Negative

March 29, 2009

StoryI’ve been thinking a lot, as I read the Whitney finalists, about story theory, specifically Robert Mckee’s book Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting . I referred to it in an earlier post; it’s been an interested lens through which to view the books I’ve been reading. In his text, Robert Mckee explains the principle of antagonism:

A protagonist and his story can only be as intellectually compelling as the forces of antagonism make them. . . . by “forces of antagonism” we mean the sum total of all forces that oppose the character’s will and desire. . . We pour energy into the negative side of a story not only to bring the protagonist and other characters to full realization… but to take the story itself to the end of the line, to a brilliant and satisfying climax.” (page 317-18)

Then he explains how to develop the negative side of the story, the antagonistic forces that the protagonist must overcome, to the end of the line. I will paraphrase here (ideas taken from pages 319 -333).

First, you take the value at stake in the work, for example Justice. The opposite of justice is injustice. In between Justice and its opposite is unfairness. But beyond injustice, there’s the “negative of the negative,” or Tyranny: injustice institutionalized.

McKee’s diagram looks like this:

Justice/ Unfairness
===== / ========
Positive / Contrary

Negation of the Negation / Injustice
================ / ======
Tyranny / Contradictory

Another example:

Love / Indifference
==== / =========
positive / Contrary

Negation of the Negation / Contradictory
================= / ===========
Hatred posing as love / Hatred

McKee analyzes several other potential value systems and their application in a few screenplays, and then he ends the chapter with this:

“Fine writers have always understood that opposite values are not the limit of human experience. If a story stops at the Contradictory value, or worse, the Contrary, it echoes the hundreds of mediocrities we suffer every year. For a story that is simply about love/hate, truth/lie, freedom/slavery, courage/cowardice, and the like is almost certain to be trivial. If a story does not reach the Negation of the Negation, it may strike the audience as satisfying–but never brilliant, never sublime. All other factors of talent, craft, and knowledge being equal, greatness is found in the writer’s treatment of the negative side (page 332)

So, my favorite books of this year’s Whitney finalists explored the Negation of the Negation very well indeed. Take the brilliant Waiting for the Light to Change (warning: spoilers ahead). What is a governing value for it? You could argue that safety–safe children–is one value. It’s what Sarah has lived her life for, working at a demanding job to take care of her kids after her husband left them. So the value system moves from Safety–Sarah’s children and students are safe and in her control–to accidental harm–Sara’s daughter Jenny needs better clothes, she’s not socially adept, Sarah could have done better, but it’s not a huge deal. Yet. Next value change: Deliberate harm inflicted by child on self: Jenny makes bad choices and ends up with a boyfriend who is only dating her to hurt Sarah. Finally, Harm caused by Sara to her own daughter through Sarah’s vengeful acts against the student she hates. This is the Negation of the Negation, the ultimate value change.

Waiting for the Light to Change
is a great work, and part of what makes it so compelling is the way it negotiates this complex value system. Sarah is devastated by the forces of antagonism, and they are taken to their extreme.

Ever since I read McKee’s analysis of antagonism, I’ve been analyzing everything I read, trying to see if the books reach that extreme negation of negation. Not all do. As he says, you can still just reach the negative value and be a satisfying read. But my favorite books, the ones that stay with me, are the ones in which the protagonist overcomes these extreme forces of opposition. Sarah’s vigil with her daughter in the hospital, and her Wyoming pioneer epiphany, have been haunting me for weeks now.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 30, 2009 6:10 pm

    I think my biggest challenge in fiction writing is making good “bad guys.” I guess it just takes practice, but if you have any suggestions, I would love to hear them!

    I think this post will help a lot.

    – Chas

  2. Emily permalink*
    March 31, 2009 3:20 am

    Chas, the reason I’m reading the book I referenced is because I really don’t know either :-). I am still muddling through too. I’m a lot better at analyzing fiction than I am at writing it myself.

    However, if you are interested in writing tips, I highly recommend Brandon Sanderson’s “Writing Excuses” podcast. The link to their homepage is on my sidebar, and I’m pretty sure he has a podcast on villains. He’s a fantasy writer, but I think his ideas apply outside of the genre too.

    Thanks for stopping by the blog!

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