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Because Size Matters: McKee’s Four Tips on Writing a Big Story

Writing the Big Story [1]You know how certain types of feedback get under your skin like road rash, so that months or years later the grit is still working its way to the surface? Well, eons ago, as she contemplated a novel I’d set in my province, a critique partner sent me metaphorically skidding on the asphalt in a pair of Daisy Dukes.

The comment she dropped  which I found so distressing? “I think this would appeal to readers outside of Canada.” (Meaning, as I took it, that my beloved story wasn’t sufficiently big or universal to warrant a larger audience.)*

If you’ve had similar concerns about your fiction, today’s post might help. It’s a summary of four techniques advocated by Robert McKee [2] in his seminar on Story which, when employed individually or collectively, promise to give your fiction a sense of expansiveness. While you’ve likely encountered the first three in one venue or another, it’s the fourth which lit up my neurons and where I’ll focus the bulk of this article. (If you’ve missed my former McKee Morsels, you can read them here [3] and here [4].)

1. Take the Story Conflict Wide

In this circumstance, what is the worst thing that could happen to my character?

Writers are encouraged to use the above question when brainstorming progressive complications for their story. If attempting to go wide, then, while the story might begin at the level of personal or interpersonal  conflict, the “worst” ripples outward to affect the larger world, including societies and institutions, possibly even nations or worlds.

2. Take the Story Conflict Deep

If going wide is like casting a stone in a pond, going deep is like firing up a medical laser. The conflict remains intense and focused upon a small cast of characters. They emerge singed and sporting extra holes, permanently changed, even if they earn a happy ending.

To see the contrast between #1 and #2,  let’s look at two stories about a divorcing couple. (Spoiler alert!)

If going wide, you might think of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, where in order to marry Anne Boleyn, Henry breaks centuries of tradition, severs ties with the Catholic Church and forms the Church of England.

If going deep, you’d write something closer to The War of the Roses, where a divorcing couple fights over who shall retain ownership of the marital home. As they repeatedly choose revenge over forgiveness and selfishness over generosity, the conflict escalates until they pay with their lives [5].

3. Incorporate Symbols and Imagery Which Allow the Specific to Feel Archetypal or Universal

I have to share the example McKee used here, because it’s a) educational and b) made me laugh at how obvious it is in retrospect, yet I’d missed it while watching the movie.

While the story of The Terminator is one of an ordinary waitress pitted against a machine come to destroy her, the accumulated charge of the imagery makes it feel larger in scope. We see a frightened Sarah Connor running through the labyrinthine streets of LA, a monster in hot pursuit. When she finally defeats the monster in the factory — a hell-like setting at the heart of the maze — she transforms from a working class woman into a serene, Madonna-like figure. And the initials of the child she carries, who will become the savior of mankind? None other than “JC”.

4. Hone the Principles of Antagonism

If character is unearthed and tempered during conflict, it behooves the writer to ensure they have adequate coal for the forge and a working bellows.

McKee divides the forces of antagonism into four categories: the personal (internal conflict, or the battles which rage between our ears), the interpersonal (conflict with other people), the physical (time, nature, bodily limitations, disease, etc.), and the institutional.

If you take all the summative forces of antagonism in the categories above and match them up against your protagonist as they exist at the beginning of the story, it should be clear that your character is an underdog. (You want the challenge to be daunting but not impossible. Why would you ask a reader to invest their time and money in a character who is certain to lose?)

To ensure you’ve given ample power and nuance to the forces of antagonism, identify the core value which is examined in the story and ensure you’ve included all its expressions, including the negation of the negation.

I appreciate that’s a dense statement, so let’s unpack it and then explain it with examples.

Consider a story to be like a thesis, where you’re out to prove the truthfulness of a particular viewpoint. (For more on this, you might visit Lisa Cron’s recent post [6].) Meanwhile, the forces of antagonism are like an examination committee out to prove the opposite. For example:

Begin by identifying the core values involved in the dueling viewpoints.

In the three examples above, I’d suggest the positive value and the contradictory value (direct opposite) would be good/evil; truth/lies; trust/paranoia. Having done that, you’ll set out to ensure your story contains an example of both values.

You’ll also include the contrary value (a state of compromise between the positive and contradictory values) and the negation of the negation.

What is the negation of the negation? It’s potent and you arrive at it in one of two ways:

Let’s look at some examples.

If your story is about the battle between truth and lies:

The contrary value would be a half-truth or a white lie. (A lie told to do good.)

And the negation of the negation? Self-deception. Why is self-deception worse than a lie? Because when you choose to live with dishonesty, you must understand what truth is in order to live its opposite. In self-deception, you lack the ability to distinguish between truth and falsehood. It’s the difference between losing your moral compass and choosing to go against it.

At some point in your story, then, if you want to have fully realized forces of antagonism, you’d include examples of truth, lies, white lies or half-truths, and self-deception.

What if your story is about the positive value of peace and the contradictory value of war?  

What is the contrary value? I’d say skirmishes. So in a family drama, that might look like a couple afflicted with bickering, second-guessing, petty battles. (This forms the bulk of The War of the Roses.)

In a war story, the contrary value might look like overly rigid interrogations at the border, punitive tariffs, or being subject to periodic raids.

And the negation of the negation? War disguised as peace. In the family drama, that could be a smiling sabotage, like when Kathleen Turner’s character feeds Michael Douglas a pâté made from his dog. In the war story, a Trojan horse or the existence of a double agent.

Make sense?

To give the forces of antagonism a fully texturized rendering like this, McKee says you don’t have to input these values in any particular order. It’s just important that they’re all present with the story at some point in time.

Unboxeders, if you aim to write fiction with an expansive feel, do these techniques make sense? To date, have you stumbled across them or used them with purpose? I’m no Robert McKee — don’t even have his eyebrows — but if something’s not clear in the above, the mistakes are mine. Let me know and I’ll do my best to explain.

*As a diligent CP, she was absolutely right to voice her concern and it wouldn’t have stuck with me for so long if a part of me didn’t believe she was right.

About Jan O'Hara [7]

A former family physician and academic, Jan O'Hara [8] (she/her) left the world of medicine behind to follow her dreams of becoming a writer. She writes love stories that zoom from wackadoodle to heartfelt in six seconds flat: (Opposite of Frozen [9]; Cold and Hottie [10]; Desperate Times, Desperate Pleasures [11]). She also contributed to Author in Progress, a Writer's Digest Book edited by Therese Walsh.