“Nature,” for the purposes of designing conflict and plot, can mean the natural AND the supernatural. In fact, “Nature” is any kind of unstoppable force that is both primal and pervasive.
The Zombies in The Walking Dead, the Xenomorph swarms in in Aliens, the spooks & specters in Ghostbusters, the sinking Titanic and the miles of freezing ocean surrounding it, that sneaky shark in Jaws, the ‘Captain Trips’ super-flu in The Stand, the world outside of Andy’s room in the Toy Story movies, the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park, Sauron in The Lord Of The Rings …all primal, pervasive, unstoppable forces.
Frame your Man Vs. Self story in a Man Vs. Nature plot and you’ve got yourself an epic.
…until you have to end it.
Internal Conflict Vs. External Conflict:
Last week, we talked about how EVERY good story contains some kind of Man Vs. Self conflict. We established that the Man Vs. Self conflict compels the most interesting heroes.
But if Man Vs. Self is the core of every good story, then what about the other forms of conflict?
- Man Vs. Nature
- Man Vs. Machine
- Man Vs. Society
- Man Vs. Man
Here’s why we will never run out of stories to tell. (Let me re-phrase that: Here is why we should never run out of stories to tell…)
Just like with food, there are only a few categories to choose from but there are an infinite number of potential recipes & combinations.
The other conflict types can be a side dish, a topping, a garnish, an appetizer or a dessert. …but something from the Man Vs. Self food group should always be the main course.
In Brad Bird’s live action debut, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (which I loved), Tom Cruise and his team of butt-kickers go to Dubai so Tom can climb the world’s tallest building with his bare hands.
And whaddaya know? There’s a sandstorm.
The suspense and visual impact of the sandstorm sequence is so epic, you hardly notice how “conveniently inconvenient” this Man Vs. Nature conflict is.
The Ghost Protocol story isn’t about Man Vs. Nature at all. But the part that is pushes this otherwise-unstoppable hero to his limit and beyond.
Another way to say it is that “Man Vs. Self” is your story and any other conflict is your plot.
“Man Vs. Self” is the internal conflict and the others are external.
The external conflicts are always there to incite, agitate and resolve the Man Vs. Self conflict.
[ Just beneath this image is a SPOILER for The Avengers. If you don’t want to read it, just skip to the next heading “Storyteller Vs. Nature.” ]
This is why one of the only criticisms I have of The Avengers is the all-too-convenient alien invasion and it’s somewhat-convenient resolution, the consequences of which are preserved only by Tony Stark’s suit-failure and the worse-than-death fate of being sealed inside another dimension.
I think a toe-to-toe showdown with Loki Vs. The Avengers would have been much more satisfying. And it would have been awesome if Loki had been a powerful match for the team.
(Of course, I still loved the verbal showdown with Tony Stark and the physical showdown with Hulk.)
Storyteller Vs. Nature:
The Man Vs. Nature conflict is hard to resolve in a satisfactory way.
Sometimes, storytellers just end the Man Vs. Nature conflict with a cheat.
In Cast Away, Tom Hanks builds a raft out of parts that conveniently washed up on the shore, sets sail and conveniently gets picked up by a passing cargo ship. (I’m not trying to trash Cast Away. I actually like the movie. I’m just making a point.)
In War Of The Worlds, the aliens all just die suddenly because they’re like, allergic to air or something…
In Contagion, abunch of people die and some people don’t. The end. Good story!
When We Face Nature, We Face Death:
We can’t allow our heroes to conveniently escape a Man Vs. Nature conflict.
Man Vs. Nature is an inescapable conflict. It’s pervasive and primal. It’s the wrath of God.
The storm can’t just suddenly subside and the story ends. The story ends when the hero has faced death and decided what to do with the rest of his life.
Well, he has to if you’re going to serve the Man Vs. Self story. The Man Vs. Self story, the internal story is what makes the Man Vs. Nature plot worth our time and attention.
When we don’t establish solid Man Vs. Self conflicts for all of our important characters, we risk creating pointless, mind-numbing, unintentionally-comedic action. This is why so many Man Vs. Nature stories suck…
Nature Doesn’t Let Man Off The Hook:
Most of us wouldn’t stand a chance against Nature if she really had her way with us. Nature reminds the real world of this harsh truth all too often.
If we represent a force of Nature as a respecter of persons, we are lying to the audience. And the audience knows that it’s a lie. And we’ll never gain their trust this way. They’ll just laugh all the way through our story. …if they make it that far.
When we create a force of Nature with a secret escape route, we waste an opportunity to have our characters and audience face their own demise. We cheat everyone including ourselves and waste an opportunity to actually say something important.
Don’t draw the gun unless you’re prepared to fire it.
Say what you will about the cheesy dialogue in Titanic, that movie does not pull punches. Nature has her way with the Titanic and everyone on it. That natural disaster costs everyone and every character’s Man Vs. Self story is agitated and resolved (served) by the Man Vs. Nature plot.
If you want to write a good story, you can’t pull punches. …especially when Nature is involved. There has to be a high cost.
The audience has to feel this cost too. We can’t just watch nondescript “red shirts” suffer. An immeasurably high cost must be paid by the characters we actually care about or else the power of Man Vs. Nature is wasted.
When It Comes To Nature, The Only Way Out Is Through.
The only way you can resolve the Man Vs. Nature conflict in a satisfying way is to kill your hero.
The hero has to completely lose hope. …and then, whether literally or spiritually, he has to die.
Your characters CAN be re-born. Physically and/ or spiritually. (More on this later…)
Nature must leave your hero and supporting characters with no other choice but to face death and thus, the life they’ve lived and the decision about what they’ll do if they survive.
They have to stand before the judge, Nature, in this case, and account for their sins.
Even if it’s a comedy…
The haunting threat of the zombie herds in The Walking Dead force everyone to face death on a daily basis. That Man Vs. Nature conflict makes the Man Vs. Self conflict inevitable. There’s even a character whose Man Vs. Self conflict is his TRYING to AVOID his Man Vs. Self conflict! And it costs him.
The purpose of Man Vs. Nature is to engage Man in a ceaseless battle he cannot win. Nature must test Man’s physical, mental, emotional and spiritual qualities until he reaches the absolute end of himself.
And to come full-circle, this is why we LOVE survival stories. Because its inspiring to see characters pass the test.
Just make sure that, as with all Man Vs. Nature resolutions, it doesn’t feel like a cheat.
The victory of passing Nature’s merciless tests will never feel satisfyingly huge if we never see any one fail the same tests. …or pass the tests in a sacrificial way which costs them everything.
Share YOUR Thoughts!
What stories with a Man Vs. Nature plot have effectively supported the Man Vs. Self story? Which ones have not?
And how can YOU apply the Man Vs. Nature conflict in your story? (Not that you have to…)