This plot is perhaps the most basic of all plots in the plot library. It can be summed up with one word “against” and satisfies my professional writing friends who delineated plot for me in three (or 4) forms: “Man against man, man against God (nature) and man against himself.”
As far as internal versus external storylines goes, the internal (character driven) story will generally be found in “man against himself” plot and the external (action/event oriented) story will generally be found in the “man against man” plot, but not invariably, not always. As for “man against God (nature),” it can go either way, but tends to lean toward internal storylines.
Man against Man:
This may be the most basic of the basic. It is the mainstay of the B-movie where the good guy wears a white hat and the bad guy wears a black hat. The “against” is the given point that needs to be remembered, and everything in the plot must bend to that directive. Here is where you will find the basic protagonist (good guy) and basic antagonist (bad guy), and the stories built on this alone are innumerable. (Then again, there are some stories where even those lines blur, for example Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple. Who is the bad guy?)
Unlike the B-movies and most comic books, the protagonist need not be perfect and the antagonist need not be evil. They may well be two people trying to do the right thing. They may each have a mix of internal conflicts going on. Invariably, though, they will be distinguished in the story by their decisions and actions, usually on moral grounds. How often has the antagonist believed that the ends justify the means? How often has the protagonist tried to save the life of the antagonist in the end?
Yes, this is one of those plots where a writer has to be careful. It lends itself much too easily to cardboard characters and B-movies. But then, if you are careful, you might produce the next Star Wars. That series of movies is built primarily as an adversary plot. Luke Skywalker rises against the Empire, but is beaten down. He becomes a Jedi and proves himself against Jobba the Hut. Then, finally, he has the showdown with the Emperor and the Vader himself.
The Magnificent 7 (7th Samurai) is another great adversarial plot, but from these examples you can see that “man against man” need not be just two people. War stories are mostly adversarial plots, whatever else may be going on in the story. Consider D-day, Patton, Massada.
NOTE: it is in the “whatever else is going on” that a writer can often avoid a plot of complete cardboard. Even the thinnest white hat-black hat B-western had a love interest to carry some of the load. And here we see the third wheel which, if you have been reading these posts, you know I recommend to add depth to your story.
Man against God (Nature):
I am only going to mention a few of stories here, because you need only to get the idea. The Shack would certainly have to be called a “man against God” story, though it may be an EMOTIVE plot as well. Moby Dick, on the other hand is clearly a “man against nature” story. What Melville did in the story, though, was add that third wheel in the form of the narrator: “call me Ishmael.”
Some stories in this category mix my professional friend’s ideas. Both Swiss Family Robinson and Lord of the Flies begin as “man against nature” stories, but devolve into “man against man” stories. There is nothing wrong with that, as these stories show, but it is important for a writer to know going in to be able to make a smooth transition. Then there is Homeward Bound. It is not exactly a “man against nature” story, but you get the idea.
Man against himself:
Robinson Caruso, on the other hand, is essentially a man against himself story even though it outwardly appears as another “man against nature” idea. Likewise, you will find some sports stories are really “man against himself” stories despite the outward competition. Rocky might fit here, or The Mighty Ducks, or The Bad News Bears, though honestly, while these are still competitive stories, they are underdog plots… And anyway, now we are headed back toward B-movie land.
Adversary plots generally follow the same pattern. Two forces, often two persons stand against each other in a way which appears that one will win (succeed) and one will lose (fail)—though sometimes both lose and rarely both win. The two need not have the same strengths and weaknesses, but they should begin on fairly even ground.
The against is all that is needed to provide conflict, tension and resolution. Consider James Bond versus Doctor No, Sherlock Holmes versus Doctor Moriarity, Van Helsing versus Dracula, or Doctor Jeckel versus himself. Versus (against) says and does it all.
Most of the time, early in the story, the antagonist gains an advantage. The poor Count of Monte Cristo ended up in prison. The meat of the story is the return or “rising up again” of the protagonist to that equal footing and status – to where there is a second chance at the one on one. The resolution is how things turn out. As often as not, the antagonist is overcome and never will rise again, unless it is a series…
Then again, the Count of Monte Christ is really a Rivalry plot, but that will have to wait until next time.