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.
The Rivalry plot follows the same pattern as the adversary plot, only in this case the third element is generally built in. Often it is a thing, like gold or money, or a concept like power or freedom. Sometimes it is a person, though that might also be a TRIANGLE plot depending on whether the third person (man or woman) is an active participant in the story or treated more like an object to obtain.
In the Adversary plot it is two people (protagonist and antagonist) or groups against each other, and sometimes, as is often the case in war stories and some thrillers of political intrigue, they are adversaries simply because they represent two opposing worldviews. In the rivalry plot we are still dealing with the word “against” except the “against” has a purpose: to obtain the object.
Again, these plots of competition may be summarized in the way my friends talked about plot, as “man against man, man against God (nature) and man against himself.” Also, again, they may be drawn as internal (character driven) stories or external (action/event oriented) stories, the choice is yours.
Man Versus Man:
In the rivalry, sometimes the object of desire is substantial, such as a National Treasure. At other times it is an insubstantial object such as power. The Lord of the Rings was essentially a rivalry plot between a reluctant king and a flaming eye over which will end up ruling the human race. In the case of the Lord of the Rings, though, that plot is overshadowed by the JOURNEY plot of Frodo Baggins…
Whether substantial or insubstantial, the rivalry plot includes two forces, not necessarily opposed to each other, but in pursuit of the same thing. In the Film, Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, a competition from start to finish, we are drawn in to root for the poor American, but not disappointed when the Englishman wins the race. The American gets the girl, the object of the rivalry. Nor are we upset when the Frenchman is swamped by the crowd on touchdown in Paris, despite his not winning. About the closest the film has to a “bad guy” is the German, but he is so comical it is hard to hate him. In the rivalry for control of the town that culminates in the shootout at the OK Corral, on the other hand, we are glad that the good guys win, if indeed they were the good guys.
In these examples, you can see two important points. First, while the protagonist (s) should be fairly clear—you want the reader to root for someone—the line between the good guys and bad guys may be blurry. In the end of National Treasure II, the “bad guy” saves everyone else’s lives. Second, win or lose is sometimes less imperative then it tends to be in the antagonist plot. Consider Ben-Hur and his rivalry with Messala or The Count of Monte Cristo and his love triangle. We are pleased when the good guys win (in a sense) even if the winning is bittersweet.
In the Three Musketeers, the good guys also win, but the Cardinal remains in power, untouched, above it all, so it is sort of a half-victory. In the Hunchback of Notre Dame, the Hunchback does not get the girl. In Fahrenheit 451, the man saves his life and gets the book, but the dark ages are far from over.
Man Versus God (Nature):
The first thing that came to my mind was The Old Man and the Sea. The second was Milton, Paradise Lost. A third example would be Goethe’s Faust. All of these express not merely an adversarial relationship, but in some sense a rivalry: for power, control, the means of life and one’s livelihood. In Bunyan’s works, Pilgrim’s Progress or The Holy War, the struggle is for a man’s soul. In the Illiad, Achilles and Hector are mere pawns as the Greeks and Trojans play out their antagonism under the hand of rival gods. In every case, though, there is something to be gained by being the one who is successful. And perhaps something to be lost for the unsuccessful.
Man Versus Himself:
In this last form, look for examples where a person is their own worst enemy. Don Quixote would certainly qualify. Catch 22 or Cool Hand Luke might qualify. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest also, though this last is perhaps best understood as an UNDERDOG story. Also, Spiderman. Let me explain.
Spiderman, in the original storyline, fights himself more than he fights the super-baddies. That was what made this superhero story so unique and wildly successful. He has guilt about Uncle Ben, a need to protect Aunt May at all costs and teenage angst and low self-esteem run amok. He can’t go fully superhero. He trashed the suit countless times; but he can’t go normal, happy, successful life either, as he seems to want (his object). He is so conflicted it prevents him from getting the girl (object) too, Mary Jane or Gwen, who have their own rivalry of a sort going on… Sheesh!
The first thing to decide is what is the key to the story. If there is something (an object) that two people want to obtain, it is a rivalry and that object always needs to be the motive and front and center in the story. If not, it is a basic adversarial plot. Night at the Museum I: Both the old guards and the new want the tablet = rivalry. Don’t lose sight of the tablet. Braveheart (or the Patriot) the men want freedom, the King of England (or his Generals) want to maintain control (opposite objectives) = adversaries. Here is a question: Can two lawyers be adversaries? Can they be rivals?
Like the adversary plot, the pattern of the rivalry plot will remain the same (similar) as are all competitive plots. Normally the antagonist gains the upper hand at first by knocking down his opponent. The meat of the story is the protagonist fighting back or “rising up” from the ashes though it may appear hopeless. The Antagonist gets close to the objective… But eventually the two meet in the final confrontation where the object is gained or lost (occasionally lost forever. Occasionally gained and discovered to be unwanted after all).
Competitive plots get some variation when two (protagonist and antagonist) becomes a triangle or when the two “against” don’t start out on the same footing (one starts as a clear underdog). Though still plots of competition, they are different enough to be worthy of note… next time.
Triangles and Trios
The classic triangle plot is the love triangle and as far as it goes, it may also be described as an adversary or a rivalry (or an underdog) plot. The reason I mention triangles (and trios) separately is because they tend to get complicated. They don’t often lend themselves to simple, cardboard characters or storylines because of the complexity of relationships involved.
As mentioned in the last post, a writer needs to be clear that it is actually a triangle. If two people are trying to win the hand of a third and that third person is portrayed as little more than the object of their desire, it is in fact a basic rivalry plot. If that third person, however, has a genuine pick–one or the other or perhaps neither choice–and is a fully developed character, it is a triangle.
Not being a romance fanatic excludes me from serious examples of love triangles, many of which I am sure exist. What I can give, though, is examples of triangles motivated by something other than love, and yes, there are such things.
A classic example of a triangle plot can be found in the title: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Here, three men are after the same thing: confederate gold (a rivalry). They each wind their way toward the goal, crossing each other’s paths several times until the final showdown at the end. Those so-called “Spaghetti Westerns” were very good at inventing triangles.
A similar plot, the trio might be seen, for example, in the film Ghost. When the young man is killed and can no longer communicate with his love, a third person must enter the fray: the medium or psychic. She is the only means by which any action (dialogue) can take place, and she almost gets killed along with the girl in the end. While not the best story of character development, it remains one of the highest grossing films of all time.
Triangles and trios are not easy to write because, as mentioned, the relationships can get complicated. Also, as in Ghost, the competitive nature of the trio plot is not always simple and obvious. In Ghost, it is three as a team against an outside force. In the book, Rebecca, it is a man, his new wife and a housekeeper also against an outside force: the first wife’s memory.
When the conflict (against) is within the triangle, like an episode of the bachelor, the one you are rooting for must suffer a setback early on. As in any competitive plot, there is a comeback before the final confrontation, or as the case may be, the final decision. Shrek is a fair example. While Shrek and the Prince (with his mother) fight over the girl, Fiona has a mind of her own, and if you watch the films you find she makes her own decision in the end.
When the conflict is external to the trio, something must threaten to break the trio apart—and at least partly succeed in the beginning. When the young man dies at the beginning of Ghost, that is pretty dramatic and seemingly final, but in fact it causes the formation of the trio which make the expected “come back” and go on to overcome the killer. The breaking of the trio might also initially involve the separation of the two who might otherwise gang up against the third. In the film, Trading Places, the commodities trader and the street con man are switched, but not separated far enough. They eventually figure it out and do indeed successfully gang up on “the brothers” in the end.
Trios and triangles can be strong stories, difficult as they may be to write. The author, though, needs to be clear that the story qualifies. If a couple are up against an antagonist and essentially acting as one, it is likely just an adversary plot. If they are striving for something against another person or even another couple, it is a plain rivalry. Only if there are three separate characters, however two may come together in the end, as in a love story or as in the example of Trading Places, does it qualify as a trio/triangle plot.
If the story is a true triangle/trio plot, it is important that the writer be aware of it and maintain the variety of relationships and the full-fledged characters throughout. To let such a story devolve into a simple protagonist/antagonist story risks disappointing and losing the readers. There is nothing wrong with two of the characters falling in love half-way through the story as long as one does not become a mere appendage of the other or get lost in the shuffle for the remainder of the tale.
Like triangle and trio plots, this final plot of competition is not exactly a separate entity. The conflict will generally be adversarial or a rivalry with the difference being the relative starting point for the protagonist. The underdog does not need to get knocked down or knocked back in act one. They are already at the bottom of the heap.
No one would imagine a Rocky Balboa or Bad News Bears or Mighty Ducks should ever amount to anything. Act one, in the underdog story, is to set up the potential conflict and in particular to show how impossible that dream is—how far the protagonist has to go. The odds are overwhelming from the beginning.
In One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, McMurphy is a patient in an asylum where Nurse Ratched owns all the cards. In The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the poor Hunchback is the most deformed and hopeless creature this side of the Elephant Man. And in The Three Musketeers, a young country bumpkin is set up to match wits with the Cardinal—one of the greatest minds of his age—and all of the Cardinal’s henchmen as well. Talk about overwhelming odds!
The underdog need not be “against” (in competition) with a person. It might be a group or something like a system (Cuckoo’s Nest) or a government (Schindler’s List).
One thing that is common (though by no means universal) in underdog plots is the advent of a “helper” character or characters: a manager, coach, or the actual Three Musketeers. Generally, it is a good thing to introduce the helper early on and show, to some extent, that it is the serendipity of putting certain puzzle pieces together that makes the success of the underdog possible. Otherwise, the author may be accused of bringing in someone at the last minute and the underdog never could have succeeded without such magical help. (The one flaw in Cinderella).
The difficulty in writing an underdog story is the need to keep it real (realistic) and not let it get clichéd or sappy. You want Horatio Alger to succeed and your audience to cheer when that happens. The virtue in the underdog story is people all over the world are naturally inclined to sympathize with such a character. We all root for the Cinderella team, but it needs to be done carefully to not produce a yawn at the end.
Keep in mind, the underdog does not always succeed. McMurphy gets lobotomized in Cuckoo;s Nest. The Hunchback saves but certainly does not get the girl. Cyrano actually enables Roxanne to fall in love with and marry the fop… Generally, though, a good underdog story will lead to an ending where Rocky stays on his feet and the Bears and Mighty Ducks win.
Now, returning to where we started these posts: to the world of simple fairy tales, let me see if we can summarize the plots of competition:
1. Sleeping Beauty = Adversary plot. This classic sword and sorcery story is about a witch versus the royal family. The witch is slighted (not invited to the christening) and the curse falls on the baby, but it is a power struggle between the two all the same, and in the end, the royal family wins as the witch is slain and Beauty and her Prince carry on the royal line.
2. Snow White = Rivalry plot. Both Ms. White and the Queen want to be the fairest in the land (even if Ms White doesn’t understand the game). Snow White is driven out, presumably killed, but when found alive there comes the final confrontation. It is all about fairness (beauty), however. That is the root conflict (rivalry) that drives the whole story.
3. Cinderella = Underdog plot. She is pitted in an adversary situation against her Stepmother who is determined to keep Cinderella down so her own awkward daughters can succeed. In the original, she is also in a rivalry with her stepsisters. But in the end, she is really an underdog who, with a little help from her helper character, has a chance to prove her worth and find happiness in the process.