What is your main character fighting against? What is your story’s opposing force?
Remember GMC? Each of your major characters needs a goal, a reason it matters to them (motivation), and something that stands in their way (conflict). Without conflict, there is no story.
Jim wanted a new guitar (goal) because his old one had been crushed in a car wreck and he loved to play (motivation) so he went and bought a new one. The end.
If nothing stands in Jim’s way, there isn’t a story. Conflict makes a story worth reading. It also can come in many forms, but it’s best if there’s one main conflict rather than a bunch of unrelated conflicts, which result in a series of anecdotes rather than a cohesive story with a plot.
At its very core, each story is one of the following:
1. Man against Nature (Please note that “man” is the universal mankind, not specific to gender in every one of these.)
This type of story usually entails surviving a force of nature, such as a fire, earthquake, tsunami, hurricane, tornado, blizzard, etc. Three stories in this group are Swiss Family Robinson, Moby Dick, and Lost in the Barrens. While in each case there is more to the story than a struggle for survival, that struggle forms the foundation of the plot, with other conflicts building upon it.
Still, if it’s nothing but surviving some immovable force, there’s not much to write about either. At the very least, this type of tale requires the character to dig deep inside himself for survival skills. Thus, a “man against nature” tale often also becomes a “man against himself” tale.
If writing a man versus nature novel, consider having more than one person involved in the struggle. This allows for dialogue, which goes a long way toward crating a riveting tale, and gives you a valuable tool for sharing backstory and other information.
2. Man against Himself
In this type of story, the main conflict is between the main character and him/herself. If you’ve read my article on plotting via GMC, you’ll know that each story needs an internal goal/motivation/conflict as well as external. Therefore, every well-written tale has an element of man against himself in it, at least if the character learns, grows, and develops through the story. (In some series, the detective merely solves the mysteries with his superior intellect and doesn’t battle himself. Think Sherlock Holmes.)
In my opinion, a man against himself story is best woven in as a subplot. Otherwise it’s too easy to write page after page of navel-gazing—and the self-focused thoughts that accompany it.
3. Man against Society
Dystopians are a good example of a man against society story, but there are others that fit the parameters as well. In nearly every case, though, the story is strengthened by putting a face on society—one main character who acts in the best interests of the society and against our main character. While nature can’t have a human face (unless it’s fantasy), society can.
- Is your character fighting against himself? Nature? Or what? click to tweet
- What is your story’s opposing force? What’s your character’s main conflict against? click to tweet
4. Man against Man
This is where the majority of story lines fall, with one character pitted against another. Any genre can fit into this scenario, even romance. Maybe especially romance, where relationships are key.
When you’ve determined what your main character’s chief antagonist is—nature, himself, society, or another human—you’ve got the tools to crank up the conflict and ensure a solid plot. This doesn’t mean you can use only one of the four categories. Use them all! But know which is your main enemy and use the rest for seasoning.