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Writing Excuses 7.13: Man-Versus-Nature

Writing Excuses 7.13: Man-Versus-Nature


Key Points: With man-versus-nature, you don't need a stereotropical evil overlord to threaten the whole world, you can just blow the sun up! Conflict highlights aspects of characters, and man-versus-nature, especially disasters, often highlights heroism. Often man-versus-nature forms the large scale plot, with smaller scale man-versus-man conflicts set against that. There are several types, such as mop-up after the catastrophe, let's prevent the catastrophe, and struggle to survive. For man-versus-nature, you need good worldbuilding, but you also need a compelling main character, someone that readers want to survive. To embellish the simple external plot arc of survival, give the character something to accomplish, something to care about outside themselves.

[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Season Seven, Episode 13, man-versus-nature.
[Mary] 15 minutes long because you're in a hurry.
[Howard] And I've got nothing. man-versus-nature, Brandon?

[Brandon] Howard's staring at us blankly. The thing is, Howard... Howard apparently didn't take a lot of English classes like Mary and I did because in English class, we're taught the classic archetypes are man-versus-self, man-versus-man, and man-versus-nature. Now...
[Howard] Man-versus-alien isn't one of those?
[Brandon] No, that's man-versus-man.
[Howard] Ah.
[Mary] [inaudible]
[Brandon] Or it could be man-versus-nature.
[Mary] I think Schlock would be arguably nature, because...
[Howard] Maybe I do have something to contribute.
[Brandon] Yeah. We may talk about the other archetypes. The thing is, man-versus-man is our basic conflict. We talk about that so often. man-versus-self is really just internal conflict. We've done podcasts on that. We haven't really focused on the concept of man-versus-nature. This is one of the basic conflict archetypes. So we want to talk about why it's useful and where you see it. So why would you have a man-versus-nature plot? Why not man-versus-man? Why...

[Howard] Because you don't need to do a stereotropical evil overlord in order to threaten the whole world. You can just blow the sun up.
[Brandon] Yeah. Wow. There... You just encaps... You said you weren't going to say anything useful.
[Howard] I was wrong.
[Brandon] No. You just... We can actually end this podcast now.
[Mary] Yeah. It does sound... Thank you.
[Brandon] That's the smartest thing we've said all day.
[Howard] No. It's not. But let's continue anyway.

[Mary] But it is true that... One of the reasons that you insert conflict into a book is to highlight aspects of your characters. There are a lot of things that can do that, you see, man-versus-nature is one of the conflicts that we go through all the time. Any time there's a natural disaster, you're seeing man-versus-nature. You see enormous acts of heroism come out of those.
[Brandon] Yes, you do. Some of the greatest acts of heroism that we talk about in our modern society happen because of man-versus-nature. I think part of why it's so appealing to me... Let me tell you a story. The first book that really taught me about men-versus-nature was Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey. The dragonriders of Pern. In this book, there was this moon or secondary planet, I can't even remember what it is, it comes really close, drops these terrible little alien things called the Thread which fall and just get into the earth and eat all the plants. They could basically wipe out all life on the planet. So they have to, in a very contrived yet awesome way, fly on dragons who breathe fire and burn them out of the air before they hit the ground. It is the most contrived thing ever, but it is so awesome. As a teen reading this book, it was the first book that opened my eyes to the concept of man-versus-nature being a really dynamic, interesting, powerful plot. Why I liked it so much, I think, is because I had had fatigue of, "Oh, yeah, yet another villain." Okay, this villain has to have... They have weak motivations often, and I'm just so tired of watching television shows about the cops fighting these druglords or things like this. Here is something that felt very real and yet alien at the same time. It was wonderfully world built, yet a cataclysm that people could fight against, and you could have true heroism. You didn't need to have your hero be the guy who can shoot the other guy in the head. Because there's... Anytime that happens, we're kind of... I've read a lot of conflict, I read a lot of violence and things like this. But there's part of me that says, I really wish... The true hero is the person who avoids the violence. It's hard to have a true hero who's out killing people.
[Howard] I think Lucifer's Hammer by Niven and Pournelle is also a good example of man-versus-nature, because our inciting incident is a comet slams into the Pacific Ocean. Civilization... I don't want to say civilization ends, but civilization, according to Niven, is never more than about three meals from collapse. They run out of meals. But in light of that, and I think the same holds true with dragonriders of Pern, while it is man-versus-nature, within that overarching conflict, you have a whole lot of man-versus-man...
[Brandon] Thank you.
[Howard] As people are trying to allocate the resources necessary to resolve this fight against nature.

[Brandon] Well, in one of our... Someone who asked us in a tweet, and we may get to a podcast about this, that "Hey, how can you do stories that aren't about some evil overlord ending the world again?" This is a great way to have a plot where the world is in danger, but also have really personal man-versus-man conflicts that aren't about someone trying to destroy the world because there's this greater threat. They're just trying to get ahead during this time of danger which can be really visceral.
[Mary] Yeah. It allows you to get, as you say, more personal with that. Which, to me, makes it more accessible to most readers.
[Brandon] Yeah. You can make your man-versus-nature a large scale, and you can make your man-versus-man very personal between two people. One thing I will mention... Some problems, or not problems but things to be aware of with man-versus-nature. Let's talk about those. One of them, which is, we kind of brought it up, it's hard to make your characters not feel powerless in the face of man-versus-nature.
[Mary] Absolutely. So there's one of the things... This is, in part, because frequently with the man-versus-nature, there is no solution. Tsunami hits the shore, you can't magically undo that. So what you have to wind up doing in order to give your character agency is give them smaller goals that they can meet and overcome on their...
[Brandon] I need to find my child and save them. In fact, interestingly, you would think War of the Worlds is man-versus-man because aliens are attacking. It's actually man-versus-nature. This, if you watched the recent Spielberg adaptation, he actually understands this. Because the story is a struggle for survival during this catastrophe, it is not a struggle of let's fight the aliens.
[Mary] This is also something that Orson Scott Card calls an event story, in the MICE quotient, which is that some cataclysm, something upsets the status quo. The hero is trying to restore the status quo to some degree. Whether that is... Well, I will build my treehouse... Swiss Family Robinson, that is man-versus-nature. Let's build a treehouse.

[Howard] As I'm mulling this over, it seems to me that there are a couple of different kinds of man-versus-nature stories. There's the damage control following the tsunami. Lucifer's Hammer, Swiss Family Robinson, [garbled -- with distant shipwreck?]
[Brandon] Most disaster movies.
[Howard] Yeah, most disaster movies are like this. Then there are "Oh, my gosh, we just figured out this is going to happen. We need to rally and find a way to make this not happen." That would be...
[Brandon] Pern?
[Howard] Yeah, dragonriders of Pern, Dragonflight.
[Brandon] All those terrible comet movies.
[Howard] Not all the terrible comet movies. Because in some of them, the comet hits. But...
[Brandon] Yeah, that's true.
[Howard] I think Armageddon was the one...
[Mary] Asteroid movies.
[Brandon] Asteroids, yes.
[Howard] [groan]
[Mary] I did the comet mistake the other day.
[Brandon] Thanks for correcting us.
[Howard] Well, it stopped being a comet when it hits.
[Brandon] But I actually think that we can divide this one further, and there is just the man's struggle to survive. There doesn't have to have been a catastrophe for you to have a man-versus-nature. If you took me and dropped me in the wilderness, that would be man-versus-nature because I would have trouble surviving.
[Howard] I'm trying to remember who said this. It was set in a completely different context, but he was talking about how incredibly inhospitable Earth is. If we were to take the average person and strip them naked and drop them at some random point on the planet, about 90% of those places, the person's dead within 15 minutes.
[Brandon] Yup. Any of your climb the mountain stories, your Everest stories, are kind of a different sort of man-versus-nature, which are all very fascinating also.
[Mary] Oh, what was that film... I can't remember the name of it now, the mountain climber that got trapped... That's a...
[Brandon] Yes. Yeah, yeah. Or Tom Hanks on an island. These are man-versus-nature stories.
[Mary] That should be an archetype.
[Brandon] Yes. Tom Hanks on an island. All right. Let's stop.
[Howard] Asteroid movies, Tom Hanks on an island movies...

[Brandon] Let's stop for our book of the week. I'm actually going to go ahead and promo Dragonflight. I'm pretty sure we've promo'd it before, but I love this book. It's one of these books that I was able to read as a teen and say, "Wow, this is awesome," and read as an adult and say, "Wow, this is deep." That doesn't happen very often for the books I loved as a teen. She has a beautiful command of language. The novella version won the Hugo award, I believe. The book is just beautifully world built. A nice blend of science fiction and fantasy in an interesting way. It's a great novel. You can find it on audible. Mary says the reader is particularly good.
[Mary] Yeah. This is Dick Hill, and he's a wonderful reader, so this is going to be a really nice listen.
[Brandon] If you've never read Dragonflight, or if it's been a while, delightful book, and it's really going to teach you a lot.
[Howard] So head on out to You can trigger a 14-day free trial membership and download Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey, narrated by...
[Mary] Dick Hill.
[Howard] Dick Hill absolutely free, and support Writing Excuses while you're doing it.

[Brandon] So let's talk about how to do man-versus-nature plots that work.
[Howard] If I'm doing genre fiction, then what I want to... What I want to read in genre fiction, in man-versus-nature, I want you to show me a calamity that I haven't seen before. I want something... I want, I guess a sense of wonder is probably the wrong word. A sense of awe. I want to feel the majesty of the universe, of planetary tectonics, of commentary whatevers, with whatever's going on. So I want you to world built something interesting, so it's not just another slam a comet into the ocean.
[Brandon] No, I think, that's... I mean, there's a lot of room to explore in science fiction and fantasy for this. Each of these plots we talked about. I'm sure you could do a great man climbs the mountain plot, except it's a type of geologic feature that does not exist on our planet that someone has to get through and get across and just survive. That could be wonderful. I've for a long time wanted to tell a story in a fantasy world about a group of people who leave one continent because the continent is destroyed by some evil force, cross the ocean, and land on a completely alien continent with a different flora and fauna and topography, and just have to survive and rebuild society. I think that would be a wonderfully fun book. That's the sort of thing that if you have a great world building can be a really new and original book.

[Mary] But one of the things that I think that you need when you're doing is a compelling main character.
[Brandon] Yes! Oh, I think... Go on with that, because I think that's the main thing we should say.
[Mary] Because if you do not care about the character surviving, you are... The book is dead before you've even started.
[Brandon] Yeah. If you... In a man-versus-man, you can actually write a thriller style plot, where we don't really like the main character that much, but...
[Mary] But we'll stay with them.
[Brandon] We'll stay with them. But this... Tom Hanks on an island movie does not work if you're not wanting to watch Tom Hanks for an hour and a half not talking, surviving on an island.
[Howard] If it's Jack Black on an island. [Groan]
[Brandon] Oh, boy. Okay, guys, that's going to be your writing prompt in 3 minutes.
[Howard] Jack Black on an island?
[Brandon] On an alien island.

[Howard] David Weber and John Ringo's March Upcountry, March to the Sea, March to the Sky is a series about a group of royal guard and the spoiled princeling, stranded on an alien planet. At the beginning of the book, we really don't like that princeling because he's spoiled rotten, and we love the guard because in spite of the fact that this guy's a jerk, they gave their word and he is more important than any of them are. During the course of the book, we begin to love him because he recognizes the love the other people have for him, and he begins to step up. But as you look at... As I'm looking at what we've talked about, that's very clearly a man-versus-nature book because the challenges they're facing, yeah, some of them are internal, some of them are fighting each other or fighting critters they can talk to, but for the most part, it's characters stepping up in order to survive.

[Brandon] I think what you're going to want to look at here is... There's not going to be really... Your plot arc... You're going to have a good plot arc, but it's going to be a simple plot arc. Survive or things like this. So your internal conflict for the character, I think, needs to... You need to take some extra care for. You need to have... Need to. We always say need to. What I'm suggesting is you take a good look at the person's internal conflict and try to mirror those somehow with what they're going through.
[Howard] You could build a mystery story out of this. You talked about climbing the mountain, only give us some sort of alien thing that's not a mountain. You drop a guy on an alien artifact that he needs to get out of. It can be a puzzle, it can be a mystery. You can have a fantastic, surprising yet inevitable twist there that has nothing to do with character motivations and everything to do with some piece of fun science and puzzly world building that you've done.
[Brandon] See, but what I keep coming back to is what Mary said. Give us a good growth character for that. Really good growth character.
[Mary] Yeah. I think part of that is also related to having... Giving them something that they care deeply about. In part because... Not only because that... With any character, that makes them more real, but because that gives them a measurable point of success.
[Brandon] Yup. Yes. Very good point.
[Mary] They may not be able to rebuild civilization, but darn it, they can have a fine grilled cheese sandwich.
[Brandon] Exactly. No, that's... I think that's brilliant too. You really hit it on the head. Give them something to accomplish. If you're just surviving a tsunami, giving them something to care about other than just their own survival can really add some poignancy to that.
[Mary] This is why a lot of times in these survival... In these things, you will see them with the small sidekick, the dog... Something that they are caring for that is outside themselves.
[Brandon] Right. I come back to that War of the Worlds adaptation. We have a nice growth character about a kind of a deadbeat dad who steps up and protects his children, and that becomes all important to him. Even in a disaster movie without a lot of time for character growth, he has a wonderful arc. That becomes his point of achievement. He gets the child back to his... Their mother.

[Brandon] Okay. We're going to go ahead and give you your writing prompt. Your writing prompt is Jack Black is stranded on an alien planet, alone. We can blame Howard for this. And write a story about it.
[Howard] The challenge is, you need to write a story where we like Jack Black and want him to live.
[Brandon] Of course, don't actually use Jack Black. Use a gregarious type of character like him.
[Howard] Zach Galifianakis.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You might have a few excuses following that, but go write anyway.
Tags: accomplish, catastrophe, character, conflict, evil overlord, heroism, man-versus-nature, survival, worldbuilding
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