In my article on “how to write internal conflict,” I discussed the importance of conflict in a screenplay. A screenplay needs stakes and consequences for movie watchers to stay engaged.
Every story has some type of conflict. Be it a TV show, film, novel, documentary… the plot typically entails the protagonist battling the opposition for victory.
The conflict can take a variety of forms. It could be against another villain, nature, and in our case of interest today – the society.
Man vs. society is a form of external conflict. External conflict is the opposite of internal conflict. It is not a struggle with one’s self. Instead, external conflict is the protagonist versus something or someone other than himself or herself.
In the case of man versus society, this type of external conflict involves the protagonist versus society in large.
❓ Ever felt like everyone is conspiring against you?
❓ Like no one understands what you’re going through?
❓ No one cares to listen to your half of the explanation or it’s not agreeable to them?
❓ That the world is against you?
❓ Like something seems off or good to you but right or wrong to everyone else?
That’s exactly what man vs. society conflict is all about.
It entails a protagonist facing off against societal norms, which contradict his beliefs.
The conflict involves a majority that believes in one thing, with the character embracing the opposite.
It is a type of external conflict because the opposition comes from an outside group.
Writers use this form of conflict to tackle environmental issues, religious discrimination, racism, among other important societal problems.
When used properly, man (or woman) versus society is a powerful narrative tool.
Everybody loves rooting for the underdog in cinema.
In a man versus society narrative, it’s literally the protagonist versus the whole world.
A film can critique a social trend in the world that everyone else is falling in line with unknowingly or otherwise. It pierces through the fog of deception and numbers, evoking tough questions about our everyday life.
The powerful societal criticism in the 1998 gem The Truman Show is a perfect example.
In the film, we follow the daily life of insurance salesman Truman Burbank. We explore his social and work life in a seemingly ordinary world full of possibilities.
Unknown to Truman, his life is not what it seems. Quite literally, he lives in a bubble! Every action is scripted, his love life is shaped according to the director’s decisions.
His friends are chosen for him, including his job and wife. This façade plays out as a reality show for a global audience, much to their pleasure.
When Truman learns of his scripted world, he leaves the bubble to discover real-life beyond the fakeness of the dome. He declines the safety of the director’s fantasy and embarks on his own path of free will.
The film has been deciphered in several ways in the two decades since. However, the most popular concept is that it was a dig at consumerism and a foreboding of social media.
Throughout the film, the actors playing his friends and family advertise all sorts of products, emphasizing the extent of a consumer society.
Hidden in its plot, is an interpretation of how the media and corporations are fooling the masses into buying.
Additionally, some believe the Truman Show was a warning of how social media will consume our lives. Of how people will behind a screen as opposed to experiencing the real world.
Here’s a critical analysis of the movie:
Released way before Facebook and Instagram, The Truman Show was ahead in its time. The writer foreshadowed what the world – obsessed with virtual reality TV – would look like.
Find your message
And that’s how you use man vs. society conflict in your theme play. Find a theme or message that you could use as a subtext.
Then build the world and a hero, wholly opposed to that world’s ideals.
Don’t like Instagram influencers?
Build a world controlled by Instagram influencers and play your Instagram-hating hero in the middle of it. Let him fight the shallowness of the Instagram world.
Let him be the prophet that leads the way out of this Instagram influencer hole.
You get the idea. Find your theme. Build the world. And stick your hero in the middle of it.
✅ Then CONTACT US to produce your kick arse film!
Your entire film doesn’t have to take the fictional, narrative angle. Screenwriting is hard enough. Building a new world for your hero to fight is even harder.
🤔 So why build a new world when you can find inspiration in real life history?
Movies placed in the past are nostalgic and exciting, offering a new dimension of entertainment.
Films can educate the masses, rolled up in a history lesson in the sandwich of an adventurous story about heroes with revolutionary track records.
We’ll take a popular example of Mahatma Gandhi, an Indian lawyer who became the personification of the fight for justice, peace, and freedom.
Here’s the trailer to the film:
Produced in 1982, Gandhi, is a perfect illustration of how writers can take the history lesson approach for man vs society conflict.
The film has been lauded for its historical accuracy and impresses with its portrayal. Inspired by real-life events, the storyline shadows the tough patriotic journey of the Indian hero. He champions the cause of the minority against the regime of the day, the colonial UK.
Always peaceful and imploring non-violent methods, M.K. Gandhi was a voice of hope. His actions were a testament that people can effect change without resorting to violence.
The film, and the person himself, teaches us to be brave. To be willing to do the time to get what we want, never to give up until we succeed.
Giving the audience a history lesson is a nice way to educate while gently and powerfully passing a message about not falling in line with oppression.
Be that from society or the government. It’s an excellent method to execute the man vs society showdown.
Think Robin and not Batman
When using history as a backdrop for your man vs. the world narrative, use characters who are in the thick of things but might not be as obvious.
You can write about Gandhi with him as the hero. You can write about Dr. Martin Luther King. Or write about the other Martin Luther and his 95 Theses.
The only issue with this approach —
It’s been done before. There are hundreds and hundreds of literary works – from books to movies – about these famous characters. And if you’re new to screenwriting, it’s very unlikely a producer would even consider your screenplay.
Instead, write your narrative from a sidekick point of view. Let’s say you want to write about Jackie Robinson’s fight to break the color barrier in baseball.
✅ Instead of a POV from Jackie Robinson, why not write it from his bat boy’s perspective?
The bat boy doesn’t even need to be real. Just him as a literary voice to tell Robinson’s story.
I guarantee there are few if any movies or books about Robinson’s life from the bat boy’s perspective. It will certainly be unique and never done before.
Take a look at Great Gatsby. The whole book and the movie is from Nick Carraway’s perspective and not from Jay Gatsby himself.
The book (or the movie) would be the same if it was told by Jay Gatsby himself –
When you approach man vs society in a real life perspective, think Robin and not Batman. Think of all the ancillary characters who might have witnessed history and tell it from their perspective.
It will be original and will likely take your narrative into unexpected but wonderful twists and turns.
Some cultures are viewed in a bad light, misunderstood, and often persecuted for holding on to their values.
We can form an opinion based on what we hear as opposed to what we know.
The man vs society conflict can take the cultural aspect, essentially teaching us that we should seek out facts before passing judgment.
Oscar-acclaimed Dances with Wolves breathes life into these words.
Lieutenant John J. Dunbar is commended for an act of bravery that tilts a battle in his side’s favor. Among the rewards for his battle-deciding actions, is Dunbar’s granted request to see the frontier one last time.
He is posted at Fort Sedgewick, where he encounters a strange community of Lakota people. Wary of the foreigner at first, and vice versa, the native tribe isn’t too eager to initiate interactions.
That changes as both parties get to know each other, with Dunbar eventually welcomed into the Lakota society.
Aside from championing understanding for the unknown, this 1990 epic speaks of a deeper tale.
It entails a spiritual journey of a soldier who was once a slave to his old life. As Dunbar learns more about the freedom of life through the Lakota, he changes.
He discards his old clothes, entailing a striped shirt that’s similar to an inmate’s. The attire was a symbol of his shackles to the regime of the day.
Losing it implies finding freedom from what he, and the majority, thought was the right way of living.
Dunbar’s struggle with his old life versus his new is an excellent example of internal conflict.
On the other hand, his fight with the Indians against American expansion in the west is the external conflict that culminates into a crescendo in the end.
Brave New World
Dances With Wolves was a fictional story based on real life events. What makes it great is how the movie introduced the audience to Indian culture.
In Hollywood, all we know is John Wayne and the exploits of cowboys versus Indians from the cowboy’s perspective. We know very little about the true life of an Indian.
In Dances With Wolves, we get an intimate look into that culture. We get immersed in it. We feel the ups and downs of Dunbar. We also feel the tragic foreboding in the end, as we know what happened to the Indians eventually.
Immersing the audience in a brave new world is another way to implement man versus society in a screenplay.
People watch movies to be taken out of reality and to learn about things they’ve never seen or experienced before. So do just that. Let them see and experience what your protagonist has gone through. Let them explore the protagonist’s view.
Let them experience sitting down to eat with Indians, talking with Indians, fighting with Indians.. Let them feel their joy, sorrows and pain.
By immersing the audience in a unique world, they’ll build sympathy for your protagonist as they go fight society (and all their false ideals).
Indeed, some of the greatest movies in Hollywood have an underdog story. Whether it’s Rocky versus Apollo or Gandhi versus an empire, everybody loves an underdog.
When used properly, man vs society is an excellent narrative tool to use in a screenplay. It’s literally one protagonist versus the entire world.
So if you’ve got a particular point to make about the world we live in, tell us all about it in your next man vs. society screenplay. Use the tips in this article to get you started.
To review the other types of external conflict check out our other articles:
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