How to Write Man vs. Man in a Screenplay

A script without conflict is like wine without grapes. Or lemonade without lemons. You can’t have one with the other.

If you’ve been following our series on how to write conflict in a screenplay, then you know proper character development and plot require goals and obstacles for our movie heroes.

Screenplays need conflict – either internal or external. You can read about internal conflict in my article “how to write internal conflict in a screenplay.”

On the other hand, 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.

Examples of external conflict include the following:

Man vs. Society

Man vs. Nature

Man vs. Technology

And finally, in this article, we deal with man vs. man and how to approach this type of narrative in your next screenplay.

Man vs. Man in Movie Scripts

The man vs. man story is the most typical and popular form of conflict writing in a screenplay. It involves a protagonist facing off with the antagonist in a series of encounters.

As the name suggests, a man vs. man external conflict pits one human versus another human in a movie screenplay.

The conflict can take an emotional, physical or verbal angle, with our hero mostly coming out on top. 

This type of conflict is usually implored with others to bolster a story.

Usually, the main villain has an army of followers that serve as obstacles as the protagonist works his way up the ladder.

Alternatively, the “minor” villains may have nothing to do with the primary antagonist.

A series of events move the hero of the story from point to point where he encounters opposition leading up to a big fight. That could take the form of subtle conflict i.e. when characters desire different things in a romance film.

It may also be direct opposition like an actual battle with guns and weapons. ⚔️

The man vs man angle can play out in a variety of ways in a screenplay. 

Here are three ways to write man vs man in your script:

The underdog story

Everybody loves a good underdog story. Our hero strives to defy the odds, jumping hurdles and seemingly biting off more than he can chew.

He’s in over his head, there’s possibly no way he could win, but he still carries on. Unwavered by the enormous difficulty of the opposition, he still finds a way.

🥊 We root for him, we’re in his corner, hoping against hope that he wins.

An underdog story offers a nail-biting hook that can propel a film to superstardom with the right execution.

Sylvester Stallone’s blockbuster Rocky is an example of the perfect use of the underdog story.

We are introduced to Apollo Creed, an acclaimed heavyweight boxer at the top of his game. 

Here’s the original trailer:

The defending champion schedules a title bout in Philadelphia, but his opponent is ruled out for the match through injury.

A replacement proves hard to come by so Apollo decides to give local contenders a shot at his title. Novice boxer Rocky Balboa catches the attention of Creed, and he challenges him to a fight.

Hesitant at first about the match, and his chances, Rocky trains the weeks away with make-shift equipment. The doubts grow in Rocky’s mind, leaving him sleepless the night before the big day.

His confidence flatters like a leaf in the wind, and he doesn’t believe he can best Apollo, an undefeated world champion.

Here we see the writer also work in some man vs self-conflict for emotional leverage on the audience. The man vs man story is normally rife with internal conflict at some point, especially in an underdog story where our hero has to move mountains.

Acknowledging his underdog status but undeterred by it, Rocky boxes like a man possessed. In the end, he loses the fight but wins our hearts.

He goes the distance, making it through 15 rounds, like no other challenger before him. Also a first, he manages to know down the champion at one point.

The world adores the underdog

It’s often said that Americans love a good underdog. In fact, there could be scientific (or psychological) reasons why the world in general love underdogs.

There’s just a sense of pleasure in seeing the mighty titans fall. America was built through the sheer luck and bravery of underdog rebels, fighting the mighty English empire.

It’s the same with cinema. People will come to watch a good underdog movie – the higher the stakes, the more likely the audience stays glued to their seats.

So if you’re going with man vs. man in your screenplay, make the hero a huge underdog and pit him against the Adonis Creed of Adonis Creeds.

Contrasting characters

Another way to pit man vs. man is to use contrasting personalities. Perhaps, one character can be a good guy filled with honor.

Then another character could be vile villain, infamous for heinous acts. Then there could be an ugly duckling, who is often overlooked but should not be.

Something like this epic movie from Sergio Leone:

In the 1966 epic, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, the conflict pits three characters against themselves. Amid the destruction of the American civil war, three gunslingers outwit and battle each other for an elusive treasure.

We get a look at three very different personalities, and how they interact on a similar adventure to find confederate gold. The contrasting characters approach factors in the diversity of humanity, making a film relatable to all kinds of audiences.

Each character appeals differently to every individual viewer, giving the audience a generous selection of who to get behind.

The Good, as brought out by the bounty hunter ‘Blondie,’ entails a considerate person occasionally tethered by conscience.

Even when he gets the chance to kill Tuco, who was within an inch of shooting him at one point, he spares him. He takes half the gold for himself at the end of the film, leaving Tuco with the rest.

He could have easily taken everything for himself and killed the former but he doesn’t.

Tuco Ramirez, a fugitive, takes on the role of The Ugly. He is a resourceful Mexican bandit whose character is anything but stand up.

He teams up with Blondie to scam towns by pretending to hand himself over for the bounty, before escaping at the last moment.

They eventually fall out and Tuco almost kills Blondie. 

The Bad is brought out by ‘Angel Eyes,’ a cold-blooded mercenary that always fulfills a contract.

He is ruthless and merciless but is eventually overcome by the partnership of Blondie and Tuco. 

Who is the protagonist of the film? 

Audiences around the world have debated it for ages. Tuco is fronted as the main man by some given his comprehensive character development in the film.

Nonetheless, it remains unclear. 

And that’s the point of a three-man conflict, culminating in one of the most iconic scenes in movie history:

That epic scene leads is to this 👉👉👉

💪💪🏽💪🏿 Strength vs strength 💪💪🏽💪🏿

In a strength vs strength story, the protagonist is evident from the get-go. There’s no underdog plot, our hero is as fearsome as his opposition and is more than up to the task. He is equal to the threat he faces.

The lead character is usually portrayed as strong in some way. That could be physical strength, dexterity, or intelligence.

Our antagonist(s) is also just as strong, and we see these strengths go toe to toe as the plot unravels.

In The Princess Bride, we follow the protagonist Westley on a journey to save his true love.

Westley is a farmhand in the Florin kingdom, and he falls in love with the princess, who reciprocates the attention. 

Here is the trailer from this classic:

Westley sets out to peruse a fortune that would enable them to share a life. He however never returns and the princess believes him dead.

Five years later she is forced into an arranged noble marriage but is taken hostage by a trio of outlaws before the wedding.

Westley comes out of hiding to rescue the princess, resulting in a showdown with the three minor “villains” of the film then.

He faces off against the experienced swordsman Inigo Montoya and bests him in a test of dexterity. 

Here’s 🤺 dexterity vs. 🤺 dexterity:

Next up is the Greenland Giant Fezzik, an immense human being that Westley overcomes by a demonstration of physical strength.

This is an example of 💪 strength vs. 🤺 dexterity:

Finally, he pits his wits against the Vizzini, with Sicilians having amassed a reputation for their intelligence and cunningness. He tricks Vizzini into drinking a poisoned cup, after a lengthy back-and-forth over which cup is poisoned. 

Don’t ever get in a land war with Asia – 🤺 dexterirty vs. 🧠 intelligence(?):

The hero here demonstrates his holistic prowess through battles of intelligence, dexterity, and physical strength, coming out on top each time.

Don’t Forget the Ladies

Although the literary term is “man vs. man,” it should be approached as gender neutral. In other words, it could be “woman vs. man” or even “woman vs. woman.”

Take for example the movie Battle of the Sexes. It’s a movie reenactment of the famed tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. With Me Too movement still on society’s minds, you’ll find an audience for ladies vs. the men.

Whatever characters you use for your man vs. man narrative, always remember to focus on characters and give them obstacles to overcome.

The only truism in a good story is you need conflict to make a winning screenplay…

… that and don’t get in a land war with Asia! Protection Status