Any advice for doing a person vs situation story, such as Gravity or The Martian, where there is no actual villain, and the character or characters have to survive their current situation?
Hey Dave, Oren here, great to hear from you again!
A story with no antagonist can indeed be tricky. The main advice I have is to make sure your situation is complicated enough to provide plentiful challenges and urgent enough that the hero can’t ignore it. In most stories, the antagonist creates new problems through their actions, but when there isn’t a conscious force to oppose the hero, you need some extra careful planning.
The Martian and Gravity are both very good at this, as is Andy Weir’s new novel, Project Hail Mary. All three stories involve a dangerous situation in a very hostile environment. This allows them to throw increasingly serious problems at the hero, creating the rising action that most stories need.
However, it doesn’t always need to be super high tension like that. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home is also a character vs environment story, but the environment is 1980s San Francisco. The stakes are still high, and the story introduces time limits, like the ship’s dilithium breaking down, but the tension overall is much lower to allow for a more comedic Star Trek film.
Hope that answers your question, and good luck with your writing!