View Full Version : Overcoming the monster

November 19th, 2013, 02:10 PM
It's that classic tale of hero versus villain, good versus evil, told throughout history from the legends of Greek and biblical heritage to the modern thrill-rides of Jaws and King Kong, tales of aliens invading our planet, all the Bond films, and hundreds in-between. The 'hero' must defeat a 'monster', to save a 'Princess' or secure some kind of 'treasure' or simply to stop the 'monster' from doing what it wants to do.

Whether it stands alone or has sub-plots backing it up, the Overcoming the Monster* plot works like this:

1) Anticipation stage and the "call"
Our hero and his world is introduced; as is the 'monster', viewed from a distance. The power of the monster is usually made apparent, as is its threat to the hero's world. The hero is summoned to fight the monster.

2) Dream stage
The hero prepares to fight the monster, and begins their journey towards it. The initial stages of the hero's progress towards the monster are comfortable; they are successful in certain instances. But the monster is looming closer...

3) Frustration stage
The monster and the hero collide, and the monster's power is displayed in its full, terrible glory. It's so much worse than we thought! The hero suffers a setback or falls into the monster's clutches. Things don't look good, and the final battle is looming closer.

4) Nightmare stage
In the climax of the plot, the odds are against the hero. Surely they can't come out on top? The monster whooped them last time - and now things look even worse! But wait...

5) The thrilling escape from death
In the nick of time the monster is dealt a fatal blow; its evil power is eradicated, the hero is victorious, and he is usually presented with some form of treasure and/or princess as a reward, possibly from the community that the monster previously terrorized.

This plot is ancient, and effective to this day; stories from David and Goliath to Star Wars follow it to great effect. It is one of the 'seven basic plots' that exist, that are useful to know when you're unsure how your story should progress. Of course, this is a loose structure; sections vary in length, and the princess and treasure can differ or disappear entirely. The most important thing to bear in mind is the mechanic of tension that builds throughout, up until the final, climactic confrontation.

This plot underpins stories from every genre, from horror to romance, westerns to epic fantasies. The exact semantics of each element can be varied to the greatest extent; the 'monster' can be a group of people, a whole country (think Nazi Germany when the hero is Great Britain), or not a person at all. It's most defining aspect is how it embodies the evil intentions that humanity can possess.

*Adapted from 'The Seven Basic Plots' by Christopher Booker

The Tourist
November 19th, 2013, 03:52 PM
I agree, and I use it as a sub plot in my story. But the "monster" does not have to be a monster in the traditional sense.

I have a monarch in my story. Her "soul" is derived from an ex-girl friend. Using your criteria, I utilized to the same template to define the fictional version.

I will add one thing, there is no final comeuppance in my tale. The monarch's ultimate fate is left unsaid, I think the reader can create his own Perdition.

December 2nd, 2013, 08:38 PM
...This plot is ancient, and effective to this day...

Just curious, but how does this differ from the classic "Heroic Journey" plot? (ie: Campbell)

December 3rd, 2013, 09:42 AM
Just curious, but how does this differ from the classic "Heroic Journey" plot?

I think it's a more condensed version of it; in some ways it's more widely applicable to modern-day stories.

And agreed, the best monsters are sometimes not monsters at all, at least not by normal standards. I'm thinking of writing a story where the monster is Fate itself. :)

December 3rd, 2013, 09:50 AM
I would never allow my writing to be condensed to a formula or a checklist. Many of the things you've said above probably do happen in those types of novels, but I don't subscribe to the notion that they have to happen at specific junctures or exact moments. How can you expect to be original if you follow a contrived write-by-numbers guide?

December 4th, 2013, 09:50 AM
How can you expect to be original if you follow a contrived write-by-numbers guide?

The concept is that these 'formulas' are so adaptable, they never infringe on originality, but they appear in all stories to some degree. It leads to the philosophical theory that there are only seven stories that we naturally tell when we are naturally telling stories. Those, according to Booker, are:

Overcoming the Monster
Rags to Riches
The Quest
Voyage and Return

A single novel can contain more than one of these basic stories; The Lord of the Rings, it is believed, contains all of them. You don't have to aim to put one it - you always do. Again, this is philosophy, and still a topic for much discussion at the highest levels of literary analysis. Booker puts his argument across, however.

Originality rarely comes from design, IMO. Rather, originality requires design for it to flourish.

Anyway, this thread was made to give a basic and reliable and incredibly powerful plot, as plotting can often be unclear for beginning writers it's still pretty unclear to me most of the time). The philosophy stuff isn't that relevant, but it's what I spend a lot of time delving into. :)

December 4th, 2013, 10:22 AM
I appreciate you posting it, and it's a good discursive topic, but when you get into the highest levels of literary analysis what you find is much conjecture and fewer facts. I suppose that's the point, but I'm always dumbstruck when people try to tailor their writing to adhere to "the seven plots" or other such restrictive formulae. Writing isn't about following a road map. It's about expressing yourself and finding the answers as you go. I tend to pay more attention to the writers who know what their story is about, as opposed to the analysts who try to pigeonhole it into something they want it to be.

December 4th, 2013, 11:02 AM
As with anything, I think it always helps to understand the tried and tested formulas before attempting to subvert or divert from them. Their existence is part of the progression of literary analysis and a building block for artistic development, even if they are trite. I know I find them useful when trying to avoid tripping over gender stereotypes. In a media-saturated world, understanding formula as a critical filter can help deconstruct your own expectations before you write, specifically so that you don't end up just following a well-worn path.

December 4th, 2013, 11:48 AM
Sounds awful. You get all done with your masterpiece and you realize you just wrote your standard 'insert formula here'. How original. "Yes, but my hero is missing a finger!" :)

Kyle R
December 4th, 2013, 02:32 PM
A cool condensed version of Campbell's Monomyth. :D

I've been studying plot structure for what feels like years now. It's a deep ocean that can swallow you up if you aren't careful. Though, over time you begin to see common trends in the most successful and popular stories, and those trends tend to fall into what many call a "formula".

When I first learned about the "Hollywood Formula", which is an adapted version of the Hero's Journey, I tried plotting everything, like Sam said, in a "write by numbers" fashion. What I ended up with was a plot that, while on the surface looked feasible, upon closer inspection proved to be shallow and contrived. I had learned the end-result of plotting but not how to get there in a way that promoted genuine character growth and development, due to forcing the story into a pre-conceived beat sheet.

I also tried abandoning structure, and letting the story flow purely from the character and situation, somewhat like how Stephen King does. That, also, led to less-than-stellar stories, although the writing itself seemed to improve. The plot, however, was abysmal, all over the map, and lagging in some portions, while moving too fast in others, and always moving with either a repetitive emotional flow, or a chaotic one.

What I've found nowadays is that, yes, there is merit in the so-called "formulas." Professional writers are aware of them because they work, just as a professional athlete is aware of the fundamentals of his sport.

The trick is to use plot tropes and structure guides not as an outline, but as a compass to check where you're going if you find your plot straying into Lackluster-ville, or Confusion-opolis. Understand what works within such structures, and why they work, but don't let yourself be boxed in by them.

Think of them as markings on the sides of the road. You can drive however you want on the road, but if the ride starts to get bumpy and you're starting to lose control, check those guidelines to see where you've gone astray.

There are a lot of universal beats that happen in some form in most well-structured stories. The "Frustration Stage", for example, (taking the terminology from the OP) is referenced time and again in plotting and screenwriting books everywhere. It's also called the "Bad Guys Close In", or "Things Get Tough", or "Antithesis", et cetera. The reason this section is so popular is because its a logical place to ramp up the antagonistic forces working against the protagonist. It usually comes after the midpoint and it's been found, through trial and error, that this is when such a plot turn works best, in terms of dramatic impact on the reader.

The reader has gotten acquainted with the main characters in the first 25% of the story. They've experienced the struggle with the main story conflict for the first 50% of the story. Now that they are invested completely, the antagonistic forces bear down on the hero, raising the tension, the stakes, and the reader immersion.

I don't necessarily think of plot conventions as formulas, but rather, as roadmaps with checkpoints along the way. You don't have to follow any of it if you don't want to. But, if you find your story is missing something, or not working for some reason, that's where these things can be useful. You might notice that, hey, you don't even have an antagonist. Or, hey, your main conflict gets resolved in the first half of the story, and the rest of the story is really just an over-extended denouement!

Using the plot tropes as "rulers" can help straighten out your plot's spine if you find it crooked and off-balanced. That's how I use them nowadays, at least. And despite the dislike for them that many writers have, they do have value (in my opinion), as long as you treat them as learning tools, rather than strict guidelines. A story can be successful and well-received even if it breaks all conventions. But in most cases, those who write such stories have already learned the conventions first, and grasped the logic behind them.

Often, the trope-defying plots are really just tropes in disguise, just rearranged in a different order. For that reason, dare I say, it might even be more important that you learn what the key elements of stories are, rather than what order they should be in. Sometimes, you'll find a story that lacks "something." Often, it's because the author isn't aware of the common storytelling elements, and is missing a key piece in the puzzle. Learning tropes can help avoid such a pitfall, IMO. :encouragement:

December 4th, 2013, 06:26 PM
I'm always dumbstruck when people try to tailor their writing to adhere to "the seven plots" or other such restrictive formulae

I view it as restrictive in the way that lifting a weight restricts the movement of your hand, but builds your muscles. Of course, you would never live your life constantly holding the weight. But when training yourself, you make less progress without it.:)

December 7th, 2013, 06:29 PM
I would never allow my writing to be condensed to a formula or a checklist. Many of the things you've said above probably do happen in those types of novels, but I don't subscribe to the notion that they have to happen at specific junctures or exact moments. How can you expect to be original if you follow a contrived write-by-numbers guide?

It's not a guide... At least, the standard "Heroic Journey" outline isn't a guide. It's more of an observation, a way that we human beings seem to craft certain sorts of stories. It's how these stories commonly appear and how the plot generally unfolds. Campbell didn't journey back in time in order to correct the Greeks when they were writing their Heroic Journey stories. :)

There's an argument to be had here, somewhere, regarding how human beings naturally tell and wish to absorb certain sorts of stories. For instance, taking a general fiction outline, why is it that we like to have some sort of basic framework regarding the Setting related to us before the character moves through it? Why is it that if a character moving through a Setting keeps encountering things that are unexplained to the Reader, but that the character seems perfectly content with, that the Reader becomes frustrated? Alice moving through Wonderland wasn't frustrating because Alice wasn't in possession of privileged information that she, or the story as it unfolded, didn't explain to the Reader. She was just as confused and the Reader took the journey with her as she uncovered Wonderland's secrets. Now, imagine the Reader's consternation if Alice was at home in Wonderland and the text provided no illumination. Why is that? It's still the same story, right? Or, is there something going on here that human beings demand?

Good luck on being original, by the way. :) Just be sure to be original while still conforming to the minimum expectations of the Reader.

Ride the Pen
July 21st, 2014, 11:23 PM
How many different themes are there in the world of literature?

It depends.

Some say 19 or 21 or whatever. Some say 7. Some say 5. And maybe there is only 1.

It depends on how much you differentiate the themes.

"Somebody has an obstacle and confronts it" would be the 1 theme...