A story archetype can be a writer’s best friend.
A tried-and-true format that thousands of other stories have successfully followed in the past, a plot archetype is like your pre-pre-outline. It tells you what should happen in your narrative arc and when, so you can plan the more unique and personal elements of your plot around its framework.
There are lots of different story archetypes out there (the most famous might be the Hero’s Journey archetype), but today we’re discussing the Overcoming the Monster archetype and how you can use it to craft a perfect story.
What is the Overcoming the Monster archetype? (One of the seven basic plots)
Scholar and theorist Christopher Booker created what’s now known as the seven basic plots: seven plots that contain within them all the stories in the world. The “Overcoming the Monster” plot is a story arc that follows a protagonist who struggles to defeat an adversary. This can be tangible or metaphorical, external or internal.
You can create a classic hero-villain adventure with this plot template, or you can use it to tell a true life story of overcoming a “monster” like an illness or addiction.
This narrative template is used in business, too. It’s one of the “five classic plots” of marketing, in which a product helps someone overcome a negative influence. For this article, we’ll be looking specifically at fiction writing.
Examples of Overcoming the Monster tales
Overcoming the Monster stories have been told endless times throughout history, and for good reason. Everyone likes hearing about how the little guy overcomes the odds and beats back the big, scary, tough baddie. It gives us hope and courage.
Here are a few examples of how this story form works.
A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snickett
In each book within this middle-grade series, a trio of orphans must overcome a villain that’s attempting to steal their fortune.
The monster is always a person and the orphans are put in a place of vulnerability simply by being children trapped by their circumstance. Still, they use their wits and talents to overcome their adversaries in each and every book.
Beowulf is one of the most famous and powerful examples of the Overcoming the Monster plot. In this ancient piece of literature, our titular character Beowulf must go up against a series of beasties, including a dragon.
Even if you haven’t read this classic epic yourself, you’ve undoubtedly seen its influence; Beowulf has had a huge impact on the archetypes we see in fantasy literature today.
Jaws by Peter Benchley
Jaws follows three men attempting to stop a shark that’s terrorizing a small town. Each man has his various weaknesses (for example, one is scared of water), but the shark is killing more people and becoming a larger-than-life threat. So they have to go after it until, finally, the shark is overcome.
Other classic plots that can still thrill an audience today using this storytelling method include Jurassic Park, James Bond, and Star Wars.
Elements of an Overcoming the Monster story
Want to follow in the footsteps of some of these iconic stories and write your own view of this timeless tale?
There are a few things you’ll need before you get started. Once you have these elements established, you can begin plotting your next literary masterpiece using this classic framework.
An imperfect hero
Why does your main character need a weakness?
This is an important consideration in crafting an engaging plot, because if your main character can immediately overcome their enemy with ease, there’s no conflict. You need to create a protagonist who has a weakness that directly relates to their inability to overcome this new threat.
A good example is Jaws, above. The adversary comes from the sea, and one of the central characters is terrified of water.
A seemingly unconquerable foe
Then, you need an adversary that’s bigger, stronger, and/or scarier than your hero. They need to present a big challenge that your main character can’t ignore. Make it a real and immediate threat to your hero’s world. Giving them a reason to engage with the fight creates an emotional investment—and emotion makes your readers cheer your protagonist on.
The monster can be a mythical creature, but it doesn’t need to be. It could be an opponent at school or at work, a warring country, or a group or organization. It could be an internal monster, like an addiction or trauma, or even something as simple as someone’s current beliefs, brain constructs, or self esteem.
In a narrative, conflict often happens when the protagonist’s divergent ways of understanding reality converged and altered the way they saw the world. While the transition from one state of being to another can be scary, it often turns out to be a profound blessing.
Whatever you decide your story’s monster is, though—external antagonist or internal weakness—it’s got to be big.
Use the Overcoming the Monster framework
Once you’ve decided who your main character is and decided on their weakness, and you’ve nailed down your threat and how big and bad and unstoppable they are, it’s time to put your characters, settings, and other plot elements in place.
The good news? You barely even need to do much plotting, as this storytelling framework already has the plot points laid out for you.
Here’s how this simple template goes.
As your story begins, give the first few hints of the beastie behind the curtain. Don’t call them out right away. Instead, just give your readers a glimpse into what kind of bad stuff is yet to come.
It’s not quite apparent just yet how bad this new evil truly is. We know they’re there, but the threat isn’t imminent. Maybe it’s just a normal day in your character’s life.
The dream stage
Once you’ve given your reader a glimpse of the monster, show them your hero and their dream. Their initial reactions will be that they know they have to fight the creature at some point, but it’s not a huge worry yet. They have dreams of overcoming the new threat and those dreams feel like they could be realized.
But then, frustration mounts, because—remember—your protagonist has that weakness which that makes it impossible for them to overcome their opponent right away. Their life is getting progressively worse because of both the monster and their weakness. At this point, they’re starting to struggle as the realize just how much that weakness can get in their way.
The nightmare and overwhelming challenge
At some point, fighting the enemy can’t be put off any further. It has become such a pressing, immediate issue and such a threat that the protagonist has to face it right now, even with their weaknesses. Show stronger motivation that requires your character act now.
This is where their above, aforementioned dream turns into a nightmare, a death sentence, because you can’t just give your protagonist an easy victory right away. When they go up against the enemy, things have to look bad. Tension is high and there’s seemingly no way to win.
Death makes an appearance in the final moment
At last, though, there’s a thrilling escape from death. When the tensions can’t mount any higher, your hero somehow, someway makes it through. They find strength and end up overcoming both the scary monster, despite the monster’s power, and their own weakness in the process. The hero lives and the creature dies (literally or figuratively) in the final scene and act.
In this way, the big battle eventually served its purpose in giving the protagonist what they really needed—a reason to overcome their own failings.
Using a plot archetype helps connect with readers
Story archetypes and plot types are famous for a reason: Readers love them. They love that familiar structure, even if the cast, setting, and nitty-gritty plot details are all brand new. Luckily, using a plot archetype makes your work as a writer easier, too. Just use frameworks like the above to outline your novel and you’ll have a clear plan each time you sit down to write.