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The seven basic storylines: #1 Overcoming the Monster

Knight fights roaring dragon

One thing you may not have realised about stories is that, for all the possible variations, each falls into one of seven archetypal narratives, as described by Christopher Booker. In this miniseries, our guest contributor, author Lewis Bright Rees, will take you through them.

Picture the scene: You’re running in the dark. You’re being chased by an alien, a serial killer or an animal. Your friends are all dead, and you know it’s only a matter of time before whatever killed them gets you too.

Congratulations! You’ve just found yourself in one of the seven basic storylines: ‘Overcoming the Monster’.

The storyline and its variations

Think about Battle Royale, Alien, Scream. Think about James Bond, Harry Potter or Star Wars.

It’s a pretty varied selection, right? The only thing they have in common is an antagonistic force that the hero has to defeat, or survive. It could be just them and their friends that are in danger, or it could be a country, even a planet. They could be fighting off an invasion, or they could be leading a revolution. It’s not a The Quest storyline because they’re not primarily looking for a specific item that could also help them defeat this antagonistic force – defeating the force is, itself, the goal.

This storyline turns up more frequently in some genres than others; you’ll find it in the vast majority of horror or war narratives, but it’s fairly rare in, say, romances or comedies. That’s not to say it never happens, though – Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a romance that follows this structure – it’s just harder to incorporate a plot like this into a genre where ultimate destruction dampens the mood.

This narrative is in our bones

Overcoming the Monster is probably the oldest of all stories, dating back to the first cave paintings, and there’s a reason for that. The first stories were non-fiction, tales told around campfires about overcoming great odds and battling fearsome creatures. Through these stories, people learned valuable tactics and, more importantly, they learned to fear the dark.

And, at a time when danger lurked around every corner, what could be more valuable than fear? The knowledge that survival is possible.

That’s the root of this story archetype. As thrilling as an intense battle or gruesome murder is, there’s no satisfaction in seeing the villain win in the end. If the villain is winning,  it’s often because the story hasn’t finished. Of course, there are subversions – the creator is going for a downer ending, or the story has a high level of moral ambiguity – but we all want to see the hero survive. We all want to see Ripley defeat the Xenomorph, Shuya escape the program or Sidney survive another serial killer.

We want them to defeat their monsters, because we all have our monsters, too. It could be a relative, boss, the government, even ourselves. We all have something we need to overcome, and we want to see others survive because it makes overcoming our own struggles seem a little more possible.

It is about the core of the story

You could, naturally, argue that there’s a fair amount of crossover; Eternal Sunshine features elements of the Comedy storyline, for example. The overall narrative of Harry Potter may have the defeat of Voldemort as the driving plot, but some of the books follow The Quest, particularly the hunt for the horcruxes in The Deathly Hallows. Without these items, defeating the monster is impossible, but without the monster, there would be no quest to find them, and the grand finale of The Deathly Hallows concludes a seven-chapter Overcoming the Monster narrative.

The stages of the narrative

Overcoming the Monster follows five stages:

  • Anticipation stage with a call to action: There’s trouble in the land, the town or the home! Our hero, a scrappy young lass, realises that the only solution is to defeat the monster, or she is asked by others to do so. She may be reluctant, but she knows it’s the right thing to do. (Or maybe she just really likes gold. Some heroes do.)
  • Dream stage: The hero is preparing for her battle or journey. She might have some small encounters with the monster or the monster’s minions, but everything is going so well! Nothing bad can possibly happen, because our hero is so strong and cool!
  • Frustration stage: The monster is here, right now! Oh no! We didn’t know it could do that. It’s much stronger or smarter or villainous than we thought! The hero can’t defeat it.
  • Nightmare stage: This seems hopeless! How can the hero possibly win? The battle goes epic, there seems to be no way out, but then…
  • Miraculous escape/Super lucky break/Death of the monster: Something wonderful happens! The hero has a lucky break, thinks of something smart or does something no one has ever seen before. The monster is defeated and our hero can return home.

These stages show the general layout of the Overcoming the Monster storyline but there’s plenty of room for variation. The magic is between these stages, and in the personal growth and triumphs of our protagonist.

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