Archetypal Story Structures; or, Doing It By the Booker (Part Two)

 
By: 
Ashley Tenn
July 11, 2021

In our last post, we took a look at Christopher Booker's 7 Basic Plots and covered the Journey and Return, Quest, and Rebirth archetypes. We'll cover the final four structures here.  

Conquering the Beast

Also known as "Overcoming the Monster", this story structure focuses on an underdog who must face a great threat or evil. The format is extremely flexible and works well with a number of genres, appearing in sci-fi and fantasy stories where two opposing armies end up in battle, in horror where a character or a group of characters confront an unknown and seemingly unstoppable monster, or in psychological dramas where a main character struggles to overcome their own negative drives and desires.  

Setting the Challenge

Conquering the Beast is about overcoming insurmountable odds, and framing the story around an underdog is an easy way to show that a character is, in fact, dealing with a great threat. After all, if a character is already well-equipped, then the challenges they face will also need to be proportionate. When a character (or group of characters) starts out weak, unknowing, or underprivileged, it is also easier to manufacture significant odds that give your story a strong dramatic arc.

Some examples include the story of Perseus from Greek mythology, Dracula, Star Wars, and The War of the Worlds.

Activity:

Can you think of other examples of Conquering the Beast/Overcoming the Monster? For bonus points, try to think of one in each of the categories listed above: science fiction or fantasy (ending in a major battle), horror (fighting a terrible monster), and psychological drama (the main character fighting either their own thoughts or escaping from someone who has them under their control).

Rags to Riches

The Rags to Riches story structure is similar to Overcoming the Beast in several ways. It generally establishes a disenfranchised or underprivileged character who must overcome difficult odds to escape their limited or restricted place in society. Their journey might be grueling, forcing them to find allies, handle enemies, or endure ordeals while they learn to navigate society. No matter what path they take, the protagonist comes out at the end in a better place than before.

Bending the Plot

If that summary has you thinking that there are different ways this structure can play out, you'd absolutely be right. After all, is their new status really better at the end? Are they truly happy after the ordeals they went through? What other sorts of riches might a character aspire to, if they aren't financial? What might your character's success look like when the happy ending is something other than rich or famous? There is plenty of room in this format to add nuance and commentary to change how riches are defined in your story or to suggest that one character's idea of a happy ending might not actually be in their best interest. 

Examples of Rags to Riches include the popular fairy tales Cinderella, The Ugly Duckling, and Aladdin, The Prince and the Pauper by Mark Twain, as well as Charles Dickens' Victorian era classics Great Expectations and David Copperfield.

Activity:

Think of your favorite Rags to Riches story. How would the story have to change if the reward were different? What if the story were not about finding true love or wealth or social status?

Comedy and Tragedy

In describing his 7 Basic Plots, Christopher Booker draws primarily from Shakespearean tragedy and comedy. However, story archetype discussions about Comedy and Tragedy often also reference Greek theatre formats, which are slightly different. We'll discuss these differences in a later post. 

For Booker, Tragedy describe a villain's story and their inevitable downfall. This structure outlines how a character's personal weaknesses lead them into a self-imposed downward spiral, where their actions lead to a sequence of terrible decisions that can't be reversed and ultimately end in their demise or being outcast. 

Conversely, Booker's Comedy is a specific type of comedy, similar in some ways to modern romantic comedy. It's a fairly flexible structure based on the premise that two characters are destined to be together but the events of the story or the conditions of their world conspire to keep them apart. The plot involves lots of confusion and miscommunication, but ultimately results in a happy ending where the protagonists get together romantically.

Comedy and Tragedy Examples

The plays of Aristophanes, including The Wasps, The Birds, and Lysistrata, are classic examples of early Greek comedy. Familiar Shakespearean comedy includes A Midsummer's Night Dream, Twelfth Night, and The Taming of the Shrew. For a more modern take, check out Bridget Jones's Diary, Clueless (based on Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice), or The Princess Bride.

For Tragedy, look for classics which feature a main character who experiences a downfall due to their own actions, such as Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, The Great Gatsby, or Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray. Oedipus Rex is perhaps the best known Greek tragedy, while Shakespearean tragedy includes Macbeth, Othello, and Romeo and Juliet, and others. xx

Activity:

1) Think of a Conquering the Beast story in which the main character struggles with against their own negative impulses. How is this structure different from the Tragedy structure? What do they have in common? 

2) Think of a Rags to Riches story. How does this structure differ from Comedy? What do they have in common?