Those who make regular visits to this blog should already be familiar with my concept of the 20 Common Plot Types. In my studies of narrative, I have discovered that nearly every well-made traditional Western-style film for the past fifty years or more (which for brevity we may call “Hollywood film,” though that label can be too limiting) contains a plot that fits with shocking consistency into one of twenty patterns. The most surprising thing about this discovery is how extremely different films can share the exact same pattern, plot point for plot point, even though they seem to have nothing else in common on their surfaces.
In this article and the next, I will explore another of these plot types. This time, it is #7 on my list, which I have labeled The Unstoppable Beast.
As defined in previous articles, The Unstoppable Beast contains a story in which:
A innocent hero is targeted by some malevolent force, a force that will not stop until the hero is destroyed. Plot develops as each escalated attempt by the protagonist to escape the force is denied. Finally, in the end, the hero chooses to fight back.
As I have found in other plot types, the Unstoppable Beast can be broken down further into two distinct subtypes. In the first subtype, the malevolent force has the single-minded goal of killing, ruining, or in some other sense destroying the protagonist, and will stop at nothing until this is accomplished. I will call this the The Destructive Beast. In the second, the malevolent force does not wish to physically destroy the protagonist, but rather to possess the protagonist. The force's goal is to destroy the protagonist's personal will so it may own, control, or even love the protagonist against the protagonist's will. This will be called The Covetous Beast. Though these subtypes share the same general premise, they differ significantly in their essential characters and major plot events. For this reason, Part One of this article will focus on the Destructive Beast while the Covetous Beast will be explored next month.
THE DESTRUCTIVE BEAST
To demonstrate both subtypes, I will make use of three study films. The first will contain a simple storyline that is easy to recognize as a member of this group. Here, the obvious choice is James Cameron's The Terminator (1984).
The second film must contain a more sophisticated story, yet one with clear similarities to the first. Here we will use The Bourne Identity (2002).
Finally, our third film will be an oddball, one that on its surface seems to have nothing in common with the other two. Here I have chosen Paul Thomas Anderson's 2002 misfit romance Punch-Drunk Love.
(These are, of course, not the only examples. I have found this subtype in thrillers (The Marathon Man), comedies (Pineapple Express), comic-book fantasy (The Incredible Hulk), even family films (Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events)
All three of these films share identical threads in terms of their main story conflict. A relatively innocent protagonist is targeted by a vicious, single-minded antagonist (“The Beast”) who pursues the protagonist with escalating actions until one of them are destroyed. In The Terminator, Sarah Connor is pursued by a killer cyborg programmed to kill her at any cost. Similarly, in The Bourne Identity, Ted Conklin uses the CIA's god-like powers to find and kill Jason Bourne. In Punch-Drunk Love, the sweet and simple Barry Egan (Adam Sandler) is terrorized by a sleazebag extortionist (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who seems hellbent on ruining Barry's life.
What first must be noted is what it means to call these protagonists “innocent.” Put simply, this means from an audience standpoint, these characters do not deserve the persecution they receive from the Beast. Sarah Connor wouldn't harm a fly and wants nothing more than to live her simple life. Barry Egan is as meek as a sheep and simply wishes the world would leave him be. When we first meet Jason Bourne, his memory has been wiped as innocent as a newborn's and merely wants to learn who he is and how he fits into the world. Yet this is not to say that the Beast targets the protagonist without reason. In every case, the protagonist does something (or in the case of Terminator, will do something) that, while seemingly harmless, brings him or her to the Beast's attention and leads the Beast to decide the protagonist deserves destruction. Sarah Connor will give birth to the man who will someday be the Beast's greatest threat. Therefore, she must be terminated. Jason Bourne investigates his identity, leading Conklin to believe Bourne has gone rogue and must be eliminated. Barry Egan calls a phone sex line out of loneliness, causing his Beast to label him as a lowlife pervert who deserves exploitation.
A second essential trait of these stories is the single-minded focus of the antagonist. Once the Beast locks onto the protagonist, its efforts never waiver. It will pursue, and continue to pursue, with no change except for escalation. They are heat-seeking missiles. No matter how the protagonist zigs or zags to escape, the Beast will keep after the protagonist until he or she is utterly destroyed. Terminator's killer cyborg is Hollywood's prime example of such an antagonist, but even the low-level sleazeball who terrorizes Barry Egan demonstrates this same vicious obsession. He could at any time decide enough is enough and stop harassing Barry, yet seems to take it as a point of personal pride to go after Barry harder and harder every time Barry makes any attempt to stand up for himself.
It should also be noted that, like most concepts in screencraft, the concept of the Beast is flexible in terms of its execution. It can be interpreted literally or figuratively. The Beast may be a single character acting alone, or it may be a larger collective of which the antagonist acts on behalf. It's not the killer cyborg's idea to kill Sarah Connor. It is acting on the orders of the artificial intelligences that rule the future. Ted Conklin does not pursue Bourne out of a personal vendetta, but acts as a representative of the entire CIA. The Beast may directly attack the Protagonist, or it may act through proxies. Conklin's assassins and the goons that harass Barry Egan act as extensions of the Beast. Depending on how abstract your thinking, the Beast can even be a cosmic force. I have often mused that The Shawshank Redemption acts as an Unstoppable Beast, where the Beast the feeling of hopelessness and despair that seeks to devour Andy Dufrene.
Besides the Protagonist and the Beast, the Destructive Beast subtype typically contains a third major player. In his or her flight from the Beast, the Protagonist attaches him or herself to a person who will serve as a Sole Companion character. This character, often doubling as a Love Interest, becomes the only person the Protagonist can truly count on. We have Reese in Terminator, Marie in Bourne, and Lena in Punch-Drunk Love. The Sole Companion not only assists the Protagonist in his or her struggle, but more importantly provides the support, love, and reassurance the Protagonist desperately needs to continue against insurmountable odds. Though not absolutely essential for this plot subtype to function (for example, The Marathon Man forces the Protagonist to fight the Beast all on his own, and stories with group protagonists seem to have no need for the character), this relationship usually serves a crucial narrative role. It not only adds complexity to what might be an overly-simple plotline, but also becomes a key factor in both the Protagonist's character transformation and the ultimate expression of the story's theme (this is discussed in greater detail later in this article).
I have also noticed a repeating dichotomy between the Protagonist and the Sole Companion. Typically, one of the pair is relatively unstable (Reese, Marie, Barry), while the other is more psychologically grounded. One is a far more capable (Reese, Bourne, Lena), while the other, not so much. Which member of the pair has which trait is dependent on the story's premise, yet there is clear evidence that these “odd couple” pairings are fairly common to this subtype. The relationship need not necessarily be romantic either. It may be “bro-mantic,” (like that between the two leads in Pineapple Express), a paternal or maternal bond, (like that which forms between John Connor and his cyborg protector in Terminator 2), or one based on trust and mutual respect, (such as the friendship between Andy and Red in The Shawshank Redemption.)
Structurally, a Destructive Beast's setup sequence does not differ much from the norm. The Protagonist may already be targeted by the Beast, giving the setup an air of menace, or the targeting may not have yet occurred. If the Protagonist has already been targeted, neither the Protagonist nor the audience will know this. Instead, the Beast's intentions are kept a mystery. In some cases, the Beast may not need to appear in the setup at all. Likewise, the setup may or may not introduce the Sole Companion character. If the character does appear, no meaningful relationship has yet to exist between Sole Companion and Protagonist.
The inciting incident occurs with an action through which the audience becomes aware that the Protagonist has been targeted by the Beast. With this event, the Beast takes its first decisive action to ensnare the Protagonist. The cyborg starts killing women named Sarah Connor. Conklin starts tracking Bourne. The phone sex operator tries to coerce Barry into giving her money. However, at this early point, the Protagonist either remains largely unaware of the threat or does not yet realize how serious this threat may be. Sarah Connor hears of the murders, but could not yet possibly understand the full scope of the situation. Jason Bourne suspects he may be in danger, but has no idea why. Barry becomes agitated, but thinks can solve the problem by simply canceling his credit card. The full threat does not become apparent to the Protagonist - or the audience - until the End of First Act Turning Point.
The End of First Act Turning Point
Two important events occur at the end of the first act, separately but typically in succession (the order is unimportant). First, the Beast officially begins the hunt by launching its first major “attack” on the Protagonist. The cyborg makes its first attempt to kill Sarah Connor at the nightclub. Conklin activates three assassins to put “Bourne in a body bag.” Barry's Beast sends goons to beat and rob him.
The end of the first act must also feature a moment where the relationship between Protagonist and Sole Companion officially begins. This could be something decisive (Reese's “Come with me if you want to live”), something more unassuming (Bourne recruits Marie to drive him to Paris), or the start of a personal relationship (Lena asks Barry out to dinner and Barry accepts). Regardless of how it occurs, the important thing is that these two characters have transitioned from separate individuals into a pair.
The Beast is still chasing the Protagonist, whether this be physically occurring on screen like in Terminator, or largely unseen in the background like in Bourne and Punch-Drunk. However, at this moment, this action is of secondary importance. More importantly, the first sequence(s) of Act 2A is where the Protagonist and Sole Companion must grow comfortable with each other and reconcile the nature of their relationship. One or both characters will have doubts or fears over whether this relationship should be continued. Sarah fears that Reese is insane. Jason Bourne seems to be more trouble than Marie wants to handle. Barry is scared of women. However this dilemma must be solved quickly when the Beast attacks again, creating the turning point that ends the sequence.
The Beast makes its second major attack. The cyborg invades the police station. The first assassin attacks Bourne in his home. The goons beat up and rob Barry. This stretch of the narrative becomes all about escape. It may last for one sequence or two, but by the time Act 2A ends, the Protagonist is forced to come to two strong conclusions. First, the Protagonist becomes convinced that he/she and the Sole Companion must stick together. This solidifies the relationship between the two characters. (I find it inconsequential that Lena is unaware of Barry's struggle with the Beast in Punch-Drunk Love. She fulfills the same function as Reese or Marie regardless. It is impossible to think that Barry could overcome his fight with the Beast had he not chosen to continue to receive Lena's love and support.) Second, the Protagonist realizes that the Beast will never stop making attacks upon him or her. It will keep coming and coming. Because of this, the Protagonist can see only one reasonable option at the moment: tactical retreat.
The Protagonist escapes to a safe location with the Sole Companion. Sarah and Reese find haven, first under a highway overpass and then in a cheap motel. Bourne and Marie also hole up in a hotel. Barry runs further than everyone, fleeing all the way to Hawaii to find some peace with Lena. Here, the Protagonist can regroup and come up with some sort of plan. The Protagonist is able to do so only because Beast has also found itself in a situation where it must regroup. The Beast has momentarily lost the trail of its target and must take action to once again pick up the scent.
Like Part 1 of Act 2A, this sequence is far more about the relationship between Protagonist and Sole Companion than the Protagonist and the Beast. In this brief respite, the pair transform into a domestic couple, “playing house” even. In all three study films, this is where Protagonist and Sole Companion consummate their romantic relationship. Yet this sweet stability is broken by the next turning point. The Beast learns of their location. It is coming for them yet again.
Though some time may remain for the Protagonist to take actions and implement his or her new plan before the Beast arrives, eventually the Beast will come and launch a stronger and far more brutal assault than ever before. The Terminator, being the shortest and simplest of our study films, takes an uncomplicated route by using this attack to transition into the long battle that comprises Act 3. Bourne and Punch-Drunk take somewhat longer routes that mirror each other plot point for plot point. Both Protagonists are attacked by the Beast's proxy. The Protagonist defeats these proxies, but rather than be pleased with the victory, the Protagonist is FURIOUS. This time, the Beast has not only tried to harm him, but the innocent people he cares about. Both Bourne and Barry are fed up. They want to end this. And they realize only way to do so is to square off with the Beast face-to-face. In both Bourne and Punch-Drunk, the Protagonist speaks directly to the Beast for the first time and challenges it to a fight. This challenge sets up the battle that will make up Act 3.
In general, Act 3 develops as would be expected in a restorative three-act narrative. There is an conflict-intensifying sequence that leads in to the final confrontation between Protagonist and Beast, a turning point, and then the final confrontation itself. (I should point out that the final action sequence found in The Bourne Identity is much different than the one originally written. The filmmakers decided to change the ending in reaction to the events of 9/11. It was supposed to be a more intense, explosion-filled ending, much like that seen in The Terminator, as opposed to the more subdued end seen in the final film.)
There is one significant point that must be made about these final sequences. Whether it happens midway through the act or very late, at some point the relationship between predator and prey will reverse. The Protagonist does this by entrapping the Beast. Whether it be Sarah Connor encaging cyborg inside the mechanical press, Jason Bourne cornering Conklin in the safehouse, or Barry staring down his tormentor in the back of the mattress store, this act robs the Beast of its power and ability to intimidate. The big, bad Beast has suddenly turned pathetic and weak. With this reversal of power, the Protagonist can finally defeat the Beast, either by destroying it or forcing it to back down.
Despite appearances, the Destructive Beast plot subtype is about far more than predator and prey. Any good story is “about more than it is about.” A story that lacks any meaning beyond the observable actions of its plot is always a mediocre one. Hence, I have found two surprising traits shared by every one of these stories.
THESE ARE STORIES ABOUT HUMANE RELATIONSHIPS
The battle with the Beast may provide the action and conflict. It may provide the excitement and commercial appeal. But the real meaning in these films emerges from seeing the warm, humane, multifaceted relationship between Protagonist and Sole Companion set in contrast with the cold, inhumane relationship between Protagonist and Beast.
Left to his or her own devices, the Protagonist would in all inevitability eventually succumb to the force of the Beast. However, through the relationship between Protagonist and Sole Companion, the Protagonist's character gains something it did not have that allows him or her to defeat the Beast. To understand how and why, we must ask two questions: “For what reason does the Beast target the Protagonist?” and “For what reason does the Sole Companion remain attached to the Protagonist despite reasons not to?”
As I have mentioned, the Beast is a single-minded creature. It targets the Protagonist for a single quality which it believes warrants the Protagonist's destruction. The machines of the future target Sarah Connor because they see her as a weak nothing than can be easily wiped out. The CIA's Treadstone sees Jason Bourne as nothing more than a soulless killing machine that needs to be deactivated. Barry's extortionists see him as nothing but a pathetic wimp with whom they can do whatever they please. More importantly, the Protagonist begins the story seeing him or herself in the same way. Sarah believe she is a weak nothing. Bourne feels that he has lost all humanity. Barry sees himself as a pathetic wimp. It seems the Protagonists agrees with the Beast. If this is the case, the Protagonist may eventually give in and let the Beast win.
But if these Protagonists really are such undesirable monotypes, why do their Sole Companions risk so much to stick by their sides? The Sole Companion remains loyal to the Protagonist because he or she is the only person in the whole wide world who sees MORE in the Protagonist. Through their personal relationship, the Sole Companion realizes that the Protagonist is far more than the trait for which he or she has been targeted. Instead, the Sole Companion recognizes so many other qualities that make the Protagonist a worthwhile human. Reese sees strength and courage in Sarah Connor that Sarah herself does not admit. Marie knows that Jason Bourne is not just a killing machine, but a good man with a good heart. Lena sees charm and beauty in Barry while everyone else can only see the wimp. Through this relationship, the Protagonist's sense of self transforms from the negative monotypical view shared by the Beast, to the positive multifaceted one of the Sole Companion. Strengthened by the Sole Companion's support, the Protagonist is able to stand up and say, “I am a worthwhile individual. I do not deserve this treatment. I am greater than the Beast and can defeat it.”
Why is this transformation so important? Aside from the pragmatic narrative concerns of story structure and character arc, this relationship provides the context through which the audience receives the story's true meaning. By recognizing the value of an individual in the face of overwhelming persecution, we learn this story subtype's subtextual theme.
THESE STORIES ARE THEMATIC CONDEMNATIONS OF PERSECUTION
In every historical case of persecution, whether it be against an entire race or a single individual, the persecutor dehumanizes its victim by degrading the whole of that person's identity down to a single undesirable trait. The persecutor does not see a unique individual with many different qualities, but only a race, a religion, a political view, or some type of behavior with negative associations attached to it. By defining its victim as one undesirable trait, the victim is turned into something no better than an animal. A dog is just a dog. A roach is like any other roach. A rat can be nothing more than a rat. And like any bothersome animal, the persecutor feels justified in exterminating the person for what it sees as the greater good.
This is why social persecution is morally wrong. It is based on a lie. No person's existence is defined by a single trait by which he or she should be approved of or condemned. We are all unique individuals, possessing hundreds of personal qualities, each with its own potential to add worth and value to the world. As unique individuals, each one of us has the right to prove our value on our own terms – not by one or two isolated behaviors, but through all of them as a whole. If an individual's worth is to be judged, it should not be by some mechanical-minded aggressor with no regard for the individual's humanity, but by the people who know and understand them.
Stories of the Destructive Beast subtype exist as lessons on social persecution. They show us the value of an individual's humanity by pitting it against an unthinking, uncaring force that chooses to ignore its victim's basic right to exist – the right to live, to love, and to bring value to their world in their own way. The Beast then does not only represent evil as it exists in the narrative, but the social evils that continue to persecute innocent victims in our own world.