On Stories: Plots of Competition: The Rivalry

The Rivalry plot follows the same pattern as the adversary plot, only in this case the third element is generally built in.  Often it is a thing, like gold or money, or a concept like power or freedom.  Sometimes it is a person, though that might also be a TRIANGLE plot depending on whether the third person (man or woman) is an active participant in the story or treated more like an object to obtain.

In the Adversary plot it is two people (protagonist and antagonist) or groups against each other, and sometimes, as is often the case in war stories and some thrillers of political intrigue, they are adversaries simply because they represent two opposing worldviews.  In the rivalry plot we are still dealing with the word “against” except the “against” has a purpose: to obtain the object. 

Again, these plots of competition may be summarized in the way my friends talked about plot, as “man against man, man against God (nature) and man against himself.”  Also, again, they may be drawn as internal (character driven) stories or external (action/event oriented) stories, the choice is yours.

Man Versus Man:

In the rivalry, sometimes the object of desire is substantial, such as a National Treasure.  At other times it is an insubstantial object such as power.  The Lord of the Rings was essentially a rivalry plot between a reluctant king and a flaming eye over which will end up ruling the human race.  In the case of the Lord of the Rings, though, that plot is overshadowed by the JOURNEY plot of Frodo Baggins…

Whether substantial or insubstantial, the rivalry plot includes two forces, not necessarily opposed to each other, but in pursuit of the same thing.  In the Film, Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, a competition from start to finish, we are drawn in to root for the poor American, but not disappointed when the Englishman wins the race.  The American gets the girl, the object of the rivalry.  Nor are we upset when the Frenchman is swamped by the crowd on touchdown in Paris, despite his not winning.  About the closest the film has to a “bad guy” is the German, but he is so comical it is hard to hate him.  In the rivalry for control of the town that culminates in the shootout at the OK Corral, on the other hand, we are glad that the good guys win, if indeed they were the good guys. 

In these examples, you can see two important points.  First, while the protagonist (s) should be fairly clear—you want the reader to root for someone—the line between the good guys and bad guys may be blurry.  In the end of National Treasure II, the “bad guy” saves everyone else’s lives.  Second, win or lose is sometimes less imperative then it tends to be in the antagonist plot.  Consider Ben-Hur and his rivalry with Messala or The Count of Monte Cristo and his love triangle.  We are pleased when the good guys win (in a sense) even if the winning is bittersweet. 

In the Three Musketeers, the good guys also win, but the Cardinal remains in power, untouched, above it all, so it is sort of a half-victory.  In the Hunchback of Notre Dame, the Hunchback does not get the girl.  In Fahrenheit 451, the man saves his life and gets the book, but the dark ages are far from over.

Man Versus God (Nature): 

The first thing that came to my mind was The Old Man and the Sea.  The second was Milton, Paradise Lost.  A third example would be Goethe’s Faust.  All of these express not merely an adversarial relationship, but in some sense a rivalry: for power, control, the means of life and one’s livelihood.  In Bunyan’s works, Pilgrim’s Progress or The Holy War, the struggle is for a man’s soul.  In the Illiad, Achilles and Hector are mere pawns as the Greeks and Trojans play out their antagonism under the hand of rival gods.  In every case, though, there is something to be gained by being the one who is successful.  And perhaps something to be lost for the unsuccessful.

Man Versus Himself: 

In this last form, look for examples where a person is their own worst enemy.  Don Quixote would certainly qualify.  Catch 22 or Cool Hand Luke might qualify.  One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest also, though this last is perhaps best understood as an UNDERDOG story.  Also, Spiderman.  Let me explain. 

Spiderman, in the original storyline, fights himself more than he fights the super-baddies.  That was what made this superhero story so unique and wildly successful.  He has guilt about Uncle Ben, a need to protect Aunt May at all costs and teenage angst and low self-esteem run amok.  He can’t go fully superhero.  He trashed the suit countless times; but he can’t go normal, happy, successful life either, as he seems to want (his object).  He is so conflicted it prevents him from getting the girl (object) too, Mary Jane or Gwen, who have their own rivalry of a sort going on… Sheesh!

The Plot: 

The first thing to decide is what is the key to the story.  If there is something (an object) that two people want to obtain, it is a rivalry and that object always needs to be the motive and front and center in the story.  If not, it is a basic adversarial plot.  Night at the Museum I:  Both the old guards and the new want the tablet = rivalry.  Don’t lose sight of the tablet.  Braveheart (or the Patriot) the men want freedom, the King of England (or his Generals) want to maintain control (opposite objectives) = adversaries.  Here is a question:  Can two lawyers be adversaries?  Can they be rivals?

Like the adversary plot, the pattern of the rivalry plot will remain the same (similar) as are all competitive plots.  Normally the antagonist gains the upper hand at first by knocking down his opponent.  The meat of the story is the protagonist fighting back or “rising up” from the ashes though it may appear hopeless.  The Antagonist gets close to the objective…  But eventually the two meet in the final confrontation where the object is gained or lost (occasionally lost forever.  Occasionally gained and discovered to be unwanted after all).

Competitive plots get some variation when two (protagonist and antagonist) becomes a triangle or when the two “against” don’t start out on the same footing (one starts as a clear underdog).  Though still plots of competition, they are different enough to be worthy of note… next time.

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