Like triangle and trio plots, this final plot of competition is not exactly a separate entity. The conflict will generally be adversarial or a rivalry with the difference being the relative starting point for the protagonist. The underdog does not need to get knocked down or knocked back in act one. They are already at the bottom of the heap.
No one would imagine a Rocky Balboa or Bad News Bears or Mighty Ducks should ever amount to anything. Act one, in the underdog story, is to set up the potential conflict and in particular to show how impossible that dream is—how far the protagonist has to go. The odds are overwhelming from the beginning.
In One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, McMurphy is a patient in an asylum where Nurse Ratched owns all the cards. In The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the poor Hunchback is the most deformed and hopeless creature this side of the Elephant Man. And in The Three Musketeers, a young country bumpkin is set up to match wits with the Cardinal—one of the greatest minds of his age—and all of the Cardinal’s henchmen as well. Talk about overwhelming odds!
The underdog need not be “against” (in competition) with a person. It might be a group or something like a system (Cuckoo’s Nest) or a government (Schindler’s List).
One thing that is common (though by no means universal) in underdog plots is the advent of a “helper” character or characters: a manager, coach, or the actual Three Musketeers. Generally, it is a good thing to introduce the helper early on and show, to some extent, that it is the serendipity of putting certain puzzle pieces together that makes the success of the underdog possible. Otherwise, the author may be accused of bringing in someone at the last minute and the underdog never could have succeeded without such magical help. (The one flaw in Cinderella).
The difficulty in writing an underdog story is the need to keep it real (realistic) and not let it get clichéd or sappy. You want Horatio Alger to succeed and your audience to cheer when that happens. The virtue in the underdog story is people all over the world are naturally inclined to sympathize with such a character. We all root for the Cinderella team, but it needs to be done carefully to not produce a yawn at the end.
Keep in mind, the underdog does not always succeed. McMurphy gets lobotomized in Cuckoo;s Nest. The Hunchback saves but certainly does not get the girl. Cyrano actually enables Roxanne to fall in love with and marry the fop… Generally, though, a good underdog story will lead to an ending where Rocky stays on his feet and the Bears and Mighty Ducks win.
Now, returning to where we started these posts: to the world of simple fairy tales, let me see if we can summarize the plots of competition:
1. Sleeping Beauty = Adversary plot. This classic sword and sorcery story is about a witch versus the royal family. The witch is slighted (not invited to the christening) and the curse falls on the baby, but it is a power struggle between the two all the same, and in the end, the royal family wins as the witch is slain and Beauty and her Prince carry on the royal line.
2. Snow White = Rivalry plot. Both Ms. White and the Queen want to be the fairest in the land (even if Ms White doesn’t understand the game). Snow White is driven out, presumably killed, but when found alive there comes the final confrontation. It is all about fairness (beauty), however. That is the root conflict (rivalry) that drives the whole story.
3. Cinderella = Underdog plot. She is pitted in an adversary situation against her Stepmother who is determined to keep Cinderella down so her own awkward daughters can succeed. In the original, she is also in a rivalry with her stepsisters. But in the end, she is really an underdog who, with a little help from her helper character, has a chance to prove her worth and find happiness in the process.
When we continue with Plots, we will move on from competition plots to journey plots, and start with the basic journey plot: The Quest.