Monsters Story Structure
Rite of passage stories are about a protagonist who out of fear and the desire for blissful ignorance ignores their problem, ignores the responsibilities inherit with that problem and just tries to live as though it doesn’t exist.
This way of living is built on keeping secrets which can yield positive results: everyone is happy in the short-term because no one knows what’s lurking underneath. But once the truth is revealed and additional shame for being dishonest is piled on top of their already shameful secret, things will not be so happy. The protagonist must learn to accept their secret as just another part of life and accept themselves for being only human (imperfect, blemished), otherwise they will live a life of immaturity, self-hatred and depression – and who wants that?!
In Monsters, Ken Dahl ignores his problem (diagnosed with herpes) and tries to sideswipe it with abstinence, self-remedies and self-hate. Unfortunately it doesn’t work and if he ever plans to be in an honest and trusting relationship with the opposite sex he’ll have to grow up and learn to deal with his lot in life, for better or worse, or else remain a lonely, immature monster.
(Spoiler Warning! Below is the plot structure of Monsters by Ken Dahl using Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet as the basis for the breakdown (see my review of Blake Snyder’s book Save the Cat, an excellent storytelling resource). For an explanation of each “beat” please refer to Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet.)
Premise: Monsters is a rite of passage about Ken Dahl, a young man with herpes, who struggles to live a normal life with an incurable, contagious disease.
Opening Image: The story starts with Ken kissing his girlfriend, Rory. Big bold letters above them read: Imagine never kissing anyone on the lips ever again …without giving them a horrible incurable disease. The following image of Rory’s face horribly infected is enough to scare anyone into perpetual, lonely solitude. This represents Ken’s dilemma.
Theme Stated: Ken and his girlfriend watch a commercial for Valtrex, a drug to help cure outbreaks of herpes. Ken scowls, disgusted. His thoughts about people with herpes are judgmental and ignorant. Little does he know, a herpes germ lurks nearby.
Set-up: Ken gets cold sores. He does his best to treat them but never goes to the doctor. Neither, at first, does Rory when she has consistent “saddle rash”. Eventually, hey both know Ken gave her something but Ken doesn’t talk to Rory about it. He ignores the problem, hoping it’s nothing.
Catalyst: After visiting the free clinic Rory tearfully tells Ken, “I have herpes.” Germs swarm and cover Ken. He, too, is disease ridden. He gave her herpes.
Debate: Can they keep the relationship together? By not facing their own ignorance and shame about the disease they grow farther and farther apart. Especially when Ken tries to “weasel out” of being responsible for her condition. They eventually break up and Ken starts seeing other people, but coming clean about his disease to potential sexual partners is harder then he thought; conveniently forgetting to tell them is all too easy. He has a tough road ahead.
B Story: Ken feels like a monster. Depicting himself as Dracula, he tells the reader that he’s an innocent man who just wants to be loved like everyone else. He tries to point the finger back at the judgemental – and physically clean – bigots but it is a fruitless effort. Keep in mind, no one has actually come down on Ken in the story, besides himself. It’s all in his head. (Theme: His judgmental attitude toward people with herpes is affecting how he sees himself.)
Choosing Act Two: Ken decides to give up sexual contact entirely. This attempt to be responsible for his circumstances is well-intended but ass-backwards. By choosing to isolate himself, he allows the Germ to cover his entire body; he is now determined to see himself as a diseased monster.
Fun n’ Games (Promise of the Premise): Germ-Ken remains diligent in his abstinence until literally turning into a horny hound dog, howling at female passersby. Repressing his urges is not going to last. Especially when Megan, a cute friend of Ken’s, asks Ken to kiss her at a New Years party. The Germ, personified, tells Ken of all the reasons it would be a good idea and Ken, drunk with booze and temptation, gives in. The next morning, Ken lies on Megan’s bed with a hole in his chest, regret etched deep into his face. He is no longer an innocent monster. Worse, he prolongs telling her, preferring to ignore his responsibility and enjoy her company. When he finally tells her, she blows up at him saying, “You got some things to figure out”.
Midpoint: Ken’s friends confront him about not telling people he has herpes before having sex with. He makes excuses and turns into a huge monster screaming the injustice done unto him, but his friends won’t let him get away with feeling sorry for himself. Heeding what they say, Ken lets himself swim in the waters of knowledge, exposing himself to the facts, educating himself (and the reader) about the herpes virus.
Bad Guys Close In: Ken attempts to fight his outbreaks with a disciplined regiment of self-prescribed antidotes (pills, powders, etc.) and diet (almost nothing). He generally avoids sex and does not give in to temptation when he has the chance. Unfortunately, even with his new education, he still feels disgusting. He tries being open about his herpes through internet dating but the results are not a good match for him. Will he find love?
All is Lost (& Whiff of Death): He goes a party. Lonely, he sits on the curb outside remembering his judgmental attitude toward people with herpes at the beginning of the book. He sees a bouquet of flowers and poster of a dog (Romeo) who has died. Ken pays his respects to the dog with a lover’s name by pouring alcohol onto the curb.
Dark Night of the Soul: Back inside the house party, Ken enters the bathroom and meets Hannah. He falls in love with her instantly. He dreams of her that night, fearing that as soon as he mentions his herpes she’ll disappear. Will she?
Choosing Act Three: Ken goes to her work and they get to know one another through comics. They start dating. Eventually, he’ll have to tell her and after delaying the inevitable for as long as he can, Ken finally becomes one with the Germ and tells her: “I have herpes, orally.”
Finale: Hannah surprises him by saying he’s overreacting. She already knew! In fact, she’s learned a great deal about how difficult it is to get herpes and how it’s just a skin rash, so… “don’t be such a wuss,” she tells him. Ken pops out of the germ, himself again.
Final Image: Together, the next morning, Ken kisses Hannah (mirroring the image from the opening). …EPILOGUE: Years later, while Ken is visiting a doctor, he learns his cold sores were always just canker sores. He still has herpes (a blood test proved it) like 75% of American adults but he doesn’t obsess over it anymore. He’s learned to live with it and not ignore his circumstances any longer. The Germ says to Ken, “I’m just another life form trying to survive in this f—ed up world.” Ken pats it on the head saying, “I know, little buddy.”