On Stories: Journey Plots: The Quest

Frodo Baggins left the Shire with only one thing on his mind: to rid himself of the ring of power.  It wasn’t going to be an easy trip. 

Don Quixote left home in search of glory.  He got beat up. 

Dorothy ran away from home and found herself in Oz, but she did not plan the trip.  Still, she had to travel from Munchkin City to Oz to get home again. 

So also a fine young lad once got caught up in the search for Treasure Island, or in the cartoon version, Treasure Planet.  Or in the modern version, a National Treasure.

I once left Princeton with one thing in mind: to give my new wife a chance to meet my grandmother, my last living grandparent who was in a nursing home in a small, rural Arkansas town.  Mine wasn’t an easy trip, either.

The Quest is the classic journey plot and a good place to begin these posts.  As no doubt you can already see, there is a common theme to each of the above.  Someone leaves home for some reason, willing or unwilling and there is a definite objective in mind to be obtained (or fail to obtain) before a return is possible—if they ever come back…  Let’s parse that.

The quest starts with a reason to go.  This is the story trigger, and it is often an imperative as in, the person has no choice.  Certainly Dorothy of Kansas and Gulliver are extreme cases of having no choice.  Notice, in both cases, though, the object of the journey is to get home.

Often the reason for vacating the comforts of home is the objective of the quest.  It may be something as substantial as a treasure, like King Solomon’s Mines.  It may be something insubstantial like Don Quixote’s ideals (Dulcinea) or eternal life (Lost Horizons or the Myth of Etana).  It may be something semi-real like “home” or of questionable reality like the Holy Graal.  Whatever it is, there is some objective in mind, and the beauty of Lord of the Rings was the quest in Frodo’s case was not to find something, but to get rid of something!

The quest officially ends on obtaining the object or in the failure to obtain (with no hope of continuing).  Indiana Jones found the Arc, but the government buried it deeper than before…

The return home (assuming home is not the objective) is denouement.

The Plot 

Okay.  You have your character, your objective, and your trigger: the reason why your character must obtain or achieve the objective.  In other words, you have your beginning and your end, but what about the middle? 

This is where obstacles invariably turn up and the success of the story will to a great extent depend on how well these obstacles are portrayed, how well they relate to the objective and how creative, imaginative and well written the obstacle sequences are.  (I suggest clicking on the “On Stories” button above and reviewing the posts on the Magic of Three).

I know when my wife and I got to Virginia, there was terrible road construction.  We had to detour so far, we got lost.  Then we also got a flat tire.  Then we also spent the night in a terrible place and my half-Italian wife ate spaghetti everywhere.  She did not care if it was pasta with ketchup (It turned out she was pregnant)…  We eventually saw my Grandmother, but there was plenty of living along the way.

And then there is this 

The quest is often seen in action adventure mode (external plot) like Indiana Jones, but like Don Quixote or Pilgrim’s Progress or Captain Ahab’s search for the White Whale, the true quest may be internal so that what happens on the inside of the person is the real quest and the external objective, achieved or not is a trigger but ultimately of secondary importance.  Dorothy learned if she should ever go looking for her heart’s desire again she won’t look any further than her own back yard.  Luckily, Frank Baum got over that lesson pretty quickly in order to write plenty of sequels.  Still, something to think about: that the real purpose of the quest may be what happens inside the mind and heart along the way.  The Journey is the thing after all.

Next time:  The Journey plot of escape and pursuit…

2 thoughts on “On Stories: Journey Plots: The Quest

    • In a small way, but I am not analyzing to that depth. I am happy with accessible ideas that writers and would-be writers can consider before the words hit the paper.
      -Michael

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