On Stories: Journey Plots: Exploration and Discovery

First, let me say something about my lack of post last week:  life happens.  Just remember, for a storyteller, everything is grist for the mill so it is all good.

Now, as to Journey plots, the interruption could not have been better timed because with this post we transition a bit in our thinking.  Until now, I have presented journey plots that most often are external (action oriented) plots.  These include: the Quest (Indiana Jones and Bilbo Baggins), Escape & Pursuit (Smokey and the Bandit and the Great Escape), The Rescue (Saving Private Ryan and Finding Nemo) and Mysteries & Thrillers (Sherlock Holmes and James Bond)..  With this post, we begin to look at journey plots that are most often internal (character driven) plots, the first of which is Exploration and Discovery.

The exploration and discovery plot, like mysteries and thrillers or pursuit and escape might be seen as two separate plots.  Again, I put them together because they so very often go together. 

True, there are external (action) examples here.  The whole Star Trek universe is rooted in the idea of seeking out new life and new civilizations.  So also Journey to the Center of the Earth is rooted in exploring and discovering.  These more external plots, however are not the crux of the plotline.  Most often the explorations are of human life, society or culture and the discovery is within the person central to the plot. 

In Elie Wiesel’s Night, a story about the holocaust, he explores the depths of man’s inhumanity to man and discovers a reason to live. 

In Gulliver’s Travels, Gulliver explores the South Seas, but in his strange adventures he discovers the nonsense of the political thinking of his day and the foolishness inherent in his society and culture.

In any number of Mark Twain’s books: Innocents Abroad, A Tramp Abroad, Tom Sawyer Abroad, Roughing it, he explores the world, but there are always the lessons to be discovered and brought home.

The Plot:

The plot of exploration and discovery is a particular journey that shares aspects with both mystery and quest plots. 

It shares with mysteries when there are clues to follow that lead to the discovery like some invention or some solution to a problem.  It may start with an unexpected invitation, the discovery of a treasure map, a phone call from a man the protagonist thought was dead. But where it ends… 

It shares with quests in the sense that it often involves the pursuit of something.  It is sometimes called a quest, though it does not involve searching for a known object (person, place or thing).  Instead, the exploration and discovery plot is a quest into  the unknown and often that unknown turns out to be something intangible like the truth or courage or peace or home.  What would the Red Badge of Courage be if he turned out to be a coward?  Where would all those prairie westerns go without arrival in the “west,” or the coming to America saga without a landing at Ellis Island?

In the middle, as with all journey plots, there will be obstacles, getting lost, the dreaded flat tire, but there will also be points of meaning, almost like clues in a mystery.  The reason is because ultimately the story is not about the exotic ports of call in the sea saga, nor mythical Xanadu nor Shangri-La in the Lost Horizons, nor Atlantis, nor any other location, but the discovery that happens inside.  One man explores the seedy underside of London and discovers that he is capable of committing murder…  There is a storyline for you.

True, there are still plenty of adventure stories here, like She or King Solomon’s Mines, but at best in the process of exploration, the characters discover something invaluable about themselves and/or about the human condition.  This is where the exploration and discovery plot comes into its own.  This is where the young man in All Quiet on the Western Front or the other young man in the classic movie, The King of Hearts, explore war and discover their aversion for the whole enterprise.

Next time, the Rise and the Fall, where the discovery is the beginning of the story and we first see how it may end.

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