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 questionable 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.
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.
Escape & Pursuit
Some might see these as two separate plots. I see them as intertwined, even when the entire story is focused on one part or the other. For the One Armed Man, Cary Grant in North by Northwest, the Bandit in Smokey and the Bandit, and the trio of fools in O Brother where Art Thou the story is all but entirely about escaping the law. And they are very different stories at that. For others, such as the Great Escape or Alcatraz, the story is entirely or primarily about how to get free.
Even so, I see these ideas together because whenever someone is trying to break free or stay free, someone else will try to keep them captive. And when the break comes, someone is going to pursue.
When The Count of Monte Cristo escaped from prison, there was no pursuit. But he was clever and he was careful. The idea of being caught again played havoc with his motivation and limited what he could do until he was secure and ready.
When Huck Finn escaped his father, the pursuit was more imagined than real. Still, it affected every action that followed for Huck and old Jim.
When the man in Hitchcock’s thriller, North by Northwest escaped being arrested for murder, the pursuit was all too real. He needed to get away and clear his name at the same time without getting caught first. Good trick, that.
When the soldiers broke out of the Nazi prison camp in the Great Escape, there was nothing but pursuit. Few actually made it to safety (Switzerland or wherever), but what a story!
Like any Journey plot, the story begins with a need to move. This is the trigger and in this plot it is generally not complicated. When Moses went back down into Egypt, the children of Israel were suffering under slavery. Often it doesn’t have to be spelled out. The reader can immediately sympathize with words like slavery and knows what needs to happen.
The middle, then, is more or less in two parts: the actual escape and the pursuit.
Moses performed miracles until Pharaoh surrendered. Normally it isn’t that easy—if you consider that easy. There are obstacles to be overcome, and if written well, the escapee should be nearly discovered at least once if not more than once. Here is the tension that keeps a reader on edge. But as with the quest, it really depends on the skill, creativity, imagination and ability of the writer.
In part 2 of the middle section, Moses lead the people to the red sea. Suddenly Pharaoh had a change of heart and sent out the troops. The people had their back to the wall, so to speak, but God did one more miracle. The sea parted. The people passed through and the Pharaoh’s army got swallowed up by the waters.
Again, you can see the tension. They almost get caught, They almost get slaughtered. “Almost get caught” is key to the escape and pursuit plot. And it better be “gets caught” if the rightly imprisoned person escapes from prison in order to murder someone… or maybe…
Anyway, the end of this plot is again like any journey plot. Either success or failure ends it.
Any journey can be long enough to take weeks of travel, or short enough to be next door. A journey plot is not dependant on the distance involved, but on the movement external or internal as the case may be.
When the rescue is mentioned, many first thoughts may be something like Rambo. I suppose somebody had to save Private Ryan. But consider Schindler’s List or more recently, the Blind Side. In the Blind Side, a young man is rescued from a terrible situation and given a chance at life he could never have imagined… and the audience knows when the rescue is complete. When he and they are a family
Consider how many fairy tales involve rescues: Snow White at the end, Sleeping Beauty, and Beauty and the Beast. The beautiful thing about Beauty and the Beast is the way the story is twisted in the end (at least in the Disney version). Gaston musters the courage to rescue Belle from the beast, but in the end we discover that all along Belle has been rescuing the beast.
Like the escape and pursuit plot, the plot begins with someone in need. Escape and pursuit has someone held captive. Rescue has someone taken captive, like Red Chief in O’Henry’s Ransom of Red Chief. (I say someone is taken captive but to be sure it can be a dog, a cat, a whale, a snail or it may simply be someone in a terrible situation). In any case, the protagonist is the one who must do the rescuing and often the story shows little of the one imprisoned. Consider the cliché of the ex-husband who steals the kids and the mother who goes on a search and rescue mission. The plot invariably focuses on the efforts of the mother.
The trigger, like in most journey plots comes quick. It is the set-up. Someone needs to be rescued and your protagonist is the only one for the job.
The middle is where the obstacles arise. Again, like the escape and pursuit plot, a near miss or two can do wonders to build the tension. Of course, if it is the Princess imprisoned by the dragon or Repunzel who for some reason has no capacity to exit the tower, there are no opportunities for near misses. But the forest ranger might pass right by the child lost in the woods without realizing it, or the mother might get to the motel in time to see her ex drive away—the child looking out the back window and crying for her…
The end is the completion of the rescue, success or failure. They are not all happy endings, but hey, that’s your call. In any case, there is rarely a return pursuit.
Mysteries and Thrillers
Mysteries and especially their first cousins, the thrillers can be full of action and adventure (external stories) but at heart both are journeys – journeys of the mind (internal stories). If done well, they are journeys as much for the reader as they are for the protagonist.
Read the greats: Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan-Doyle, Dorothy Sayers, Dashiell Hammett and you will quickly see what I mean. From the beginning of the riddle to the revelation at the end there are miles to go before you sleep. True, National Treasure may be seen as a thriller or mystery as much as a quest. In The Hunt for Red October, action may be the draw. It certainly is for an author like Ludlum. Yet like any mystery, when the clues are followed, the mystery slowly unravels.
So the protagonist starts with a puzzle, perhaps something like a great jigsaw puzzle, and has to put the pieces in just the right places to see the final picture. The journey, then, is from ignorance to knowledge, from confusion to understanding. From questions to solutions.
As with any journey plot, the trigger comes quick. I would not recommend a chapter on what a wonderful person the victim is and another chapter on what an insane, evil creature the murderer is. There is a reason why so many books start with a dead body. That is where the mystery (the journey) begins.
Mrs. Lavender kept being slapped in the face by her own scarf as the wind roared through the broken conservatory window. She did not mind, however, since she was dead. The kitchen knife was planted firmly in her chest…
Professor Pinch was lying on the plush oriental rug in the library, but he was not taking a nap. The lead pipe with the blood stains beside his head assured that he would never take a nap again…
Colonel Ketchup’s body swung from the end of the rope. The chair was turned over and one of the officers handed his superior the suicide note in a plastic bag. It looked like suicide, but as the chief detective reached for his Tums he decided it smelled like murder.
Once the protagonist enters the picture, it is off to the races. There will be obstacles throughout the middle of the story like any journey plot and getting lost (misdirection toward the wrong suspect) is almost expected. In the case of the mystery or thriller, though, there is another element that needs special attention: the clues.
The clues, above all, make for a good mystery and the slim chance that a reader might figure it out keeps the reader to task. These must be done with great skill and dexterity, and probably why I will never be a true mystery writer. I am too blunt. But when done well, they make perfect sense at the end. No one should doubt if the Butler really did it.
Again, as with all journey plots, the end comes with success or failure. We are accustomed to success (probably because of all those detective/police dramas on television over all of those years). But sometimes the antagonist gets away with it. Everyone, including the reader knows, but… The question in that case is should we be mad (upset) or cheer that they got away with it?