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 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.
The Rise and The Fall.
All the world’s a stage, as Shakespeare said, and in the course of watching the play, if you watch closely, you will see that some travel on the upward path, some fall calamitously, and some do both and in no particular order. As so many others have said: life is a journey, and in examining journey plots we must not miss out on where life takes us.
No single story has probably received more derision that the story of Horatio Alger. Yet as an archetype plotline, no story has likely been copied quite so often. No film has honestly received more praise than Citizen Kane, yet if you look closely, the thrust of both Horatio Alger and Citizen Kane is the same. One man, from (relatively) humble beginnings makes good in the world. The virtue of Citizen Kane was in adding the “Rosebud” ending, but whether or not your character will be content in the end to live a simple, humble life and drive a taxi, only Somerset Maugham knows for sure.
Generally, this plot begins with some kind of Great Expectations. The upward direction, however, is invariably set by some virtue on the part of the young man or woman that makes us want to see them succeed. This is true even in this day of ethical relativity. If the person is a scoundrel motivated by greed, a desire for power or some other “un-virtuous” trait, we shall be waiting for them to receive their come-uppance.
The downward spiral is then obviously a matter of some vice or corruption of the character and we are satisfied when they collapse before our eyes. Now, this does not mean the virtue or vice needs to be Horatio Alger obvious. Unless you are rewriting Pilgrim’s Progress, focus on the attributes is not recommended—but they must be there and self-evident in some way to make the plot really sing.
When the rise and fall are both involved, consider how a man or woman can become corrupted at the top, or how one fallen soul can discover virtue at the bottom of the heap and fight their way back to the top, this time to stay!
As with all Journey plots, the stage should be set quickly. Someone is going to move and indeed must move quickly. Take the first forty pages of background and set-up and throw it away. When starting with vice at the top there may be a little space to show how badly this person deserves to fall, but even there the inevitable direction of the journey should be obvious from the start. If they fall, have a redemptive experience and rise back up again, great. But the coming fall should be clear from page one.
In the middle, as with all journey plots, there will be obstacles. To quote myself: “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.“
In the case of the Rise and Fall, there is a great opportunity to reinforce the deserved direction by moments, words, vignettes, subtle actions that show the virtue or vice of the character rather than tell about it. These would be sort of like clues in the mystery or thriller plots or points of meaning (direction) in the exploration and discovery plots or near misses in the rescue or escape and pursuit plots. These might be called points of revelation in the Rise and Fall plots. Don’t neglect them, especially if the fallen will rise again…
In the end, as with all journey plots, one succeeds or fails. All journey plots arrive somewhere, even if it is not the intended final destination. One of the saddest verses in the Bible says, “and he stopped there.” You see, Abraham’s father, Tera was first called by God to go to the promised land. He got as far as Haran “and he stopped there.” So God called his son, Abram, to finish the journey and now Abraham is considered the father of nations, and I bet you did not even know who Tera was…
Transformation and Metamorphosis
Last post I talked about life as a journey, and specifically when it moves in an upward or downward direction, and sometimes both. Life, however, does not always move in a sure and certain path. Sometimes it moves in strange and unexpected directions, but it never stands still. That is the key to the transformation plot, recognizing that life does not ever stay the same. It always changes.
The classic transformation story can be heard every Sunday morning in any American church where testimonies are given. It is the conversion story. Sometimes the degradation starts from the beginning, but usually the story starts with a falling away from the faith. Then, if you listen closely, you will hear the journey, all the failures, the difficulties, the struggles until at last, they find God (or God finds them) and saves them, which is to say puts them on the upward path rather than the downward path.
Now, consider Dorian Gray. His transformation was deserved, but Scrooge’s was not. Go figure. But Dickens’ Christmas Carol is a classic story of the journey of a man through his life that transforms his whole being. To be sure, the transformation story is about what happens inside a person that changes them in some way irrevocably and forever.
The transformation story is most evident when a physical change accompanies the internal change, but it must be done well to avoid becoming campy or just plain stupid. Avoiding the obvious stories that come to mind with the word “metamorphosis,” consider Ionesco’s play, Rhinoceros. Better yet, look at the classics in mythology and in folk tales.
Venus made the statue come to life. George Bernard Shaw thought that was a good idea for a play, Pygmalion. Everyone knows the musical version: My Fair lady, or they should. And folktales abound with metamorphoses. There is the Frog Prince, Beauty and the Beast, and one that illustrates the transformation plot very well: Pinocchio.
As with any journey, the plot must begin fast. We are delighted in the end when Scrooge is reformed, but we know from page one that this guy is headed for either Heaven or Hell. Most often, the transformation occurs at the end as in “the lesson learned.” Occasionally, though, the transformation can happen right up front and the story can follow the adjustments necessary to deal with this change in reality—as in the Grapes of Wrath.
In Pinocchio’s case, there is a partial transformation in the very beginning when in answer to a lonely old man’s prayer, a puppet comes to life. Then comes the middle of the story where the lesson or lessons must be learned to achieve a good outcome to it all.
As with the Rise and Fall stories, the transformation story usually hinges on some virtue or some vice. If you are a connoisseur of Medieval romances, you understand the phrase “love conquers all.” Love is certainly the most well-worn trigger to a transformation, but it is hardly the only one. There are many virtues, and vices (temptations) can also trigger a change—for better or worse. (Weddings make great transformational stories).
The middle, then, is the struggle either to cope with the new set of circumstances, with obstacles, temptations to turn back, or it is other events that slow progress or seek to sidetrack the outcome, or it is the struggle to attain the hoped for outcome. Pinocchio has to learn certain lessons such as loyalty, fidelity, about love and about family before he can become a real boy.
The ending, the arrival, also need not be drawn out. Success or failure. That is the key to journey plots. And Transformation plots are like any other journeys: they are not always successful as the Little Mermaid (Anderson’s version) will tell you.
Coming of Age.
This last journey plot needs no introduction. It is the journey from childhood to adulthood, and as the fools say, “been there, done that.” On the one hand, if you have such a story in mind, you have a ready-made audience. Everyone can (more or less) relate. On the other hand, unless you write like Salinger or plan to pen the next To Kill a Mockingbird, you may find it is not so easy to do well or in a fresh way.
Generally, something will happen that will shake or shatter the child’s comfortable view of the world. Unless you are planning a series like Little House on the Prairie, it is probably best to stick with one thing. Other aspects of life will be touched on, like a young girl confirming in her mind that her father is a good man, but only one thing should be troubling, and that should be more than enough.
Then it depends on the character you have drawn because not every child will approach a problem in the same way. Some will explore and discover—perhaps treating the new information like a mystery to be solved. Some will stand back and watch, taking in how this new information plays out in the rise or fall of the adults around her. Some might let the information transform them, like trying on mom or dads grown up clothes—and may find out that the information was not quite the same as they first imagined. There is not just one way to get from New York to Los Angeles.
In the end, the crisis will be resolved one way or another, and it will be transformative, even if all Dorothy learns is if she ever goes searching for her heart’s desire again, she won’t search any further than her own back yard. Children will grow up (we hope—I’m still struggling with teenagers). It needs to show in the resolution.
Actually, we have already walked through the basic plot. There are only a few things to add—things which are essentially true of all journey plots.
First, let the dilemma be presented up front. The journey cannot begin until staying home is no longer an option. Grandma dies, or single mom brings her boyfriend into the house, or a burglar breaks into the house and terrorizes the family, or the child learns their father died in Afghanistan—whatever. There is an issue (issues) and childhood’s safe and secure world is at stake. That is where the journey begins. That is where they story begins.
The middle is the struggle to deal with it all. Explore, discover, step up in strength, fall back in weakness and withdraw, trying on clothes. The success of the story will depend to a great extent on how well these turns of the mind and heart, like obstacles in the road are portrayed, how well they relate to the end result and how creative, imaginative and well written the obstacle sequences are
The end—the transformation from child to adult, at least in this small way—will mirror all journey plots: success or failure; that is good, bad or sad. Good will be if the child gains a more realistic view of life and is better able to handle reality on a more adult level. Bad, if the child rejects the lessons and leaves the reader thinking that this one is going to need some serious counseling (if not drugs) ten years down the line. Sad, if it ends the way so many of these stories apparently want to end these days: with the child replacing innocence with cynicism. There are other options, you know.
In any case, start at the start, ditching the background and build-up. Keep in mind that this is a journey. Arrive at the destination in a few pages and stop. Yes, the train slows before the station and the plane taxis to the terminal after landing, but don’t drag it out. Don’t let the beginning or ending drag. A journey story is all about the middle—it is all about the journey.