Last week’s post gave us a feel for a traditional story arc – the lift-off from normality to a challenge, stakes rising in crescendo to the most exciting, potentially harrowing place in the story, the place of crisis where something vital is realised, something won, before things rest back towards a new, richer normality.
Forgive my graphics please – drawing has never been my best thing!
A story arc is not symmetrical like an arch: the highest point is closer to the end than the beginning. Any dips or slackening in the arc’s line is where your reader will put your book down and wander off to find something more interesting to do.
Let’s take a closer look at some of our most familiar plot structures. For this I lean not only on my own reading over the years but on the late Christopher Booker’s masterpiece The Seven Basic Plots. If you were ever to find me alone on a desert island, the chances are my free copies of the Bible and Shakespeare would be gathering dust among the sand dunes and I would be deep in The Seven Basic Plots. Not that I agree with Booker that there are only seven basic plots or that they are necessarily the ones he identifies, but I love the way he analyses and debates it all.
Quest is one of the oldest plot structures in the world. There’s no need to fetch it a rocking chair and slippers though, it’s very much alive and filling cinemas and bookshops. Raiders of the Lost Ark is a classical quest in the old style and so is Erin Brokovitch. Aeneas and the tribes of Israel are on quests for new homes every bit as much as the rabbits in Watership Down. Gulliver’s Travels, Bunyan’s Pilgrim, Jason and the Golden Fleece, Treasure Island (the buried treasure), Frodo taking the Ring to the Cracks of Doom, Sir Lancelot and the Holy Grail, the Taken films – what do they all have in common?
The ingredients of a great quest are a priceless goal far away, a questor with an overwhelming desire to up sticks and go and get it, surviving many perils and obstacles, internal and/or external over a long journey, before eventually the goal is achieved.
Let’s develop this a little:
- The quest should be really important – preferably life or death in some way or other. In the stories of the tribes of Israel and Watership Down, for example, the whole community will be wiped out unless a new home is found.
- The quest has great urgency. There is no choice but to go now. ‘To boldly go’ and seek new civilisations here and there is not nearly pressing enough to be a quest unless life at home is no longer possible.
- Leaving to go on the quest requires considerable self-sacrifice but it’s inevitable.
- Even starting on the quest can be dangerous. For example, in Treasure Island, Jim is in deep danger before he’s even left his mother’s pub.
- The hero usually takes companions or gathers them. Even Dick Whittington has his cat. An exception is Lancelot whose spiritual quest for the Grail (as penance for his adultery with Guinevere) is solitary. There’s always room for exceptions.
- A pattern ensues of near-fatal ordeals alternating with periods of respite – tension followed by resolution prompting danger again in ever-rising stakes.
- Alien terrain is usually involved, real or figurative, where the hero/ine is far from home.
- Monsters (Polyphemus, harpies, auks) and temptations (Dido, Circe) abound and there can be a visit to the underworld (Christian in the Valley of the Shadow of Death; Odysseus meeting Achilles)
- Sometimes there’s help from a wise old man or woman, ranging from Tiresias to Obi Wan.
Once the quest has been achieved – Odysseus makes it back home to Ithaca, the Watership rabbits find a suitable new warren, Lancelot glimpses the Holy Grail – is the story over? You’d think so but no. That does not satisfy our need, honed over countless centuries, for the best in story-telling. In fact, arrival is only half way. Odysseus arrives home in Ithaca at the end of Book 12 out of 24. The Watership rabbits spend the second half of their story securing the land in a battle, and finding and wooing female rabbits before they can settle with them and call the place home. Lancelot sips from the Holy Grail but must spend time as a hermit, and train and live as a priest before he is allowed to see Guinevere’s face again, while he’s officiating at her funeral.
Poor Lancelot. I imagine his grizzled smile as he confides that he found honour at last at that funeral and that his quest, though testing him to the limits of his endurance, simultaneously broke and healed his poor, battered heart.
All quests end happily, one way or another. That sounds sweeping but if there is not some sort of happy resolution, the story just isn’t a quest. Could it be that the quest’s real theme is not achievement of the goal at all, whatever it is, but learning to appreciate home, honour, security, wholeness? Love?
Love creeps in surprisingly often at a quest’s end as a symbol of that wholeness, a blessing on the story’s other endeavours. Romance may have been very far from our hero’s mind but it’s part of Quest’s ancient pedigree that he is rewarded with ‘the Princess’ in return for his labours as well as everybody’s applause. (In that historic way, the questor is male in the early tales and ‘the Princess’ is handed over as a trophy whether she likes it or not. Usually, in the hands of an expert storyteller, we have been prepared for this being a love match for them both and she’s as thrilled as he is.)
That’s not the only template of course. Odysseus’s quest for home after the Trojan Wars takes credit for being one of the oldest stories in Western literature but in many ways Homer breaks the mould while he sets the standard. Odysseus’s ‘Princess’ is not some young beauty he hardly knows: she’s his wife Penelope who has been loyally waiting for him through his ten years of war and another ten years of wanderings. Did he wander by the shortest route? No, but after all his shenanigans with love goddesses and what have you, after he’s hauled his boat onto the shore and rested his eyes on his home sunset for the first time in so long,
all Odysseus longs for is to be home in his own bed with his loving wife, and for them to grow old together. But first he has to win her again as if they were youngsters.
As I said last week, these thoughts are not flat-pack instructions, or patterns for knitting identical jumpers. Take from them what works for you and reinvent the wheel as Homer did.
Which brings me to LOVE STORIES. Love is as essential to us as food and water and what a palaver we often make of it. Next week we’ll look at how the structure of love stories has mutated over the centuries. You’ll be able to absorb the variations and make them your own.
Choose your favourite quest story – page or screen – and write freely about why you like it so much. Why do those particular characters work in that story? Where does the action begin? What is the most heart-breaking moment? Does a main character undergo any change in the story or learn anything life-changing? What hooks you into it all? Why?