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Masterplots Theater: Q is for Quest
Welcome back to Masterplots Theater!
I often see authors describing their stories as quests in their book blurbs. Sadly, many of these books are not quests and that leads to reader disappointment. The Quest might be the most misunderstood of all the masterplots. Just because a story is High / Epic Fantasy, or follows Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey formula does not make it automatically a Quest Masterplot. So today we clarify what makes a Quest.
Quest Plot Notes:
The quest involves a main character going in search of something, and they have a basic notion of what they seek at the start of the story. They can search for almost anything. It can be person, like a lost parent or child. It can be a thing, like the Holy Grail. Or it can be a place, like Shangri-La. It can even be something intangible. Don Quixote sets out on a quest to right all of society’s wrongs.
The search for a MacGuffin object does not count. And herein rests one of the biggest issues with most incorrectly labeled stories. The object being sought must be a game changer for the central character. It must define them as a character and the Quest must impact the rest of that character’s life in a meaningful way. If they can go back to their old life happy, healthy and unscathed, they have not been on a quest.
Th Quest is a physical journey; the hero leaves the safety of their home for this search. The story is often told in a linear timeline. The Quest is similar to an Adventure Masterplot in chronology and structure, but the Quest is spiritual, packed with inner conflict and character growth, and that’s something the adventure story seldom is.
The main hero needs buddy characters for their dangerous endeavor. For example, Jason has his Argonauts on the quest for the Golden Fleece. Obsession can cloud the quest character’s judgement and betrayals are common. Quest teams often turn on each other, and create human obstacle for the hero to overcome.
The Quest also works as a subplot in a bigger story. For example, the quest of Inigo Montoya for the man who killed his father in THE PRINCESS BRIDE.
Even if the quest prize is never reached, ultimately the story is about gathering inner wisdom. Each obstacle on the quester’s path teaches something valuable. The ending result of the journey is often not what the hero expected at the start.
Example to Study:
I was planning to avoid using THE LORD OF THE RINGS this month, because as quests go it has some wonky bits. But it is a favorite plot of so many people, and I decided to relent. I’m looking at the three books as one overarching plot for the sake of this example.
· PHYSICAL JOURNEY/SEARCH: Clearly this quest leaves the Shire far behind. By the end of the story there are few corners of Middle Earth that the guest party didn’t step foot on.
· BUDDY CHARACTERS: Sam and Frodo stick together, but all the characters are working in support of the quest, even when some of them are separated from Frodo.
· OBSESSION/BETRAYAL: The ring is by nature an item that breeds obsession, so it’s not surprising that many characters covet it. Or that some are willing to betray alliances and their inner moral code to try to acquire it.
· EFFECTS OF THE QUEST: All of he quest characters are changed at least in part by the quest, but some more than others. Frodo is never the same, while Sam seems the least changed of anyone.
Because Quests plots are often mislabeled, I think it’s best to go back to the basics and read JASMON AND THE ARGONAUTS, THE EPIC OF GILGAMESH and DON QUIXOTE. Many mysteries, particularly those where a protagonist police officer hunts a criminal with single-minded determination, are also loosely based on the Quest masterplot. It can also be helpful to read any story labeled a quest to find evidence for why it is or isn’t one. For example, would THE WIZARD OF OZ be a quest? I say no. I consider it closer to an Escape Masterplot. But others disagree. In truth it’s a gray area because it fits aspects of both masterplots.
Thank you for joining us today. We hope you enjoyed Q is for Quest and we invite you back tomorrow for our next installment of Masterplots Theater, R is for Rite of Passage.
Do you have any Quest stories you love? Please share them in the comments!
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