Masterplots Theater: Q is for Quest

Q Masterplots Theater-5Welcome 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:

Lord of the Rings coverI 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.

Future Research:

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!

For more episodes of Masterplots Theater, check out the list below:

A is for Adventure
B is for Buddy Love
C is for Chosen One
D is for Dystopia
E is for Escape
F is for Fool Triumphant
G is for Gothic
H is for Happily-Ever-After

I is for Institutionalized
J is for Journal
K is for Kinsmen
L is for Love Story
M is for Metamorphosis

N is for Nemesis
O is for Out of the Bottle
P is for Pursuit

Author: Robin Rivera

Robin trained as a professional historian and worked as a museum curator, educator, and historical consultant. She writes mystery fiction, with diverse characters and a touch of snark. She's currently working on two new manuscripts that started off as NaNoWriMo projects. You can follow her on Facebook( However, Pinterest ( is where her inner magpie is happiest of all.

23 thoughts on “Masterplots Theater: Q is for Quest”

  1. As a fantasy fan, reader and ever a bit as fantasy writer, I’m very familiar to this masterplot.
    I have a conflicting feeling towards it. On one hand, I really like the concept of the journey in all its incarnation, so of course I also like the quest journey. On the other, at a certain point (and unfortunally, that point came when I started getting into fantasy at the beginning of the 1990s) the quest was such a common plot in fantasy, that I became very tired of it.
    True, today, it’s a lot less common, but I’m still very picky about it.

    The Old Shelter – Jazz Age Jazz

    1. Hi Amalia,
      Yes, The Hero’s Journey is the structure most people think of when we talk about quest plots. But it also works for Adventure plots and several others, so it can trick people. That’s a great image in your link. I may need to pin that on Pinterest. : )

  2. Would Scarlett (the sequel to Gone With the Wind) count as a quest?

    Through both Gone With the Wind and Scarlett, she is searching for security. She goes to Ireland to be with her family there. There are conflicts on both sides of the Atlantic for her. She is most definitely changed for the experience…who can go through war, the death of one’s children, and rape, and not be changed?

    Anyway, I guess I am just looking for further explanation/example to clarify things for me. This is a struggle for me. They tell me exercising my brain will help me to get it healthy again, so that’s what I’m trying to do, even if I end up looking stupid in the process of it. 🙂

    Have a blessed day!

    1. I have not read Scarlett, but it sounds like it might be less of a Quest and more of a Discovery Masterplot. Unfortunately, we didn’t cover the Discovery Masterplot this month, but it’s about the character’s search for understanding.

      The Quest is about the search for external items, but the search still ends up being deeply personal and life changing.

      Is that helpful?

    1. Hi Kathleen,
      You’re in the majority with your love of quests. It seems like they’re never out of favor with readers.

    1. Thanks, Sarah!
      Also Adventures often use a MacGuffin as the object being sought and have locating riches as a common goal. But yes, otherwise lots of cross over between Quest and Adventure.

  3. I’m curious–which wonky bits does it have? Lord of the Rings was the first novel that came to mind with your “Quest” title, so I”m curious to see why you think it deviates from the typical quest masterplot.

    1. Hi Andrea,
      It would take a long time to outline all the areas it deviates, but The Fellowship of the Ring is the first big reason. Most of that piece of LOTR is not a quest plot, there is no clear quest objective, no pledge to undertake the quest and no fully formed quest party. All that happens after they arrive at Rivendell. At that point the book starts to feel more like a quest, for a while. But it doesn’t last long. Frodo and Sam remain on the quest path until the end, but the others do not. Realistically, the scope of the story and its many parallel plotlines muddy the classic quest structure enough to make it a wonky example. Hopefully, that makes sense for a quick answer.

      1. Ah, that makes sense. When characters abandon the quest, and we (and the narration) continue to follow them, we’re in an expanded plot from the classic quest plot. Thanks for explaining!

  4. Great points, Sharon. I’ve never written a straight quest because of fear of being a Tolkien knock-off, but I’d like to try one some day. Excellent run-down, Robin, about the defining characteristics of one.

    1. Hi Cathleen,
      I think it would be hard to come off as a Tolkien knock-off without a lot of effort. His style is too unique. Plus, the Quest plot is universal. You don’t have to set your story in Epic or High fantasy genre. It works in any era and even in real world settings.

      1. I never meant to imply that my writing is anything close to Tolkien’s mastery of style or skill, just that so many quest stories do seem to mimic his basic ideas – and I don’t want to go there.

        1. No worries, Sharon! Your story sounds fabulously original. Best of all the quest plot predates Tolkien by centuries. He borrowed it from those early writers and so can we. : )

  5. I love Quest plots. (I’d even go so far as to say my WIP is a spin on the Quest concept.) LOTR, The Hobbit, Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist… They’re all stories that force the character(s) to leave home to achieve a certain goal and then come home changed.

    Awesome job on this series overall, btw. I haven’t had a chance to comment on all of the posts, but I’ve read them and have really enjoyed it so far. 🙂

    1. Hi Sara,
      That sounds intriguing. I can’t wait to read your WIP and see how you mixed up the Quest to give it a new angle.

      Thanks! The series has been a lot of research work! Much more than I expected. But it has turned into something Heather and I are really proud of.

  6. You’ve provided several great examples of the quest plot. Quest is especially popular with young readers because they are still trying to figure out who they are and what they want to do with their lives, so reading about characters on a quest gets close to their own open paths and questioning minds. I’m working on a story for middle readers about a prince on a quest. I’m pleased to note that it meets all your requirements for this masterplot. The danger of course is being too derivative of everything else out there. My story is loosely based on a contemporary young man’s true experience. I hope it’s the factor that makes my story stand out. Thanks for this one, Robin.

    1. I think setting a quest plot in a modern timeline would make it easy to avoid comparisons. I can’t imagine one looking too derivative. : ) Also using a contemporary true story as a base for your plot sounds very interesting to me. Middle readers do love a quest! I think that’s a big part of the Percy Jackson appeal, the book are quest plots at their core.

We love comments and questions.

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