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The seven basic storylines: #6 Voyage and Return

Little boy flying through clouds on suitcase

One thing you may not have realised about stories is that, for all the possible variations, each falls into one of seven archetypal narratives, as described by Christopher Booker. In this miniseries, our guest contributor, author Lewis Bright Rees, will take you through them.

You have an ordinary, humdrum life. Maybe you’re trapped in a bad relationship, maybe you have issues with your family, but mostly, you’re perfectly ordinary.

And then comes the ‘inciting incident’. You haven’t been called to adventure so much as dragged into it, kicking and screaming. Maybe you follow a white rabbit down a hole, or maybe the Goblin King spirits your stepbrother away. Here we go: you’ve found yourself in a ‘Voyage and Return’ storyline.

A new world order

The Voyage and Return storyline is all about putting an ordinary character (for the setting) in an extraordinary situation: a new world, with new laws and new rules. After many adventures in this exciting and frightening world, culminating in the dark and disastrous climax of their time there, the protagonist returns home, all the better for their experience. This will often be framed by an anticipatory phase at the start of the story and and a return to equilibrium at the end.

Often, the protagonist has a goal within this new world that prevents them trying very hard to escape – be it curiosity, scientific or otherwise, or some sense of valour, such as the rescuing of a loved one trapped there. They will become wrapped up in some kind of quest, having to face off against some great evil or injustice before ‘earning’ their way home.

The storyline in practice

This storyline is perhaps unique in that it can fit into just about every genre with equal ease. From science-fiction classics like H G Wells’ The Time Machine to war stories like Saving Private Ryan, this storyline has been used again and again in every setting imaginable, and is a great trope for exploring new political and cultural ideologies.

Outside of genre fiction, Voyage and Return is almost universally about adapting to a new culture or social class, and therefore often crosses over with the Rags to Riches storyline. What sets these two apart are their endings. In Rags to Riches, a character will permanently adapt to their new situation. The hero of a Voyage and Return story, on the other hand, will return to their old way of life with valuable new experiences. The protagonist of the former will usually fully assimilate into their new life, while the hero of the latter will decide they prefer a simple – or, at least, familiar – life.

Integrity intact

This storyline teaches us that no matter how ill-suited we are to a task or situation, we’re also adaptable, and we can survive. No matter the trials they face, the hero always finds a way to persevere. In genre fiction, they typically do so without fully assimilating into their new environment. If magic is prevalent, expect them to rely on their wit and cunning. If they journey to a violent world, expect them to survive using their kindness and guile.

In more realistic fiction, assimilation is a necessity, but there are often some lines the hero won’t cross, just as there are lines we might not cross in the same position. We can survive, but we don’t need to sacrifice our integrity to do so. We all have something unique to contribute to a new world.

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