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The seven basic storylines: #7 The Quest

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.

Picture the scene: you are whisked away to a magical kingdom by a tornado and told the only way to get home is by finding a wizard living in a green city. Or you learn that the only way to defeat your nemesis is to find 7 knickknacks holding pieces of his soul. Congratulations! You’ve found yourself in a ‘Quest’ storyline. 

Put simply, the Quest is all about characters with a goal – but, more than that, it emphasises the journey that the characters embark on to achieve that goal.

The goal is, most often, an item to recover or a location to reach. Sometimes, it is critical to achieving a larger success – such as defeating a nemesis. If this isn’t the case, one of the obstacles in the way will almost definitely be another group hunting for the same item or location, but to different ends. If a protagonist is searching for the Holy Grail for its healing powers, their enemies will want its power to blackmail the world into submission.

In the Quest, the antagonist will often be privy to more information about the item or location than the hero is, but the hero – or group of heroes – has what it takes to reach it.

Luckily, in a Quest storyline, the protagonist likely has a companion or a group of unlikely friends to help them along the way.

There will be sacrifice

Maybe a protagonist is seeking a golden city or unmasking a hidden world? If the goal is a location, it was likely ‘lost’ for a reason. Perhaps the pirates at the lost colony were driven insane with greed and will try to kill anyone that crosses their borders, or perhaps the secret a location holds is so powerful that its guardians have cut themselves off to protect the rest of the world.

No matter what, reaching the goal will require a sacrifice of some kind. By design or providence, the hero must give their life or ideals in a final test of character. Perhaps the Wizard refuses to help them until they’ve killed off his competition, or the hero discovers that there’s a sliver of his nemesis’s soul inside him, as well.

Often, this test involves a line the hero refuses to cross; perhaps it requires the sacrifice of their companion or demands them to take on powers too dangerous for any one person to wield. In these cases, the hero will almost universally refuse. Sometimes, they might find a third option, or discover that the whole sacrifice business was just a secret test of character.

The goal doesn’t really matter

This storyline is typical in genre fiction; if a genre welcomes action and adventure, it will be home to at least a few famous Quest stories. It is rarely found in straight dramas, romances or comedies, but these genres can often cross over into Westerns, action, fantasy and science-fiction, where the Quest fits right in.

This storyline is perhaps unique in that the lessons we can take from its stories easily vary from narrative to narrative, by virtue of the goal itself. By and large, the goal is often a MacGuffin – something to drive the plot that actually does little to influence it. Its interchangeability means that the lesson isn’t set in stone.

A Quest story can, for example, warn of the corrupting power of greed, or the dangers of untapped power. It can tell us that we’re all capable of achieving our goals, or stress that the end result is secondary to the journey.

What they have in common, however, is the affirmation that the goal requires hard work, pushes characters to their limits and shows them what they’re really made of.

You can follow Lewis on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.

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