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English teacher interested in language and culture, and also in fiction using magic, myth, folklore and the supernatural. Now teaching part-time in a Leicester Upper School (ages 14-19) and also writing for children, teens and teachers.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

April A-Z: Quest

The quest is central to narrative. I nearly put 'most' narrative, or tried to qualify it with genre, but actually that's not true: good storytelling features the quest. We sometimes think of this as a fantasy trope (get the sword/ magic jewel/ amulet or defeat the wicked wizard/ giant/ faery queen), but it can be found in romance, crime, family saga, whatever.

Many writers on writing ask the following key questions:

  • what does your main character want?
  • who or what stands in their way?
  • what do they need to do to achieve their goal?

Surely this is just another version of the quest (or hero's journey)?

There is a wealth of material available on the hero's journey/quest structure online and in books for writers, so I won't rehash it all here. The version I follow is greatly simplified from the concept's very academic origins, but it is a working version for the material I'm working on:

  1. Hero's world is introduced
    • This is often very brief in writing for kids and YA, but it is important to gain some sense of the MC in their normal setting. 
  2. Call to adventure
    • This is the MC's first opportunity to act, to take on the quest or battle ahead. At this point, it is an option. 
  3. Hero ignores call
    • This step allows us to see the MC as normal (we wouldn't take up the quest either, probably!) and vulnerable. Often this refusal is due to self-doubt; that 'but what can I do about it?' moment.
  4. Hero crosses the threshold
    • At this point, something happens to force the MC's hand. Now we need to believe that there is no other way; the MC has to set forth on the adventure. Something needs to be at stake that is too big a risk for the MC to ignore.
  5. A mentor appears 
    • This doesn't always happen. In a folktale, we'd meet a magical character of some sort with a gift for the hero. Sometimes the mentor doubles as a romantic interest.
  6. Encounters with negative forces
    • At this stage, we don't always encounter the 'big bad', but perhaps their underlings. This can be quite a long stage, with many setbacks.
  7. Hero's self-doubt
    • This part is crucial. There must be a point where the MC almost gives up, or even almost joins the dark forces. 
  8. A sign
    • This is sometimes about a talisman or amulet which magically helps the MC to win a battle. It may also be a message they somehow receive which reassures them they're on the right path.
  9. Final battle
    • This needs to be inevitable, and is usually the MC's first chance to fight the Big Bad head-on.
  10. Return to normal world
    • This is another stage which is often shorter in kids' and YA fiction. In classical myth, the return home could take up a large part of the story, often with further encounters and dangers. In some more recent kids' books, this part includes characters piecing everything together and finally understanding how their separate experiences make sense as a whole (or Dumbledore explaining everything to Harry Potter, of course). There must be a sense that the MC's quest has made a difference in their normal world, not just to themselves.
If this is new to you and you want to read further, I'd recommend:
Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (for a scholarly explanation of the 'monomyth' theory)
Christopher Vogler, The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers (for a discussion of how the monomyth concept can help writers)
James Scott Bell, [Write Great Fiction] Plot & Structure (for a more recent version giving many examples from books and films)

This blog series from Terell Mims explores each stage in a different post. His follow-up series on archetypes is well worth a read too.


  1. I just read a really good book where the kid goes on a quest. Good topic for the day

  2. Wow, this is great ^-^ Sounds like what my English teacher tried to teach me...

  3. Great, great post. So much information I'm gonna have to write it down!

  4. Awesome post! I recently read Save the Cat - it's a screenwriters Bible, but it's amazing how closely the hero's journey ties in with the STC author's guidelines for your story arc.

    Hopping over from A-Z. Nice to meet you!


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