There is Nothing New Under the Sun
Remember that old saying?
Years ago, when TVs had rabbit ears and PBS was the only way to watch without commercial interruptions, I saw Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth. It was 1988 and this professorial man synthesized the history of humanity through our storytelling. This is where I learned about patterns in prose literature. This is where I learned about the commonality of myths. There are tropes, there are archetypes, forms writers follow and readers recognize. The Hero’s Adventure, otherwise known as The Quest, is one of only a handful of stories we tell and retell in many forms.
Recently I ran across a meme on Facebook comparing the plot of Moana with Lord of the Rings. Someone from Buzzfeed ended up writing an entire article about it. This “discovery” just shows how each of these stories is (quite properly) following a specific plot type: The Quest. There are parallels, intentional parallels, between stories within the fantasy genre; this is not plagiarism (as many social media commentators would sneer), this is form.
Many, many other adventure stories (you may have seen the movie, read the book, or both!) follow the same guidelines. Think Star Wars, The Wizard of Oz, Harry Potter, Hunger Games, and The Hobbit. Of course, there are variations within the form, but the plot outline is recognizable because it is so universal.
- Ordinary World: The hero has a life readers can identify with, can recognize as ordinary. Ordinary is not perfect, even flawed, but somehow our protagonist does not quite fit in.
- Moana wants to sail beyond the reef, not sure about her “role.”
- Harry doesn’t fit in with his family, the Dursleys, and even his hair doesn’t stay cut. (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone aka Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone)
- Refusal of the Call: More complex plots will have a reluctant hero who refuses the call. Maybe the main character doesn’t see the need or is a shy, humble character who doesn’t believe heor she has anything special to offer. Or maybe our would-be protagonist is torn between duty to hearth and home and doesn’t want to defy a parental figure.
- The Ocean chooses Moana, parting itself and giving her the Heart, but she is not ready yet and drops it.
- Bilbo Baggins refuses Gandalf twice. (The Hobbit)
- Meeting the Mentor: The hero taps into a source of extra information or training that will assist him or her on the journey. There may be a literal mentor who trains the hero in combat or swordplay or there might be a tome of wisdom that gives the protagonist an advantage in facing conflicts along the way. Sometimes the mentor gives skeletal information and the protagonist is left saying, “Wait, what?”
- Moana’s learns the island’s history from Gramma who tells her about her father’s wish to sail and shows her the hidden cave of seafaring boats.
- The Witch of the North tells Dorothy to “follow the yellow brick road” and a few other tidbits of advice about those shiny silver shoes (red in the film). (The Wonderful Wizard of Oz)
- Answering Call to Action: There is an initiating conflict or motivating factor that brings the hero into the story, sometimes called the “Threshold and Descent.” Whether the hero chooses to enter the story (sees the real evil good is up against) or gets dragged in involuntarily, something dramatically changes the hero’s life and throws this protagonist into a new story, a quest. Our protagonist acts because it seems there is no other choice.
- The failing crops and empty nets are not enough to push Moana far enough to defy her father and take to the sea; it is her Gramma’s words from her sickbed.
- Luke only takes Ben up on his offer to leave after his aunt and uncle have been murdered. (Star Wars)
- The Journey Begins or Threshold and Descent: The quest generally takes the main character on a journey. The adventure means travel, arduous, long, dangerous travel, towards a goal. More ancient stories might have meant across the sea (Odysseus), science fiction can involve space travel. Our protagonist must go through multiple hardships or trials in order to be worthy of reaching the goal.
- Moana takes to the sea, Odysseus style, and her early challenges include just getting the boat to sail for her.
- Harry Potter has to enter a new world through a train platform that appears to be a solid brick wall. He doesn’t have a native understanding of what it means to be a wizard and has to adjust.
- Assembling allies. The protagonist gathers an entourage or gains a sidekick.
- Moana leaves Pua the pig behind, but Hei Hei the rooster stows away, becoming part of her journey and instrumental to the plot.
- Bilbo becomes the fourteenth member of a band of mostly dwarves.
- The Hero is Tested and Faces Conflicts. The protagonist has to figure out who to fight and how to win. There may be combat or tests of wits. The protagonist solves problems that only he or she could have figured out through some unique experience or memory.
- Moana faces Maui and convinces him to help her return the heart.
- Each of the conflicts Katniss faces in the Games are trials readying her for the real conflict with Snow. (Hunger Games)
- Entering the Cave: Whether literal or figurative, this is when our protagonist makes a further decision to enter the darkness and keep going despite the obvious danger.
The Central Ordeal: Death gets very close to the hero. A companion or sidekick may actually die or the hero is so badly injured that he or she nearly dies. The group might suffer conflict or be tempted to give up.
Gaining a Magic Elixir, Sword, or Talisman: The hero combats an adversary or succeeds at a dangerous task to earn a reward, an important tool to defeat the antagonist or complete the mission. In some stories, the hero regains a love interest which helps heal or renew our protagonist with the will to go on or enough energy to finish the story.
- Moana and Maui enter the realm of Tamatoa to retrieve Maui’s hook. It’s dark. It’s scary, and they survive with a combination of teamwork and Moana’s wits.
- Dorothy and her companions climb the mountain and try to sneak their way into the Wicked Witch’s domain.
- Harry and his companions, Hermione and Ron, enter the forbidden third floor corridor. Ron is badly injured during the life-sized game of Wizard’s Chess, sacrificing himself for the sake of Harry’s journey.
- Bilbo enters a troll cave and comes out with Sting.
- In Moana, this may not be a literal journey, but reaffirmation of what home means to her. Her grandmother, in the form of a stingray, visits her.
- The Final Test or The Resurrection: By getting back on the road, back on the mission, the hero has put himself or herself in the path of major conflict with the antagonist. Now that the hero has been tested multiple times, is stronger, smarter, more confident than ever before, the protagonist inevitably faces the real enemy, the antagonist, in a final, critical test that is the most dangerous of all. Our protagonist fights not for his or her survival, but for something bigger, whether it is an ideal or a hometown or the whole world.
- Moana gains the heart from Te Kā and returns it to Te Fiti. It is Moana who realizes that Te Kā and Te Fiti are one and the same, and that resolution for Te Fiti can only come with knowing who she is, the lesson Moana herself has learned.
- Luke, one of the few surviving pilots, uses skills he’s gained from the journey thus far to use the Force and hit the exact spot to destroy the Death Star.
- The Return: At the end of our protagonist’s journey, he or she makes a full circle and returns home, a changed person. The hero brings the reward earned in the Central Ordeal back home to the Ordinary World and all is right with the world.
- Moana returns to her island, the darkness that has blighted it resolved with the return of the heart to Te Fiti and with the knowledge of seafaring skills to reestablish her people as voyagers. Maui, too, returns to help reestablish sailing skills among the villagers.
- It is finally revealed to Dorothy that her silver shoes were her means of returning home all along. Now that she is worthy and has been able to settle all of her companions in their resolutions, it is her turn to return to her regular life.
I put this together both for my own reference as well as for writers or interested readers like me. I quelled the initial list from many sources, and there is some variation on the theme, but some good places to look are listed below.
- Pen and Muse also looks at Basic Story Plots: The Quest.
- The Pen & The Pad also describes How to Do Plot Development in a Quest Story.
- The Writer’s Journey puts together several easy to read outlines, with more than a nod to Joseph Campbell and Christopher Vogle.
- Also check out The Stages of the Hero’s Journey, a PDF of Excepts from Myth and the Movies, by Stuart Voytilla and Christopher Vogle.
Happy Writing/ Happy Questing!