Basic Plots 3: The Quest
This third basic story-type, may be suitable for many businesses, when it is about business origin and development. However, quest stories are usually very long, eg The Lord of the Rings or The Odyssey.
5 Stages of The Quest
As you read the five stages of The Quest, you see parallels with Overcoming the Monster and Rags to Riches. You see also why quests take a lot of telling. For this reason, I have adapted a real-life story of a business origin. It shows how to cover a quest in 10 or fewer minutes. The business story is in red type.
- The story begins with a call to action. There is some problem in the world of the hero and she sets out to find the remedy. Alternatively, the hero hears of lost treasure and sets out to make her fortune. The hero as a child watched a video about a wedding organiser many times and decided she wanted to be an event organiser.
- The next stage is the journey. The hero usually has companions on the journey and encounters obstacles as well as help on the journey. The hero studied and eventually got a job in New York. She went there and found an amazing opportunity.
- When the hero arrives at their destination, they are frustrated because things are not straightforward. The hero was not doing what she really wanted to do but took advantage of opportunities in New York. Then she was offered an opportunity to organise a several hundred-dollar event.
- The hero and companions have to face a series of final ordeals. These are often three-fold and there are tests only the hero can pass. The hero was able to create a fantastic event by overcoming many obstacles to create something only she was able to achieve.
- Eventually, the hero achieves their goal and returns home with the treasure or the threat resolved. The hero has achieved her childhood ambition and returns home with an assured career as an event organiser.
The Quest often divides into two roughly equal parts, the journey (stage 2) and the final ordeals (4). This story is a journey with a purpose and so most of the story is about achieving the purpose. Often the hero and companions have no idea about the final ordeals until they reach the end of the journey. Here their first goals are usually radically modified.
The business story does not necessarily share the jeopardy of the traditional story. The hero journeyed to further her second best career. The final ordeal was really a great opportunity. The traditional story offers an underlying structure for a story that could become pointless. We’re on the side of the little girl with a dream, who achieves it in a few years. The story is more satisfying when presented this way and not as a simple account of what she did in New York. The person who told this story had already sensed this underlying shape to her story.
Let’s begin with the treasure. What the hero sets out to do or find is not necessarily what they do or find when they get to their destination. But their first promise sets their feet on the road and so it is important. Typically, it is one of these:
- A treasure of great value. The hero sets out to find it. It may be treasure in a literal sense of money or precious stones, maybe valuable objects. Sometimes it is a single priceless object, eg the Holy Grail. Business stories are often framed as a challenge to make money. Note though the story I used earlier does not focus on the money the hero earned, just the budget for the event.
- It can be a journey to meet some threat to the hero’s home. Usually, the prize for the wider community is freedom from the threat. Many businesses start out with envisioning some change they want to see.
- The search for a new home or a promised land. Here everyone sets out on the journey. Examples might be the Exodus or Watership Down. The story of Brexit might be framed in this way. The heroes take everyone with them, even though not everyone wants to go there. An equally challenging story follows the journey towards leaving the EU. What happens once they get what they want?
- A secret of great worth. Here a business story may be about seeking out the support of an expert who has knowledge of a secret to business success. A business owner maxed out her credit cards to raise £20K and then told her husband. This gamble paid off after a lot of hard work and so she had a story!
The treasure is a big part of the call and may be sufficient to get the hero and companions moving. Sometimes they need more.
Clearly, the treasure is left behind, if the home is under threat. This means the hero and companions are moving towards danger and this may not be at all attractive. So, there will be some menace at home. Something that puts them in danger even if they stay. They may be pursued on their journey.
A different type of pursuit is the race, where a rival group are seeking the same treasure.
Companions and Helpers
The word companion means one with whom you share bread. You can see the French word for bread in the word if you look closely! They are the people who go with the hero and help or hinder her progress. They share the risks and dangers of the journey. There are four different types of companion.
- Undifferentiated masses. This is where a whole community sets off on a quest. Think of the Israelites on the Exodus, the Odyssey where several boatloads set out, Watership Down, where a rabbit community seeks a new home.
- There is often a companion who exhibits fidelity. They are extensions of the hero, perhaps a servant and they solely support the hero, think of Sam Gamgee in The Lord of the Rings.
- Others provide a foil. They do not share exactly the same goals as the hero and may at times obstruct the hero. Alternatively, they may display qualities the hero lacks and so help her through the various challenges.
- Finally, there are fully differentiated companions. They have their own reasons for being on the quest and interact with the hero as equals. Typically, one of these is likely to become the partner of the hero, usually after much wavering.
Helpers provide respite and guidance. On the journey, following an ordeal, the helper provides a safe haven and useful advice. Remember Elrond and Galadriel in The Lord of the Rings. This type of support is typically provided by an old man and a young woman.
Sometimes, defeat of an enemy leads to them converting into a helper. Circe in the Odyssey, once defeated helps Ulysses with his quest.
It is always worth asking in any business story: from where did help and support come? Many business owners see themselves as the hero of their own story. Heroes accept help and offer it to companions and helpers. Teamwork is often an essential element in business development.
Respite and guidance are one function of the journey. As the journey progresses, the hero learns more of the problem they face and what’s at stake. The other thing they face is ordeals. Sometimes ordeals are stories in their own right. You can see why quest stories can be very long! So, what sort of ordeals? There are four basic types:
- Monsters, of course. Maybe a mini Overcoming the Monster story. They are not the main threat and may be agents of the main threat. Sometimes they injure the hero and companions and so the need for respite.
- Temptations cause the hero and companions to forget their quest through guile or seduction. The Circe episode in the Odyssey is one of several that deflects the quest, sometimes for years at a time.
- Deadly opposites are a rarer event. We sometimes talk about steering between Scylla and Charybdis – between rocks and a whirlpool.
- A journey to the Underworld is a common event with its own hazards and usually returning with some insight. In modern stories this may be where the hero has a close encounter with death.
Business and personal stories have their share of competitors or other obstructive people, distractions, the need to find the right path between two equally bad options and giving up the entire enterprise.
The Final Ordeal
Key to understanding the quest is the final ordeal. The hero reaches journey’s end with all or some of their companions. They discover things are not as they expected. There is some final, apparently insurmountable barrier.
This part of the story can take as long to tell as the journey. The journey equips the hero and companions with knowledge and experiences they need to overcome this final obstacle. The reward at this stage is to secure the original goal.
The ordeal is often three-fold and the test is one only the hero can pass. At the beginning of the journey they had little or no hope and now they can work out how to overcome the ordeal.
The little girl who watched The Wedding Planner many times over, would not have been able to organise the big event on New York. She needed training and experience as well as to travel a long way!
Life Renewing Goal
The outcome depends on the goal of the quest. The goal changes because things rarely work out exactly as planned. However, we recognise the goal is achieved.
There is a sense of renewal in many quest stories. The typical marriage of the hero and her partner and their benevolent role in their kingdom is likely. But there is a strong sense of renewal for everyone because some threat is overcome and people can live in peace.
This is the third of Booker’s seven plot types. Remember the aim is not to put your story into a straitjacket but to help structure your marketing story in a way that resonates with your market.
Next time we’ll look at a plot that on the surface is similar to the Quest. Voyage and Return is the second about journeying and presents some very different challenges.