Image: Matthew Loffhagen
From Gilgamesh setting out to learn the secret of immortality to the real-life adventures of Chris McCandless, quest narratives have always enthralled us. It could be the allegory (life’s a journey, right?) or boredom with our own nine-to-fives, but whatever it is, the genre is satisfying… if it’s done right. The dark side of quest fiction dips into melodrama, plot plagiarism, and monotony. But if you’ve got a compelling quest, you’ve got a winning book, so let’s take a look at how to nail the positives and avoid those negatives.
Every quest begins with a goal. If the reader doesn’t want to reach that goal, they don’t want to reach the end of the book, and they certainly won’t care about the series. This is why goals in quest literature are usually a big deal – ranging from the Arkenstone and a mountain of treasure to the fountain of youth to the brilliant aggregate prize of wisdom and gold in Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist. Sometimes, the goal is just returning home safe after a long and onerous journey (as in The Odyssey, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Cold Mountain).Base your quest around a goal that excites the reader. Click To Tweet
Treasure is immortally popular (El Dorado, the holy grail, sunken pirate chests, secret fortunes). Freedom and finding a missing person are worthy goals. You can have your protagonist(s) set out to fight for liberty for their people/tribe/town/village/country, or to seek a kidnapped son/sister/royal/secret agent/scientist–father. Sometimes, a quest is for truth or wisdom, to defeat a villain, or to find love. There’s a reason these themes are timeless: they are things people want. If you decide to break free from the conventional choices, just make sure your protagonist’s end goal is something people want.
Plotting and detours
You might not know when your protagonist sets out – backpack full of Clif bars or three magical objects – how they’ll get there or whether they will get there. Be okay with this. While plotting ahead is generally a good thing – and something many writers could stand to do a lot more often – quest narratives sometimes benefit from the odd, unexpected detours that come from spontaneous writing. Being open to this approach may be what uncovers the unique details and personal touches that make your quest memorable.Loose plotting can allow first-draft quest narratives to flourish.Click To Tweet
If we take Anne Lamott’s description of writing – ‘building sand castles with words’ – we can safely say that no-one wants to labor over a sand shed (see ‘begin with the end’ above), but neither do we know every turret and portcullis from the moment we start piling up the sand.
E.L. Doctorow famously put it another way:
Writing a novel is like driving at night in the fog. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.
If you see everything you want to happen in the story too clearly, it will lose some of that marvelous, unpredictable growth that generates authenticity. You end up trying to cajole and manipulate plot points instead of discovering where things naturally lead.
Companions and compatriots
We all know too-perfect, Mary Sue protagonists aren’t convincing or relatable. But for a quest, you don’t want to stick your readers with someone who’s annoying or cowardly or painfully predictable. If you want your readers to come along on the journey, not only do you need to tantalize them with a compelling end goal, but you also should give them an agreeable traveling companion or two.
One great approach is to assemble a group who’ll offer different perspectives on the quest and its goals. You can read more about nailing this in This Is The Blueprint For A Perfect Cast Of Characters.
A quest isn’t a quest without adversity
YouTube’s hit channel ‘How It Should Have Ended’ parodies this idea. If the eagles in The Lord of the Rings scoop Frodo up and hover over the fires so he can drop the ring and be home in time for elevensies, we don’t have a quest story; we have a caricature. For a quest narrative to work, there must be believable obstacles along the way.
One way to do this is to make secrecy integral to the success of the voyage (hence not taking the eagles). Traveling at night is a great way to ensure secrecy, but it comes with predatory animals, difficulty finding a path, exhaustion, drops in temperature, and the need for a daytime hiding place. Taking secluded paths or chartering new trails may facilitate stealth, but it will also mean difficult terrain, longer travel times, and a good chance of getting lost. And that’s before the antagonists even get involved.
Speaking of difficult terrain, use it. Unless your characters are making their way across Nebraska and their end goal is to not die of boredom, there ought to be mountains or deserts or storms or oceans. Depending on the rest of your setting, you might use terrain as an opportunity to weave in some pathetic fallacy, having the weather and terrain echo the mood of a scene, as when the geographic imagery in Life of Pi swallows Pi up and ocean, sky, and boy become one immense longing:
Faith in God is an opening up, a letting go, a deep trust, a free act of love – but sometimes it was so hard to love. Sometimes my heart was sinking so fast with anger, desolation and weariness, I was afraid it would sink to the very bottom of the Pacific and I would not be able to lift it back up.
One last go-to for making your journey more arduous: loss. This means not only potentially having your characters get lost along the way, it means having them lose things that are valuable, thus setting them back. This is different from (or in addition to) the end goal. It might be a map, a cache of food, a body part, a key, or an entire character. This is a great way to add layers of complexity to a quest narrative: readers feel the pain of loss yet must, alongside the protagonist, keep on keeping on.Give your heroes resources they can lose as their quest continues: food, friends, limbs...Click To Tweet
Respite and aid along the way
Trying to go straight from the Shire to Mordor without stopping in Rivendell would be exhausting. Westley and Buttercup would be up a creek (and readers would be bored) without the surprise intervention of Fezzik and Inigo. A breath of relief might be humor (as when Brody, Quint, and Hooper sing a rousing chorus of Farewell and Adieu to Ye Fair Spanish Ladies between shark attacks). It could be love (either Katniss and Peeta kissing on the beach or the abiding tenderness that carries us through The Road). A break can come in the form of sustenance (bonfire and rabbit meat mid-The Grapes of Wrath), advice (when Ajihad tells Eragon that his true power lies in freedom), good fortune (a timely snowfall that erases footprints), R&R (Rivendell) or outright aid (the goat woman who gives Inman vital food and medicine).
You can try different combinations of these elements to avoid feeling too episodic. (First they did this. Then they did this. Next, they did this. The End.) You’re not likely to attain a convincing narrative if, every time your characters are in trouble, somebody swoops in and rescues them. They may need to find hope from within, or feel stirred and rejuvenated by the memory of a loved one, but leavening their suffering will make the next hardship even more effective.Your quest should get harder, but gradually. Make sure your characters have some respite.Click To Tweet
Bottom line: don’t exhaust your readers with a deluge of hardships, but keep your lulls believable and varied.
In the end
Your conclusion can range from lengthy epilogue (like the hobbits’ return to the Shire) to abrupt stop (Cold Mountain), and there are lots of ways you can make the ending compelling. One is to really tie up all loose threads. This can be particularly effective in a series like The Lord of the Rings, because the journey is so long and full of strife that the reader appreciates a chance to relax at the end. Other stories might leave a hook to indicate future installments or cut it short to avoid anticlimax. One thing all endings should do: indicate how the people in the story have changed along the way. This ties your quest narrative to the allegory of real life and brings readers back, in the end, to the two elements that matter most in a quest: who and why.
The call to adventure
These are the key ingredients to a quest narrative, and they’re what you have to get right before anything else can work its magic. Send the reader somewhere they want to go with someone they want to travel with, and half the battle is over. After that, it’s a case of gradually worsening their situation as they struggle on. Rob them of resources, narrow the chances of success, and keep recontextualizing their respite – in chapter three, they might rest in a friendly village, but nearer to the end, a brief nap in a cave should feel like a similar luxury.
One of the most pleasing things about quest narratives, and the key to their longevity as a type of story, is that they lend themselves to a clear but enjoyable structure. Check out The Quadrant Method Is The Key To Amazing Storytelling for more on this idea. Ultimately, readers love a well-structured quest with a few unexpected diversions. Provide that, and you’ll have some very happy fans.
For more great advice on this area, check out Why Your Characters Need To Have A Goal and How To Write A Book Series That People Finish Reading. Are you writing a quest narrative? Tell me what your protagonist wants and who’s helping them get it, in the comments.