production still from the Wizard of Oz

Quest Plots

Master Plots

In “20 Master Plots and How to Build Them”, Ronald Tobias argued plot and character are the two main “forces” of storytelling. He compared plot to electromagnetism because it is a force that draws the “atoms of a story together” and organises them into a “certain sense”.

Wanting to offer advice to aspiring writers, the professor of media and theatre arts offered summaries of twenty different master plots found in storytelling: quest, adventure, pursuit, rescue, escape, revenge, the riddle, rivalry, underdog, temptation, metamorphosis, transformation, maturation, love, forbidden love, sacrifice, discovery, wretched excess, ascension and descension.1

Quest Plot

The first master plot identified by Tobias was the quest. In this type of narrative, the protagonist searches for something that “she hopes or expects to find that will significantly change her life”. It is important to note that the object of their quest is “not simply an excuse for the action” because the hero should be “much different at the end of the story than at the beginning”.

Tobias suggested the quest narrative consisted of three acts and used Dorothy’s quest to return to Kansas in “The Wizard of Oz” to help explain his concept.

Act One (setup)

The opening of the story should establish the origination of the hero, usually their home and routine, but also the “force” that “moves him to act”.

In “The Wizard of Oz”, Dorothy Gale is an orphan who is dissatisfied with her life on the farm. Her dog, Toto, bites her neighbour, Miss Gulch, who then threatens to have him euthanized. This motivating incident prompts the protagonist to leave home.

Tobias defined the difference between a character’s intent and their motivation. In “The Wizard of Oz”, Dorothy tries to save her dog – her intent. Her motivation comes from Miss Gulch’s threat to have the dog put down. This sense of causality is really important in good storytelling.

Dorothy protects her dog Toto
“Wizard of Oz” Motivating Incident

When the vicious twister arrives, Dorothy rushes home to take shelter in her bedroom, but the storm sends the house spinning into the air and all the way to the Land of Oz.

The narrative then asks if Dorothy will find her way back to her uncle and aunt’s farm. Of course, this is the disequilibrium and need for repair in Tzvetan Todorov’s narrative theory. For Tobias, the word “find” is the “bottom-line description of a quest plot”.

Act Two (complications)

In order to achieve their intent, the hero is required to go on a perilous journey. In this second dramatic phase, Dorothy travels along the Yellow Brick Road to Emerald City, hoping for the Wizard to help her return to Kansas, but he sends her on a quest to steal the Witch’s broomstick.

Characters, of course, must overcome difficult obstacles and Dorothy has to survive the Wicked Witch’s attempts to kill her.

Tobias suggested that a good quest story should include the buddy concept and a helpful character. Of course, these are similar to the donor and helper of Propp’s character types. Again, in “The Wizard of Oz”, the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman and the Cowardly Lion accompany the hero on her quest. Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, offers some help in the form of ruby slippers.

Dorothy squirts oil on the Tin Man
Buddy Concept

Act Three (resolution)

In the final movement, Dorothy confronts the Wizard and reveals his fraud. Fortunately, Glinda appears and shows the protagonist she always had the power to return to Kansas. At the end of film, Dorothy learns “there’s no place like home”.

Dorothy is in bed surrounded by her family and neighbours
“Wizard of Oz” Resolution

For Tobias, the character has to be dynamic and change by the end of the narrative for it to be considered a quest plot.

Dorothy’s character arc is straightforward. At the start of the film, the protagonist is unhappy with her life in Kansas and wishes to be “somewhere over the rainbow” where all her problems would be solved. After her adventure in the Land of Oz, Dorothy realises “there’s no place like home”.

Quest Plot Checklist

Tobias offers the following advice for the writer who is looking to craft a new quest narrative:

  1. A quest plot should be about a search for a person, place or thing; develop a close parallel between your protagonist’s intent and motivation and the object he’s trying to find.
  2. Your plot should move around a lot, visiting many people and places. But don’t just move your character around as the wind blows. Movement should be orchestrated according to your plan of cause and effect. (You can make the journey seem like there’s nothing guiding it—making it seem casual—but in fact it is causal.)
  3. Consider bringing your plot full circle geographically. The protagonist frequently ends up in the same place where she started.
  4. Make your character substantially different at the end of the story as a result of her quest. This plot is about the character who makes the search, not about the object of the search itself. Your character is in the process of changing during the course of the story. What or who is she becoming?
  5. The object of the journey is wisdom, which takes the form of self-realization for the hero. Oftentimes this is the process of maturation. It may be about a child who learns the lessons of adulthood, but it also may be about an adult who learns the lessons of life.
  6. Your first act should include a motivating incident, which initiates your hero’s actual search. Don’t just launch into a quest; make sure your readers understand Why your character wants to go on the quest.
  7. Your hero should have at least one traveling companion. He must have interactions with other characters to keep the story from becoming too abstract or too interior. Your hero needs someone to bounce ideas off of, someone to argue with.
  8. Consider including a helpful character.
  9. Your last act should include your character’s revelation, which occurs either after giving up the search or after successfully concluding it.
  10. What your character discovers is usually different from what he originally sought.

1 Tobias, R.B. (1993) “20 Master Plots: And How to Build Them”. Writer’s Digest Books

Further Reading

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