Hooray for Quests!

First off, the big news: Writer to Writer is OUT–RELEASED–PUBLISHED!!! It came out yesterday. Some of you are in it–no last names, of course. Thanks to you all for making this blog a great, helpful, safe place for writers, and for making this book possible.

Second off: Ho! Ho! Ho! Happy holidays, and best wishes for great writing in 2015!

This question came into the website late in July from  Writer At Heart: What are you supposed to do when all of your stories seem to repeat? Like, I’ve had this GREAT idea for a girl going on quest, but all of my other stories seem to copy this idea. What do you do in situations like this?

Just about any story can be expressed as a quest. Consider these: Heidi is a quest for a safe home; The Wizard of Oz, a quest for contentment; Anne of Green Gables, a quest to be loved; Charlotte’s Web, a quest for survival; Pride and Prejudice (and all of Austen–every single book!), not only a quest, but the same quest every time, for marital happiness. All my three Disney Fairies books even have the word quest in the title.

You may disagree with my description of the quest in these books, but I hope you’ll agree that in each one a character wants something and struggles in ways direct and indirect to get it. The character has an objective, even if he or she wouldn’t put it that way. The objective can be called a quest.

Let’s think about Jane Austen, my favorite writer. If you haven’t read her books, I can’t recommend them highly enough. She gives the twenty-first century reader an un-self-conscious look at an earlier age, which I enjoy, but I love her humor most of all, which never gets stale, no matter how often I reread her, and certainly never gets dated. She shows us our timeless humanity, flawed and funny and sympathetic.

Yes, her stories are each wrapped around an identical objective, but the way they play themselves out is different in each one. Austen is a genius at character development. Her characters are unique and meticulously defined, and their natures determine the way they approach their quest. The obstacles are different, too, but in an Austen novel, in my opinion, the freshness comes from the richness of the characters.

In my Disney Fairies books, many of the characters are the same, because the cast always includes the major Never Land fairies: Rani, Tinker Bell, Prilla, and Vidia. And the shape of each story is circular (***SPOILER ALERT***): the fairies’ world and Never Land itself are threatened; events play out; order is restored. But there are new characters, and the threat is different in each book, and the reader gets to see how the old characters respond to an unexpected situation. I hope the reader feels the comfort of the familiar combined with the excitement of the unknown.

As I’ve said before on the blog, there aren’t many possible plots. There’s always a problem, characters who influence events, and almost always a happy or sad resolution. I’ve suggested two major strategies for creating freshness: characters and obstacles. I can think of a third: setting. Austen’s novels would have to be different if they were set in a present day town, different again if they were dropped down in Oz.

Let’s think about “Jack in the Beanstalk.” The quest is for enough money to live on, so Jack’s mother sends him off to sell the cow. Jack is willing to trade it for beans a stranger tells him are magical. Another character wouldn’t be so trusting. The quest would have to be pursued in a different way. Same quest, though. Different story.

Or we can keep Jack but change the obstacles. He takes the beans. His mother throws them out the window, because her character hasn’t changed, either. The story veers from there, though. Suppose what grows is a coat tree upon which hangs a cloak. Jack puts on the cloak, which confers magic powers, although he doesn’t know what they are. His disgusted mother kicks him out, and, in true fairy tale fashion, he sets off, innocent and gullible as ever, to make his fortune and keep his mom from starving. Same quest. Different story.

Or suppose we set the story in modern times. The beanstalk pops up. Jack climbs to the penthouse gym of his forty-story apartment building. The giant is a body builder. Killing him will land Jack in jail, if he gets away with it. Same quest. Different story.

We writers are stuck with ourselves. The themes that hold us in their grip today may change only slowly, if at all. We may have to work through them in story after story. Obedience and its mirror image, rebellion, crop up in many of my stories, obviously in Ella Enchanted, but also, to name two more, in Ever and The Fairy’s Mistake. In Ever, this saying runs through the book: As you wish, so it will be. In The Fairy’s Mistake, Rosella has to toughen up and resist her natural impulse to do what others want, while her sister has to make an exception to her own me-first motto. But this theme and the plots that it calls forth don’t make my stories all the same!

If our plots often present themselves as quests, maybe there’s something in the story shape that we’re figuring out. There may be questions we’re trying to answer through quests, or we may be exploring the limits of personal power, or could be there’s a loss we’re trying to recover. Or, since quests are so varied, it’s something entirely different. We don’t ever have to know. I believe that our hidden motives give our stories energy, vitality, and depth. If we know exactly what we’re doing (if that’s possible), we’re working only on the surface.

I like the quest shape. When I’m having plot trouble, when my story seems to be wandering and getting too complicated, I examine it to find the quest. I ask myself what the basic problem is and what my MC wants most of all–what she’s questing for. When I figure that out–things are really bad if I can’t!–I see the quest and the obstacles to its success. Then I can streamline my story and my plot falls into line.

A quest shape keeps a story moving. The reader knows what the prize is, wants it to be reached, groans at every setback, marvels at the variety of problems that we’ve created, and holds her breath until the resolution, for good or ill, arrives. Hooray for quests!

Here are four prompts:

• Write the “Jack and the Beanstalk” quests three ways: change Jack’s character; change the obstacles to his success; change the story’s setting. When you change the obstacles, you can use my coat-tree idea or anything else you come up with.

• Instead of changing Jack, change another character: his mother, the giant’s mother, the giant himself. See how the story plays out.

• I think the quest, which fails, in “Snow White” belongs to the queen, who wants to remain the most beautiful. If you disagree, indulge me anyway. Try these approaches to creating new stories with a kernel of “Snow White.” For character, she wants desperately to continue to win the beauty contest, but maybe she isn’t quite as evil as the original or isn’t evil at all. When you change the obstacles, she can’t disguise herself; she’s a complete bust at impersonation, so she has to go about endangering Snow White differently.

• If you have a story with a tangled plot that’s driving you crazy, apply the quest method. Frame the plot as a quest and work out the knots. Keep writing.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. I got Writer to Writer for Christmas!! I love it and have already read a lot of it! Thank you Gail, for being a writer of great books and for sharing it with us. You play a big role in my life 🙂

  2. I've realized that in nearly every story I've written I have the exact same character, only under a different name with very slightly varied physical features. This character is a ruthless villain (though they normally work for the true antagonist) that goes by a title instead of a name (the warden, the jailer, the sheriff, etc), holds a position of authority that is honorable in a real community (similar to a chief of police) but is the exact same every time, and causes extreme problems for my main character. My characters usually react differently, but this default villain is so similar every time that I'm worried my readers will be bored if they read more than one of my stories. Help! How do I fix this?

    • I HAD THE SAME PROBLEM! Default characters are bothersome. One of the best solutions is quirks! I know in a ruthless villain, you probably don't want hilarious/lovable quirks (unless…maybe you do?) so I'd go more with subtler things. But keep them varied for each villain and INTERESTING! I do so love an interesting villain. (I mean, I hate them. I love to hate them!) Say the Warden is large and strong, the Jailer is fat, and the Sheriff is a small man. Maybe the Warden is fond of music, while the Jailer is tone deaf and the Sheriff only tolerates it, but loves ballroom dancing. The Warden can be something of an introvert, while the Jailer is downright reclusive and the Sheriff is a social butterfly…there are a wealth of differences between three individuals that have the same job (specifically the job of the Ruthless Villain). Take any two fellows who work at the same job and note their differences and then use

    • Grrr, the computer chopped off the last bit of my sentence! What it's supposed to say "Take any two fellows who work at the same job and note their differences and then use the observations to flesh out your Ruthless Villains."

    • Sometimes default characters become an author's trademark. I have a friend who's a big Dickens fan. When we had to read Tale of Two Cities in school, she was disappointed because it didn't have a spunky orphan character.

  3. Sooooooo, I have a question: How does one make intricate little side-plots? To add interest and mystery to a story what must one do? I have one story that I've written quite a bit in and I know just about everything that is gonna happen etc. but it is kinda boring me because there is one and only one plot that plods on and on, no interesting little side-plots to add color and depth, just a very simple, straight forward story that goes neither to the left nor the right. How do I fix this? I've tried to add more action to the Main Plot (which is, essentially the ONLY plot) but it just adds weight and burden, not necessarily interest. I'm bored at the one-wayness of the story. Any ideas for fixing this?

  4. Oh my gosh. I've just finished Writer To Writer–which I absolutely loved, by the way–and I was so excited to discover that I'm in it! My name, printed there, for everyone who reads it to see! Eeeeeee! I didn't expect that, since I've been away from the blog for quite a while now (and felt pretty terrible about it, I assure you, since Gail, you are still and might always be my favourite author no matter how old I get (I'm 22 now)), and I'm so pleased and thankful for it. I feel sorry for my poor brother who had to deal with my squealing happy dance!

  5. Hey Gail! I saw on the site where people were talking about sequel ideas and I just wanted to say what I've thought about for a long time…
    One of my favorite parts of Fairest was the fact that it was tied into Ella Enchanted, even if it was in a small way. I loved knowing that the characters I love so much were just a kingdom away and that I got to have a sort of check-up on them.
    I would love if there was ever another book like that. One that completely stood on its own but maybe Ella/Char/Aza/Kezi came to visit or had to write a letter because the giants are attacking or the gods are causing it to rain goats and Kezi has to apologize on their behalf.
    My favorite would probably be an Ever sort of follow up because it was a shorter one but I loved the world you created the story!
    Anyway, that is just something I've been thinking about for a long time and all this sequel talk made me think this would be a good time to share!

  6. Gee, I haven't thought about going back to EVER-land! Who knows? Maybe I will, but not for a while. I'm working on the TWO PRINCESSES prequel, and I have another idea after that. Thanks for the suggestion, though, and I'm delighted you'd like to revisit my fantasy Mesopotamia!

  7. In the story I am writing right now, My MC is with a guy and she doesn't know his name and she not allowed to know until a few scenes in. She has to spend a fair amount of time narrating what is going on while another male character is present. I am running out of things to call him. (it is 3rd person from her point of view). I mainly call him "her stranger" a lot. I'm not sure if i could use "friend" if they aren't necessarily friends since they just met, and I know companion has a strange connotation. Suggestions?

    • I've read some books where the MC mentally names unknown characters, based on their appearance. Crew Cut, Blondie, Pug-nose, etc. (Those are probably cliché examples, but hopefully you get my meaning.) Or if it fits your MC's personality, she might look at him and think he looks like a Sam, or a Vincent, or any random name. She can use that substitute until she finds out his real one.

    • I normally call people who I don't know "Person whose name I do not know". Original right? But I normally use that in conversation, sometimes even with the person. I also describe their personalities, clothes, or defining characteristics when talking about them. Also, things like "My brother's friend from swimteam who had a crush in him in first grade…" or "that girl from math class with the poodle that has a pink collar…" Random things like that.
      Random names are good too. Sometimes I only remember part of a name, like if someone is called Kelly I will probably only remember that her name starts with "K" and call her something like Katie or Kitty in my head until I have a chance to ask her what her really name is.

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