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!