Seven Basic Plots: Part 3 - The Quest

Posted at 11:30am on 16th December 2008

I began this study on the seven plot lines that are said to be the basis of all stories, by examining what is meant by the rags to riches story, and that of overcoming the monster. Today I'm going to look at what it means to write about the quest.


The Quest is the third of the seven plots, and may be described as a mission, an expedition, a hunt or a search for something. This may take the form of a mission to find something lost - perhaps a search for the lost lands of Atlanta, a Will, or buried treasure. Alternatively, it may be a quest for the truth where, perhaps, an injustice has been done and only the uncovering of a lie or misconception will set things right.

In my last Post, I wrote of Charles Dickens' Little Dorrit , and suggested that the plot was based on people who had gone from rags to riches. However, I pointed out, in my article, that sometimes a story is based on two or more interwoven plots. And I'd like to suggest now, that Little Dorrit is such a tale. Because we see not only the rags to riches story, but also a quest for the truth.

Intent upon seeking the truth behind his father's dying wish that he 'put things right' Arthur Clennam sets out on a road to discovery which, ultimately, leads to his own reversal of fortune. But the quest may also be seen in at least two of the sub-plots as Clennam's partner seeks the patenting of his inventions in the notoriously and aptly named Circumlocution Office; and in the failed quest of John Chivery for Amy Dorrit's love.


The quest for truth is the plot of my own novel, A Painful Post Mortem. In the following excerpt, Claire has just taken a telephone call from her ex-husband, Mark, from whom she has received a copy of the Pathology Report on their daughter. Here, Claire comes - but only gradually - to a realisation of her quest to uncover the events that have led to this moment.

'WELL, DID YOU get it?'
There's no preliminary, no small-talk to lead into conversation with Mark! As always, I have to stifle my frustration; to do otherwise only provokes dissension.
Rising from the breakfast table, I link the flex through my fingers, take a step to the window to steady my emotions. The dining room faces south, away from the canal, towards the unseen bow of the Thames. Below me is the empty expanse of the adjoining building plot, razed to the ground decades earlier and left that way because of some ownership dispute or other. But, as I often say to Richard, someone else's loss is our gain. To the left, way, way in the distance, across the low-level sky-line of older buildings, a glimpse of the lower reaches of the river and the unmistakable monolith of Canary Wharf are clearly visible.
I draw air deep into my lungs to still the nervous pounding of my heart, a physical manifestation of the inner turmoil that seems, always, to accompany any encounter with Mark.
'Yes,' I reply.
Mark's voice is brusque.
'Thanks for sending it,' I say, in an attempt to mollify him.
'Is that all?' he demands.
'I - I'm sorry, Mark?'
'Have you read it?
'And,' I respond, slowly, clarification firing my voice as I go on, 'I'm not having it.'
Mark swears. 'Why do you have to be so ruddy aggressive all the time?'
'That's rich!' My fists clench.
I wince, annoyed with myself; flex my fingers in an attempt to dissipate my defensiveness.
'Have you read it?' I ask, more patiently. 'Bottom of page one. Second line. A known drug addict, it says.'
My voice falters and my eyes sting with unshed tears. 'She wasn't, Mark! They'll write her off at the Inquest as just that: a junkie. An open and shut case. Not worth the time or money -' My tears are falling freely now, and a sob catches in my throat.
'Don't, Luney. Don't cry.'
The old intimacy takes me by surprise. Mark's private nickname for me: Luney, pronounced loony, a silly malapropism derived from his interpretation of the poem au clair de la lune (Oh Claire de la loony-bin!) that appeals as much to his embarrassment in showing affection as to his penchant for derogatory humour. He hasn't called me that for years.
I draw myself up; hold myself stiff so as to withstand the debilitating effects of the breach in my emotions.
'I don't know about you,' I say, my tone of voice and choice of words deliberately formal and distancing, 'but I can't let that be the last word on Katya's life. I have to do whatever I can to refute that allegation. To erase the slur on her memory.'
At the other end of the line, Mark clears his throat.
'Are you sure - she wasn't - using drugs?'
'Quite sure.'
'Even though it says - '
'Whatever it says. It's wrong. Categorically!'
'Then I agree. It can't be allowed to stand. Clearing her name is the only thing - the last thing we can do to help her.'
Rigid behind my shell of self-preservation, I lean my forehead against the window pane. Down below, on the derelict building site, a stray Canada Goose - one of many that populate the canal - leads her family of fluffy goslings towards the chain-mesh perimeter fence. She picks her way carefully across the uneven ground, waddling extravagantly from side to side, head held high, seemingly oblivious to the plight of her offspring who, downy and, therefore, flightless, half-flutter and stumble in their comical attempt to keep up.
Involuntarily, I draw a sharp intake of breath. From behind an abandoned supermarket trolley, a cat has appeared. It lies close to the ground, stealthy, steely-eyed in its observation of the little entourage. The race is on! Ambush seems certain. The perimeter fence lies only a few feet ahead of the avian procession, but progress is slow. The cat has the advantage of speed; the goose of strength and ferocity should they engage.
'We could do it together -' says Mark '- if that's alright with you?'
His voice breaks, and my defensiveness with it. Down below, the goslings slip under the fence and the cat slinks away, disappointed.
I turn from the window. I feel, momentarily, a hint of hope. Perhaps Mark and I could work it through? Together! Perhaps, belatedly, we can behave as parents? Other thoughts crowd in: the years of futility, during which the children and I squandered our lives waiting on Mark while he indulged his fantasy of being the life and soul of the pub.
'Daddy will be home soon, and then we'll go to the park,' I'd pledge. Or, 'I know Daddy promised he'd take you to the pictures to see Bambi this Saturday, but he's going to be away on business. Next week, perhaps . . .'
The darkness of evening would close in before Daddy's arrival home deferred the trip to the park, and Bambi would be long gone from the local cinema before the latest series of business jaunts came to an end.
How reliable is Mark's word now, I wonder? Has Katya's death changed him in ways that her life - our marriage and divorce - have failed to do? There is no more guarantee, I imagine, than there has ever been. But whatever Mark chooses to do, I realise that this telephone conversation with him has brought clarity to my own thinking. For the first time since Katya's death and Post Mortem, the path ahead is clear. I shall have to pay a second visit to Molvelly Abbey and Compass Quay to talk first hand with those who knew and befriended Katya. That, I feel sure, offers the only chance of learning who and what she met with in the days leading up to her death.
The sense of self-determination this insight imparts fills me with hope.

This 'sense of self-determination' which Claire identifies, forms the plot for all that follows. And this quest for the truth is also the theme. It is what drives her into an unlikely alliance with Mark and, thereby, provides the conflict which drives the plot. We'll look at these in more detail at the end of this series.

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We'll take a look at a further three of the Seven Story Plots: Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy

Mel Menzies, December 2008

The author of a number of books, one a Sunday Times No. 4 Bestseller,

Mel is also an experienced Speaker

and has addressed live audiences of between 20 and 700+

in addition to participating in TV and Radio chat shows,

and leading Family Forums, Marriage Enrichment, and Writers' Workshops.

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