Monday, April 20, 2015

Q is for Quest

Initially for this A-Z challenge, I thought the "Q" words would be the hardest to find. Then I remembered an awesome interview on NPR that Ann Strainchamps did with Elizabeth Gilbert on her new book, the Signature of All Things. Ms. Gilbert trotted out the observation that many stories were about "strangers coming to town" or conversely about leaving the homeland and "going on a quest".

And that is how the letter "Q" brings out today's word. Quest. If it pops up enough to inspire a Wikipedia article, there must be something to it right? Tolstoi is widely attributed as the originator of that observation on classic literature and in fact I think Ms. Gilbert mentioned Tolstoi as well in the interview. It turns out to be a common enough plot device that the IMDb has seen fit to make a list of the movies that fit this quote.

But all is not well in this world where strangers arriving or townfolk leaving are thought to rule the day. It turns out that MacGuffins can pop up on occasion to lessen the truth of Tolstoi's great observation. In the world of fiction, the pursuit of an object can often be used as a simple plot device. If this quest to find an object does not further the plot and is inserted as somewhat of an aimless device with a murky purpose, then problems can arise. Think the opening of one of the Indiana Jones movies, where he grabs the gold monkey off the altar. Indiana Jones gets away with it I think because this incident is a vehicle for an interesting delivery of character background. I do remember being confused though on watching that and wondering how it all fit together.

There's also a camp that does not agree with Tolstoi's observation. Some assert that not everything is a hero's journey. What their alternative to a "hero's journey" is remains unclear.

One size does not fit all, when it comes to master theories describing patterns in fiction. It is a fractured universe, filled with people whose ideas, plotlines and style can and often do defy the norm and go their own way. It is important to recognize that this is an author-centric notion of writing fiction. It seems to me that if fiction is viewed from the reader's pov, then the norm and tradition tend to emerge. It's human nature to try and fit things into patterns based on what they have been taught or what they have previously read, etc. To me this is the crux. Writers are urged to conform to the expected patterns found in genre fiction because most readers are conditioned to expect that, and most readers understand those traditional patterns. When authors stray from those patterns, then we see reader confusion and perhaps less uptake. We also see new literature breaking new ground. So go your own way. After all, with great risk comes great reward. Maybe.

1 comment:

  1. One thing is sure, our characters all have to go on their own quests.