The 7 Types of Plots: The Quest

by Liz Bureman | 29 comments

This post is part of our series exploring Christopher Booker’s theory of plot types in The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Write StoriesSee type 12345, and 6, and 7.

Yeah, like you're going to see a list of plot types that doesn't include the Quest. The Quest is a search for a place, item, or person that requires the hero to leave home in order to find it. Sometimes the item is just a MacGuffin to drive the plot along; other times the thing driving the quest is specific to the story's circumstances. Either way, the hero is leaving home to find whatever the heck the story demands, and we get to come along for the ride.

Emerald City

“We're off to see the Wizard.”

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The Quest is the plot type most likely to have a group of main characters rather than one protagonist in the main eye of the story. The rest of the party generally takes one of four appearances:

  • A close friend who is loyal to our hero, but doesn't have much else going for him or her;
  • A sidekick who is the polar opposite of the hero mentally, physically, and emotionally;
  • A generic mass of identity-less bros who don't get names because they're not alive long enough to matter; or
  • A balanced party of brains, heart, and strength who support the hero, or who count the hero as one of their own.

The Call

If you've read either of the other two entries in this series, you've probably got an idea of what this entails. Kickstarts the plot and gives the hero and the rest of the party a mission to accomplish.

The Journey

Obviously our heroes are not going to get to their end goal that easily. Most of the journey is over enemy territory or hostile land, and obstacles pop up left and right, like dandelions in the spring. Obstacles come in several flavors, like monsters (kill/escape, rinse, repeat), temptations (see a good portion of the Odyssey for examples), a rock and a hard place (Scylla and Charybdis being the classic example), or a journey to the underworld. Amid these tests come periods of rest where the party can regain their strength (or count the bodies, if the party is the third type).

Arrival and Frustration

They're so close! Our heroes can see the Emerald City! They're almost there! Oh, wait, the Wizard won't actually help them until they kill the Wicked Witch of the West. Damn. Well, that's annoying. Our heroes still have some work to do before they actually complete their Quest.

The Final Ordeals

Now come the final tests of our heroes. Often these come in sets of three, like in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Usually our main hero is the only one who can complete the final test. Success! And then our intrepid band of heroes (or just one hero, in case everyone else is dead) makes an amazing escape from death, either by running away or by killing whatever bad guys are left.

The Goal

Huzzah! Our hero(es) have completed their quest, and get their treasure/kingdom/princess/trip home.

Most stories involving the Holy Grail are Quests, as is the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Princess Bride, and Finding Nemo. If information is considered to be the sought-after item in the Quest, most police/legal procedurals could be considered miniature quests. By varying the elements of the Quest story, the plot type can still stay fresh.

The Write StructureNeed more plot help? After you practice this plot element in the exercise below, check out my new book The Write Structure which helps writers make their plot better and write books readers love. Low price for a limited time!

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Pick one of the stages of the Quest and write a scene from that stage for fifteen minutes. Post your practice in the comments section, and check out the work of your fellow writers.

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Liz Bureman has a more-than-healthy interest in proper grammatical structure, accurate spelling, and the underappreciated semicolon. When she's not diagramming sentences and reading blogs about how terribly written the Twilight series is, she edits for the Write Practice, causes trouble in Denver, and plays guitar very slowly and poorly. You can follow her on Twitter (@epbure), where she tweets more about music of the mid-90s than writing.


  1. R.w. Foster

    He sat up. “You know of Chronomancy? How do you know of it?” He slapped
    his forehead. “Of course, you’re the Walker of Worlds. There’s not much you don’t know.”

    I laughed so hard I fell over. After a few minutes, I regained enough of my composure to sit back up, clutching my ribs. He looked quizzically at me.
    “You have me confused for someone else. Every day I’m surprised by how much I don’t know. As for Chronomancy, in the world I originate from, there is a videogame called Chronomancer, the Ark of Time.” He gaped at me, clearly not sure what to ask first. “Are you a Chronomancer?”

    He closed his mouth and nodded. “The first in thousands of years.”

    I rolled my eyes and locked them on Dearbhaile. “First in thousands of years? Talk about a story cliché.”

    “I wish it were a story,” he said drily.

    She looked over her shoulder and gave me a lip biting smile. A rush of heat hit my stomach. I swallowed. “Why do you wish it was a story?” I turned back to focus on him.

    “The good guys win in stories.”

    I rolled my neck, trying to work out some of the stiffness. “In well written stories, the bad guy calls himself a good guy.”

    Robilar laughed. “Considering what just happened, do you honestly think we’re in a well written story?”

    I laughed as well. “Good point. I’d say it was pretty execrable if I were to hear it.” The delicate bouquet of honeysuckle and jasmine told me Dearbhaile had returned. “Hello, Rishka.”

    “How do ye do that?” The smile was evident in her voice.

    “I can always tell when you are near, my love.”

    “Aye, but how?”

    I glanced up at her with a grin. “Magic.”

    “Sure, an’ I be Vaush-Tauric.”

    I chuckled. Robilar tilted his head. “I thought Vaush-Tauric were dragons.”

    “Indeed,” I said. “Say, Keeper Dearbhaile, do you think the one you’re apprenticed to might be able to help?”

    “Nay. She’s not allowed tae, remember?”

    “Damn it. I did not.” I sighed. “I wish I knew what to do next.”

    “Next, we eat dinner. Then, after you bathe, we sleep. Tomorrow, we be arrivin’ in Dunskillen Town.”

    I tugged her down beside me. “Would I be able to persuade you to wash my back, Rishka?”

    She blushed. “Nay, ‘twould not be proper.”

    “Wait a minute, a few weeks ago, it was perfectly acceptable. According to you, Elven bathe together all the time. It’s only natural. Remember telling me this?”

    “Aye, but that be different.”

    “Please tell me how that is true.”

    She opened her mouth, but I heard Robilar speak instead. “You call each other Rishka, right?” I turned to look at him, peeved he’d been eavesdropping. “In the eyes of the Renline, you’re all but promised to wed. That changes things. Not only that, but you’re human, Carter.”


    “Don’t get me wrong. I think it is wonderful that you are willing to bow to her customs. In my experience, humans too often ignore the cultures of those that are not human.”

    “Yeah, humans are bastards, alright.”

    If he caught my sarcasm, Robilar ignored it. “Not all of you are. The regal one seems to enjoy being among non-humans. Do you think she sees it as slumming, though?”

    “Lady Orwen?” I snorted. “Not hardly. Her best friend growing up was a half-dragon, and her father employed all manners of people. I recall speaking with a Snebbli, and seeing a treebeard training warriors. The Orwen clan is not racist. I’d bet my life on that.”

    The Chronomancer leaned forward to stare at me. “What of you? Are you racist?”

    “You’re kidding, right?” Ice crystals almost formed in the air as I spoke. “One, I am in love with a Renline. Two, my closest friends are half-dragons. Three, I hate everyone equally.”

    Dearbhaile swatted my shoulder. “Hush, yer rubbish, Carter. Ye do nae hate.”

    “How do you know, Keeper?”

    She narrowed her jade eyes at Robilar. “He be mine. I know what be in his heart. Why are ye askin’ such questions, lad? Are ye tryin’ tae cover for yerself?”

    “No, my lady. I’m testing my memory.”

    “Aye? That does nae soun’ like any Chronomancer I’ve heard of. Their memories were flawless.”

    Robilar laughed. It was pleasant, and deep. “If only that myth were true. Keeper Dearbhaile, how good do you think the memory of a man would be when he’s been exposed to the recollections of nearly a thousand lifetimes?”

    I lifted Dearbhaile to my lap. “That’s a lot of lifetimes. How is it possible, Robilar?”

    “You and I are unique, Carter. There is only one of us present in any time stream. Whereas there literally only one of you present at any time, with me, it is possible to be doubled, very briefly. No more than six minutes, max. During one of my lifetimes, I learned how to pass memories to a past self by touch. Prior to
    that, journals were kept, and passed on to the prior version.”

    “Let me guess, you met another version of me.”


    “Then, why am I here, and not the other?”

    He sat back against a tree. “Because my predecessor came back to this point, before we’d met before.”

    I scratched my chin, then smoothed Dearbhaile’s hair down. She kissed my cheek, then slouched down in my lap, bringing the back of her head to rest on my chest.

    “Do this mean ye cannae go back beyond this point?”

    “So you have heard of us.” He stretched, then leaned back against the tree once more. “Yes, that is the limit. I can only go back to a time after another me has gone back to.”

    “So, if you screw up, there is no going back to before you screwed up and stopping yourself, right?”

    “Yes. A limit of paradox.”

    “That would be confusing as hell. How do you keep it all straight?”

    “Each time I merge with another me, a – time stamp – I guess you could call it- is locked in my mind. Forever. That keeps me from going further back.”

    “What would happen were ye tae try?”

    “I’d end up with a vicious headache, and a blank period. Those are also blocked off.”

    “Why’re you here, Robilar?”

    “I’m here to help.”

    “Aye. But, ye said yer predecessor came tae this point before ye met Carter. That sounds tae me like there’s a specific reason for yer presence.”

    “There is. I’m here to make sure Drago doesn’t get his hands on the Lamp of Allah-ad-din.”

    “You mean, Aladdin?”

    “No. That’s a common mistake. Allah-ad-din’s Lamp is very powerful. It can alter the very fabric of reality.”

    Dearbhaile rolled her head up to look at me. “I be lost, Carter.”

    “It’s a tale in my world. About a beggar that finds a magic lamp with a genie that grants wishes.”

    • Karl Tobar

      I love all the references to stories, especially Aladdin. And the line, “Humans are bastards, alright.” Nice.
      Also you’re pretty creative coming up with all those names and the terminology.

    • R.w. Foster

      Thanks. If you want to read more, you can head over to my blog & see larger excerpts from my stories & learn about new authors that I’ve discovered, too.

  2. Puja

    To the North, always. His garbled Nahuatl and Spanish would not help him in the North, except to clean dishes in the back of some taqueria or cut a gringo’s hedges. His two water jugs, clacking against each other in his backpack, may not last him the journey across the desert. The Virgin of Guadalupe tattoo might escape the notice of the saints he’d asked to bless his journey.

    “Come, compa,” encouraged his cousin, Diego. The train and buses from Chiapas had exhausted most of their money. Diego had heard of a shelter for migrants, near the border, they could stay the night in free of charge.

    But Tenoch’s limbs felt more exhausted than his empty pockets. His leg throbbed from hopping off the train several feet from the tracks, and he could barely make the trek to the shelter without Diego at his side, half dragging him.

    The woman who answered the door met his eyes calmly and he lost the rest of his breath. Her green eyes reminded him of the blown glass his neighbor used to sell. She helped Diego bring Tenoch into a small bedroom, with cots and fresh linens.

    She came back with a cloth bag filled with ice for his knee.

    “It’s alright,” she said in a smoky voice. Her hands rolled up his pant leg and she pressed the ice to his skin.

    A man came in, louder, his steps practically shaking the room. He ran the shelter with his sister, he said.

    “And you?” Tenoch asked the woman.”What is your name?”

    “I am Guadalupe.”

    He sat beside her at dinner, leg well-rested, her stew hot on his tongue. He could not stop looking at her. He could not stop talking to her.

    He dreamed of her, sleeping more restfully than he had before the government had taken their land, their life source.

    The next day, he did not want to leave. He rose early and found her cooking their breakfast in the kitchen.

    He always said what he felt and told her, “I don’t want to leave this place. It’s so peaceful.”

    She paused for a moment. Then continued stirring.

    “You could stay here,” she said, her voice soft and rich like the red earth he’d left behind. Her dark head remained bent over the browning chorizo.

    His hand stilled on the edge of the table and he watched her tend to the eggs, toss salt over the sizzling meat. Her plaited hair fell to her waist, and she still wore her nightgown. Its crinkled white hem swished like a summer breeze.

    He felt peace in her movements, in this quiet shelter for the desperate. Certainly, he was desperate, but would that desperation fall away if he stayed with her?

    “Hey, up already?”

    Tenoch did not know what he would have said or done, if his cousin had not come in just then. He would never know. In an hour he had walked out the door and they pretended she had never spoken.

    • Karl Tobar

      There could’ve been some trouble between him and his cousin if he decided to stay. Or if he tried to convince Guadalupe to go with them? Is she the Virgin? I wasn’t clear on that. Sorry, I’m not picking apart your work here, just thinking out loud! Good practice.

  3. Karl Tobar

    I used a lot of dialogue in this one and struggled with some of the descriptions. Oh well, I guess practice is practice and it was fun! Thanks Liz.

    Alvin grabbed my arm just as we neared the trees. “I’m not going in there.”
    “Come on. According to Xavier, her house is just on the other side of this forest. You’re going to let a few trees scare you?”
    He said, “Those aren’t normal trees. Look how big they are. What kind of trees look like that?”
    “Pine trees.”
    “Fair enough, but I’m not going in. Let’s go around.”
    I sighed. “Look. Xavier said it takes ten minutes to get to the other side.”
    Alvin threw his arms out and shrugged. “Why should we listen to him? Why should we trust him?”
    “He’s never lied to us before.”
    “Boyd. That is the only thing he has ever said to us. He said, ‘Her house is just on the other side of that forest. It takes ten minutes to walk through.’ He has literally never said anything else to us.”
    I smiled in attempt to charm my friend. “That’s the wrong attitude. I need you to be brave with me. Look, there’s even a nice little path already showing us the way. And I can see from here that plenty of light shines through these trees.”
    He looked at the path then back to me.
    I wiggled my fingers at him. “I’ll even hold your hand.” His eyes narrowed and he opened his mouth but I turned to the trees. I said, “I’m going with or without you.” I wouldn’t have gone without him, but he took the bait and I heard his feet shuffling behind me.
    The pines, elephantine, boasted wide trunks and reached skyward; their tops likely residing in heaven. Their shadows streamed across the dirt path in sizeable strips, sunlight between them. After a moment I said, “This isn’t so bad.”
    Alvin said, “I guess not.” Then, “Do you think she’s dead?”
    “It’s only been a day. I don’t think they would kill her that quickly. Not without giving Cuthbert a chance to give them what they want.”
    The forest thickened. Shade became abundant; sunlight diminished to thin slices between the pines.
    Alvin said, “What do you think they want?”
    “I don’t know. If we can sneak her out, though, they won’t get it.”
    “We’ve never failed before.”
    “That we haven’t.”
    Minutes of silence followed before Alvin said, “It’s getting really dark.”
    We walked on weeds and bushes, the path long gone. Grass tickled my elbows and my thighs grew sore taking such high steps. Shrubbery and gargantuan pine surrounded us.
    “We’ve been walking for at least fifteen—”
    I stopped. “Sh!”
    I held up a finger; pointed; mouthed the words, “Over there.”
    Click. Click. Click. A clacking like drumsticks came from the bushes over yonder. Alvin’s wide eyes suggested he heard it. Bless his heart he never knew when to be quiet.
    “That old fool! I told you he lied to us!” Finicky, his eyes darted around. I waved my arms, shook my head, no, be quiet! He did not be quiet.
    “Buffalo beetles in these woods! Boyd, climb!”
    From the bushes emerged a buffalo beetle. Six man-sized legs trampled the forest floor as it rushed toward us—mandibles the size of my arm open and shut, open and shut. Click. Click. Click.
    I spun around, lost sight of Alvin, and found him already above me shimmying in a frantic panic up a tree. I jumped up the same tree and followed him. The bug slammed into the tree and we swayed; Alvin lost his grip and slid down toward me. Looking up all I only saw the soles of his feet getting closer, I flinched, he swung to the side. He’d caught a branch with one hand and
    managed to grab hold again.
    We sat in the tree, the bug below us cracking its mouth and trying to climb up after us.
    “Well,” I said between breaths. “I was going to suggest this, anyway. Maybe if we climb high enough we can see where we’re going.”

    • R.w. Foster

      Pretty good. I see the areas you were saying were problematic. Maybe rearrange some of the words for better flow? For example, when you mention the trees, maybe mention they are elephantine first?
      I’d like to read more of your work.

    • Karl Tobar

      I was actually happy with that sentence. DISMAY! I do think that I used the word “trees” entirely too many times. Most of my work is outdated but I’ve been around for a while. Some feedback on my practices is fine enough for me 🙂 Sadly, I don’t seem to get too much anymore.

    • The Striped Sweater

      I liked the humor at the end.

    • Karl Tobar

      Thank you, Sweater. At least I did /that/ correctly. 🙂

    • amarkeev

      Actually I liked it a lot! Didn’t notice any flaws. Do you have a continuation? 🙂

  4. PJ Reece

    I think you’ve forgotten something critical about “quest” stories. The protagonist usually abandons his/her original goal round about the “Act II crisis”, and adopts a second goal. (A higher cause.) Most one-goal stories are so booooring. But if you’re a Rocky, for instance, you forget about becoming the heavyweight champion of the world and realize that your salvation comes in building some self-respect, some dignity. He realizes that here’s his chance to prove he’s not a bum, which is what his community thinks of him, and he of himself… if only he can survive 15 rounds. That’s heroic! To hell with the stupid, narcissistic, bogus, superficial quest of fame and fortune. He has to transcend himself — that’s his deeper need. To see protagonists accomplish this… this is why we go to movies! Not to see someone attain what they set out to get. Hey, Liz…thanks for allowing the opportunity to rant.

    • Richard Farmery

      Frodo the hobbit didn’t forget to throw the ring into the fires of mount doom. Rocky does actually win the tittle for the heavyweight champion of the workd. I think you’re right, you do need to have a part where transcend the situation but I don’t think the protagonist forgets his goal otherwise the goal was false in the first place. Speaking as a film studies student you should bring a sense of resolution where most everything is tied up shown what happened to each character. You can leave open endings for the next book/series to lead the readers on. You can’t just have the character forget the thing they left and risked their home for to gain a better view of life without tieing in the character so that the goal has resolution for the reader. No harsh vibes meant bruv, just pointing it out 🙂

    • PJ Reece

      Richard… this is a most interesting subject, and worth discussion. You’re right about resolving issues. Often though the character resolves it by achieving it for a cause that is greater than mere personal glory. Characters usually leave home in search of goals that are relatively superficial. We can always resolve our issues in a way that embraces more than ourselves. I wish we could discuss this over a beer — you don’t live on the West Coast, do you?

    • Richard Farmery

      No I’m afraid not, I’m rather busy recently, I’m finishing college soon and I need to concentrate on my exams. But I’m glad we see eye to eyein this matter 🙂 haha

  5. The Striped Sweater

    Well, I suppose if the rule is to write for 15 minutes, this remains a first draft club. Geronimo!

    Gerard and Helen

    “It’s as I said at the beginning, ‘Love and suspicion cannot
    coexist.’ I gave you everything I had, but you reacted with suspicion and
    violence. Each gift I gave was poisoned by your fear, fear that my kindness was
    meant to bind you, fear that my affection would make you sick. You view my
    final sacrifice, my decision to forgive you, as an attack. Nothing could be sadder. I have no desire to be with you again. Lord knows I could never trust you after what you’ve done, but to be friends, to have peace, to know that you finally realize that reeling, crazy, imperfect love is not about control but companionship, friendship, trust, to know that you might be able to have those things with someone else, that would be such a joy to my heart. Know that I will always love you, and if you ever decide you want my help, I’ll still be on earth. Yours, Helen.”

    He flicked the message off his screen as if it were a
    mosquito pulling blood through his skin. It left a trail of red, an after image
    in his eyes. “Bitch,” he said. “She knows I can read thoughts. She knows I know
    what she’s up to.” He flipped the switch on his motor and burned off into the

    • Karl Tobar

      It’s a terrible feeling to be suspicious of someone’s every move. I feel for this guy and *obviously* he has every reason to be suspicious since he can read her mind. I’m intrigued to know what it was she was thinking this whole time, what thoughts of hers triggered his suspicions? The line about the mosquito and the trail of red was a nice touch. Well done.

  6. Elise White

    This is what I have – I know it needs work…

    Josephine’s eyes burned hot with tears of sorrow and anger. Her mother’s body lay heavy and still on the cot, her eyes stared into the dim room. Josephine felt like they were two spotlights glowing in the darkness and it only added to the growing queasiness she felt. She ran her hand over them to close them.

    This was not the way her mother was supposed to leave the world. She would be forever haunted by her mother’s cries and the way she spoke so feverishly about Peggy.

    “Peggy’s gone. Peggy’s gone.” She said over and over. “Tilly killed her. Tilly killed her.”

    Josephine felt her heart ache when she’d heard the news. It was her own daughter after all. But, no one could’ve taken it as hard as Georgia.

    It was like someone took an ax and cut Georgia down from perfect health to a vegetative state. Now she was dead.

    Josephine told her husband William to bury her mother’s body. She was going after Tilly

  7. George McNeese

    Tanya pulled the car over to the sidewalk. Oliver stared at the block of abandoned houses. He was speechless. He and Tanya jumped out of the car and walked to the house. Oliver spotted a tree stump outside the garage.
    “Hard to believe the stump’s still here after thirty years,” Oliver said.
    “You remember that?”
    “Yeah. I remember Dad chopping down that tree. We used it for firewood or something.”
    Tanya ran her fingers across the stump, staring at the rings. It felt smooth and clean.
    “Remember when we had to take you to the hospital?”
    Oliver shook his head, but Tanya pointed at the scar above his eyebrow.
    “We drove you there because you were standing too close to Dad when he cut down that tree. A piece of wood came flying and hit you hard.”
    Tanya giggled. “You got thirteen stitches, I think.”
    “Yeah, that was not fun.”

    • James Hall

      I see the character history, its really good, but i’m not sure which phase, the first one? What is the quest?

    • George McNeese

      You are correct; it is the first phase. As for the quest, Oliver is on a quest for closure. I decided to use a different approach to the formula.

    • James Hall

      You know, that is simply, coincidentally, amazing.

      I’m writing a fantasy novel right now and the main character is looking for closure over his father’s death. The action of the story is split between telling stories of his father to his children and events happening around him. But the core of this first book is closure.

    • Richard Farmery

      I know, I’m writing a book which has a character who’s father was so fixed in living up to his father who was a warrior he kept fighting after the war was over, meaning he died leaving his son to be brought up by someone else. It’s interesting how much the father closure trick is used.

  8. Minecraft

    . Thanks for this great post that you share to us

  9. fuvkboy

    go f*ck ur self

  10. Kartom Sudan

    مرحباسلام في هذه المرحلة التي كانت موجودة في المنطقة العربية من لوحة المفاتيح العشرة المبشرين بالجنة

  11. NONONO

    Super Mario Bros. Would make a perfect adaptation using “voyage and return” and this “quest” format.


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