The 7 Basic Plots: Voyage and Return

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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.

I recently re-read The Phantom Tollbooth, which was one of my favorite books in grade school, and still holds up fairly well ten-to-fifteen years later. If you haven't read it, I highly recommend it, but it largely centers around a boy named Milo who is convinced he lives this boring life and is content to just slump his way through it, until one day there is a mysterious package waiting for him when he gets home, which contains the titular tollbooth. Milo assembles the tollbooth, gets in a toy car, and suddenly is in a magical land of logic, numbers, words, ideas, and more puns than you can shake a stick at. He makes some friends, goes on a Quest, becomes a hero, and returns home a little more mentally stimulated and less bored.

This structure is the cousin of the Quest: the Voyage and Return.

Voyage and Return

Photo by Mike Baird

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The Voyage and Return is very common in children's literature because it generally involves a journey to a magical land that pops up out of nowhere. The magic element is pretty sunny and light to start with, and then the darkness shows up for the hero to conquer. Once it's vanquished, the hero leaves the magical land and returns home, probably having learned a valuable lesson, or having discovered something about themselves that they didn't know before.

Here are the five stages of the Voyage and Return:

1. Anticipation Stage and “Fall” into the Other World

We see the protagonist in their dreary, dull, humdrum life, and then all of a sudden, something happens to escort them to the other world. This could be a rabbit hole, a wardrobe, or just a blow to the head, and the protagonist regains consciousness in the other world.

2. Initial Fascination or Dream Stage

Wow, the clouds are made of cotton candy! Or there's a talking rabbit! Or everything is suddenly colored in ways that it shouldn't be! Our hero is aware of the fact that they are no longer in Kansas, and they take the opportunity to explore their surroundings and the strange laws of physics that might be in this new place. However, no matter how awesome the new world is, Booker notes that the hero never feels completely at home there, foreshadowing their return.

3. Frustration Stage

This is where the dark magic starts to creep in. The hero starts feeling a little more uncomfortable, and the wonder of the world starts to feel a little more oppressive. In The Phantom Tollbooth, this is where Milo and his companions start heading towards the Castle in the Air, over the Mountains of Ignorance, and they start meeting the demons of the Lands Beyond. Chaos hasn't completely set in, but things are looking more sinister for our hero.

4. Nightmare Stage

The Queen of Hearts has unleashed her armies, Aslan has been killed on the Stone Table, and Dory is stuck in a net with a bunch of tuna. For the love of all that is good and holy, our hero better run for his life, because the shadowy element of the magical land is coming in full force.

5. Thrilling Escape and Return

We can all breathe a sigh of relief, because the cavalry has arrived! Our hero has escaped from doom and makes the return home, having learned a valuable lesson about their home or themselves.

In addition to The Phantom Tollbooth, other examples of Voyage and Return plots include Alice in Wonderland, Finding Nemo, and most of the Chronicles of Narnia series. It's usually a good idea to implement some character development in the protagonist over the course of the voyage, because otherwise, what was the point of the exercise?

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PRACTICE

Write a story following the Voyage and Return structure.

Write for fifteen minutes. When you're time is up, post your practice in the comments section. And if you post, please be sure to give feedback to a few other writers.

Happy writing!

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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.

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25 Comments

  1. Andrew Ronzino

    One of my favorite books with the Voyage and Return theme to it is “The Neverending Story” by Michael Ende. Possibly one of the most creative books I have ever read.

    Reply
    • The Striped Sweater

      I love that book too.

      Reply
  2. PJ Reece

    With all due respect, I want to raise my hand, as I was inclined to do in school, and yell, “Wait a minute, wait a minute!” Your Nightmare stage is misleading–it’s supposed to be a nightmare for the protagonist. You mention that so and so is killed and others trapped, and so the hero runs. (How un-heroic.) No, the nightmare is all about the hero’s very personal loss. He is somehow dying. Only by “dying” does he/she earn the authority to return home renewed, embodying a wider worldview, a higher cause. I’m not saying that some stories don’t unfold as your template suggests, but they’re inferior stories. I’m on a bit of a mission to make sure that this “dying” doesn’t go unnoticed. It’s what I call the heart of the story. Btw… my teachers never knew quite what to do with me and my interjections. But for every detention I earned, I had at least one student tell me afterwards, “Jeez, I’m glad you said something because I didn’t get it.”

    Reply
    • catmorrell

      I am glad you posted as your statements make us think. However, losing someone you love is harder than dying yourself especially if you were the cause of the death. I think the Aslan example was perfect.

      Reply
      • PJ Reece

        I think you’re absolutely right. Losing someone could indeed be worse… which might be just the event that causes one’s psychic “death”. I think that happens all the time in real life… the death of a loved one jolts us into a new way of living our life. Thanks, Cat.

        Reply
    • Belinda Jones

      ew… as far as I can see you don’t even participate so why are you wasting
      space. I get that you’re published but any monkey can be “published” these days. Maybe it is you that needs the practice PJ Reece.

      Reply
      • Mirel

        Belinda, I am revisiting the Write Practice, and was surprised to see your comment. PJ Reece has been on the Write Practice since way before me, and I first visited and participated about a year ago. I have recently been more involved in actual writing (rather than 15 minute practices) and in Joe’s Story Cartel, but come back every once in a while to my first love, the write practice :-).

        During the time I was a regular participant, what I enjoyed about the course was the positive attitude and the courteousness of the participants. We are free to offer our opinions here, in fact, it’s encouraged, and not usually considered wasted space. We can all grow from hearing what others have to say.

        And BTW, I have read some of PJ Reece’s writing, and he’s no monkey 🙂

        Reply
  3. George McNeese

    I think “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” follows this plot type, too. The candy factory is a “magical land” in children’s eyes. When they disobey and try the experiments, you see the dark side of its magic.

    Reply
    • The Striped Sweater

      Good point.

      Reply
  4. Paul Owen

    This took a bit longer than 15 minutes, and I’m not sure how well it fits the form. But I had fun 🙂

    Yawn. Jack glanced at the clock. Only half way through World History, really? His teacher was droning on about the Renaissance something or other. He scanned the class and saw the usual kids in rapt attention near the front. Mrs. Riley usually had all her focus on that section, rarely glancing back to this corner with Jack and his few friends, and certainly not trying to get any of them to interact. She called this corner the “black hole”, because any knowledge that drifted back here would never be seen again.

    Chin resting on his right hand, Jack looked over his doodles again. He’d have to start a new page soon. Today’s characters seemed more interesting than usual, though. There was a fire-breathing dragon giving the evil eye to a knight approaching on foot in the distance. Several bunnies were hopping away in terror, all but the one who was now a smoking ruin. The oak tree between dragon and knight couldn’t go anywhere and his expression said, “Firewood!”.

    Jack started to draw a rain cloud for the tree, but for some reason the cloud looked more like a hole in the paper. He stared at whatever it was, a portal maybe, and it started to wiggle. Jack started to move also, feeling his weight shift up out of his chair. In a blur he was sucked into the portal. There was a moment of darkness then he landed hard on his back, arms and legs splayed out.

    He looked up and saw a sky, sort of. It was an even white like cloud cover, but had blue lines running across in even intervals. He looked to his right and saw he was sprawled next to an oak tree, which twisted its trunk around and used a branch to help Jack rise to his feet. Just as he said, “Thanks”, a bunny hopped past and yelled “run for it!”.

    Jack smelled smoke. He heard and felt a pounding that seemed to be heavy footsteps. Stepping around the tree, he saw a gigantic dragon coming straight for him. Now he was getting the evil eye and the dragon was taking a deep breath. He heard a clanking sound behind him and was knocked off his feet back behind the tree. A bunny hopped in close to him for shelter as he heard deadly sounds beyond the tree. Roaring, clanking, yelling, anguished cries, that sort of thing.

    And then, silence, for a few moments. Jack heard the clanking again and a knight appeared around the tree.

    “I say, are you all right?”, the knight said. He helped Jack stand up again.

    “Yeah, I think so.” Jack looked at the dragon, now a smoking ruin himself. “Did you really kill that thing?”

    “Yes I did. Got here just in time, did I not?”

    “Yup, otherwise I would have been toast. Am I really where I seem to be?”, Jack said.

    “Yes you are, young man, and it is time for you to go back. Come with me.”

    The knight, with Jack following, walked over to a certain part of the field and looked up. Jack looked up too, seeing what appeared to be a hole in the sky.

    The knight said, “That’s it, then. Good day to you.”

    And he grabbed the back of Jack’s shirt with one arm and threw him up in the air, all the way through the hole.

    Jack landed back in his seat. Mrs. Riley was still droning on. He looked at his page of doodles and saw a puff of smoke come out of the portal. Was he losing his mind? Did anyone see any of this?

    There was no reaction from anyone else in the black hole, but they all appeared to be asleep anyway. Jack scanned the front of the class and saw Janice looking at him. She held up her pencil and wiggled it at him, then winked.

    Reply
    • Karl Tobar

      That was fun to read. “The Black Hole”–nice! I like how the knight just kinda tosses him back up. Good practice.

      Reply
      • Paul Owen

        Thanks, Karl. I was trying to think of how to get Jack out of there, and finally just had the knight give him the heave-ho!

        Reply
    • The Striped Sweater

      Very cute.

      Reply
      • Paul Owen

        I was in a cute mood, for some reason. Hardly ever happens 🙂

        Reply
    • James Hall

      Unbridled creativity. I love the reiteration of the drawing coming to life.

      Reply
    • Dozy Lane

      I want to read more!! Please!!!

      Reply
  5. Karl Tobar

    This may not seem like it fits but when I started writing I planned to have my guy walk through the door of the place and fall into a void, and then land in another dimension so-to-speak. I just didn’t get that far 🙁

    Jones the philosopher said, “A relationship is like a candle; one strong gust of wind will extinguish it.” I wish my relationship with R. were simple as a candle. I would rather liken our situation to a house fire; the stronger the wind blows, the bigger the flames get. Along with more destruction and flames engulfing more shit and yadda yadda yadda. I tried to end my relationship with R. I tried to burn the bridge between us and preferably with R. halfway across and me safe
    on the other side.

    The neighborhood I found myself in bore resemblance to a mid-century industrial park. Rusty warehouses and empty lots and buildings with little paint remaining but bountiful in the broken window department. I trudged along, hoping to get through as soon as time would allow. Pack slung on my tired back and head down facing the littered pavement, a drawn and prolonged creak of rusty metal drew my attention up. A train rolled. It moved slow, as if the world knew I wanted nothing else than to keep moving forward and said, “Ha! M. is in a hurry. Quick, Jeeves, cue the delay train!” And Jeeves, whoever he is, closed his eyes, nodded and said, “Of course, sir. The train will be in M.’s way shortly.”

    I watched rusty car by rusty car pass before my eyes. Between them I looked to the other side of the tracks out of curiosity, or perhaps boredom, either way the view was less than perfect. I did see a window alight with a yellow aura,
    the glow pallid in the dusk. I caught glimpse and of course waited so I could look through the space between the cars. The tracks which the train rolled
    curved beyond my vision and I couldn’t foretell the length. I dared not lie down, however, the atmosphere gave me a less than comfortable feeling. Somewhere between anxiety and fear, I would say.

    With the train creaking before me; squeaking; clanking; my ears became sore. The train hurt my ears and painful as it was, I couldn’t bring myself to cover them with my hands or anything else. In light of the blighted streets I found
    myself passing, to take away my hearing seemed less than favorable. Had I covered my ears the world may have summoned Jeeves again. “Oh Jeeves! M. is covering his ears. Cue the crowbar-wielding mugger/rapist!” And Jeeves would close his eyes and say, “Of course, sir. Mugger/rapist on the way to
    trap M. between a crowbar and a train.” I hated the world. If I ever met
    Jeeves I resolved there, waiting for the train, that I might break his nose
    with a stone.

    As I cringed, my pain threshold dangerously near to its breaking point, the last car of the train rolled by. Nothing stood between myself and the window alight with life among this lifeless—this almost forgotten world.

    Reply
    • The Striped Sweater

      I really like the tone of this story. It’s clever, vivid, and fun.

      Reply
  6. Christine

    The book Gulliver’s Travels would fit in this category, too.

    Reply
  7. Curtis Beaird

    Hi Liz.Thank you for your article. Thanks for reminding me of Jason and the Argonauts of Greek Mythology fame. He and his story is native to the story tellers art.

    Reply
  8. Elwyne

    I don’t see how this is fundamentally distinct from the Quest.

    Reply
  9. Elyssa

    I left. I went as far left as the Earth would take me. I
    left a long, long time ago. Now I sit, planning a return. A return to the right…is
    it the ‘right’ side of life, or just a ‘right’ turn in life? With each return
    there is this query.

    There seems so much to do…so much to plan. The exhilaration causes
    sleepless nights. So many people, so little time. So many places. I want to see
    the creek where we caught crawdads, and scooped up tadpoles. I want to see him
    again too. Sadly they say he is semi immobile, and only comes out for certain
    events and/or people. Still, I remember when he came to Dad’s funeral. I
    stopped where I was. They helped him to a chair. I rushed to his side, kicked
    off my shoes and sat down straight on the floor at his feet. He was the King again,
    and I was his loyal subject.

    We sat for hours, until unapproving eyes caught my
    attention. Bastards, what did they know of our bond…how insensitive for them
    not to notice my appreciation of the living. I have no room for mourning stiff
    bodies, it’s life I crave…life I’ve always craved. How different that set me
    apart.

    Suddenly his companion recognizes the odd glances, and
    retrieves his ward. We have the typical exchange of goodbyes, even make plans
    for a lunch we all know might never happen. Still, we make these plans in
    detail absent any future contact information. It is not a formality, but something
    we all realize we can make happen with just a desire to do so.

    The return has been implemented. The tickets purchased. The
    rental car reserved. Even the purchase of a laptop to make remote working a
    possibility…

    Reply
  10. Michael

    “The cavalry has arrived” implies that the hero didn’t solve his/her problem but some outside force did. The hero has to learn his or her lesson in order to solve the problem. Solving the problem, usually, is proof that the hero learned something going through these fantastic events.
    Dorothy can’t go home until she learns there’s no place like home. If the Wizard did it for her the story would lose all it’s meaning. As the fairy said, “Silly girl you could go home whenever you wanted too. The witch, and wizard, and flying monkeys were only here to entertain movie goers. You just need to agree to never leave the breeding farm. Your agreement will be recorded and serve as a legally binding contract in the state of Kansas.”

    Reply
  11. Will Man

    Cyrus served his customer a kebab, like any other. But this was no ordinary customer.

    “You are wicked, sir,” said the customer.

    “Wicked in what way?”

    “You have short-changed me.”

    “Um … have I? Let’s-”

    “ENOUGH! I have been warned of you – and now I see for myself it is not mere gossip. I have powers beyond your realm, beyond your wildest imagination.”

    All of a sudden the kebab shop faded away. Shapes and malformed colors swirled back into focus, and their surroundings had formed into something new.

    Piles of coins and skewers of meat adorned the landscape. This was clearly a place of interest to both Cyrus or any customer of his.

    For a while he was happy. Both the Mysterious Customer and Cyrus ate and counted their money as though it were all that mattered. But the Mysterious Customer had unjustly taken Cyrus prisoner from his real home. And that made him sad.

    “As much as I love this magical land, I swear I had no actual intention of short-changing you, even if I did do that.”

    “IF you did? But you DID”.

    “Okay, fine! ‘As much as I love this magical land, I swear I had no actual intention of short-changing you … AND I DID!”

    The kebab shop reappeared and they were back where they were.

    “The customer is always right.”

    Reply

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