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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » The Quest. Too Cliche?

   
Author Topic: The Quest. Too Cliche?
WBSchmidt
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I have been working on two different novel projects for the last 9 months or so. However, I continue to have problems getting an outline that I feel is satisfactory. I really like the core premises I have for them but their plots are basically quests to find something that will solve the problem.

I wonder if my subconscious is telling me that this plot "device" is too much of a cliche and would bore the readers, and thus I am bored trying to get the plot outlined.

What are your thoughts? Are quest fantasy novels a thing of the past? My goal is not to have these plot driven novels. Instead, these stories are about the characters and how they deal with the events in their lives. However, the background plot is a basic (perhaps cliched) quest.

I welcome your thoughts. Thanks.

--William


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sholar
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Well, I hope the quest is not too cliched because my current novel is quest based. I think I have strong, interesting characters, which will hopefully pull it off, but I haven't given it to beta readers yet. In mine, the gods have forced people to go to a foreign country to get a copy of holy words. No one actually wants to do it, but the gods were, well, let's say persuasive. So, they don't view it as an answer to any of their problems, but it is still a standard quest story.

How about archetypal, not cliched?


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dee_boncci
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My opinion is there are no fundamental plot types that are too cliched to use. However, it is likely that certain approaches to some plot types might be overdone.


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Bent Tree
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I think that quests are sub-genre in themselves and are such an intregal part of fantasy that they themsleves are not or cannot be cliche. There are however hackneyed quests. It is definately the type of quest that can or has become cliche. A quest for an enchanted sword or to recue a princess are certainly types of quests, I personally would avoid for that very reason. Fantasy is not my primary genre, but I do enjoy reading and writing fantasy and I cannot imagine a world without quest stories.

Originality, in my opinion, should be the highest priority for a writer in this day and age. I think many, including editors would agree with me that while there are classical views, story types, and themes which are timeless and integral to particular readers seeking such material that they can never be eliminated from the publishing world. However, fresh creative ideas are a very tangiable way to separate oneself from their peers. I have heard it said by many editors, judges and administors that creativity is the surest way to have your work published besides quality writing of course.

Especially in the field of SF broadening these thresholds is vital to not only your potential to get published, but to the gield in general. Expanding the possibilities is the very nature of that genre. Fantasy is very similar in that regard, but at the same time there are definate story types that a reader comes to expect. I feel that there is more of a sense of heritage or tradition in Fantasy fiction in that regard.

So what is the nature of your character's quest? are there any ways in which you can "look outside the box" and create new attributes associated with the quest? Is or are there inventive ways in which you can look at this quest to separate it from the rest of the field?


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Dropbear
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Well I do think the fantasy quest storyline is overdone. If I see one in a bookstore, I quietly put it back on my shelf and go somewhere to wash my hands.

I think an unknown author will really struggle to get one of these type of stories past the query letter.

That said, anything can be done if it is done well. It's important to be original or at least sound fresh. I might read a fantasy-history of a knight reluctantly caught up in the first crusade, but I will not ready anything that smells of magic gizmos, elves, dwarves, save the kingdom, kill the lord-of-all-darkness, the boy whose really a king in exile, etc.

sholar -- I'd probably read yours; it sounds fresh enough.

WBSchmidt -- If the quest is not central to your story and is, as you said, a backdrop to the characters, then get rid of it and save yourself about 500 rejections at the query letter stage.

[This message has been edited by Dropbear (edited January 29, 2010).]


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KayTi
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Look up The Hero's Journey and/or Hero's Quest. Power of Myth, as well, by Joseph Campbell.

These story types are as old as our written records of storytelling (Aristotle did some work related to quest-type mythic story structures.)

They are the underpinnings of MANY MANY successful stories (film and book.)

The trick is, as with anything, making that journey story successful for your aims, making it different from what is out there, making it your own.

Movies like the Matrix and Star Wars are excellent examples of mythic story structure, even though they may not seem to fit tidily into the framework you might know from stories like Lord of the Rings.

You might find some plotting/outlining help by looking at the hero's journey story structure materials available online or in Joseph Campbell's works (I get his dvds and books from my local library.)

Best of luck to you!


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Merlion-Emrys
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Tell the story that you want to tell.


I don't really subscribe to the whole "cliche" thing, especially as regards plot. In my experience when someone (including an editor) says a story or whatever is too cliche or overused or whatever it generally means one of two things 1) they simply don't like that type of story or 2) that particular person has probably just seen/read/heard that story type a few times too often (and it probably wasnt one of their favorite types to begin with.) I find myself having that last feeling from time to time with certain things.


As with pretty much everything else its gonna be largely about taste, and how much exposure a given individual has had to a given story type.

quote:
Originality, in my opinion, should be the highest priority for a writer in this day and age. I think many, including editors would agree with me that while there are classical views, story types, and themes which are timeless and integral to particular readers seeking such material that they can never be eliminated from the publishing world. However, fresh creative ideas are a very tangiable way to separate oneself from their peers. I have heard it said by many editors, judges and administors that creativity is the surest way to have your work published


I'm sure this is true, and thats why its very funny to me that often if someone does something that steps a bit outside those classical/accepted things whether in plot, story type, or most especially style, or breaks some of the "rules" they ge wrist-slapped for it.

Its kind of hard to be original when with anything new, different or unusual you do, you have someone telling you, "no, thats not how its done" or "nobody is going to be interested in/connect with/be able to follow/care about" that.


It's akin to the irony of how most publications submission guidlines say to be original but in the same breath tell us to read the magazine or whatever to know what they usually buy.


quote:
I might read a fantasy-history of a knight reluctantly caught up in the first crusade, but I will not ready anything that smells of magic gizmos, elves, dwarves, save the kingdom, kill the lord-of-all-darkness, the boy whose really a king in exile, etc.


I fervently hope thats because you personally don't care for them, and not just because they're considered "cliche."

That aside, stories of those sorts have been done many times before...very succesfully. The Belgariad, the Sword of Truth series, the Prydain Chronicles, the Shannara and Landover series, and as a very recent example, the Inheritance Series (which as I mention in another thread is often derided by people here, but is very, very successful.)


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shimiqua
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Are the characters actively pursuing something, i.e. quest, or are they traveling in the holy grail direction just as a device to fill pages?

My advice is for you to stop outlining and start writing. If the story stalls, but you really like the characters, then make something horrible happen to the characters and follow them as they figure their way out of it. Second drafts are for figuring out whether or not a story is cliche. Because people really do things that are cliche, and as long as the motivation is clear I will buy it every time.
~Sheena


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Merlion-Emrys
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I also agree with Sheena.
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Dropbear
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quote:
I fervently hope thats because you personally don't care for them, and not just because they're considered "cliche."

Yes probably. Didn't mean to step on anyones holy grail here. Just an opinion. I've read too many of them -- some which I enjoyed, some which I did not -- and now am just looking for something more original.


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Merlion-Emrys
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quote:
Yes probably. Didn't mean to step on anyones holy grail here. Just an opinion. I've read too many of them -- some which I enjoyed, some which I did not -- and now am just looking for something more original.


No, its not like that. I've just encountered people who will basically turn their nose up at whole swaths of things because 1) they are supposedly too cliche or 2) they're to popular (the "oh everybody is into that so it must be stupid" type syndrome, my brother is like this and it drives me nuts.)


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WBSchmidt
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Thank you for the comments so far. You have certainly given me some things to think about.

shimiqua wrote:

quote:
Are the characters actively pursuing something, i.e. quest, or are they traveling in the holy grail direction just as a device to fill pages?[quote]

I like to think they are actively pursuing something and not simply filling up pages to complete a specific word count. The novel I'm working on now is definitely a character driven story. The main character (MC) is on this "quest" for multiple reasons. Some are public and some are not. The MC is trying to deal with all of these conflicting reasons for pursuing this quest. The story is about the MC's struggle to complete this "quest" for reasons that in some ways conflict. I can visualize some of the scenes I want to use that will portray this struggle but I am struggling with getting the "quest" designed in such a way that it does not feel contrived.

shimiqua wrote:
[quote]My advice is for you to stop outlining and start writing.



Here's my problem with this: I feel that I'm an outliner, not a pantser. I'm the type of person that needs to have things written "black and white" ahead of time. So, I try to outline. Now, I guess it's *possible* that I'm really a pantser (where writing is concerned) and that this struggle is my subconscious trying to tell me that. Perhaps that's my issue.

Dropbear wrote:

quote:
If the quest is not central to your story and is, as you said, a backdrop to the characters, then get rid of it...

This *may* be a valid point, but without this "quest" the whole premise breaks down. The MC is not some king in exile and not trying to destroy some evil "lord-of-all-darkness." Another thing about this "quest" is that the MC is only seeking a single "item" to accomplish this "quest." I know of some quests (I started writing one) where the characters need to seek multiple items and they go off in different directions only to meet back together later in the story.

One thing I don't want for this book is to have the "quest" be the driving factor in moving the characters through the story. In such cases the characters only react and don't act on their own accord. That's what I'm trying to avoid and sometimes I feel that a trap I'm falling into. With "quest" stories it can be easy (for me apparently) to have the characters be pushed along the story and react to the "conflicts" the author throws at them. I want this novel be driven by the characters actions and it has been difficult to balance between the plot movement and the character movement.


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Brad R Torgersen
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IMHO the so-called "quest" is never old. Only your execution of the 'quest' is in question. How vivid are your characters, how colorful and wondrous the setting, how big are the stakes?
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BenM
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I recently realised that what I'm working on gets boring the moment I start resolving conflicts.

quote:
Synopsis
chapter 1
Doughnut Bearer: I'm going to throw this in a volcano.
Best Mate: You're crazy!
Doughnut Bearer: No I'm not!
Best Mate: Okay, let's go!
chapter 2
...snore...

There's nothing wrong, imo, with having a clichéd find-the-sword quest as part of the story. It can be a type of mcguffin, like the briefcase in Pulp Fiction; something everyone appears to be concerned about while the real story is in the way they're interacting and solving their problems in order to achieve it.

Another 2 copper.


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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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One thing you can consider doing is parallel or mirror plotting.

In parallel plotting, you have a similar thing happening to the POV character on the inside (internal conflict) as you have happening to that character on the outside (external conflict). If the POV character is going on a quest for some item, the parallel internally would be a quest for secret knowledge, for identity, for true love, or whatever. If you tie the external quest to the internal quest, that strengthens both of them.

In mirror plotting, you have the opposite thing happening to the POV character on the inside from what is happening on the outside. An example to go with an external quest might be that the character has learned something he always wanted to know and it's terrible knowledge, so all through the quest he is trying inside to deal with that knowledge--and if the resolution of the external quest helps him resolve the internal struggle that's also strengthening.

Another way you can use internal and external conflicts is if you get to the point where the external conflict (quest, in this case) is about to be resolved and the POV character realizes that resolution of the external conflict with ruin any chance of him ever finding resolution for the internal conflict, you may have a real zinger of an ending. (As I recall, the ending of Lloyd Alexander's Prydain series has the young hero realizing that in order to obtain his heroic goal, he has to give up things he loves, but he does it anyway for the sake of others. Had me in tears.) Frodo and his struggle to destroy the ring is another example of this additional kind of conflict at the end between the external and internal resolutions (and it involves a quest).

Hope that can give you some ideas.


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WBSchmidt
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Thank you, Kathleen Dalton Woodbury. That is exactly what I'm trying to do. I have many good ideas running for the inner conflict but so far the outer, mirrored, conflict feels flat so far. After my previous post, I realized that one issue I have is that I'm trying to plot this external plot at the same time I'm world building since I don't exactly know the details of this "item." That has stalled this as well.
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Pyre Dynasty
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Just please don't write a story your bored with. This is painful for all involved. If you feel this story is turning out to not be a quest story then I say go with it. My read of the situation is that you had your story and it wasn't world changing enough so you tacked on a quest story.

As to whether they are cliche or not. We have been telling quest stories since we started telling stories. I doubt we will ever 'evolve' out of it. There is definitely a market for them.


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Teraen
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Also, if you are worried you are being cliche, you may just be... Try taking your plot and twisting it:

What if the quested item doesn't exist? What if it exists but they fail to find it? Or destroy it? Or the bad guy finds it first? What if the reasons the MC is questing change? Does he continue?


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WBSchmidt
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Pyre Dynasty wrote:
quote:
Just please don't write a story your bored with. This is painful for all involved. If you feel this story is turning out to not be a quest story then I say go with it. My read of the situation is that you had your story and it wasn't world changing enough so you tacked on a quest story.

I completely agree with writing something when you're bored with it. I am very much interested in the premise of this story. Right now I need to get a good backdrop to the story that is interesting enough keep readers interested between the high points of the character plot I have in the works.

I don't feel that I tacked on the quest story in this case. However, I have not done much world building with this novel (it's fairly new for me) and so the characters' world does not feel very deep. I think that is the primary issue I have right now.

Teraen wrote:

quote:
Try taking your plot and twisting it... What if the quested item {multiple bad options*...

This I have done already with this "item" so that's covered. I like what I have done to the "item" so far because it will most definitely test the character to the extreme. It is a worst case scenario type situation that will push the character into some very deep emotions. I just hope I can pull it off.

Thanks again for all of the comments. It has really help me move forward with this story. Having determined that the world building aspect of the novel was not deep enough I was able to make progress. In fact, this morning I developed a background story that so far appears to help one plot point that was giving me a great deal of troubles. With this new world building bit of information many ideas are coming forth that I feel will help push that "quest" plot forward and still tie closely with the character driven aspect of the novel.

Thanks, everyone.


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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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I love it when that happens. This is one reason why I try to encourage brainstorming in the F&F areas, even though that seems to actually happen more here than there.
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Dark Warrior
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The Family Guy link I posted on here makes light of this question. Truth is that in the writing community we all no the standard, the recommended, and the most used elements of a story. But the average reader, which makes up the bulk of readership simply sees a story they like or dont like and dont dissect whether it is a hero or anti-hero, a character or milieu piece. Write it well and you can use pretty much any technique that you wish.
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WBSchmidt
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Another thing to note is the style I want to use for this novel. Although this is a generalization, I want this particular novel to have a "fairy tale" feel to it. In addition, with the stories and movies I'm using for inspiration, a "quest" fits the theme and style I want for this novel. That is a big reason why I'm hesitant to simply remove the "quest." I don't feel that it is tacked on because it fits for the type of story I'm writing.

This is a style I have never attempted and with the story idea I developed for this novel it felt appropriate. I'm doing several things with this novel I thought I would never do. However, I wanted to stretch my writing skills using these techniques. I'm just hoping I can succeed with what I want to do with this story.


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Emily Palmer
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I too am writing a story which involves a quest. But so many stories have what could be defined as quests. And not just fantasy. Mysteries (the quest to find out who done it), romance (the quest for Mr. Right), literary fiction (the quest to find meaning in my pitiful existence).

I once thought of cutting the quest, as it was not always the main focus. But the quest ties the threads and story arcs together. And without this quest, a common goal, the main characters would never have stayed together after chapter five.

Sure, it contains some common tropes. But I don't care. This story is the best I've ever written.


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WBSchmidt
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Emily Palmer wrote:
quote:
But so many stories have what could be defined as quests. And not just fantasy. Mysteries (the quest to find out who done it), romance (the quest for Mr. Right), literary fiction (the quest to find meaning in my pitiful existence).

I thought about that earlier today, but the quest I'm talking about is the "fantasy trope" where the "hero" goes to find the "magical item" that will "save the day." The important thing though is how it is done. After all, how many "boy meets girl" stories have we seen and many of them are still very successful.

I've seen a phrase passed around a lot lately: "If it's done well..." I can say the same for my "quest" novel. I'm hoping the main story, which is character driven, will be what readers remember from the novel and not the quest. The novel is about the characters and their conflicts (internal and external). As long as I keep that in mind I think this will be a good book.

Thanks for the comments.


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