Far away is a priceless goal. This goal is worth every effort and hardship to achieve. When the hero of the story hears of this, there is a need to head-off on the hazardous journey to this far flung destination. Reaching the end goal becomes all consuming. Dangers are overcome. Sacrifices have to happen. Difficult decisions are made. The way is hard. The path is narrow. Eventually though, the hero overcomes. Triumphantly, they reach their destination and the quest is achieved.
This is an example of the 'meta-plot' called 'The Quest'. Did you know humans have been telling stories for a very long time and we use the same basic plot-lines to do this. Characters, scenes, tools and endings are different but the basic plots stay the same. We tell these stories to help convey meaning, to learn and to entertain. We recycle the same basic elements to do so.
As a creative brand strategist I'm interested in how to swiftly create meaning in an audiences mind through the work I do. These meta plot-lines, uncovered by Christopher Booker in his book 'The Seven Basic Plots', fascinate me. What can brands learn from these powerful 'meaning generating' stories-lines which they could use to convey deep meaning in their work?
Introduction to 'The Quest' plot-line
Usually the story will begin with the hero at home. For some reason there will be a 'call' to leave. This will be a fearful threat or an unbelievable opportunity. For this threat to be overcome, or for the opportunity to be grasped, the hero has to leave their home comforts to achieve their goal.
'Quest’ plot-lines are focused on the search for a special item, place, or person that requires the main character to go on a journey of some sort in order to find it. Along the way there are 'helpers' and also 'companions' to the hero. However there are also 'monsters' and powerful forces which are against the quest and outside of the heroes control. The hero will face many frustrations, obstacles and temptations which will be presented to them hindering their success. There is usually one final 'grand' and fearful test. Once this is overcome, against all the odd, the quest is completed and the item, place or person is found.
Examples of 'The Quest' plot-line
The biblical story of the exodus - After being made slaves in Egypt the ancient people of Israel, under the leadership of Moses and in God's blessing, escape. They are chased by Pharaoh and his army but the people are miraculously saved and in turn Pharaoh and his army destroyed in the opening and closing of the red sea. There is no turning back. The people begin a hazardous 40 year journey in the wilderness before they can enter the promised land. This they do but not after many hardships and lessons are learnt.
Treasure Island - Through dramatic circumstances Jim Hawkins obtains a treasure map which he shares with his friends Dr. Livesey and Squire Trelawney. They obtain a ship and begin a quest to get the treasure only to find their ships crew is mutinous and intend to steal the treasure for themselves. After many difficulties eventually the treasure is found but only after Jim has come of age.
Lord of the Rings - Within an all powerful magical ring holds the fate of civilisation in this classic tale. Although the ring has been lost for many years, evil forces have been diligently searching for it. By a seemingly fateful coincidence the ring becomes the possession of a hobbit - Frodo Baggins. Frodo lives happily in Bag-end until the wizard Gandalf explains the danger of the ring to Frodo and the evil force begin to hunt Frodo down. Gandulf tells him it must be destroyed in the fires of Mount Doom in the dark land of Mordor where it was forged. Frodo and a selection of the bravest warriors (made up of light loving races), set off to the land of Mordor. Along the way the party of heroes eventually fall away leaving Frodo to continue alone to face the powers of darkness. Eventually after much difficulty he reaches Mount Doom and only just manages to destroy the ring. Along the way, Frodo finds an inner strength he did not know he possessed.
Frodo & the ring - The Lord of the Rings has a classic 'Quest' storyline
Other examples: Around the World in 80 Days , The Pilgrim’s Progress, the Indiana Jones franchise, Nania: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Ice Age.
Why do we tell 'Quest' stories?
Why is 'the quest' such a recognisable and popular plot line which humans have told each other down through time?
This plot line tells us that if we put our minds to something we can achieve the goal we are setting out for. That although there will be hardships, we will have companionship and also helpers - we just need to find them.
This story helps us believe we can find what we are looking for. That we can succeed if we persevere.
It also helps us to make sense of life and the mini 'quests' we go through. By achieving our goals we learn important life lessons which make us stronger. The hardships we face will be worth it when we reach the destination.
We all have things we would like. We all want to go somewhere or find that special thing. This universal meta-plot encourages us to take the first step on the journey towards it and to stay the course on the quests we have begun.
How can 'The Quest' used in branding, advertising and creative storytelling?
This plot-line is ideal for purpose driven brands. There are two ways this storyline can be used creatively. It can be used, either by brands who are seeking to find something themselves, or brands who help their customers get to a destination - either literally or metaphorically.
For brands who are seeking to find something themselves, consider if your messaging should be aligned with asking their customers to 'join' them on this existing quest. To become part of the party. To be a companion to the brand. By doing so the customer joins the quest. They make their quest the same as the brands. Or perhaps the customers quest was the same already and the brand is simply joining forces with them.
For brands which are helping their customers get somewhere, consider positioning yourselves as an explorer guide. The customers' helper. The customers companion.
To be effective you need to understand your audience and the meaning your brand plays in their lives. You need to know if you are leading, following or supporting. Then, use the quest plot line to add powerful meaning to the way you present your brand to your audience.
How can 'The Quest' be used for personal story telling?
For personal storytelling think about what it is in life you are seeking to obtain. What is your destination. Are you looking for companions to help you get there? Are you seeking wisdom and help? What are the monsters stoping you getting to your destination. How is your quest going?
All of the above show how powerful and useful this plot-line is when trying to communicate meaning and when trying to connect with an audience.
When using this storyline remember the key human appeal: it says we can all get to our destination, no matter what resistance we face.