Wednesday, January 02, 2019

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Send Your Hero on External and Internal Quests

Most great stories don’t feature content heroes whose lives are upended by an inciting incident. It’s usually better to begin with a hero with a longstanding personal problem: an inner flaw (which they may not be fully aware of) has resulted in a series of social humiliations (which they are very much aware of) and they are starting to suspect that the problem is them.

When we first meet Meg Murry in “A Wrinkle in Time”, she’s hiding under a quilt, shaking in fear from a storm:

  • She wasn’t usually afraid of weather.—It’s not just the weather, she thought.—It’s the weather on top of everything else. On top of me. On top of Meg Murry doing everything wrong.

We then find out she’s got a black eye from a fight she got in school that day, and she says:

  • —A delinquent, that’s what I am, she thought grimly. —That’s what they’ll be saying next. Not Mother. But Them. Everybody Else. I wish Father—
  • But it was still not possible to think about her father without the danger of tears. Only her mother could talk about him in a natural way, saying, “When your father gets back—”
  • Gets back from where? And when?

So already on the first page we have an outer quest and an inner quest. She wants to find her dad and to stop doing everything wrong. She then combines the two:

  • Surely her mother must know what people were saying, must be aware of the smugly vicious gossip. Surely it must hurt her as it did Meg. But if it did she gave no outward sign. Nothing ruffled the serenity of her expression.
  • —Why can’t I hide it, too? Meg thought. Why do I always have to show everything?

This isn’t a flaw we see a lot in stories: Meg wants to be cool, but not the way most tweens do—She wants to be internally cool. She wants to control her emotions. Later, her mother says:

  • “You don’t know the meaning of moderation, do you, my darling?” Mrs. Murry asked. “A happy medium is something I wonder if you’ll ever learn.

Of course, Meg is about to go on a big outer space quest to rescue her father, and she’ll literally find a personified Happy Medium out there. As in most science fiction, the hero’s journey into outer space is really a journey into inner space. It allows L’Engle to make Meg’s inner journey manifest in an exciting way.

In most great stories, there is both an outer quest and an inner quest: something the hero physically needs in the real world, and a change they need to make on the inside. The more elegant the story, the more the two quests will be intertwined. L’Engle does a fantastic job.


James Kennedy said...

One of the craziest books I've ever read that does this outward-journey-is-a-reflection-of-the-inward-journey trick is "A Voyage to Arcturus" by David Lindsay -- has anyone else read this bonkers bopaloo bing-bong? "A Voyage to Arcturus" was the inspiration of C.S. Lewis' sometimes-inspired, sometimes-beautiful, sometimes-unreadable Space Trilogy ("Out of the Silent Planet," "Perelandra," and "That Hideous Strength," plus his unfinished "The Dark Tower"). Lewis definitely picked up on the idea Matt explores here when he read Lindsay . . . Lewis wrote, "He [Lindsay] is the first writer to discover what other planets are really good for in fiction. No mere physical strangeness or merely spatial distance will realize the idea of otherness which is what we are always trying to grasp in a story about voyaging through space: you must go into another dimension. To construct plausible and moving 'other worlds' you must draw on the only real 'other world' we know, that of the spirit." (That said, Lewis also said "A Voyage to Arcturus" was "on the borderline of the diabolical [and] so manichean as to be almost satanic," which just goes to show that you should take the time to read outside of your comfort zone to get truly inspired.)

Matt Bird said...

Excellent quote! Nope, never read any of those.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful insights as usual Matt. (any relation to Brad?) I'll thank you by offering an unsolicited suggestion for a future annotation project. A Study In Scarlet.

Matt Bird said...

No relation to Brad (Growing up, people always used to ask me about Larry, which dates me.) I love "A Study in Scarlet", and it would be an excuse to talk (some more) about how to do a great adaptation with the first episode of "Sherlock." I've avoided 19th century books so far, but the dam may break at some point.

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