This blog describes my journey exploring storytelling - words, images and the sensations they generate. The lot, basically.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Story Learnings: Plot #4 - Voyage and Return

Reaping the rich rewards from Christopher Booker's excellent tome on storytelling The Seven Basic Plots - Why We Tell Stories, we have reached the fourth of the seven master plots (You can find my posts on the first master plot, Overcoming the Monster as well as an introduction to The Seven Basic Plots - Why We Tell Storieshere, the second master plot, Rags to Riches, here, and the third master plot, The Quest, here.):

Voyage and Return

There is a second plot based on a journey, quite different from the Quest. The stories we find using the Voyage and Return plot seemingly have nothing in common, perhaps except that they are some of the most haunting and mysterious tales in the world.

The essence of Voyage and Return is that the hero travels out of their 'normal' world and into another world completely cut off from the first, where everything seems disturbingly abnormal. At this first this strange new world is exhilarating, but gradually a shadow intrudes. The hero feels increasingly threatened, until by way of a 'thrilling escape' the hero is released from the abnormal world and can return to the safety of the 'normal' world where he started. These are the stories we call Voyage and Return and they follow these five stages:

1. Anticipation Stage and 'Fall' into the Other World
We meet our hero as he is in some state, which lays him open to a shattering new experience; His consciousness is often restricted in some way: young, naive, curious, bored, drowsy, reckless or actively craving a diversion. Wittingly or unwittingly, what they have in common is that they are psychologically wide open for some shattering new experience to invade their lives and take them over. So he 'falls' into a strange new world, unlike anything he has ever experienced before. The event which precipitates the hero into the abnormal world is often shocking and violent.

2. Initial Fascination or Dream Stage
At first this new world is exhilarating, mainly because it is so puzzling and unfamiliar. Even so it can never be a place where our hero can feel at home. It is always very clear to the hero that something very queer is happening to them. One way or another the story work every conceivable permutation on their hero's sense of what is normal, even in terms of the most basic assumptions we make about our identity as human beings.

3. Frustration Stage
Gradually the mood changes to frustration, difficulty and oppression. A shadow is looming and increasingly alarmingly so; Being in the alien world becomes less and less pleasant. The hero will experience everything in a kind of dream-like semi-detached way; The other world will never be wholly real to them - even if some of the experience threatens their very survival.

4. Nightmare Stage
The shadow becomes so dominant that it seems to pose a serious threat to the hero's survival.

5. The Thrilling Escape and Return
Just when the threat closing in on the hero, becomes too much to bear, the hero makes his escape from the other world, back to where he started. Has the hero changed, or was it all 'just a dream'? This is the most important question in the Voyage and Return story.

To answer that question, we need to look closer at the hero. Voyage and Return stories never have a princess or a kingdom as a reward, but instead a possible inner switch from darkness to light; ignorance to knowledge. As such Voyage and Return stories fall into two distinct categories: Either the hero will be transformed by the mysterious 'other world' or they will not.

If the hero formed a relationship with someone from the opposite sex, while in the other world, he will have to abandon this person, when he returns and furthermore he will not have learned, or is not transformed, when he returns.

In some instances the hero, like Peter the Rabbit, has simple gotten a terrible shock or is physically exhausted from his folly. In other cases such as Robinson Crusoe, our hero eventually arrives on feelings of profound repentance for his former frivolity.

Summing up
Some of the very earliest stories a child can grasp are simple version of the Voyage and Return plot (long before they can appreciate the complexities of a Rags to Riches story with its 'Princes', 'Princesses' and transformation scenes). Goldilocks and The Tale of Peter Rabbit tells of a young person straying out of the familiar world of home and nearly getting killed for it. But on a more grown-up level the Voyage and Return plot is about the hero being in a state of limited of awareness and this has plunged him into a realm of existence, which leads to a nightmare threatening him with annihilation. But as a result he has learned something of fundamental importance. He has moved from ignorance to knowledge. He has had a chance to reach a much deeper understanding of the world, and this offers him a chance to completely change his attitude to life. 

The heroes starts out by being selfish; not really recognising anything in the world outside themselves. This blind egocentricity is very much the same characteristic we have seen in dark figures in the earlier plots who actually opposed the hero. So the hero is presented here as far from light, and it is precisely this that plunges him into the adventure that threatens to destroy him. The real victory in the Voyage and Return stories is not over the forces of darkness outside the hero, but over the same dark forces within the hero.

The Voyage and Return stories are an incredibly eclectic bunch: 

Alice in Wonderland, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, H. G. Wells' The Time Machine (as well as a lot of other science fiction), Beatrix Potter's Peter Rabbit, Brideshead Revisited, Orpheus Journey to the Underworld, Gone with the Wind, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Wizard of Oz, Peter Pan, Robinson Crusoe, The Lord of the Flies, Gulliver's Travels, The Lost World, Lost Horizon, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Golden Ass and many others.

The next of the seven basic plots contains some of the most complex stories ever told. We'll look at Comedy next.

Questions and comments are welcome.

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