Universal Plots: the unlikely hero on a quest

It’s hard to write a completely new story. Most stories are new versions of old stories. The characters might be a little different, the setting might change but the plot is similar to ones that have been written before.

There’s nothing wrong with that! So long as you make the story your own with a fresh approach, a believable voice and your own original details there’s no reason you can’t borrow a plot that has been used before.

Here is an idea for a storyline that I am calling a universal plot because it has been used in many places, times and mediums.

An unlikely hero from an out of the way place embarks on a quest to save his world from a powerful evil.

For example:

In Lord of the Rings the hobbit Frodo must travel to Mount Doom to save Middle-earth from the evil Sauron. 

In Star Wars (episodes 4,5 & 6), Luke Skywalker must find a way to destroy the Death Star and save the galaxy from Darth Vader and the evil Empire.

In the Harry Potter series, Harry’s quest to save the world from Lord Voldemort and his creatures eventually leads him to a final confrontation with Voldemort.

Each of these heroes grew up living a quiet, insignificant life in an ordinary place. Events outside of their control (often something to do with a relative such as Bilbo Baggins, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Harry’s parents) set them on a new path. Often they don’t go willingly! They will have friends who are part of their quest and help them along the way. There will be many adventures and obstacles but in the end they will have to fight that final battle alone.

Perhaps you can think of other stories with an unlikely hero on a quest to save his or her world from a powerful evil as the main plot. Next time you are looking for a story idea, why not borrow this universal plot as a starting point for your story?

Stay tuned here for more ideas on universal plots in the coming weeks! You might even like to add a comment below with your own examples of stories with this plot or add suggestions for other universal plot ideas.

All comments are welcome.

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Random thoughts on getting started with story: creating the central conflict

Ernest Hemingway wrote a book about the conflict between an old man and a very big fish!

Have you ever started a story then given up because it seems weak and pointless?

Have you ever written a story that seems to drag on forever yet goes nowhere?

Perhaps this is because your story has no point of conflict. Stories need conflict to drive the plot forward and create tension. A story without conflict of some kind would be like an action movie where the hero takes a vacation or a romance where the boy gets the girl and keeps the girl from the get-go. Even if your teacher asks you to write a story about what happened on school camp (boring!) you can still write an exciting story if you invent or dramatise a point of conflict.

For example:

  • What  if when you are assigned cabins you find that you are assigned a different cabin to all your friends? That disappointment gives you the beginnings of what could be a story. Then if you overhear your friends laughing about the fact that they told you they’d all put your name on their friends list but didn’t – you have a real conflict and a story.
  • Hearing spooky noises in the night, would also give you the beginning of a story. And if you wake up in the morning to find someone has written ‘House of Doom’ on the outside of the door in what looks like blood, then you drive the story further forward. You are setting up a conflict with whoever wrote the words and you have a mystery. This could become genre fiction – horror, sci-fi, mystery.

The central conflict of your story doesn’t have to be between two individuals. The conflict could be between an individual and a group, between two groups, between humans and the forces of nature, inner conflict with self or even between an old man and a fish! (Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea) Of course, the old man’s conflict is also with the unforgiving nature of the sea and his own struggle with getting old.

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My stories in Cricket Magazine

If you are outside Australia and cannot borrow my books from your local library, you will find two of my stories in Cricket Magazine. ‘Sonnet Girl’ is published over two issues, February and March 2006. ‘Postcards from Hawaii’ appears in the May/June 2010 issue. Hope you can find them.

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Random thoughts on getting started with story: have a character find something unusual in an unexpected place.

For example:

Two seven-year-old boys discover a strange looking bottle in the school sandpit. When one of them wipes it on his shirt to clean it a genie appears in the middle of the schoolyard. (chapter book)

When twin eggs hatch in a magpie nest the new parents are very surprised. One chick is black and white and much like them, the other is very large, very strange looking and won’t learn to fly. (picture book)

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Random thoughts on getting started with story: create a character with a secret and have someone discover it

For example:

  • A lonely boy befriends a stray dog but his parents won’t let him have pets. He hides the dog in his room, taking him out for walks when his parents aren’t around. However, his parents discover his secret when the dog chews his father’s favourite golf shoes. (picture book/chapter book)
  • A teenaged girl just wants to fit in at school but she must hide a family secret. Her family are refugees from a war-torn planet on the other side of the galaxy. Not only are they hiding from immigration, they are also afraid of discovery by covert operatives from their home planet. A boy at school learns her secret when he catches her levitating. (science fiction/romance)

What secret is your character hiding?

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Random thoughts on getting started with story: create a fun event and then trash it

For example:

  • set up a family enjoying a picnic that is destroyed by a runaway zombie (horror/humour)
  • establish a group of friends holidaying at the beach when surprised by a tsunami (adventure)
  • a dating couple about to kiss at a picnic are interrupted by the unexpected arrival of the boy/girl who got away (romance)

Hope these thoughts help you get on track with your story writing. More ideas coming soon.

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