In my last post we discussed two popular story themes, Coming of Age and Bildungsroman. In this post we’ll explore two other very well-known and well-used themes, Hero’s Quest and Boy Meets Girl.
Hero’s Quest or Journey
The Hero’s Journey was used extensively in older classic literature such as The Odyssey, The Canterbury Tales, and Don Quixote. Also famous are the Holy Grail stories (not Monty Python) such as the various legends of King Arthur.
(Extra credit: Here is one person’s list of the 12 best Hero’s Quest books.)
The theme of Hero’s Quest has emerged from real life. Quests are as old as the hills; history is made up of real people who went on real quests. Think Columbus, Coronado, Napoleon, Joan of Arc, Alexander the Great, and even notable biblical figures.
Many Quest books are young adult novels; in fact, the list is endless. Here are a few: The Hobbit, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (her quest is “Get me out of here!”), The Wizard of Oz, Watership Down, The Phantom Tollbooth – notice how almost all of these are fantasies.
And need I mention the seventh volume in the Harry Potter series? Okay, I won’t.
Quest-themed books don’t necessarily have to be young adult or fantasy novels, however. There’s room for books about people searching for a better life, or journaling about a trip around the world. Perhaps your protagonist was brought up by a single mother and is looking for his father, a la Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. (By the way, I just finished the wonderful Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult. I strongly recommend it. Totally fresh way to present a Quest book. Talk about creativity…)
Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey
A man named Joseph Campbell created one theory of the Hero’s Journey, which I’ve discussed at length in a previous post. There, I discussed the approach of Christopher Vogler, who distilled Campbell’s “character circle” into twelve stages, which are then culled into three major groups.
Campbell himself, however, spoke about 17 stages, also divided into three groups. Here they are:
It is clear that Campbell’s stages lend themselves to fantasy novels, but they can certainly work in realistic novels as well. See if you can plug these stages in to a Hero’s Quest book you’ve read. I can pretty much apply this table to Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.
While it’s instructive to learn about Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, you don’t need to be at all rigid with your Hero’s Journey novel or biography. Think of Campbell’s stages as guideposts, providing ideas to give your writing depth, to develop the plot, and to round out your characters. Knowing all the myriad possibilities for your protagonist will make for a richer book.
Here’s everyone’s favorite theme.
The Boy Meets Girl theme is ubiquitous in chick lit and nineteenth-century classics, but you’ll find it lurking as a theme-within-a-theme in so many books. Recall the books I’ve mentioned in these last two posts; how many of them have a romantic side-theme?
The classic Boy Meets Girl theme goes like this:
- Boy meets girl;
- Boy gets girl;
- boy loses girl;
- everyone’s miserable (optional but recommended);
- one or both members of the couple need to grow (optional but recommended);
- boy gets girl again.
Boy Meets Girl is a perfect template for a novel: set up, conflict, dealing with adversity and antagonists, solving conflict, resolution. Like all themes, Boy Meets Girl can be used in any genre or context. You’ll never run out of ideas.
Here are a few to get your started:
- Intergenerational couple (which can explore issues such as class, age, generation gap)
- A couple from two different worlds or cultures
- A “standard” couple but in a different time period
- Science fiction
- Boy meets girl in a seminal historic period (such as during World War Two, the Exodus from Egypt, 9/11)
- Boy meets girl within the context of a murder mystery or other type of thriller
Remember also that “boy loses girl” doesn’t necessarily mean he has to physically lose her and get her back again. They could be a couple who are having serious conflicts and it feels like they are losing each other. Consequently, “boy gets girl back again” could be a resolution to their conflict.
You can even give it a twist: perhaps they don’t get back together again.
You have infinite possibilities with this one.
Chick-lit: a sub-theme all its own
Chick-lit comprises any number of genres, but it almost always has a “Boy Meets Girl” theme. You’ll find it in those women’s “cosy” mysteries, and in series such as Ellen Byerrum’s Crimes of Fashion and Rhys Bowen’s Her Royal Spyness. Ditto Sophie Kinsella’s Shopaholic series and even Helen Fielding’s Brigit Jones’ Diary series. The list is, literally, endless.
In a Chick-Lit series it takes several books until Boy Gets Girl (or Girl Gets Boy), another several books until Boy Marries Girl, and still another one or two until Girl Has Baby. Chick-Lit does get monotonous, but if you need good trash, find one or two series and stick with them.
The problem with Chick-Lit, of course, is that real life doesn’t work the way it does in these novels. I can count on one hand people I know who went out with someone, broke up with them, and then ended up marrying them (and staying married). Also, how many geeky gals do you know who married men who look like they just stepped out of a GQ photo shoot? Invariably, those are the kind of girls depicted in Chick-Lit.
Life isn’t that formulaic, but perhaps that’s why we women love happy-ending Boy Meets Girl books.
A healthy alternative to Chick-Lit
If you’re looking for “good” trash to read in a supine position, with a cup of tea and a piece of chocolate nearby, try one of Alexander McCall Smith’s series. His writing is first rate, and there’s even Boy Meets Girl woven into almost all his series. However, his books don’t really have themes, because he focuses more on drawing interesting characters and discussing meta issues. He explores the human mystique: right and wrong, fairness and justice, good and evil – but he does it within the framework of a novel so you don’t feel like you’re reading a philosophy textbook. If he employs the Boy Meets Girl theme, you can bet it’s going to be nuanced.
McCall Smith is an author’s author. Yes, you will be entertained, but more important, his subtlety and intelligent writing recalls the classic authors of centuries past.
Consider – or better yet, (re)read – the Brontë sisters – Charlotte (Jane Eyre), Emily (Wuthering Heights; and p.s., Cathy and Heathcliff finally get together when they’re both dead; ugh), and Anne (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall). The Brontës employ the Boy Meets Girl theme endlessly: classic theme by classic authors; classic Chick-Lit.
Don’t think many men were reading the Brontës in those days.
And let us not forget Jane Austen, the queen of 19th-century Chick-Lit. Think Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Mansfield Hall.
I’m making a point here: You can take any theme – Coming of Age, Bildungsroman, The Hero’s Quest, Boy Meets Girl – and make it your own. And you can write it well, not trashily.
You have it in you to write any theme in any genre.
You can turn banal into sublime.
Don’t let anyone limit you; you can be limited only by your imagination. Think how you can take an old theme and put a new twist on it.
Let me know in the Comments what kind of theme, and within what genre, you’ve always wanted to write.
Want to improve your writing in 5 days?
Get a FREE email mini-course
- Writing techniques
- grammar that doesn't bite
- inspiration for the writing life