Voyage and Return (Plot #4)

Sep 20 2011

Into another world

My favourite film of last year was Inception (you can read about marketing inception here and the psychology of inception here). For those who haven’t seen it yet (and please do if you haven’t), the plot involves the main character played by Leonardo di Caprio entering someone’s dream world with a team of helpers in order to plant an idea in the dreamer’s mind. As with similar ‘Voyage and return’ plots, Leonardo’s character starts the movie with a shadow (his wife’s suicide) hanging over him, restricting his mental world and opening him to the potential of a voyage into the unknown (with the promise of a return to his home). He finally returns home after  a strange and dangerous voyage of discovery, a changed man.

This is the classic pattern of the ‘Voyage and return’ outlined by Christopher Booker in Seven Basic Plots. Sometimes the voyage is to a desert island like some of the classic Voyage and return stories such as Robinson Crusoe, The Tempest or The Lord of the Flies. Sometimes the voyage is to a fantastic world or unknown civilisation, such as in Gulliver’s Travels, Orpheus in the Underworld, The Lion The Witch and The Wardrobe, Candide or The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. H.G. Wells made a habit of using this scheme with The Time Machine, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, The Island of Dr Moreau, The Lost World and many others! Such a plot scheme is a standard one in science fiction.

There are other types of Voyage and return which focus on a social (or psychological) journey where there is no physical journey bur rather a voyage of discovery into an unknown social context or state of mind such as Brideshead Revisited, The Third Man and of course Inception.

Prior to Inception one of my favourite films to follow this plot structure was very different, but hopefully one that you will have seen.  The Wizard of Oz follows the Voyage and return structure so I will use that as an example of the plot’s five stages.

Follow the yellow brick road

In the first stage, the hero(ine) is in a state which leaves them open to a new experience, sometimes because they are young and naive (as in Peter Rabbit), sometimes because they are actively curious and looking for adventure (as in many of H.G. Wells’ stories), and sometimes because they are bored, drowsy or feckless (as in Alice’s adventures In Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass). They are suddenly thrown into into a strange new world unlike anything they have experience before.

In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy (played by Judy Garland) runs away with her misbehaving dog and ends up having to shelter from a tornado in the upstairs of the family house. During the cyclone she is knocked unconscious , and is awakened to the house, her and her dog being carried away by the tornado. The house eventually falls back to Earth and she opens the door to find herself alone in a strange village unlike anything she’s seen before. Just then, the Good Witch of the North turns up to inform Dorothy that her house has landed on the Wicked Witch of the East and killed her!

In the second stage of this plot, the hero(ine) begins to explore the strange new world and is excited to find it puzzling and unfamiliar, but nothing like home.

The timid  Munchkins who live in Dorothy’s strange new home come out of their homes and start singing ‘Ding dong. The witch is dead’. The Wicked Witch of the West interrupts proceedings to try and claim her sister’s ruby slippers, but the Good Witch of the North magically moves them onto Dorothy’s feet and reminds the Wicked Witch that her powers can’t work in Munchkinland. The Wicked Witch vows revenge and disappears. Dorothy asks for help to get home to Kansas, and the Good Witch advises her to seek the help of the Wizard of Oz in the Emerald City which can be reached by following the Yellow Brick Road. She warns Dorothy never to remove the slippers which protect her.

As Dorothy makes her way to the city she meets up with a Scarecrow, a Tin Man and a Cowardly Lion who are all looking for something (a brain, a heart and courage), although they all demonstrate what they think they lack on the rest of the journey.

During the third stage of ‘Voyage and return’, the mood of the story changes and frustration enters as the situation becomes more difficult and oppressive and a shadow falls over the hero(ine).

Dorothy and her companions nearly fall into a trap set by the Wicked Witch, and reach the Emerald City to meet the Wizard of Oz who appears mysteriously in a cloud of smoke (as a disembodied head) and agrees to help Dorothy if she can bring him the Wicked Witch’s broomstick. So the group set off for the Wicked Witch’s castle and are detected and attacked by the Witch’s flying monkeys who carry Dorothy and her dog (Toto) back to the Witch. Dorothy agrees to give up the slippers when the Witch threatens to drown Toto, but a shower of sparks shows that they can’t be removed. The Witch works out that she must kill Dorothy in order to remove the slippers.

Stage four is the Nightmare stage (as in other plots) as the shadow begins to dominate and threatens the life of the hero(ine).

Toto escapes, finds the Lion, Scarecrow and TIn Man and they find their way to the Witch’s castle and after overpowering some of the castle guards disguise themselves and enter the castle. They find Dorothy but are all cornered on a parapet of the castle with no way to escape, and the Witch sets the Scarecrow’s arm on fire with her broomstick

In the fifth and final stage, just as the threat is closing in on the hero(ine), they make their escape from the ‘other’ world back to where they started, and in most ‘Voyage and return’ stories, they return a better person, having learnt something from their adventures (unless it was all ‘just a dream’). In The Wizard of Oz, the escape from the threat is separated from the return home by an additional adventure, as you will see in the final part of its plot.

With the Scarecrow’s arm on fire, Dorothy throws a bucket of water which splashes the Witch, causing her to melt and Dorothy is able to get hold ofthe broomstick and take it back to Emerald City. In the Wizard’s chamber, Toto runs off and pulls back a curtain to reveal an ordinary man operating a machine with wheels and levers which gives the appearance of a great wizard. He tells Dorothy and her friends that they have always had what they needed, and offers to take Dorothy home in his balloon, leaving her three companions in charge of the Emerald City.

Just as the balloon is about to take off, Toto jumps out and Dorothy follows him. The Wizard is unable to control the balloon and flies off, and Dorothy despairs of getting back home. Just then, the Good Witch appears and confides that Dorothy was always able to return and does not need to run away again to find her heart’s desire. She taps her feet together and repeats ‘There’s no place like home’ and wakes up in her bedroom, surrounded by her family. Dorothy tells her story insisting that it was real, even if they believe she’s had a dream, and promises never to run away from home again.

Escape and return

We all like to escape from our daily lives, and this plot has been a standard one for storytelling since the very first ones (such as the tales of the Trojan war which as a totality encapsulate the voyage and return). Contemporary storytelling such as science fiction, time travel (think of the TV series Life on Mars), and much reality TV (Big Brother, Survivor) is built around our need to escape to different worlds and return hopefully having learnt some important lessons. It’s a common trick in advertising too (‘how can my brand take you to a new world?’).

Which voyage will you be taking this evening?


The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories by Christopher Booker (2004)

One response so far

  1. Jules Verne wrote 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Journey to the Center of the Earth

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