Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Plotting the Quest Novel, Dora Style

by Jill Williamson


Like it or not, formulas can work very well. The trick is to know how to twist the plot so that the formula’s cliché isn't recognizable. That’s not the case with the children’s cartoon Dora the Explorer. My kids both loved watching Dora, so I've seen dozens of episodes, and it’s the same thing every time.
But it has a lesson to offer writers, and I wanted to share it with you. The plot of each Dora the Explorer episode offers the perfect quest formula. Let’s take a look and see why in this episode called Treasure Island.

Beginning: Meet the cast
At the start of every episode, we meet Dora and her friend Boots the Monkey, who is her trusty sidekick. We also meet another guest character, a different one each time. In this example, we meet Pirate Parrot.

Inciting incident
In meeting the guest character, Dora encounters a problem or opportunity—a quest which requires her to travel to a location to meet her new goal. In the Treasure Island episode, Pirate Parrot asks Dora if she’s heard of the blue key. Dora and Boots decide to look for the blue key, which happens to be in a tree branch above their heads. Now that they have the key, they’re ready for adventure!
The map 
The map lays out the journey
In every episode of Dora the Explorer, before they start their adventure, Dora calls for her map. Her words to the viewer? “Who do we ask for help when we don’t know which way to go? The map. That’s right.”

The map states the story goal: find the treasure chest, which is on Treasure Island. The map also tells the viewer how to get there: First you have to go past the lookout tree, then across Crocodile Lake, then you’ll get to Treasure Island. The actual map is on the screen and shows each location clearly. This sets out the coming journey clearly for the viewer. We know what we’re in for!

Dora and Boots repeat the quest agenda: “Tree, lake, Treasure Island!” And off they go. And this is the Climax of act one. Dora makes her choice to accept the quest and the journey begins. As they go, they sing a song that repeats the quest agenda: “Tree, lake, Treasure Island! Where are we going? Treasure Island!”

Obstacles

The first obstacle in any Dora episode is Swiper the Fox. He always tries to steal whatever object Dora needs for the end of her journey. In this case, it’s the blue key. But Swiper always fails his first attempt.

Dora and Boots make it to their first map destination, Lookout Tree, but they've got to get past the icky sticky mud. They use the plank and succeed. Then they make it to their second destination, Crocodile Lake, but how with they get across? Their old friend Pirate Parrot shows up with a boat. Sweet!

Midpoint and a big twist
But as they’re going across Crocodile Lake on the boat, here come the crocodiles. Dora, who always knows what to do, tells the viewer that they need to sing to the crocodiles. They sing. But one Is getting closer. So they sing louder. And now the crocs are dancing. Excellent. Dora, Boots, and the Pirate Parrot get away. Whew! That was a close one.

Another obstacle
Now they've made it to the third destination on their map: Treasure Island. But Pirate Parrot tells them that only Pirate Pig knows where the treasure is. So off they go on a search for Pirate Pig.

Disaster
Swiper steals the key!
They find Pirate Pig and give him the key. They are so close to achieving their goal! But guess who shows up? Swiper the Fox. And he steals the key and hides it.

Climax of act two
Dora, Boots, Pirate Parrot, and Pirate Pig work together to find the key in the village.

Climax of act three
Pirate Pig tells them where he buried the treasure, but he needs help to find it. Dora and Boots help dig. They find the treasure and sing, “We did it!” Go team.

Wrap-up and end
Our heroes enjoy contents of treasure chest. They reminisce over the long journey it took to get to this place. Dora and Boots each recount their favorite part of the adventure.

And that’s that.

Things to note
Dora always reviews
1. Dora always states her story goal/agenda from the start of each episode.
2. Dora always gives us (the viewer) the map, so we know where we’re going.
3. Dora reviews her goals and the next step throughout the story, which gives us (the viewer) a sense of how far Dora has come and how much farther she has to go.
4. All of this together gives us (the viewer) a sense of adventure and movement.

Types of quests
There are a few reoccurring types of quests that we see again and again in stories.
1. Finding something (stolen, lost, necessary, or valuable—check character motive as to why he or she is setting out to find this thing. Is he looking to save his people? Get rich? Earn honor? Save his land?)
2. Rescuing those who were lost or taken
3. Capturing a foe
4. Conquering an opposition

Well, we got to the end of this blog post. We did it! Hooray! *Jill sings and dances* LOL

Thoughts on this concept? Do you see how you could pull out the formula elements and plug in a National Treasure or Lord of the Rings-type plot? Try it.

Next time you get stuck babysitting and have to watch a children’s show, look at it as an assignment from me. See if you can find it’s formula and recognize why it works so well. 

31 comments:

  1. Oh my goodness, McKenna was obsessed with the Dora Treasure Island episode from age 2 1/2 to 3. I've watched that thing so many times...

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    1. I watched so many Dora, too, Steph. It's been a while, but as I re-watched this one to type this up, my kids came running. They still like her!

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  2. When I saw the title of this post I burst out laughing. And laughed and laughed through the whole thing. I've seen soooo many Dora episodes...that's what happens when you have 6 younger siblings. ;)

    NOW! I have an assignment! Which will probably get completed in the next few days.

    Thanks so much!

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    1. Ha ha. Yeah, kids just can't get enough of Dora. Cracks me up.

      Do let me know what you discovered with your assignment. :-)

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  3. This post made me laugh so much!♥
    Great advice! I was thinking about things along this line (incorporating the "same old" YET addictive plot lines into a story)and so this came at a great timing!

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    1. I'm going to do a post on those Hollywood plot types soon, Leorah. But if you can't wait, check out the book Save the Cat. Good stuff.

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  4. Wow, Jill! You've brought back so many memories... lol! "Swiper no swiping. Swiper NO swiping!"

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  5. Great post Jill! I've never really thought about stories like this before! It'll give me something to chew on. :)

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  6. Maybe I need to start watching Saturday morning cartoons, lol!

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    1. Ha ha ha. I used to love The Smurfs. Wonder what I can learn from that plot. That might make a pretty good fantasy plot, actually. Hmmm.

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  7. Writing quests, or even rescue missions, is hard for me because I never know how to get the characters from point A to point B.

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    1. Thanks, maybe this will help!

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    2. You need a map, need a map, need a map, need a map, you need a map!
      :-)

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  8. From now on, I will approach Dora with a different attitude. Instead of marveling at how she manages to stay upright when her head is so large (full of knowledge...?), I'll be studying her quest formula.
    If my toddler sis were old enough to read this post, I'm sure she would thank you for giving me something better to focus on when we watch TV together. ;)

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    1. LOL. Yes, Dora does have a very large head. How does she get her shirt on each day?
      Have fun watching with your sister! :-)

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  9. As much as Dora annoys me, this post is a really helpful way of looking at things! Thanks! xD

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    1. My husband can't stand Dora. I'm glad you now have a use for her. :-)

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  10. Oh I love Dora! oops... I mean...yeah I totally only watch dora because of my little brothers :P

    But really, this was extremely helpful! As I read it I was mentally tracking my story. So Far, i'm at the climax of act one. Is it a bad thing that I'm eight chapters in and I'm only at the first climax?

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    1. Ah ha! The truth comes out! LOL
      Don't worry about you climax of act one. Finish the book, then you can go back and re-think things. For now, where will you go next? Ask the map! :-)

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  11. Jill, your posts are sometimes really funny. I loved this one, quest's, I've found, can be hard to write. Dora, though, is not a favorite cartoon character. Thanks for the great post!
    ~Sarah Faulkner

    www.inkinedwriters.blogspot.com

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    1. You are not a Dora fan? I'm shocked. Wait...
      :-)

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  12. This post made me laugh!! My nephew was obsessed with Dora for a while (he now plays with her figurines) and all we did was run around saying, "Where's Swiper? Do YOU see Swiper?" Eventually...ah, the DVD went missing due to a sanity protest.

    My first novel is a quest, and sounds like I'm on the right *track*. :) Yay!

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    1. Ha ha. Sounds like Swiper visited your house.
      Glad your quest is on track, Cait! :-)

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  13. My older sister sure has a good memory. I read this post with her and she immediately quoted a bit of the episode, when they asked the parrot what's in the treasure chest:
    "Gold?"
    "Yes!"
    "Toys?"
    "Yes!"
    "Chocolate cupcakes with pink frosting?"
    "Yes!"
    "Stickers?"
    "Yes!"

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    1. LOL! That's kind of scary. Kidding. Sounds like she's seen that one a lot!

      I transcribed much of the episode before I wrote my post, and I was going to keep that bit about how she mentioned the chocolate cupcakes with pink frosting at the beginning and end of the story. But the post was getting really long. Circularity is important, even for Dora. I'm going to write a post about circularity soon.

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  14. haha...swear, I couldn't stop laughing over the whole idea! tht would be really great! seriously. :)

    http://rzzzp.blogspot.com

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  15. From Amo Libros:
    Great post!! I now feel slightly better that I used to watch Dora as an 8 year old (what was I thinking?!). Perhaps my brain, ever sensitive to stories, sensed the stability of Dora's story layout...or perhaps I was simply addicted to tv and would watch whatever my little brother had on. Either way, I never realized just what an excellent example Dora is of a Quest format.
    You forgot to mention Backpack! (Dad still sings "Backpack, Backpack", as well as the Blue's Clues mail song)

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