The difference between a Quest, an Adventure, and a Journey

Endings come in several flavors, as do the core aspects of plot in every story. Of those, there are many variations that find their way onto the pages of books. The ones we’ll be covering today are three umbrellas that usually cover the plots and their variations: the differences between a quest, journey, and adventure.

The Quest is one of the core aspect plots, so to be clear, this post makes a distinction between The Quest, as a plot, and a quest, as a type of story.

Here are the definitions coming with us as we continue forward

Quest: Trip to accomplish task

Adventure: Trip without a destination

Journey: When the trip is more important than the destination

In some senses, these three umbrellas are very similar. All of them involve trips, although the journey type of story doesn’t require that the trip is a physical journey. Quest stories are almost always physical trips. Adventure trips can be either physical or not (Narnia was in a closet, for instance).

Quests have five key moments that distinguish them from adventures and journeys.

  • The protagonist is chosen for service.
  • Protagonist initially refuses the call.
  • The protagonist is pulled into the trip they must take.
  • The protagonist is in peril, usually mentally and physically.
  • Protagonist completes the quest and goes back to where they started (or establishes their new starting point).

Quests are character oriented stories and each of those steps features the protagonist for that reason. (Main characters, in general, will grow throughout a quest story, such as in The Lord of the Rings.) They are different from adventures which are usually plot oriented, and thus don’t have key points that are as obvious to create a list. Adventures are goal-oriented, and events build upon each other throughout the story.

An adventure is an event or series of events that happens outside the course of the protagonist’s ordinary life, usually accompanied by danger, often by physical action. Adventure stories almost always move quickly, and the pace of the plot is at least as important as characterization, setting and other elements of a creative work.Critic Don d'Ammassa, in the Introduction to the Encyclopedia of Adventure Fiction

In the adventure, there is more action for action’s sake. Despite having a lesser role, the protagonist will still feature prominently in the narrative, simply with less focus on their personal character growth. The plot will shape the story more than the character(s), although that balance can be as narrow as 51% plot and 49% character. (The Dresden Files series fits with the adventure story type. The Hobbit is another example.)

The journey, not the destination matters…T.S. Eliot

Journeys have more personal character growth than adventures, in some cases even more so than quest storylines. As stated above, the path is more important than the destination for a journey type story. This contrasts with quest stories where the destination is often rigid. Adventures can have a concrete final destination, but it is discovered over time as the resolution of individual events alters the trajectory of the trip. A journey simply requires the protagonist to explore something, either willingly or not.

Exploring the present, including the company surrounding the protagonist as well as the setting, are part and parcel of a journey story. Lingering on details that catch your protagonist’s attention is often used as a way to highlight something about them as a person. Often, the end result is more existential than physical and tends to be very compelling. (Think A Christmas Carol or Alice in Wonderland.)

There are many different types of story, but the idea of the quest, the adventure, and the journey will often be an additional layer making up the complexities of a tale. This can be done deliberately, or simply as a natural effect of the narrative. A good thing to remember is that all three types will treat their main characters in a manner similar to how they handle their protagonist.

Thinking about your latest WIP, what type of story do you think it might be? Is there any aspect of quests, adventures, or journeys that suits your writing style better than the others? Picking five of your favorite stories, can you identify what type of story they are? Do you think one of these styles is more challenging? The comments are always open.


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