A Stranger Comes to Town

In all of the various plots that comprise stories, two of the most common are 1) A Stranger Comes to Town and 2) A Person Goes on a Quest. Cory Doctorow used this fact in one of his best titles: Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town.

A writing acquaintance of mine postulated that every plot boils down to one of these two starting points. I didn’t think that was true, but it was a fun idea to play with.

Does it work with Shakespeare?

Midsummer Night’s Dream; Yes, it does, as two young couples inadvertently go on a quest.

Romeo and Juliette? Umm, no. Neither of the two titular characters are strangers in Verona.

Hamlet? Not really; Julius Caesar, not really either.

King Lear? Can we say Lear goes on a quest?

It works with Pericles. I don’t know if that’s a good thing.

Other classics:

Robinson Crusoe? Yes, the main character left “on a quest.”

Let’s look at Dickens. Great Expectations; Pip’s encounter with a stranger changes events in his life.  Bleak House… well, it’s a stretch, unless the young heirs to Jarndyce and Jarndyce are both the “strangers in town,” and also two young people who have set off on a quest.

A Tale of Two Cities? Is Sydney Carlton the stranger? If so, then maybe.

Jane Eyre? Yes. Jane sets off on a quest when she takes the governess job.

Wuthering Heights? Can we count four-year-old, quasi-adopted Heathcliff as a stranger coming to town?

Basically, any book where the main character goes off to war fits in this category.

A writer who makes “a stranger comes to town/someone leaves on a journey” work really well is Stephen King.

The Stand, a quest.

The Shining, strangers (the family) come to town. Or, you can flip this one and say that the family goes on a quest to the Overlook Hotel, which ends badly.

It… “a stranger comes to town?” Not so much. Pennywise the Clown is not a stranger to Derry, apparently. The adults who return to their childhood home may count as strangers, because they have all changed. That’s sort of the point of the book, isn’t it?

The Dark Tower series is one long quest.

The point of “a stranger come to town” is that something is already jiggling out of true before the stranger arrives; otherwise, they would have no impact. I mean, right? You’d pour them a cup of coffee, give them direction to the nearest Best Western, and end of story. So, someone or something in the town needs something from the stranger, or fears something the stranger brings, or there is no story.

Quests by nature demonstrate a problem to be solved or a need to be filled. There is already trouble in paradise.The all-powerful One Ring must be destroyed. Someone must speak up for the town or the family in a place of power. An advancing army must be stopped. An alcoholic English teacher needs a job to support his family. Life in America as we know it has ended, and people must find safe shelter, clean water, and food. A young person has completed high school or college and feels incomplete and unsatisfied in the home town. An elderly person has lost all ties with the home town, or is drowning in grief, and must set out on a journey of healing. An engagement ends; a job beckons.

I’m a big fan of quest stories, but I like that occasional stranger coming to town too.






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