Friday, March 22, 2013

External Quest vs. Internal Quest

In 2010 I had the opportunity to attend a writing workshop led by the amazing Linda Sue Park. The focus of her talk was a character’s quests. She explained that a character has two quests: external and internal.

The external quest is what the character wants.

The internal quest is what the character needs.

The two quests are never the same, and the character is often unaware of the internal quest, creating conflict. She then explained that the quest(s) the character achieves dictates the story ending.

If a character gets both what he wants and needs, it is a HAPPY ending.

If a character does not get what he wants, but gets what he needs, it is a HOPEFUL ending.

If a character gets what he wants, but not what he needs, it is a MORAL LESSON.

And finally, if a character does not get what he wants or needs, it is a DEPRESSING ending.

When teaching this concept to my eighth grade ELA students, I begin with familiar texts and video before moving on to more complex stories. This year my classes started with the climactic scene from Wreck It Ralph.

My students determined the following during their analysis of the story.

Ralph’s external quest is he wants a gold medal, so that others will finally accept him and see him as a good guy.
Ralph decides he needs to win a medal
Ralph decides he needs to win a medal - click picture to watch scene
His internal quest is that he needs to accept himself for who he is and realize he already is a good guy. 
Ralph realizes his internal quest
Ralph realizes his internal quest - click picture to watch scene
The climactic scene illustrates what Linda Sue shared at her writing workshop three years ago. It shows Ralph recognizing his internal quest. It is also a Disney film, so it provides me with both what I want (to view a Disney clip in school) and what I need (my students to grasp an abstract concept), which as my students can now tell you, gives us a HAPPY ending!

Determining a character's external and internal quests is a great exercise in the classroom and in your writing. Next time you sit down to work on your story, see if you can pinpoint your characters' quests.


  1. Hi Keely,
    I love that your students were able to identify the internal/external quests in WRECK IT RALPH! I also attended a Linda Sue Park workshop, which I blogged about on our TeachingAuthors blog. In a follow-up post today, I've linked to your post:

  2. Thank you, Carmela, for the nod in your blog. My students are still referring back to Ralph's external and internal quest even as we move on to classic literature like Jack London's "To Build a Fire." Internal quest is an abstract concept. Teaching it with a familiar, non-threatening vehicle like Wreck It Ralph made it accessible to 13-year olds. Now that they understand the concept, they are finding it easier to apply it to more complex texts. And to be honest, Wreck-it-Ralph is an engaging, funny, heart-warming story.

    Another great movie clip to use to demonstrate a character's struggle between internal and external quest is this clip from Despicable Me:

    I used both clips when introducing external and internal quests. Gru and Ralph must have helped because my students took a unit test on Story Elements today and nailed those concepts.

  3. Finished scoring my students' unit test last night. 100% passing rate. So either Ralph and Gru were highly effective teaching assistants, or my test was too easy.