What makes a great treasure hunt story?

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I am presently writing a novel which concerns a treasure hunt, and also Oliver Cromwell’s head (just to throw in a random piece of information). Increasingly I am noticing it harks back to my debut novel Uncle Flynn, and that it is in essence a grown-up version.

All of which got me thinking, what is the essential component of a great treasure hunt tale?

For me, the answer is the treasure should turn out to be a side benefit to a greater reward ultimately received by the protagonist. Perhaps in some cases, the protagonist does not retain the treasure at all, but emerges with something greater. The Indiana Jones films follow the latter principle. Consider Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The Holy Grail is not ultimately taken by anyone, but Indy gains something far greater – the restoration of the relationship with his father. Uncle Flynn has a similar thematic arc in terms of father/son relationships, and also overcoming fear. In the end, the fate of the treasure is incidental to Max’s greater rewards.

Other famous treasure hunt stories also follow this pattern. Treasure Island is probably the most famous treasure hunt story of all time, but I’ve always seen Jim’s rites of passage to manhood as being ultimately the more interesting aspect of the tale. The finding of the treasure in Five on a Treasure Island may rescue George’s parents from pseudo middle-class poverty so they can send George to a posh school, but this rather laughable call on reader sympathy and its subsequent resolution is not the most satisfying upshot for George and the other children. Instead, George’s character arc from angry, distrustful loner to someone with close friends is the ultimate reward for her endeavours.

There is also an inverted principle at play when treasure hunt stories have a darker, more tragic side to them, especially when characters become unduly obsessed with the treasure they seek. Fred Dobbs in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Elzevir in Moonfleet are good examples. It can be equally satisfying to see these characters obtain the treasure (often temporarily) whilst losing everything that actually matters.

At any rate, I am very much enjoying writing my as yet untitled new novel. Hopefully readers will find it adheres to these principles.

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