Road Trip!

Sat Nov 05 2016

I will confess there is something I don't quite understand about road trips: the road trip has such epic, romantic mystique in the American cultural consciousness despite the fact that, by any objective measure, the actual experience of a road trip mostly sucks.

Endless hours of tedium and frayed nerves, punctuated by cheap hotels, mediocre food at diners selected more for convenience than quality, and tourist attractions that are rarely worth more than their souvenir postcards.

And yet, road trips. They're a thing, and they show up in our stories.

How do I keep it interesting?

This is probably the biggest concern writers discover they suddenly have, as soon as they decide to put a road trip in their story. And rightly so: the act of traveling is, for the most part, pretty mundane.

Yet, in an attempt to make the mundane interesting, I've seen writers write road trips with pages as interminable as miles while they drag the characters from the Biggest Boot in Texas to the Oldest Diner in Wisconsin, with of course the inevitable vehicular-breakdown or out-of-gas scene thrown in for good measure.

It doesn't work, and the reason why is because writers misunderstand what a road trip really is, with respect to a story. They confuse the road trip for the plot, when that's not what it is at all.

A bridge between plot points

The first thing a road trip can be is a bridge between plot points. This is fairly obvious and mundane, so I won't talk much about it. This kind of road trip is just how you cover the distance from A to B when the characters realize they're at A but they need to be at B, which happens to be a long ways away.

A great example here is the road trip scene in John Green's Paper Towns: The road trip does not occupy the majority of the story. Not even close. It just serves as an amusing change of pace while the characters go from where most of the story takes place to the location where the story's climax (the final plot point) takes place.

The story's setting

The far more interesting--and far less well-understood--case is when the road trip is the story. That is, as in the movie Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, when the entire story takes place within the context of a road trip.

In such cases, what messes people up is mistaking the road-trip for the plot, when really it's the setting.

The road trip confines the characters to the same cars, diners, hotels, etc., with each other for a lengthy period of time. This is no different than if you put them on a rowboat adrift at sea (Life of Pi), Stuck in a spacecraft with a murderous AI (2001), or set the whole story on a golf course (Caddyshack).

The road trip is a setting. It's just that because the setting happens to be moving, people think the incidental wheres-and-whats of the road trip suddenly constitute the story.

But they don't. The road trip is just the context in which the story's actual events--the ones readers will care about--take place.

The actual story, therefore, has to be something else. The actual story isn't the places they go and the things they see. The point of confining characters within any setting is to force them to interact, even if they don't want to (heck, that's the entire gag in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles).

Thus, the actual story is more likely to be a story of relationships and personal growth. A story of getting to know people. A story of coming to know yourself better by learning how other people see you. A story of overcoming differences. Anything like that makes a great fit for a road-trip story.

But is it interesting?

With all that in mind, let's circle back to that concern writers discover when they embark on a literary road trip.

As soon as you realize the road trip isn't the plot--it is at best a transitional plot point between the bigger plot points--you are freed from the fraudulent demand to make the road trip's events interesting. In fact, the more boring and mundane the trip's events are, the better because that boredom puts stress on the characters and is thus likely to reveal juicy, dramatic problems in the relationships the story is actually about.

Thus, so long as the scenes continue to reveal stuff about the characters, their relationships, their attitudes towards each other, and so forth, the story won't get dull.

It'll stay interesting because readers won't be reading it for what's outside the car, but instead for what's going on inside the car.