August 23, 2010

Unlike Life, Stories Aren’t a Journey

Road to Mountains

We’ve all heard the saying: Life is a journey.  Often this thought will be accompanied by—enjoy the ride—or something along those lines.  And that’s great advice for life.  But what about for stories?

At the RWA conference, I attended the Inside Scoop workshop with Robin Perini and Claire Cavanaugh.  During the workshop, they critiqued opening pages from published books, as well as from former and current workshop participants.  One of the examples from a former participant opened with what they called “a driving scene”.  It didn’t matter that in this case the guy was actually riding horseback in a historical story, the same issues applied.

Problem: “Driving Scenes” aren’t Action

Check out the picture above.  Long straight pavement leading to beautiful mountains.  Great scenery, right?  But do you feel anxious to reach the destination and get on with the adventure through the mountains?  Sure you do.

Think about any vacation that started with a long car ride.  Didn’t you just want that part to be over?  Add in some screaming kids in the back seat and you’d probably think any amount of money to pay for a plane ticket to get there faster would be worth it.

Stories shouldn’t create those impatient emotions.  In a story, we want to jump to the exciting parts right away.  We want to start with the mountain adventure, not as we’re packing for the trip.

Too many driving scenes (or carriage scenes, or boat scenes, or train scenes, or…) are just a backdrop to give the character something to do while they think about things.  How their life is going to change, or what they’re hoping to find (or not find) at their destination.  That type of information can be interesting in a story in small doses, or when it’s immediately relevant to the action—but not when it’s hand-wringing.

Solution: Avoid the Hand-Wringing

We don’t want to read long passages of a character second-guessing their actions—and that’s really what many driving scenes are about—when we’d rather see them making the initial decision or reaching a new conclusion based on new information.  Either way, the scene will involve more action.

Which would be more exciting to read?  A scene of a character winning the lottery and deciding to take that mountain vacation they’d always dreamed of?  Or a scene of a character driving to the mountains and thinking about how lucky they were to win the lottery?  The first option, right?

Or would a scene at the start of the adventure with a quick line of, Thank goodness she’d won that lottery and could afford this adventure of a lifetime, be even better?  Do we really need to know more than that?  Do we care how he picked the lottery numbers, or how she usually bought her ticket at the gas station, but this last time she bought them at the quickie mart?  No.  Unless those aspects are a big part of the story arc, we just don’t care.

And that’s the secret to a great story.  Every scene feels like the destination, the adventure, the story.  We care about every action and we’re never left waiting for the actual story to start.

What are some great story openings you’ve read?  Can you think of any driving scenes that worked for you?  What made them work?

Comments — What do you think?

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*wiping brow here* Hey, I know that van ride was almost too tempting to mention, so I’m glad you didn’t.

Great post. The only driving scenes that have worked for me? Well, Chitty-chitty-bang-bang, comes to mind. 😉

Hey, driving scenes are kinda like the infamous elevator pitch. In that, you have a trapped and captive audience, right? Well, maybe not.



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