Comparing The Crafting Of A Story To A Road Trip
I believe Crafting a story can be much like a road trip; both have a beginning, a middle, and an ending, with a few diversions and some conflict thrown into the mix.
I’m often asked if I use an outline when I craft a story. Always the same, my answer is: “No, I hate outlines. I hated them in high school, and I hated them in college. I think the rigidity of an outline kills the creative spirit. ” Whenever I had a school assignment that required an outline to be submitted with it, I would complete the assignment, then craft an outline, after the fact, to fit the assignment just to make the instructors happy.
I liken my approach to crafting a story to that of a road trip. When one plans a road trip, he usually has a destination in mind. The route for getting there isn’t always clear in the beginning, but the destination usually is. There may be diversions and side trips along the way, but the traveler always knows the final destination. The final destination of a story is the ending, or the resolution, if you will. Most authors, I think, know beforehand what that destination is going to be. In some instances, it may change, but I think not often.
I remember a trip to Del Rio Texas some years ago with Mrs. Edwinson and our six year old daughter. We went to visit Mrs. E’s sister and husband. He was in the Air Force at the time, stationed in Del Rio. On our way, one of our overnight stops was in Cedar City, Utah. That night at the motel, I was perusing a brochure I found in the room that was describing a place called Cedar Breaks. It sounded like an interesting place to visit. I said to my fellow travelers, “This looks very interesting, why don’t we drive over there tomorrow. We may never be this close again for quite a while.” So that’s what we did. First diversion, or what might be called a sub-plot to our trip, but still focused on our ultimate destination.
When I start a story, I sometimes write the last scene and the ending first. This is my destination, and then I start writing toward that destination. I’ve been carrying the idea for this story around in my head for weeks, knowing where I want to go with it, but without giving much thought to how I will get there. I start the story and the first leg goes quite well. I have a pretty good idea where I’m going, but then my characters start speaking to me. “Will,” they’d say, “we think we know where you’re headed with this tale, but there’s an interesting scene over yonder we think you should explore.”
I say to them, “Naw, I don’t wanna go there.” I start to write what I think is the right way to go. Soon they rebel, and it’s not long until we’re heading in the direction they wanted to take me. As things progress, I start to enjoy the scene as they wanted me to see it. First diversion, but still focused on my original destination—that last scene in the story.
Into every good story, were told, there must be some conflict. As much as we’d like it not be the case, conflict sometimes enters our road trips, also. My family’s trip to Del Rio involved a few more side trips (sub-plots) along the way, and there was even a bit of conflict thrown in. We were cruising along out in the middle of nowhere in the vast desert country of Texas when the red alternator warning light in the car flashed. Enter conflict. Uh-oh, this is not good. It’s the middle of July and hot as blazes. Not a good place to be in July, but with our daughter now in school, there were no other options. But I digress.
Further inspection determined it was a broken alternator driving belt . Where are we going to find a belt out in here in no man’s land? I thought. Perhaps in that little one horse town called Dryden we had just passed through a few miles back. Maybe if we turn off the air conditioner and roll the windows down, there might be enough juice in the battery to get us back to Dryden. We turned around and made it back. There was only one service station in the whole town. (I told you it was a one horse town.) I told Mrs. E that I didn’t hold out much hope that we’d be able to find the right belt here, I told her and our daughter to come inside with me; at least it would be cooler inside than out in the car.
We went inside and I told the attendant of our plight. “Would you happen to have something that might work long enough to get me to the next major town?” I asked
“Maybe,” he said in his Texas drawl “What kinda car y’all drivin?”
“1970 Mercury Grand Marqui,” I said. He got out his manual and looked up the number of the belt we’d need. Then he said, “Let’s go out in the shop and see what we can find.” We stepped out into the shop and my breath was taken away. Long story short, all four walls were lined with fan belts. Not only did he have the one we needed, he had a couple of complete sets of belts for my model of car. (Mrs. E and I joked about Dryden casting a fan belt “hex” on travelers passing through, and that’s why this service station had so many fan belts.)
I bought a full set and put them in the trunk. I was not going to get caught unprepared like that again. I drove that care another six years, and those belts and the tools for changing them out were still in the trunk when I sold it.
Conflict resolved. See how similar writing a story is to road travel?
After that little diversion we were back on the road. We continued on our way and arrived at our destination with no further ado. We had a nice time and a pleasant visit. The sequel to this story occurred when we started home. Home was our destination. Again, we had not much idea of the route or what diversions or conflict was in store for us along the way. Just as in writing a story, we would resolve issues as they occurred along the way.
In conclusion, I suppose the point of this blog is to say, “Why make the writing of a story complicated with outlines and so-called plot planning?” In an interview, the late Ton Clancy intimated that same point when he said, “Just write the damn story.” In another interview, Stephen King said outlines kill the creative spirit.Whether or not one thinks these men are good writers is beside the point. Point is, they’ve sold a hellava lot of books.
I believe we should all do what works best for us, and what works for me in many cases, is writing the ending first; knowing my destination. I suppose I can take comfort in knowing J.K. Rowling uses the same technique. I read where she said she wrote the last chapter to the last book in the Harry Potter series even though that particular book was still two books in the future.
If having an outline and plotting the story works for some writers, then, so be it. In my case, it’s forget the rigidity of an outline, or quit worrying about proper plot development beforehand. If I tried to do that, I’d never finish the story. I just let those things take care of themselves along the way. It may take me longer than most to write a first draft, but it’s what’s comfortable for me.
Just like the old “bush pilot” who flies by the seat of his pants, I’m that kind of writer. I just try to write as interesting a tale as I can. I try to read my stories with a critical eye. If I can hold my own interest in the story, chances are my readers will find it interesting as well. If I find it dull and discombobulated in spots, my readers will, in all likelihood, find these flaws as well. When I discover this, I work to fix it.
If you would like to read more of my stories, you can obtain a copy of my book Buddy…His Trials and Treasures by clicking on the free download button at upper right of this page. Enjoy.