Road Stories: Why We Like to be Taken for a Ride

I’m pleased to host novelist and writing guru PJ Reece, a global traveler who offers us some great insight on how the call of the journey connects us to the story. His latest writing craft book, Story Structure Expedition: Journey to the Heart of a Story, is now available.


“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” ~ Henry Miller

From Thelma & Louise (1988), to On the Road (1957), to Heart of Darkness (1899) and all the way back to Don Quixote (1605), road stories have proven to be tailor-made for delivering protagonists to a new worldview.

And what better place to talk about road stories than here on The Artist’s Road?

Patrick Ross’s Committed: A Memoir of the Artist’s Road reminds me that the plot of any good story is a long and winding road to some kind of wake-up call. Road stories, with their built-in story spine, teach us about the protagonist’s trajectory, whatever the genre.

Here’s what I’ve learned from my 25 years of studying protagonists who are hell bent on reaching somewhere:

#1. The journey is a misdirection

In CommittedPatrick travels across America to interview artists, but where is he really headed?

Where the rubber meets the road, that’s the obvious A-story. East coast to west coast, that’s the promise and we buy into it while knowing deep down that we’re going someplace else. The road trip is just an excuse for Mr. Ross to journey to the heart of his own story. Patrick is searching for himself.

That’s what I like about road stories—the official itinerary is a ruse. The real destination lies elsewhere, perhaps off the map entirely. The plot is a ploy, a misdirection.

#2. The road leads to the heart of the story

SSXpedition FINALRoad stories seduce the reader into riding shotgun on a journey whose destination—according to Henry Miller—turns out not to be a place at all. We’re being taken for a ride. Hijacked! To a place we never could have imagined.

Jack Kerouac’s autobiographical novel, On the Road, presents two characters criss-crossing America searching for… what exactly? Kerouac and his buddy have no particular destination in mind, only Miller’s new ways of seeing things. They’re looking for “it.” The Truth. These boys are determined to escape the prison of society. The prison of their own conditioning.

Who wouldn’t love to be taken for a ride if the destination was IT?

The truthful answer is “nobody.” No one in their right mind wants the truth undermining their precarious belief systems. Drama depends upon this cruel irony. Fictional protagonists are committed to the necessary lies that keep their world from falling apart. Which explains why it takes the subterfuge of a road trip to hijack the hero to the place he cannot imagine.

To the heart of the story.

Protagonist embarks from X with the intention of reaching Y—that’s the set-up. That’s what we’re told. But even narrators can be ignorant. Sometimes the writer doesn’t even know. Know what? That in the best road stories, the protagonist will run out of geography.

#3. The protagonist will run out of geography

IMG_0714Road stories are famous for delivering protagonists to the darkest of dead-ends where suddenly they see clearly. Take Thelma & Louise.

Writer Callie Khouri creates one of the most tragically memorable road stories when she delivers two fugitives to a dramatic crisis at the rim of the Grand Canyon. On the run from the law, Thelma and Louise arrive at the precipice. Have they run out of geography or what? High on their newfound freedom, they are well past the point of no return. A return to the status quo is impossible. Now what?

What happens to the protagonist who won’t quit? What happens to forward momentum that has no way of expressing itself in the physical realm? It’s an impossible situation. The mind can’t follow where this story is headed.

#4. The hero moves forward in another realm

Take Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. (Okay, technically it’s a river story.) Captain Marlow pushes up the Congo River to repatriate a rogue ivory trader named Kurtz. But look more closely—Kurtz is just a symbol. He stands for freedom. Kurtz has escaped the gravity field of civilization and rumour has it he’s gone mad. To the depths of the human soul, that’s where this story is headed.

When the river boat grudges to a halt on a sandbar and the world vanishes in fog, the seeing begins in earnest. Heart of Darkness looks like a jungle expedition but it’s really a journey toward the truth about the human condition.

Thelma & Louise likewise get a rare glimpse of reality.

With all avenues of escape cut off, their desperation literally blows their minds. Their forward momentum has nowhere to go but into greater understanding. They see things in their true light. When they drive off the cliff, we understand what “never say die” means. Freedom trumps death. This is why we don’t weep for them. Rather, we rejoice.

The road leads to freedom, and it’s everyone’s life story.

#5.  The road is our life story

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHenry Miller was on his own soul-searching road trip in Greece in 1939 when he realized that his destination was not a place but a new way of seeing things. “In the great peace that came over me,” Miller said, “I heard the heart of the world beat.” 

From Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard, to Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, to my own first novel Smoke That Thunders, the road leads beyond the promised plot to the deeper realm where protagonists discover that elusive “it.”

And where readers finally get their money’s worth.

I would love to think that readers are getting their money’s worth (99 cents!) in my new eBook, Story Structure Expedition: Journey to the Heart of a Story. It’s been called a “mind-bending whiplash of a journey,” an experiment in taking a story up the river to the end of the line.

Which, to the die-hard protagonist, is the brand new beginning that he or she needs to finally find the way home.


PJ 400x 300PJ REECE is a filmmaker-turned-writer who divides his time between Vancouver and Mexico. While writing for television for two decades, PJ published two novels and a memoir. More recently he self-published Story Structure to Die for, followed by Story Structure Expedition: Journey to the Heart of a Story. His blog is a radical examination of how fiction really works.



8 thoughts on “Road Stories: Why We Like to be Taken for a Ride

  1. Hi PJ, congratulations on your new book! I look forward to reading it.

    Your first point made me nod in recognition: “The journey is a misdirection”. Of course! How could it not be, and yet I hadn’t thought of it that way before.

    If the journey was a simple “point A to point B” tale, we wouldn’t be terribly intrigued. In fact, it is our expectation that it won’t be that keeps us reading or watching. When will it misdirect? How will it misdirect? And, when it does, what will happen?


    1. pjreece

      Tracey… some stories are so obviously about that “expectation” you speak of — that the story is not about the physical journey. Last night I saw Tommy Lee Jones in “The Homesman” and there’s a classic example. We know the tough old loner is headed for a wake-up call. Tommy Lee seems to be committed to this kind of story these days.


  2. Hi PJ, thanks for the post and I’ll look for your book. My current WIP has a road story at its heart– the MC is flown from one coast to the other to start a new life. Act 2 he gradually works his way back to the other coast– it took me 6 months to figure out that he was heading home the whole time. When I did I realized it made sense.


    1. “Heading home” — everybody’s talking about how they can’t go home anymore, and it doesn’t have much to do with geography. I could make a case for every story and every character being on a trajectory “home.” If that’s true, then your story should resonate with readers. Good luck, Marianne.


  3. Thanks PJ. I never thought of my new book as a misdirected road trip but that is just what it is. Thanks for making writing ever more clear. Great to be writing along with you and with your ideas out there like those road signs—remember them?Burma Shave on Rt. 66, a slogan in process.
    The whale
    Put Jonah
    Down the hatch
    But coughed him up
    Because he scratched
    I’ll keep reading your ideas and trying to understand them. You scratch (challenge ideas and make us think) and therefore, you live on in the work of all who read your works. Thanks for your generosity.


    1. Your Burma Shave memory… do they still have highway advertising like that?… it makes me want to write a road story and include that as a motif. I feel myself right now getting keyed up to write another road story. I have one in my drawer, been there for years, called “The Highwayman.” Excuse me while I dig it out. Thanks, Susan!


  4. Pingback: When the Travel Bug Bites

  5. Hi, PJ, sorry I’m late. Most interesting, as always. Love the Henry Miller quote. It’s almost perfect in its poetry and eloquence 🙂
    My stories are always journeys, I tend to write quests (for young persons) and of my work-in-progress, you once said, ‘Without knowing the details of your story, I can say that the “sacred object” should be a metaphor for what it is inside your protagonist that he hasn’t yet realized. I’m guessing that for a reader, your hero’s journey toward “self knowledge” is more compelling than anything the antagonist does.’ Which is another brilliant aspect of the road story.
    “One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” ~ Henry Miller


Chime in!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s