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 Committed, Patrick 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
Road 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
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
Henry 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 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.