Worldbuilding Wednesday: Rules Of The Road

There’s an adage that says to never start a book with a character going somewhere. It’s right next to the adage that says “all rules are made to be broken” because as soon as someone speaks of this rule in a writer’s workshop, everyone can almost immediately come up with an instance where a (famous/popular/bestselling/favorite) writer did just exactly that. But newer writers aren’t bestsellers and don’t often get to break those rules successfully unless they have shown an understanding for why they’re there. Today, I’m talking about Road Rules, and moving your characters from Point A to Point B.

Nails In The Upholstery

One of the main reasons it’s not a good idea to start your story with a character driving somewhere is the simple fact that when a person is driving, they are not doing anything besides driving. The primary conflict in that scene is “Man Versus Road” and unless your tale centers on Bob’s Epic Battle With Rush-Hour Traffic then you are starting your story with a conflict that means little to the overarching tale you’re telling.

Most first drafts featuring a character going somewhere are using the driving as a thin veneer of action for a “sittin’n’thinkin'” scene. The character is driving almost mindlessly, when he or she could just as easily be sitting at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee, or showering, or staring out a window. And it’s usually an excuse for backstory. Basil Exposition might as well be sitting in the passenger seat with an “As you know, Bob” speech at the ready. And the reader will be thinking it’s the perfect time to put the book down and get a cup of coffee of their own, or maybe drive somewhere and do something that’s not reading the story.

Don’t get me wrong–I’m not saying don’t write these scenes. As writers, we sometimes need these scenes to tease out some aspect of our characters or their mindset or their motivations before we get to the task of writing a scene that will stay in the story. Just don’t expect to keep the “driving down the highway and thinking” scenes. Because really–if our highways were filled with characters who were doing more deep, intensive thinking than paying attention to the road, would you want to share the road with ’em?

On The Move

The other reason to put your characters in a vehicle (buggy, paddy wagon, helicopter, tank, airplane, spaceship, giant whale, 1975 Dodge Van) is to move them from one setting to another. This is fine, if you recognize that these scenes are often transitional in nature. If something important happens at Point A that requires your characters to move to Point B, and Points A and B are some distance away from each other, your readers are still wanting to know more about what happens at Point A and at Point B than they will care about how many times you stopped for gas and slushies on the way.

Having said that, life is a journey, and your journey is a great opportunity for conflict. Flat tires, crazy road trip adventures, and inconveniences both great and small can provide you with great opportunities to further subplots or deepen characters. As long as those elements are relevant to your story.

Your sorority girl protagonist can find herself with a flat tire on the way to the social, but the reader won’t care unless it turns into an opportunity to show her secret mad mechanical skills–which must come in handy later on in the story, say when all the sisters are trapped in an elevator while giant robots have attacked the school. Or her flat tire could lead her to a secret meeting of an anti-Greek club with plans to discredit the system and plunge her into a plot that she has to do something about, even if she’s worried that her roommate is putting the moves on her boyfriend while she’s gone.

What she cannot do–or rather, what you cannot do, is to give her that flat tire, then have her call the auto club and file her nails and fret while the tow truck shows up to change it, then send her on her way without further ado. That shows your reader nothing new or special about the character, introduces no new plot elements, and provides your reader with a great opportunity to put the book down and go do something else.

Make your mobile characters’ travels count. Your readers will thank you, and your story will be a much more interesting journey!

My short contemporary romantic comedy, Forever Material,  is out now! Please check it out!


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Athena Grayson Written by:

Space Opera with Sizzle | Sorcery with Spice | Fun Fantasy with Feels

One Comment

  1. November 16, 2011

    All good points! The main thing is, we want to be writing scenes where something that matters happens – and that’s seldom the case in sitting-and-thinking scene. And funny you should mention Road Rules – that’s the name of a recent release, a really funny crime novel by a friend of mine, Jim Winter. But even Road Rules doesn’t start out with someone in the car.

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