I’m running a workshop/presentation in a few weeks at the Winter Wheat Festival of Writing, sponsored by Mid-American Review. The festival is a lot of fun, with workshops, panel discussions, readings, a book fair, and lots of good talk about writing. If you can make it, please do. More information, including how to register and sign up, can be found here: http://casit.bgsu.edu/midamericanreview/winter-wheat/
My presentation is going to be on how to write a journey story, and I’m going to blog here the elements of the presentation over the next few weeks. I plan to break the journey story into components and analyze how it works, and I hope that this will help you write your own.
The journey story is the most traditional of forms. It is at the center of Gilgamesh, the most ancient story known. It is at the heart of The Odyssey, The Divine Comedy, Don Quixote and many other classics of world literature, it is the plot of every space exploration movie, and it lives on in the contemporary short story and novel.
Why is it a particularly pleasing form for fiction? It seems to fall naturally into Aristotle’s basic requirements for a story, that it have a beginning, middle, and end. Leaving is the beginning, adventures and misadventures form the middle, and arrival at the destination (or death) is the end. In the journey story, ordinary life is left behind. Something story-worthy is almost inevitably happening. A journey form naturally invites the invention of scenes, situations, conflicts.
Most journey stories require a destination. If you have a character simply hitting the road, without some goal, you have what I might call a “wander story,” not a journey story. I know that there are exceptions, as there are any time someone tries to lay down rules for artistic creation. On the Road is an exception. Huckleberry Finn might be an exception as well. And a picaresque novel can be simply a series of series of adventures, without an overall narrative structure. But I think you’ll find it easier to write a complete story if you conceive of a journey with a destination. It could be to recover the Golden Fleece, or it could be to fill a prescription at an all night pharmacy in Toledo, but having a destination will help you find an ending for your story.
As John Gardner said: “In nearly all good fiction, the basic – all but inescapable – plot form is: A central character wants something, goes after it despite opposition (perhaps including his own doubts), and so arrives at a win, lose, or draw.” If your journey story has a destination, you’ll be able to follow this all but inescapable plot form.
For today, I’ll leave you with a list of good journey stories from contemporary writers. I’m also including Flannery O’Connor and John Cheever because they are so great.
“The Man Who Knew Belle Starr” Richard Bausch
“A Good Man Is Hard to Find” Flannery O’Connor
“Rock Springs” Richard Ford
“The Rich Brother” Tobias Wolff
“Boar Taint” Bonnie Jo Campbell
“The Ant of the Self” Z.Z. Packer
“Stars of Motown Shining Bright” Julie Orringer
“A Distant Episode” Paul Bowles
“Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned” Wells Towers
“The Caretaker” Anthony Doerr
“The Palatski Man” Stuart Dybek
“The Father” Irina Petrushevskaya
“The Company of Wolves” Angela Carter
“The Five-Forty-Eight John Cheever