Journey or Destination?

One thing I notice in some novels is where an author has invested so much focus on a payoff – the ending climax scene – a lot of what came before feels like an afterthought.

I don’t care how well-written a climax may be.  If what precedes it is 70,000 words or more of filler, it’s almost a mercy to finally reach the ending, and it won’t deliver what it might have.

There’s a sense in some novels that they were too carefully pre-plotted and outlined – which is both a blessing and a curse.  Pre-plotting gives a roadmap for the author to follow.  But sometimes there is too great a reliance upon the map.  The author spends so much time looking down in their lap – following their own map – they forget what they should be communicating to their readers – which is the scenery they’re passing.

Scenery is what a story is about, and the destination is only the culmination of a journey.  The destination can feel like relief, an end to drudgery.  Or it can feel like the perfect next step that makes the journey complete.

There are some writers who make the “getting there” a lot of fun, pure entertainment all the way.

There are also stories padded with filler, and often filled with manufactured reasons to kick the can down the road long enough to meet a word-count.  These latter do neither author nor readers a service.

A key difference is that a “journey” author leaves the reader guessing, “What’s going to happen next.”  While a “destination” author has the reader wondering, “How will it end?”

There’s nothing wrong with a reader wanting to know how a story will end.  But that should lie behind a desire to keep reading and not miss what happens in-between.  Readers have a sense for contrived scenery – it feels as fake as plastic plants that populate cheap office spaces.  When a reader begins skimming and skipping ahead without a sense that anything worthwhile has been missed, there’s a problem.

The most re-readable stories – or movies, for that matter – are the ones whose journey outweighed the ending.  The ending was simply a very natural step in the progression, and often a great payoff nevertheless.  But everything that came before made it worthwhile.

In John Irving’s The World According to Garp, the title character’s latest work, born from pain in his own personal life, is given to the editor’s cleaning woman, Jillsy Sloper, to read.  She returned with it, bedraggled and exhausted, having finished the book in a sitting:

    “I shouldn’t have given it to you, Jillsy,” John Wolf said. “I should have remembered that first chapter.”
    “First chapter ain’t so bad,” Jillsy said. “That first chapter ain’t nothin’. It’s that nineteenth chapter that got me,” Jillsy said. “Lawd, Lawd!” she crowed.
    “You read nineteen chapters?” John Wolf asked.
    “You didn’t give me no more than nineteen chapters,” Jillsy said. “Jesus Lawd, is there another chapter? Do it keep goin’ on?”
    “No, no,” John Wolf said. “That’s the end of it. That’s all there is.”
    “If you hated it, why’d you read it, Jillsy?” John Wolf asked her.
    “Same reason I read anythin’ for,” Jillsy said. “To find out what happens.”
    John Wolf stared at her.
    “Most books you know nothin’s gonna happen,” Jillsy said. “Lawd, you know that. Other books,” she said, “you know just what’s gonna happen, so you don’t have to read them, either. But this book,” Jillsy said, “this book’s so sick you know somethin’s gonna happen, but you can’t imagine what. You got to be sick yourself to imagine what happens in this book,” Jillsy said.
    “So you read it to find out?” John Wolf said.
    “There surely ain’t no other reason to read a book, is there?” Jillsy Sloper said.
    “You want a copy?” John Wolf asked.
    “If it’s no trouble,” Jillsy said.
    “Now that you know what happens,” John Wolf said, “what would you want to read it again for?”
    “Well,” Jillsy said. She looked confused; John Wolf had never seen Jillsy Sloper look confused before–only sleepy. “Well, I might lend it,” she said. “There might be someone I know who needs to be reminded what men in this world is like,” she said.
    “Would you ever read it again yourself?” John Wolf asked.
    “Well,” Jillsy said. “Not all of it, I imagine. At least not all at once, or not right away.” Again, she looked confused. “Well,” she said, sheepishly, “I guess I mean there’s parts of it I wouldn’t mind readin’ again.”
    “Why?” John Wolf asked.
    “Lawd,” Jillsy said, tiredly, as if she were finally impatient with him. “It feels so true,” she crooned, making the word true cry like a loon over a lake at night.
“It feels so true,” John Wolf repeated.
“Lawd, don’t you know it is?” Jillsy asked him. “If you don’t know when a book’s true,” Jillsy sang to him, “we really ought to trade jobs.”

 

A good journey isn’t purely linear – although there is always a sense along the way that we’re being taken toward a particular destination.  Stephen King’s The Stand is almost 500,000 words and never predictable from one chapter to the next – but there is always a feeling that the characters we’ve encountered and are following are going to meet one another somewhere down the road – and it isn’t going to be pretty when it happens.  Richard Bach’s Illusions is about one-tenth the size of King’s opus, and still makes each chapter a new revelation.  Word-count should never be a concern with making a story interesting.

I feel like some authors fear that with the demands of word-count and concerns with pacing, their stories can’t deviate too far left or right.  But eyes-forward gives the reader only a view of the road ahead – not terribly interesting or encouraging when we know we’re 70 miles (or 70,000 words) from our destination.  A writer needs to put their story into the eyes and experiences of a passenger rather than a driver, and allow the reader to see what is happening around them while making it interesting enough to want to go on.  Word-count is never an excuse for thin characters and contrived plotting.

How to make things interesting along the way is up to the author.  The most common ways are to introduce new characters and bring out more elements of the plot – including revelatory moments, mini-crises, and plot twists.  The problem comes in because “destination” authors are still thinking of road maps and directions.  Characters who are introduced may then have no more depth or dimension than a road sign.  Turn them sideways and they almost disappear.  Plot elements and twists become trite, intended only to stretch out a journey – along with a reader’s patience.

One common complaint about some novels is a “whiny” main character.  Imagine being trapped in a car for almost a hundred miles with someone whiny.  That’s about how fun it can be for a reader trapped in a story with such a character.  Whiny isn’t interesting, and what a reader expects from a story is that the characters – and this includes secondary characters – be interesting.  We don’t have to even like characters to want to journey along with them.  Stephen King has spent most of his career peopling his stories with characters readers often don’t like, but who we still find interesting enough to follow.

One of the signs that a book delivers on its promise is when readers look back and remember favorite scenes, captured like treasured snapshots of their journey.  It’s easier to accomplish that when an author isn’t worrying as much only about their destination and can make each chapter interesting – rather than using them as filler or transition points.  I really feel that each chapter of a book should be capable of standing on its own, even when it’s woven into the overall structure of the story.  Many of my favorite books are the ones I can pick up and flip forward to chapters and enjoy them as much as any other.

There was a blogger who used to do wrap-ups of the show Lost and would skip over the “transition” points in many episodes by writing, Walking through the Jungle. Walking through the Jungle. Walking through the Jungle.  Transition chapters and scenes can be made interesting.  But sometimes a reader has the sense the only reason they were written was to take a reader from here to over there.

Good chapters and good stories make a reader forget they’re being taken someplace.  A reader ought to be too busy enjoying the scenery, looking around, and curiously excited about what comes next than to worry so much about getting to the ending.

Authors need to think like a reader and give their readers that kind of experience.

8 thoughts on “Journey or Destination?

  1. You’ve made some good points here Matthew, most of which I hadn’t thought about before because when I write I invariably ‘make it up as I go along’, so for me the journey I take as a writer will be similar to that taken by the reader. One of the advantages of being a ‘pantzer’.

    Outlining has lots of advantages too, but I think you are right in that it can be a potential pitfall for writers — to focus on the completion and not the scene they are writing. I used to do that, but only when I was writing reports or science essays. No one would want to read those for entertainment…

  2. Great post – well thought out and informative. I especially liked the road sign analogy – it’s something to think about, the next time I tackle a project.

  3. Its the journey that sells a book to me although one of my pet peeves is when a tale is all wound up in a couple of pages or a short story relys on one line to get it to make sense. It feels like its becoming a trend recently and for me, its something that really gets my goat.

    The post is a solid one and one that stands out for me. Well done Matthew.

  4. Great post…I totally get what you’re saying about the journey. It’s interesting that sometimes even with the best planned outline, sometimes the journey goes in an entirely different direction than you originally intended. I love it when that happens.

  5. Pingback: Tension Makes The Story Go ‘Round | Matthew Lee Adams

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