On Writing: Get Off the Bus!

In a blog post on the Second Wind Publishing blog, author Paul Mohrbacher wrote: “At a writing workshop two years ago I heard this advice: Don’t spend time driving from one place to another in your fictional story. All you can do in a moving car is talk, talk, talk, or if you’re alone, think, think, think. It slows your story down. There is no room in a transit narrative for action. Get off the bus!” (Click here to read the rest of the article.)

trainThis is actually good advice, and yet there are many novels that take place on a trip — on trains mostly, which makes sense. A train trip is leisurely, which gives plenty of scope for both character and plot development, and is much more romantic than a bus ride.

I wrote an entire suspense novel that takes place on a small bus, one that was big enough to fit eight people (because that’s how many characters I had!). In Daughter Am I, my characters are going cross country to find out who Mary’s grandparents were, why someone wanted them dead, and why her father had disowned them. Much of the story is “story time” — the characters telling about their past, and it is in these stories that Mary finds the truth. Of course, they do get off the bus occasionally, but emotion and connection are part of the “action” of a story, so as long as they are present, it’s okay for characters to stay on the bus. Also, in Daughter Am I, the drive makes it seem as if the story itself is going somewhere, not just the characters. Each leg of the trip carries with it the hope of finding the end of the quest, and instead turns them in a different direction. Literally.

Two of my other novels also involve lengthy trips. In More Deaths Than One, Bob travels halfway around the world on a quest to find out the truth about himself, and in A Spark of Heavenly Fire,, world-famous actor Jeremy King travels to the ends of Colorado in a quest to save himself from the disease that ravaged the state and the quarantine that was supposed to keep the epidemic controlled. During each of these journeys, the characters learned more about themselves or we learned more about them and their quest, so the journeys were important to the plot.

Sometimes, though, a trip was just a place to get the characters from one place to another, in which case, I skipped any narration about the trip, merely saying they are going to a specific place and picking up the story again when they arrive.

And sometimes (though never in my stories) there is a lengthy car chase. Car chases seem to fit more with the visual construct of a movie than with a written story, because viewers see the narrow escapes and so get involved, though such chases also find their way into novels. Either way, I find them boring. In fact, they put me to sleep.

So yes, get off the car, or bus, or train, or airplane . . . except when something important to the story is happening in the vehicle.


Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Follow Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

12 Responses to “On Writing: Get Off the Bus!”

  1. rami ungar the writer Says:

    This is interesting, because Video Rage, the sequel to Reborn City, takes place mostly on the road. I’d say a good 70% of the novel takes place while road-tripping, including plenty of action and some very dark moments for the characters. I didn’t write it that way because of any desire to create a way for the characters to grow, because I thought it’d be interesting to write a story like that and that it’d be the best way to continue the story if most of the action took place on the road.

  2. Carol Says:

    Mohrbacher has a good point if all the people are doing is talking about stuff that doesn’t advance the actual story. An early scene in one of my stories (one that is currently out on submission) takes place in a car on the way home from an event where conflict happened. It’s relatively brief, but provides an opportunity for that conflict to continue developing and for us to learn about the characters’ personalities and how they react, too. So I hope an editor thinks it’s a useful scene. Guess I’ll find out eventually.

  3. ROD MARSDEN Says:

    One of these days I am going to write a novel based on my experiences either on platforms waiting for trains or on trains.

    I once had this guy sit down beside me on this train station bench. He was upset over losing his girlfriend to another man. To emphasize his points he had this knife. Well, I wasn’t about to argue with him. All I could do was sympathize with him until the train arrived and I could get the hell out of there without risking getting stabbed in the back for not paying attention.

    Yes, I get it. If travel doesn’t push the plot along or say something vital about one of your characters then it should be shortened or ditched.

    Mind you there have been books by well known authors set on trains such as Christie’s famous Murder on the Orient Express. In real life there was that great train robbery that took place in England in the ’50s. Real life train robberies are also mentioned in The Pinkerton Story. (The Pinkerton Detective Agency out of Chicago.)

    The story of how the west coast of the USA was linked with its east coast via rail is one humdinger of a yarn. It involved doing what many thought was impossible. It also cost lives. Especially the lives of migrant Chinese workers who generally turned out to be tougher than what they looked to be.

    In terms of television shows there was Casey Jones with his Cannonball Express in the ’50s and today you have Hell on Wheels.
    Not really up on buses in terms of excitement though I would recommend the movie SPEED.

  4. dellanioakes Says:

    Sometimes the drive is necessary. I understand the comment about long drives and talking, but I’ve read stories where they were in one location &talked, took a walk & talked, went for a drive & talked. “Oh look, someone is shooting at us! Let’s talk about it!”

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      And if they didn’t talk, they had long moments of introspection. Yikes. Maybe they should have gotten on the bus!!

      • ROD MARSDEN Says:

        I see where Dellani is coming from. There are episodes of Star Trek the Next Generation that make you squirm. The Enterprise is about to blow up or implode. What to do? Let’s have a senior staff meeting and talk about it.

        • dellanioakes Says:

          Rod, such a good example! Also, there are some romance novels where the couple talks before, during and after “The Act”. Not looking for a deep, philosophical discussion at that time – or is it just me? A little talk afterward, perhaps, but certainly not deeply introspective. More along the lines of, “Wow, that was great! Was it good for you, too?”

          My novels are dialogue heavy, I admit that. But I use the talking to further the plot, not put it to sleep.

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