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For Creative Writers: How to Write a Compelling Road Trip

Andrea Lawrence has a master's in creative writing. She studied fiction, poetry, playwriting, and screenwriting.

Writing a novel takes time and dedication. If you have a road trip in your story, I suggest organizing all the details first. Know the route your characters will take.

Writing a novel takes time and dedication. If you have a road trip in your story, I suggest organizing all the details first. Know the route your characters will take.

How to Write Fictional Road Trips

This is a crash course guide on how to write a road trip. I'll give you the tools to get you started. I have several pointers and things for you to consider as you write.

Important: Before you start writing a long cross-country road trip, you need to consider whether the road trip is moving the plot forward or is a giant tangent. You want the journey to be purposeful. It should liven your prose (it's not a snooze fest).

You want this journey to be meaningful and help your readers to learn more about the characters. Road trips are excellent for uncovering truths: characters have to think on their feet, there are conversations that come up only on the road, and there should be a kind of momentum that builds toward the destination.

Your road trip should build intrigue. It shouldn't be an exposition dump. Let your characters talk naturally. They shouldn't beat the reader over the head with clunky dialogue.

I encourage you to write up an itinerary for your characters' road trip. Try to piece it together as if you were really taking the trip. Start thinking about where you would stay, what you would bring, and any time-specific tasks.

When it comes to writing a road trip in your story, you need to know your beginning and endpoints. It's also important to know where your characters will stop in between.

When it comes to writing a road trip in your story, you need to know your beginning and endpoints. It's also important to know where your characters will stop in between.

Chart Points on a Map

The first thing I would do is draw out your journey on a map. If your story takes place on Earth, and in the present, you could simply go to Google Maps and put in your coordinates.

Create Your Own Map

If you're working with fantasy or something similar, you should draw up a map yourself. You could use something like Krita to design your map or get a large piece of paper and do it by hand.

I recommend looking at maps from fantasy video games, like Zelda, Chrono Trigger, and Final Fantasy. You can't go wrong with studying Lord of the Rings maps. There is so much detail and dedication in the background work of J. R. R. Tolkien's novels that it is inspiring.

Let Google Maps Do the Work For You

As for those of you who are working with locations on Earth, go ahead and put your start and end coordinates into Google Maps. For instance, I'm writing a novel that starts in Denver, Colorado and then the characters travel to Walla Walla, Washington. By car it takes more than 16 hours to complete this journey. You might be thinking, why not fly? Because my characters are moving! They're hauling their junk with them. They don't get the convenience of flying and cutting their travel time down.

Since this is a long journey on the road, and it includes a child, it needs to take about 2-3 days. The road trip would best be accomplished on a weekend when we look at it from a time-saving standpoint. I'm going to stretch this road trip out to a week or two. This way my characters can stop at cities and points of interest along the way. This gives us more time to digest what's going on with the characters and their thoughts.

  • Your road trip sets up the events to come.
  • It prepares your readers for the ultimate destination.
  • It's the perfect time for the writer to set up expectations.
  • Use road trips to help your readers learn insights about character relationships.

Let's take a look at the trip example I've created. Here is what we get (roughly) when traveling from Denver to Walla Walla:

  • North of Denver is Fort Collins. If I go a little north, and off-track, I can get my characters to Cheyenne.
  • One way or another, the characters are going to spend a lot of time on I-80 going west to Salt Lake City.
  • From there, we'll go Northwest on I-84 through Idaho. Boise jumps out as a place to stay.
  • You'll continue to take I-84 into Oregon and all the way to Walla Walla in the Southeast corner of Washington.
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On this road trip, my characters will go through six different states: Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington.

I would also encourage you to write out how long it takes to get from one city or landmark to the next. For instance:

  • Denver to Cheyenne: 100 miles, 1 hour and 40 minutes
  • Cheyenne to Salt Lake City: 440 miles, 6 hours and 40 minutes
  • Salt Lake City to Boise: 340 miles, 4 hours and 50 minutes
  • Boise to Walla Walla: 255 miles, 4 hours and 5 minutes

*Numbers are rounded.

Time Zones

Note any time zones you might enter on your journey. For the Denver to Walla Walla trip, there is one time change. We go from Mountain Time to Pacific Time.

Landmarks

It's a good idea to look up landmarks or places you'll go past. You could use these as talking points for your characters, or maybe they'll stop there to explore.

Let's take a look at the above cities and see what we can find there:

  • Denver: (1) Denver Art Museum, (2) Denver Botanic Gardens, (3) Denver Zoo, (4) Molly Brown House Museum, (5) Elitch Gardens, (6) Downtown Aquarium, (7) Colorado State Capitol.
  • Cheyenne: (1) Cheyenne Frontier Days Old West Museum, (2) Wyoming State Museum, (3) Wyoming Historic Governors' Mansion, (4) Nelson Museum of the West.
  • Salt Lake City: (1) Guided Wasatch Range Ice Climbing, (2) Red Butte Garden, (3) Mount Olympus, (4) Clark Planetarium, (5) Gilgal Sculpture Park, (6) Bonneville Shoreline Trail.
  • Boise: (1) Bogus Basin, (2) Old Idaho Penitentiary Site, (3) Idaho State Capitol, (4) Table Rock, (5) Idaho Museum of Mining and Geology.

What's one thing that should stand out to you about all these cities? They're all state capitals! On this road trip, the characters will be going through each state's government seat. (I'm not including Walla Walla's points of interest because it's the destination.)

These cities all have tie-ins to the American frontier. There are several museums dedicated to the Old West. The vistas are sprawling with mountains, forests, and lakes. Some parts are remote while others have big tourist draws.

Flora and Fauna

On a gigantic road trip, the scenery will change as well as the road conditions. You might have some plain flat land with hardly any flora or steep cliffs that put all your characters on edge.

Maybe you go through a state where they don't fund their roads too well, and so the highways are covered in potholes and cracks. Depending on the time of year, you could see deer everywhere. Weather plays an important part. Make sure your writing fits with the season.

Pro Tip: There are tons of road trip videos on YouTube. You could use this to your advantage. Watch videos like these to get an idea of what's going on in the locations, especially if you can't jet off to these places. As fun as it might be to recreate the travel path of your characters, it might be expensive.

YouTube is a free resource you can use. Podcasts about towns and road trips could also be used to your advantage.

Note Nearby Metros

It's important to note what metros are close to your end destination. You may at some point want to consider a short journey outside of town. I would consider a short road trip about 2-5 hours long.

The closest metros to Walla Walla are: Portland, about 4 hours away; Seattle, about 4 hours and 15 minutes away; Spokane, 2 hours and 40 minutes; and Boise, about 4 hours away.

Consider Population Sizes

If point A has a completely different population size from point B, that's important.

For instance, from my example, the characters are leaving a large metropolitan area for a small city. Denver alone has 705,500+ people in it; the metro has 2.9 million residents. Walla Walla has 32,700+ people in it. (Walla Walla's metro size is about 61,200+).

The way of life in these two areas is totally different. People have different priorities, expectations, housing, traffic to deal with, restaurants, levels of diversity, leisure activities, and the like.

Traveling is important, but you need to take breaks. Let your characters take walks, grab a bite to eat, and find a comfortable spot to sleep.

Traveling is important, but you need to take breaks. Let your characters take walks, grab a bite to eat, and find a comfortable spot to sleep.

Breaks from the Road Trip

Maybe you have characters who are dead set on getting from point A to point B with little to no stops. There could be a strong reason for this, maybe the characters are trying to flee someone or they have a deadline to meet.

Just because you're on a road trip doesn't mean your basic needs will stop. Your characters still need to sleep, eat, and use the bathroom. You'll need pit stops. Sometimes your characters need to get out of the car to stretch their legs.

Here are some important questions to consider:

  • What kind of lodging is appropriate for my characters? Are they willing to sleep in their cars or do they need a motel? Do they require something fancier than a motel? Would they prefer to camp under the stars?
  • What will my characters eat? Are my characters content with eating fast food and quick eats, or will they be tempted by giant steakhouses and other fancy sit-down establishments?
  • Are my characters on a tight budget, or do they have money to spare? If they don't have a lot of money, they'll be decisive and focus on the bare necessities. People with more money will throw it away more easily.
  • Where will they stop for gas? Maybe your characters will go to any gas station they see. Maybe your characters have rigid standards or follow a certain safety code.
  • Do your characters smoke? Some people don't mind smoking in their car. Others would prefer to stop and have a smoke break outside.
  • What would your characters do if they got lost? Some people will power through a road trip when they're lost—and get even more lost. Some people will stop and ask for directions because GPS is failing them for whatever reason.
  • What billboards do you find? If you travel in the middle of Missouri, you'll find a slew of billboards dedicated to various attractions: Fantastic Caverns, Osceola Cheese, Uranus Chocolate Factory, Silver Dollar City, and the likes. Patrick Mahomes is king in Kansas City, Jesus is everywhere, and every college wants you on their campus.

Roadside attractions can make for great scenes in a road trip story. Anything called the "World's Largest" is usually a good point of interest. Characters can also get lured in by candy shops, chocolate factories, waterfalls, caves, amusement rides, places with great views, or unusual houses.

What Inspired the Trip?

People generally don't go on a big road trip just to kill time. They usually have something in mind whether they want to see a particular landmark, go meet someone, or go on a romantic getaway.

Those who do just want to drive for the sake of it: do they have an end goal in mind? Do they have any expectations? It might be hard for you as the writer to peg down and to make sure the road trip is driving your plot forward—and in a compelling and sensible way. If anyone can write a road trip with no end game it's Haruki Murakami, so I would read his books as a guide.

Road trips can be necessary for new jobs, seeing family, and taking care of old business. A road trip could be a homecoming or it could be to get away from home to start a new life.

Homecomings come with a mix of emotions. You might feel like a failure if you're moving back to your hometown and couldn't strike out on your own. Maybe you're moving back in with your parents to get yourself recalibrated. You could also be returning back home because it's what you want to do and you have new knowledge that could transform your area.

Is your road trip something that's necessary or a vacation? People on vacation are going to think differently. You'll have the people who want to fit in as many activities as possible—and others who just want to relax and be a sloth.

Keep the Conversations Rolling

When people are in close quarters, their true nature comes out. A long road trip will bring about epiphanies for your characters. Stories will get shared. Mental breakthroughs will be made. Some characters will get cross with others.

I find that people really open up when they're in the driver's seat. They're focused on the road, so their filter comes off. On a long road trip, they might start sharing things they never have. People start sharing stories to fill the time and to get to know each other. You also have a trapped audience. You can't just easily run away from each other. Sure, you can pop your earphones into something and mute the others. . . but sometimes we don't get that luxury.

Road trips are a great time to share certain stories such as:

  • Ghost stories
  • Personal childhood stories
  • Work anecdotes
  • Philosophical ideas that you keep close to your heart
  • Your favorite of whatever (movies, books, sports teams, recipes, vacations, dreams, etc.)
  • Recommendations
  • Fears
  • Failed love stories
  • Celebrities you'd like to meet
  • Longwinded stories about pain and grief and strife
  • Jokes
  • Songs

Unless there is a big reason behind why your characters aren't talking, they should definitely be opening up about something. Use this time strategically. They should talk about things that reveal truths/secrets about themselves or helps drive the plot forward.

Who are your dominant talkers in the vehicle? Who tells the best stories? Who tells the worst stories?

Consider the age differences of your characters. A Baby Boomer isn't going to talk about the same things as someone from Generation Alpha.

Where People Sit Matters

The heart of a road trip usually takes place in the front. People in the back of the car can tune out and think about their own thoughts. The driver gets to call the shots. They decide where to go and where to stop. The front passenger can act as the navigator, radio DJ, snack distributor, email checker, and contact to the outside world.

Think carefully about how the people are arranged in the car. People in the back rows don't have as much power as those in the front. People in the back rows often use nonverbal communication to slyly convey something to their sibling, partner, etc.

Consider what your characters will take with them. The items you prioritize on a road trip say something about you.

Consider what your characters will take with them. The items you prioritize on a road trip say something about you.

Items Your Characters Take With Them

Your characters can't take everything in the world with them. They're only going to take a select amount of items that they can reach out and grab.

Most road trips come with a couple of suitcases and other essentials. If you're moving across the country, you're going to get slowed down by your U-Haul. You can't open up your U-Haul every waking moment to get something out.

Make a list of all the things your characters would have with them. Some essentials include:

  • Items for payment. Cash, wallet, smartphones, purse, coins, and credit cards.
  • Basic hygiene items. Toothbrush, toothpaste hand sanitizer, shampoo, soap, razor, lotion, moisturizer, floss, tampons.
  • First aid kit. Band-aids, bandages, tweezers, antibiotics, splint, safety pin, gauze, medical tape, aspirin.
  • Clothes. Extra jeans, socks, shoes, shirts, undergarments. Also, weather-related items like umbrellas, coats, snow boots, swimsuits, and sunglasses.
  • Games. Video games, board games, puzzles, coloring books, crossword puzzles, questionnaire games.
  • Snacks. Foods to get you by like granola, raisins, sandwiches, chips, juice, crackers, chocolate, candy, cheese, etc.
  • Itinerary. Wedding invitations, pamphlets to landmarks, train schedules, concert tickets, graduation booklet, lodging/booking information, printed out emails.
  • Comfort. Blankets, pillows, towels, massage devices.
  • Camping materials. Tent, sleeping bags, ingredients for s'mores, foldable chairs, lantern, flashlights, bug spray.
  • Electronics. Charging cords, handheld music devices, laptops, tablets.
Pets on road trips can offer comfort to your characters and help them to take breaks from the long road.

Pets on road trips can offer comfort to your characters and help them to take breaks from the long road.

Pets on Road Trips

Pets will slow you down on a road trip. If you've never taken a cat on a long trip, I don't recommend it. Sometimes that is unavoidable, but they're generally not great travel companions. They'll complain nonstop. There is anxiety medicine they can take, but some cats, like mine, will spit it out. You'll need to break up your road trip into segments if you have a cat on board.

Dogs travel better. Your caravan will need to stop, so the dog can get out and do its business... and get some treats. Dogs aren't machines. They can't sit in a car forever. Pets can help you break up conversations and to redirect your story.

You don't want someone to go on with a story forever. Sometimes you need something from reality to break your character's long diatribes. Interruptions can help with pacing. Sometimes all you need is a dog that needs to go to the bathroom.

© 2022 Andrea Lawrence

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