Get Off the Bus! — by Paul Mohrbacher

Get off the bus! 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!

Good advice? To me some great action takes place in cabs, where the passenger engages with a driver who’s an immigrant or recent arrival. Drivers takes you out of your experience when they get started on theirs. And if the cabbie is going to be a major character in your story, of course you’ll have conversations moving the story along as you move along in the cab.

In my life, some of the best characters I’ve ever met were riding in a bus. To meet a stranger in a bus and to meet him/her again the following week, and then again, well, that’s a terrific way to start a romance. As long as the reader senses a budding relationship on the bus is going somewhere, it has promise.

I think the advice is great, generally speaking. When I put two people a car, they talk. Nothing happens. They talk about what’s going to happen in an hour or on the next day, but the transit narrative itself is static, limited. Two people in a car can’t even face each other for any meaningful length of time. If they touch, it’s momentary. The reader knows the riders are looking out the windows at the scenery, avoiding collisions and performing other “been there, done that” activities. Readers put themselves in the story, and subconsciously assume the feelings of driving a car or riding the bus. We’re not taking readers out of their experience but letting them roost on one of their most familiar rituals.

Well, there’s always Jack Kerouac. Some writers can make the ride work.

Paul Mohrbacher is the author of “The Magic Fault.” He’s working on a second novel.

6 Comments

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6 responses to “Get Off the Bus! — by Paul Mohrbacher

  1. Of course, there’s always that awesome fleeting touch or stolen glance. But it’s good advice. Thanks.

  2. Lots of action can take place in any vehicle. Let me guess where your mind just went…

  3. There are a few authors that give driving directions, naming every street or highway off ramp their characters pass. I can see giving a mention when it’s significant to the story, but it’s pretty meaningless when done to extreme, especially when I’m not familiar with the area.

  4. It’s good advice, unless, of course, the book is about a trip. 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, Emotion and connection are part of the “action” of a story, so as long as they are present, it’s okay for people to stay on the bus. As you said, “As long as the reader senses a budding relationship on the bus is going somewhere, it has promise.”

  5. I believe reporting on the drive itself should be limited, but in many instances, such as an officer responding to a crime with her heart pounding, it can move the story along. But some great advice.

  6. Good to hear all your comments. I’ve been thinking about the play,
    Driving Miss Daisy, in which much of the dynamic between Miss Daisy and her driver is, well, in scenes where he is driving her somewhere. There is such rich interplay between the two of them in the car that the audience is right in the car with them. But the attraction is that she is White and he is Black, and there is also a class difference. Sparks fly. Conflict or at least confrontation is built into the relationship. They could have been skydiving together and it wouldn’t have been more effective. The problem I have with two characters in a car is that I put transitional scenes into the car, people in between conflict or action. They talk but they don’t show. That’s the weak point in my storytelling anyway, characters talking rather behaving badly or grandly or whatever.

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