On the Road is a road trip story.
I’m sure the influence of this experimental novel, with its meandering structure, has been the bane of many a writing teacher’s existance. I’m basing this assumption on the fact that my writing teacher, David Keplinger, took the time during a class to discuss road trip stories and the dangers of them.
It boils down to this: very rarely do road trip stories have a point.
Keplinger talked about how the story often followed similar lines.
A.) troubled boy/girl begins adventure by leaving college/family/social structure behind
B.) troubled boy/girl has adventures with random people (promiscuous sex, drugs, car breaking down, some scene where people are stuck in the rain)
C.) troubled boy/girl has some epiphany that leads them to realize they’ve left their true love/future/hopes somewhere
D.) troubled boy/girl manages to get to the home of true love/future/hopes and goes to knock at the door
E.) dramatic moment: troubled boy/girl knocks on door…and rest is left up to reader’s imagination
Keplinger’s argument was that the story started with the knock on the door. That’s where the conflict comes in. Sure, the story had some events and some really trying moments…but episodes and conflicts are not the same thing.
On the Road definitely is episodic. But Keplinger’s argument is intended for beginning writers who have all the subtlety of jackhammers. Beginning writers don’t understand what conflict is, don’t understand how to resolve it, and don’t know how to tell something in a scene.
Kerouac, when he wrote On the Road, was not a beginner. It’s clear in his prose alone and it becomes clearer when you see how he handles the novel as a whole. Episodic? Yes. But that is part of his point. The episodes, if you look at them, become the conflict itself.
Sal goes off on his own for trip. Sal and Dean go off on another trip. Sal and Dean go off on more trips. Trip, trip, trip. Episode, episode, episode. Readers get irritated; they go What Is The Point Of All This?
The point is just that: this is an exhausting lifestyle. This is an exhausting pace. Cars run out of gas. Wives get fed up. Eventually, Dean will go off on his own, leaving the lout, Sal, behind…which was Sal’s greatest fear in the opening of the book. In the scroll version of On the Road, Kerouac says that had he not been married, he would have gone with Dean again — but instead goes to a theatre show he doesn’t want to go to, with his wife. That shows a shift in Kerouac/Sal’s attitude…even if all he wants is to go with Neal/Dean and live that exhausting lifestyle.
Kerouac didn’t need a knock on the door to end the story. The road keeps going, but the story is done.
Stories like that are not for the faint of heart and they are not for beginners, like I was (and still am…) when Keplinger talked about what not to do.
Well, I say, if you want to write a road trip story — try it and see what happens. Just be aware that for a road trip story to work, the conflict, the real conflict has to be worked out on the road.