The Car Ride Opening

chihiroAmong the cliches that often turn up on lists of novel openings to avoid is the car ride. I don’t know about you, but speaking as a reader, that isn’t something I would have guessed. It’s neither as overdone as the waking up scene nor as obviously stupid as the looking in a mirror scene. There are, however, good reasons to avoid it. Let’s have a look.

An obvious first point: There’s nothing about cars, per se, that makes for bad openings. So let’s expand the rule to include similar types of scenes:

  • Flying on an airplane
  • Walking to school
  • Moving to a new house/apartment/dorm

Collectively, we’ll call these travel scenes. The most obvious reason these should be avoided is because they’re banal and uninteresting, but that’s not really much of an argument; the slice of life genre concerns itself with the mundane and can be fascinating. So there’s more going on.

Let’s expand further by returning to our old friend, the waking up scene. What category encompasses both it and the travel scene? Simple enough: They’re both transitions from one state to another. We can now formalize the original rule as follows: Don’t begin a story by transitioning from one place our state of being to another. And we can consider why.

One problem with transition openings is the lack of stakes. Not only are these scenes mundane, but we know how they’re going to end, and in many cases, such as the airplane flight, it’s a captive environment. What’s our investment in an opening where a character is driving to work? Are we worried zie won’t make it? The actual story can’t begin until the protagonist gets to the end state. (This illuminates some exceptions to the rule: A kidnapping scene, for instance, could be a car ride with very high stakes.)

The other problem with transition openings is slightly more subtle. It’s that the opening is wasted establishing something that isn’t going to be used in the story. Take the moving scene. If the protagonist leaves zir home in the first chapter and doesn’t return, any time spent describing the home is basically wasted*. Consider the notorious opening dream scene. It has the exact same problem: Whatever is described in the dream sequence immediately becomes pointless when the character wakes up and the actual setting must be described all over again.

So there you have some of the reasons why a car ride makes a bad opening. Cars are not the problem. Lack of meaningful stakes and establishing a scene that will then be immediately abandoned are the problem, and both of those are things that you should avoid in your opening, regardless of whether it begins in a car or not.


 

*Purists are going to point out that there are reasons to describe a location other than because you’re going to spend time there; for instance, describing someone’s room tells you about zir personality. True, but that’s a low-value use of precious words in the opening, where every word counts.

Image from Spirited Away.

2 Comments


  1. Using Spirited Away as an example, I think the car ride works specifically BECAUSE it’s mundane. It establishes the transition from our world to the spirit world. That said, it’s tricky to pull off.

    I personally would be okay with never seeing a dream sequence again. It can be done well, but…


  2. Also in Spirited Away, they don’t actually make it to their intended destination, so it’s necessary to show the car ride to explain what they’re doing there.

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