The Journey, the Destination, or Just Plain Lost…
I think there are two types of stories– those about the destination, and those about the journey. The story of “Lost” was not, to me, a journey story. It was not about the ride. It was about the destination, where everything was going to be paid off with a gigantic, perfectly plausible explanation. The finale, interesting as it might have been, was not that. It left too much unexplained. We were promised, by implication, a logical conclusion. What we got was an ambiguous, reflective question mark. If “Lost” had been a “journey” story, that might have been satisfying (and perhaps for many it was). For me, it was a “destination” story, and the destination was imminently unsatisfying. So bleah.
The point, though, is this: if stories (and therefore writers) are either about the destination or the journey, then which kind of writer am I?
Destination writers are those who you read just because you HAVE to find out what happens next. You rip through the book to get to the last page and see how it all works out. Who’s the bad guy? How’s the good guy get away? Who dies? Who wins? Who falls in love or goes to jail or wins the court case? Etc. Destination stories are not about the beauty of the writing (necessarily) but about the skillful handling of the plot twists. Generally, I don’t reread destination stories, because the thrill, as it were, is gone. I know what happens this time. The actual line-by-line writing is not enough to keep me entertained the second time around. To me (and I know a LOT of you will disagree with me on this, and that’s all right; this is very subjective), The Harry Potter series falls into this category. I scarfed every single word of each book just to get to the next word, breathlessly and with frenzied anticipation. Now, though, I know how it all ends. I know the plot points. I may reread bits here and there just to revisit details and scenes, but I haven’t worked through the whole series again from start to finish. I know what happens, and for me, that was the whole point. It was a destination story, and thanks to Ms. Rowling’s skillful handling of the plot, we’ve all arrived. Whew.
Journey stories are, of course, just the opposite. A good example, for me, is the writing of Terry Pratchett. His Discworld books are an absolute linguistic delight. I savour every page, every deliciously ridiculous wordplay, every double entendre, every fantastically impossible but teasingly plausible aspect of his universe. Each book is like a thought experiment in ironic absurdity, the linguistic equivalent of an M. C. Escher drawing. When I think back on a Discworld book, I don’t think about how it ended. I barely remember. I recall only the strings of laugh-out-loud dialogue and fancifully preposterous ideas that are taken, in context, perfectly seriously. I can reread a Discworld book endlessly (and have), even though I never really care how or why the plot gets resolved. It isn’t about the climax, it’s about the sights along the way. Pratchett’s works are journey books all the way.
There is no better-or-worse about these two type of stories, and people will disagree vigourously about what books fit into which category.
My main question is, which one am I? As a writer, I tend to think I am probably more a destination writer than a journey writer. I am not good enough with language to write as gorgeously as a journey writer. In fact, when I am writing a story myself, I am not as in love with the line-by-line of the tale as I am with the shape the entire plot makes in my head. For me, the crux of the story is not just that the good guy might (or might not) win, but the surprise and mystery of HOW that might happen. I am in love with the unexpected (but always eminently logical) twist that influences the climax, turns it on its head, and yanks the carpet out from beneath the reader. These things, I think, place me firmly in the “destination” camp of writers.
And I am happy with that. But it makes me want to challenge myself and attempt a “journey” story one of these days.
Am I right? Wrong? For those of you who’ve read my stuff, are they the sorts of tales that you might revisit again and again, or is reaching the destination once (enjoyable as it might be) enough?
I think, ideally, I’d like to aim for both. Surprise, surprise. I’d like my writing to drive you to stay up all night to get to the destination, but to be good enough on a page-by-page basis to make you want to savour it again slowly, paying more attention to the subtle plot points and foreshadowings. Methinks I will never stop striving for that.
As a reader, which, if any, do you prefer? As a writer, what kind of story do YOU write? Which is better/easier/more fun? I’d love to hear from all of you.