The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

This Post Went to Florida and All it Brought You Back Was this Lousy T-Shirt

By Andrew Tibbetts

“Voyage and Return” is the fourth of Christopher Booker’s seven basic plots. The hero or heroine takes a trip and reports back: “where I went on my summer vacation” or “the Odyssey.” Same thing.

A voyage and return story lives or dies on the interest you can generate from your alien destination. Islands with one-eyed giant monsters that try to eat you: good; a McDonalds that has run out of hot apple pies: bad.

In movies, recently, the road trip sub-genre predominates in this category. The kooky family in “Little Miss Sunshine” returns from their voyage, not any less dysfunctional, but more united in their dysfunctionality. They dysfunction together. You’ve seen that t-shirt, the family that illegally transports dead relatives and riots at beauty pageants together stays together, right?

In Canadian literature, our voyages are often into the wild. We ratchet up the suspense with hypothermia and bears. Our triumphant returns are often of mere survival- a few wounds, some missing toes, a child planted in the ground ‘like a flag’- we come back diminished, more often than enriched. And this presents us with what more modern readers might want from a voyage and return tale: a change in the traveler. We’re so into our psychology; geography, not so much these days.

As well, I’d like to point out that often Canada is the alien terrain in our ‘voyage’ stories. We’ve been populated throughout our history by waves of immigration. Our stories have no ‘return’. We stay put.

One of my favourite novels is Guy Vanderhaege’s “The Last Crossing”. Some of the characters ‘return’ and some don’t. One of the most beautiful things in the book is the traveler who discovers a true home on his voyage. His ‘return’ is to his authentic self, a self that couldn’t have been entered into with a geographic return to the old country.

I wondered, as I thought about this ur-plot, if I should add this technique to my arsenal. In my writing, my characters never go anywhere. Often, I have a character that I really like, but I don’t have a story for them. Perhaps I’ll send them on a trip next time. This idea doesn’t spring naturally to me. I rarely travel myself. I’m too poor. And too anxious. We traveled so much when I was a child, I developed the opposite of wanderlust. I’ll call it rootslust, the longing to be planted somewhere. But my characters? There’s no reason why they should be homebodies.

And yours, writing readers? Do your characters need to find themselves somewhere outside their comfort zones? I challenge you to write a ‘voyage and return’ story. Stay tuned for mine.


Blogger J.A. McDougall said...

I love this idea, Andrew - thanks for the inspiration! I'm not sure I've ever written a character who voyages.

Wed May 02, 01:20:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

The most satisfying stories, I think, involve a journey of one sort of another. It can be psychological rather than geographic but it almost always involves a discovery, however small, and that discovery is often brought about by the "foreign land" of another person who challenges a character's way of thinking or behaving. Everyday of our lives is a small journey, don't you think?

Lots to think about in your blog, Andrew. Thanks.

Wed May 02, 01:23:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger MelBell said...

Ya know, the characters in my plays always stick close to home, but the folks in my stories are almost always traveling. And eating.

You always make me want to write more, AT. :-)

Wed May 02, 02:45:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger tamara said...

"We’re so into our psychology; geography, not so much these days."

Too true.

Great post, Andrew. None of my characters have been travelling much, either. But I will be soon. Maybe they will too.

Thu May 03, 12:10:00 am GMT-4  

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