Road Trip: 4 Roads For Your Protagonist to Take

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by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)

This summer we’re seeing the resurgence of the road trip movie — not that it’s ever really disappeared. We’re traveling Fury Road with Mad Max. We’re hitting the open road and heading back to Wally World in Vacation. Even ladies like Reese Witherspoon and Sofia Vergara have taken to the road in Hot Pursuit. Road trip movies have long been popular with audiences, perhaps because their design usually gives our main characters a clear external goal as well as a path for getting there. Here are four popular roads that writers have utilized in crafting their stories.

1. THE CROOKED ROAD: Wild twists  & turns to get to an absurd destination

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Whether it’s Pee Wee Herman hitting the road to retrieve his stolen bicycle from the basement of the Alamo or Harold and Kumar facing down all that lies between them and a White Castle hamburger, a protagonist whose path leads through the craziest parts of town past the most colorful characters keeps audiences guessing at what might be around the next curve. A key to these types of stories is in the absurd nature of what lies at the end of the road.

In Little Miss Sunshine, a pageant for little girls awaits at the destination. In National Lampoon’s Vacation, it’s Wally World. Often times, it’s what the character will attempt to do once they reach the destination that’s important. In Fanboys, the protagonist will try to break in to Skywalker Ranch in order to help his friend see the first Star Wars prequel before he dies. In Borat, our main character will propose to Pamela Anderson when he reaches Hollywood. And in Road Trip, Travis will attempt to stop a sex tape from reaching his girlfriend. Other times, the task will be mundane. Harry and Lloyd simply want to return a brief case when they reach their destination of Aspen, Colorado, in Dumb and Dumber.

2. THE STRAIGHT ROAD: The Inner Journey

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Sometimes, the road our protagonist takes has no twists and turns at all – at least externally. These stories are about the inner journey our character takes while getting to a destination. In Broken Flowers, Bill Murray attempts to track down four former lovers to meet his son. In Spike Lee’s Get on the Bus, the men are simply all journeying to The Million Man March. However, a great deal of growth and development occurs on that bus trip.

In Nebraska, a man and his son travel to the city of Lincoln to collect a million dollar prize, despite the fact the son knows no prize awaits them.  The journey their relationship takes is the real story of the film. In Stand By Me, four boys journey to see a dead body, but discover what it means to truly live along the way. In these stories, the inner road is always the bumpiest and filled with the most danger. The stakes are often emotional and require the use of metaphor in order to give external signs of what is occurring in the character’s interior.

3. THE ROAD TO NOWHERE: Just trying to get away

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Sometimes, our protagonist only has one place they are trying to get – away. Escape films have kept people on the edge of their seats for decades. In Mad Max: Fury Road, Max is trying to escape his captors. Getting to the “green place” is secondary to his desire just to outrun his enemies. We see the same road used in films like Bonnie and Clyde.

Cheryl Strayed is trying to escape her own demons in Wild by hitting the open trail. Jack Nicholson and Peter Fonda are heading towards nothing but perhaps a spiritual awakening in Easy Rider. Road films like Chicken Run offer a more humorous take on escape. And Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is a road movie where the thing our protagonist escapes is responsibility.

4. THE CIRCULAR ROAD: To get back home

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Some of the finest road trip movies are about characters simply trying to get back home. Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey and E.T. are obvious examples. We see the same road in Madagascar, The Warriors, and The Adventures of Milo and Otis. Chris Farley and David Spade hit the road in Tommy Boy to save the family business. Marty McFly travels through time to get back home in Back to the Future.  And no discussion of road movies about returning home is complete without mentioning O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Perhaps the most memorable road movie of all time is The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy befriends fascinating characters, escapes death-defying dangers, and completes a gauntlet of challenges just to get back home.  The lesson of this story epitomizes one of the most common themes used in road trip movies – there’s no place like home.

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John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and the upcoming Secrets of Short Visual Storytelling. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to International Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his blog, welcometothesideshow.org.

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