The Long Haul (2014) by Jeff Kinney is the ninth book in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. I wrote about Jeff Kinney’s writing process in this post, after reading various interviews with him around the web. Kinney tells everyone the same thing — he writes the jokes first, finds a way to string them into some sort of story, then does the illustrations in a single two-month flurry of industry. In short, the jokes come first, story a distant second.
However, when Kinney wrote The Long Haul, he already knew it was going to be turned into a movie, and if middle grade novelists can get away with a ‘jokes first’ approach to story structure, Hollywood scriptwriters can’t.
I was writing it with a movie in mind—this is the first book that I’ve written in three acts and with cinematic set pieces. So I really had a different hat on when I was writing this book.
ROAD TRIP STORIES
Road trip stories are an established genre, especially in America, where car ownership also has a long history. The road trip story also seems to have come out of Westerns, in which characters traversed large swathes of land with the hope of finding something better — ultimately themselves.
A long tradition of road trip stories meant Kinney had an established structure to work with when writing The Long Haul. He only had to fit his jokes around that. (Yep, easier said than done, of course.)
Here’s what the author has to say about his (lack of?) personal inspiration for The Long Haul:
Q: Some of your childhood experiences inspired the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books. Is that the case in this book? Do you have a crazy road trip with your family that you were drawing from?
A: I long ago tapped out my own childhood experience. There’s very little of what I went through in this book.
I’ve always had road trip fantasies, and I’d love to rent an RV, a really souped-up RV, and go cross country with my family. But on the book tour I’ve really gotten to see a lot of the country in buses and I’ve realized that it’s nice to have a driver. I think it’s very impractical—it’s not very likely that I’ll end up on a road trip with my family with me in the driver’s seat.
If you go to IMDb you’ll see that The Long Haul film has garnered a miserable rating of 3.6. I can’t say whether the film structure was a success, but the producers are fighting against another battle: The original characters have now aged out of their roles so brand new actors are playing beloved characters. This has not pleased the established audience.
What Is The Structure Of Any Road Trip Story?
Along their trip the characters come across a series of opponents, in a film which is a mythic journey.
In journey stories with a single hero, all the opponents in the story must be new and they must be strangers. But in Little Miss Sunshine the writer sends an entire family of six on the road. That means that the main opposition is among people the audience knows and it is an ongoing opposition.
— John Truby
A subcategory of the road trip is the ‘comic’ road trip, or comic journey. This is one of the oldest comic structures and goes all the way back to Don Quixote. It is a combination of comic and myth forms.
There are challenges facing writers structuring a road trip story. Here’s the caution John Truby offers about journey stories in his book Anatomy Of Story:
Don’t have too many arenas in a journey story. A major reason journey stories feel fragmented, besides having too many arenas, is that the hero encounters a number of opponents in succession on the road. That’s why one of the keys to making the journey story work is the vehicle in which the hero travels. A simple rule of thumb is this: the bigger the vehicle, the more unified the arena. The bigger the vehicle, the easier it is to bring opponents along for the ride. These are the ongoing opponents, and with the hero, they create the single arena within the vehicle.
Sure enough, Jeff Kinney does what others have done to avoid that fragmented feeling:
- The whole family is in the one big car. The family members themselves are each other’s main opponents. Greg himself has his brothers (each quite different in the nature of their opposition). The male family members are in constant opposition to the mother’s feminine wish to create a happy family situation by turning into the uber-Mom, over-organising everyone, enthusing over activities but coming up short. The scriptwriters packed even more characters in the car by bringing Rowley along for the ride. (Rowley is absent in the book.) Along the way they are joined by a baby pig.
- An enduring opponent is the Beardo family — aptly named by Greg because the father has a beard and Beardo rhymes with Weirdo. The illustrations show this family to be a rather hapless ‘white trash’ sort of family off on a very similar family adventure. Sure enough the Heffleys keep running into them. The Beardos are the enduring opponent. Interest and comedy ensue, since this Beardo family does literally nothing to the Heffleys, but Greg gets it into his head that they are mastermind criminals basically following them about to steal all their stuff. This single family who they keep comically running into means fewer disparate opponents are needed overall. This helps avoid story fragmentation.
Further Examples of Road Trip Stories
For Adult Audiences
Thelma and Louise is a comic journey with darkness.
Little Miss Sunshine stars a family who provide opponents for each other. After meeting outside challenges and opponents the family bond winds up strengthened.
The Half-skinned Steer by Annie Proulx is a darkly comic inversion of the comic road trip.
Le Week-end is a road trip, albeit the older couple travel around Paris mostly by foot.
For Middle Grade Audiences
See You In The Cosmos by Jack Cheng: 11-year-old Alex Petroski loves space and rockets, his mom, his brother, and his dog Carl Sagan—named for his hero, the real-life astronomer. All he wants is to launch his golden iPod into space the way Carl Sagan (the man, not the dog) launched his Golden Record on the Voyager spacecraft in 1977. From Colorado to New Mexico, Las Vegas to L.A., Alex records a journey on his iPod to show other lifeforms what life on earth, his earth, is like.
STORY STRUCTURE OF THE LONG HAUL
The Long Haul is a home-away-home structure but with lots of little self-contained stories scattered along a linear-circular shape.
Although Kinney wrote the novel with a mind to movie-levels of character weakness/desire/opponents and so on, the screenwriters seem to have changed a few things. (Bear in mind I’m not putting myself through actually watching it):
- In the book it is the mother who has the desire. Greg passively goes along with his mother’s plans, garnered from a cutesily named ‘Family Frolic’ magazine. In the film, however, the family has the more specific goal of attending Meemaw’s 90th birthday party, and Greg has his own concrete goal — to derail the route, ending up at a gaming convention.
- The birthday party is assumed to be a sombre gathering, due to the birthday person being female and also extremely old. When the boat flies into the swimming pool we are to derive carnivalesque enjoyment from seeing a staid event livened.
- In a movie length feature there needs to be more happening. In the book ‘everything that can go wrong has gone wrong’ but in the film there is even more drama e.g. Dad gets the van stuck in mud and ends up spattering everyone trying to push the vehicle out.
Within this overall structure of a comic journey, Jeff Kinney’s books function more like comic books. The Long Haul can also be regarded as a series of vignettes, each following its own complete story structure, linked together by the overarching comic journey of the road trip. If you read with that in mind, you’ll find every single one of the ‘skits’ follows 7 part structure beautifully. I’ll take just one to illustrate. This is the skit starting on page 68, where the family have stopped at a motel. Greg is trying in vain to get to sleep.
Greg is stuck in a cheap motel when he would rather be at home in his own room in his own bed. He is tired. He needs to sleep.
To go to sleep comfortably and with peace and quiet.
Mom and Dad have the bed. (They are also snorers.) Manny has the sofa. These characters have taken the best sleeping positions. The kids from the hot tub also disturb his sleep.
When Greg has a plan, the first plan doesn’t work. Something always goes slightly wrong, which leads him to his next plan. Greg’s problem solving abilities lead him to comic places:
- Greg and Rodrick check the closet for a cot of an air mattress but there is nothing.
- Rodrick gatehrs up the sofa cushions and makes a bed for himself, turning him into another opponent. (If Rodrick hadn’t got the cushions Greg could have them.)
- Greg decides to sleep in the closet, on top of a pile of towels. However, there is a TERRIBLE smell in the closet. He looks around to check a mouse hasn’t died in the vent.
- He covers his nose with a washcloth but the smell gets WORSE.
- He hears snoring so tries to put in earplugs. But it is dark and he can only find one.
- The kids from the hot tub wake him up from the corridor. They are playing on a cleaning cart.
Greg steps out of the motel room to get the kids a piece of his mind. One runs away in tears. The father comes out. Greg runs back into the motel room and chains the door.
There are no ‘self’ revelations in ongoing comedy series. Only audience revelations, for example “Oh, he got out of the scrape due to the opponent’s lack of wits. Good.”
Greg has made a successful escape because the father hasn’t worked out which door Greg ducked into.
The father eventually stops pounding the door next to Greg’s and goes back to his own room. Greg hangs up a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign on his door in case he comes back. Greg worries all night and does not get a good night’s sleep.
- Greg’s unreliable narration and thirst for drama where there is none is one good source of comedy.
- Rodrick’s general stupidity provides a lot of comedy, for example locking dinner inside a safe after mistaking it for a microwave. Rodrick’s general stupidity is later subverted when he comes up with a wonderful idea. The technique: Setting Rodrick up as stupid but upending expectations by affording him random strokes of genius. all comic characters can be used in this way. We feel we’ve gotten to know them, and then they surprise us.
- Ticking Clock technique. The screenwriters had a big birthday to get to and they couldn’t be late for it. That provided an overarching ticking clock for the film. In the book, Mrs Heffley is taking her boys on a largely unscripted tour of the country, guided only by the low stakes Family Frolic suggestions. To increase tension, there are several gags in which Kinney puts a time limit on a goal. For example, when the father takes an important call from a client and everyone has to be quiet, Manny loses his dummy. Greg knows exactly how long he’s got before Manny starts hollering, shattering the illusion that the father is in his office and not on a family road trip.
- This book includes what academics may call ‘intertextuality’ and publishers may call ‘great marketing’ with the mother’s idea to take along a cut out character which is clearly from Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants series, but which in the book is ‘Underpants Bandits’ by Mik Davies (a close enough palindrome for middle grade readers to get).