The Long Haul by Jeff Kinney Story Structure

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.

Mental Floss

The Long Haul Jeff Kinney cover

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.

Mental Floss

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 big struggle: 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 Meant By Mythic Structure?

Jeff Kinney does what others have done to avoid that fragmented feeling you can get from road trip stories:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE LONG HAUL

The Shapes Of Plots In Children’s Literature

The Long Haul is a home-away-home structure but with lots of little self-contained stories scattered along a linear-circular shape.

The Long Haul story shape

Although Kinney wrote the novel with a mind to movie-levels of character shortcoming/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):

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

WEAKNESS/PROBLEM

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.

DESIRE

To go to sleep comfortably and with peace and quiet.

OPPONENT

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.

PLAN

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.
BIG STRUGGLE

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.

anagnorisis

There are no ‘self’ revelations in ongoing comedy series. Only audience and character 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.

NEW SITUATION

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.

FURTHER TECHNIQUES

  1. Greg’s unreliable narration and thirst for drama where there is none is one good source of comedy.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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).

Little Miss Sunshine (2006)

Little Miss Sunshine movie poster

Little Miss Sunshine is a good example of a ‘comic journey’ story structure.

For fans of another well-known drama set in Albuquerque, fans of Breaking Bad may be interested to know that both Bryan Cranston and Dean Norris have small roles in Little Miss Sunshine.

van from above

There’s a ticking clock in this film because the pageant has a set date and time. To the outsider, the stakes are low. But for this family, a successful time together means all.

Anagnorisis, need, desire

grandma glasses

In the first scene we see a little girl’s bespectacled eyes watching a Miss America pageant on TV so we see that she desires to be a beautiful winner of a pageant. For more on the significance of this opening shot, see this video by Now You See It: Opening Shots Tell Us Everything.

opening scene watching pageant on tv

Ghost (backstory)

Olive’s family has mental health problems and a complicated dynamic. Her gay uncle Frank has just tried to kill himself because he fell in love with one of his students who didn’t love him back. Olive’s mother has brought him home so that she can keep an eye on him at all times.

Grandpa is addicted to heroin and his rehab was unsuccessful.

Olive’s older brother Dwayne seems to be a bit of an emo who has given up talking. “I hate everyone.”

please don't kill yourself tonight

The father’s career in motivational speaking is floundering. We see Richard give a presentation but when the lights come on it’s a mostly empty room. His main message is that if you want something badly enough you can have it.

Olive’s grandfather is a crotchety, inappropriate old man who snorts heroin.

All of this dysfunctionality comes out at the family dinner.

family dinner

Setting

Albuquerque to Regina, Redondo Beach California road trip.  In California the skyscape is foggy and a bit wintry. This isn’t the bright, sunny California of most films. We are told early on where the journey will take these characters. This allows the audience to sit back and enjoy the ride.

A family house in the Albuquerque suburbs to a pageant hall.

Inside a VW van in between. The yellow is a good choice for the Kombi (and for a film with sunshine in the title) which itself is associated with fun trips with groups of hippie friends. The disharmony inside the van therefore seems ironic.

Little Miss Sunshine road

Shortcoming & Need (Problem)

The family needs to learn to work together. Here we see an early shot of the ensemble, each absorbed in their own menus, each choosing their own dishes. The family has not yet learnt to work together. We’ll see at least three medium shots including each member of the family over the course of the film. Finally we’ll see them on stage together, then driving away all working in unison to get a van going.

restaurant scene individualism

Dwayne and Frank both need to become less pessimistic and to move on after their life plans don’t go exactly as they would hope.

Richard needs to learn that he can derive self-worth from being a family man rather than receiving applause from strangers in an audience in his work as a motivational speaker.

Inciting Incident

A phone call tells Olive that the winner of the Albuquerque Little Miss Sunshine contest has pulled out and since Olive was runner-up now she gets to go to the finals instead if she would like. Olive is over the moon about this, letting out a lengthy, high-pitched squeal.

phone call

Desire

Olive wants to go to the pageant in California and Sheryl wants to get her there. But Sheryl also wants to keep an eye on the whole family. Dwayne wants to be left alone to do strength training in preparation for entering the airforce, and to read. Frank is in a state of complete inertia having just attempted suicide. Richard wants to stay home to save money while keeping on working which, in his mind, will lead to great success simply because he wants it so much. Richard is a walking embodiment of The American Dream.

Ally/Allies

Olive’s ally is the grandfather, although he looks like an opponent at first (a ‘fake opponent ally’ set up). Who wants to be stuck in a van with him on a roadtrip? Anyone?

full cast in the van

Opponent

This family is fighting with each other in a complex dynamic. Only Olive is too young to have been drawn into all this, although when Frank explains his suicide and what led up to it at dinner, we see Olive’s initiation into the fray.

Richard and his father are the main opponents inside the van.

Dwayne ‘hates everyone’.

Along their trip they come across a series of opponents, in a film which is a mythic journey.

Fake-ally opponent

Olive’s greatest impediment to success is her own father, who thinks he’s doing her good by:

  • telling her that people are either winners or losers — there is no in between
  • telling her the truth about ice-cream and body size

Her father contrasts with the grandfather who, for all his crassness, is at least a straight talker who can teach Olive a couple of valuable life lessons before he shuffles off.

Changed desire and motive

Instead of just Olive and Sheryl taking the plane to California, as would be the least story-worthy but most sensible thing to do — this family’s financial and caregiving circumstances mean that the lot of them will all be taking a road trip in a VW van.

First revelation and decision

First revelation: The Kombi van breaks down. The spare clutch won’t arrive for a good four days.

Decision: So now they have to work together and push it to get it going.

Plan

The entire family will to drive to California and Olive will compete in the pageant.

Opponent’s plan and main counterattack

On this road journey, Richard and Frank will have run ins with human opponents:

Frank meets his love interest in a gas station. It’s the worst possible encounter: He’s in the middle of buying a porn mag, his academic and love rival is outside in a flash convertible, and the love interest is rubbing salt into the wound of his having been fired.

At the same time, the father gets a phone call from work with some bad news – a ‘done deal’ has fallen through. They’re going to be in trouble financially. It has already been set up that they’re living on a tight budget.

Drive

They continue on their journey.

They realize they’ve left Olive behind, who had been in the toilet, so go back to get her. In the van, the granddad tells Richard he’s proud of him.

Attack by ally

At the motel Cheryl and Richard argue and the son and uncle can hear them through the thin walls.

pep talk from grandpa

Grandpa and Olive share a twin room. Grandpa reassures Olive that she’s pretty. She’s scared of losing because ‘Dad hates losers’.

“You know what a loser is? It’s someone who’s so scared of losing they don’t even try.”

Apparent defeat

Richard sees no other career options and money is about to become a huge issue.

We see Sheryl smoking on the landing.

We see grandpa preparing to use heroin.

Obsessive drive, changed drive, and motive

motel

Leaving his family at the motel, Richard decides to confront the guy he works for and get some kind of deal sorted. He leaves the hotel saying, “I’m gonna fix this.”

Second revelation and decision

Richard finds that the program he was told was cancelled is happening without him. He confronts the dodgy boss. Stan tells Richard to move on from the 9 Steps program.

The juxtaposition between Stan’s ritzy hotel and Richard’s dive of a motel is stark.

Third revelation and decision

Revelation: Olive tells her parents in the morning, “Grandpa won’t wake up.” They take him to hospital.  Dwayne tells Olive to go hug mom. The doctor tells the family that grandpa is dead. A woman comes with the paperwork for death. It’s going to be a problem crossing state lines with a body. Nor are they allowed to abandon the body in the spot and continue on to the pageant, picking him up on the way back.

Decision: Richard says they’ve already travelled 700 miles, he’ll be damned if he won’t make the contest. So they sneak out, taking the body with them. “There are two kinds of people in this world, there’s winners and there’s losers.” (Arc phrase.) This scene turns into a bit of a caper, with appropriate music (a fast, catchy Latin beat with whistling). There’s nothing like a common opponent to make a group work well together – the family works together to get the body into the van, then the brother and uncle push the van to get her going for the last leg of the journey.

Audience revelation

We realise some time around this point that the family is working well together rather than arguing.

the new shrunken family

Gate, gauntlet, visit to death

Everything that could possibly go wrong on a road trip has gone wrong — they’ve even lost one member of the family to death. Even after grandpa’s dead, there are still problems crossing state lines with bodies.

When the horn gets stuck and they’re pulled over by a cop with a dead body in the back, we think this is the end for their trip:

In the car Olive asks, “Dad? What’s gonna happen to grandpa? Uncle Frank? Do you think there’s a heaven?”

“It’s hard to say, Olive. I don’t think anyone knows for sure.”

Frank’s life is a mess, but unlike Richard, he is able to see things in shades of grey.

Frank is cut off. He honks, but the horn is now stuck.

They are pursued by a police officer.

“Pretend to be normal, okay?”

The cop searches the vehicle but finds the porn magazine that Frank bought for the grandpa at the gas station (as well as Frank’s one). The cop gets sidetraced by that and put off, leaving without discovering the dead body illegally crossing state lines.

Battle

There are a series of big struggle scenes around this point. The first is for Dwayne. Inside the van Olive is playing with a colour blind test and Dwayne realizes he’s colour blind. This has big ramifications because he won’t be able to fly jets, which he has taken very seriously. He flies into a rage in the van. They stop the van for him but he refuses to get back in. Olive talks him round at Frank’s suggestion.

Dwayne sulks

For Richard, the big struggle is around at least doing this one thing right — taking his family on a road trip. Everything else in his life is going haywire and he needs to prove to himself that he is a winner, not a loser. There is a spoof action scene climax as Richard drives the van through a boom gate and a chain link fence and the wrong way down a one way street. The side door falls off in the pageant car park and Frank rushes inside to secure Olive’s position.

The entire big struggle of getting to the pageant is represented for Frank in the scene where Frank argues with the officious woman at the front desk who insists that they can’t register Olive because they’re four minutes late.

For Olive, the big struggle is between how she will choose to see herself, represented by the scene in which she examines herself in the dressing-room mirror. Will she go with ‘fat’ and ‘ugly’ and ‘loser’? Or will she choose to be a ‘winner’ by giving it a go?

working out who she is

Sheryl, as you can see by this point, is not a main character in this story. In fact, she adheres to the female maturity principle, in which female characters are often the most calm and balanced from the story’s beginning to its end, which means in effect that women in stories don’t change, are therefore not the heroes of stories and are therefore seen as less interesting, despite the apparent flattering treatment.

Anagnorisis

The anagnorises happen at the beauty pageant, and for Frank and Dwayne, during their conversation at the pier.

Richard deals with his father’s body in the carpark and realises that he is still somebody as long as he has his family.

Olive’s anagnorisis comes at some point in her dressing-room big struggle scene. We see her make her decision as the rest of her family comes backstage and tries to persuade her not to perform. “We’re not in Albuquerque anymore.”

Frank opens a newspaper to find his arch nemesis has now written a best selling book as well as having been given a genius grant and partenering up with the young, good-looking student and driving a convertible. His nemesis has now had every possible success — this guy is the uber-successful version of himself, and now Frank has nothing left but to let that dream of himself go.

Moral decision

self revelation from frank and dwayne

On the pier, Frank and Dwayne have a discussion which tells the audience they’ve each made a moral decision. Both have suffered huge setbacks — all that’s left for them to do is accept their fates and move on.

Olive’s moral decision is to perform anyway. Surely she has realised that she doesn’t have the body of a traditional pageant beauty and that her act is nothing like the acts of the other girls.

She dedicates the show to her grandpa who showed her the moves. She performs ‘Can’t touch this’ with inappropriately sexualised moves, and because we’ve seen the grandpa it comes as no surprise to the audience. She basically performs a strip tease. Half the audience walks out. But Frank stands up and claps to the beat. He’s joined by Richard, who has realised after a brief interaction with a creepy dude in the audience, that his daughter’s performance is no more sexualised than that of the other little objectified girls — Olive’s simply being more up-front about it.

olive's performance

By the time we see Olive’s entire family dancing on stage we can see that their moral decision, collectively, is to stick together and not worry about anyone else. Richard and This is a scene reminiscent of About A Boy. Soon the whole family is rocking on stage, holding hands, dancing round in circles. They’re now a team.

whole family on stage

New situation

A policeman has been called. He tells the family to leave California without entering their daughter in a beauty pageant in the state again. Frank says, “I think we’re okay with that.” So we see them leave for home, passing the officious pageant lady at the gate, smashing through the boom bar. They drive honking on their way back to Albuquerque, a vehicular finger up at the outside world.

boom