Monday, October 20, 2014

A Tale of Two Story Forms

We’re celebrating the release of Anita Mae Draper’s short story “Here We Come A-Wassailing,” available as part of Guidepost Books’ A Cup ofChristmas Cheer collection. Despite its compact size, HWCA-W packs two story forms into its pages: the road story (or road trip story) with the cabin (often called “closed circle” in mysteries) story. In honor of Anita’s new story, I thought I’d look at the structure of these two fiction types.
Road stories chronicle a character’s journey from one point to another. It sounds simple enough, but in true story fashion, there are obstacles along the way that impede the journey. Fortunately the character will frequently gather allies who assist him (or her) in overcoming the obstacles. These allies and obstacles cause the main character to grow, so that the character has changed in some fundamental way by the time he reaches his destination.
Take for example, The Wizard of Oz. Protagonist Dorothy  (along with her dog Toto) lives a rather dull and boring life on her aunt and uncle’s Kansas farm. But when she is suddenly whisked away to the magical land of Oz, she needs to figure out how to travel home. The journey is both concrete (Dorothy has to physically walk down the yellow brick road) and symbolic (Dorothy is also on a journey of self-discovery). She makes allies (Lion, Scarecrow, Tin Man) and encounters obstacles (the Wicked Witch of the West and a wizard who isn’t really a wizard). The story ends when Dorothy returns to Kansas, newly appreciative of her life and family.

Some other famous road stories are Voyage of the Dawn Treader (C.S. Lewis), Journey to the Center of the Earth (Jules Verne), and Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, and Dorothy Lamour starred in a series of road story movies, conveniently named Road to ___. (In short, if the book or movie has “voyage,” or “journey,” or “road” in the title, there’s a good chance it’s a road story!)
The cabin or closed circle story seems to be the opposite of a road story. Two or more people find themselves trapped together by circumstances. They may be detained in a hotel during a storm or trapped on a deserted island without a way of returning to civilization. While the setting of a road story is ever-changing, these cabin/closed circle stories take place in a single setting. The fun (or danger) comes from the unlikely combination of characters.
For instance, the famous TV show Gilligan’s Island has seven very different people stuck on an island together: the bossy Skipper, goofy Gilligan, rich and aloof Mr. and Mrs. Howell, elegant Ginger, brainy Professor and girl-next-doorish Mary Ann. Despite their disparate backgrounds and personalities, they have to find ways to work together.

What happens in the cabin (or hotel or country house or train or space ship) depends on who is stranded there. When the story is a closed circle mystery, it’s quite possible one of the characters is a murderer. The other characters need to figure out the identity of the murderer before they, too, fall victim. In a cabin romance, the forced proximity offers an unlikely couple the chance to get to know each other. Many survival movies (and countless Star Trek episodes) also utilize the concept of people (or people and aliens) stranded in a single location where they are forced to work together in order to survive.
For example, Beauty and the Beast is at heart a cabin romance. The beast confines himself to the castle because of his hideous appearance and Belle is trapped because of her promise to remain. Alone with only singing household furnishings for company, a peculiar pair forms a unique bond. Some other examples of this type of story are Murder on the Orient Express (set on a train), Key Largo (set on the island of Key Largo during a hurricane), and Apollo 13 (set in a space ship).

(Since we're beginning our Christmas celebrations early here on Inkwell, I suppose I might as well confess that after years and years of annual It's a Wonderful Life watching, I have trouble picturing Lionel Barrymore as anyone other than the meanest, richest man in Bedford Falls.)
As to how Anita’s story combines elements of both these story forms…well, for that, you’ll have to read it yourself. Just leave a comment with a “safe” version of your email addy (i.e., name at provider dot com/net) by 11:59 Monday, October 20 for your chance to win a free copy.
And be sure to share your favorite road stories, cabin romances, or closed circle mysteries.

After leaving the corporate world to stay home with her children, C.J. Chase quickly learned she did not possess the housekeeping gene. She decided writing might provide the perfect excuse for letting the dust bunnies accumulate under the furniture. Her procrastination, er, hard work paid off in 2010 when she won the Golden Heart for Best Inspirational Manuscript and sold the novel to Love Inspired Historicals. You can visit C.J.'s cyber-home (where the floors are always clean) at



  1. I loved Jen AlLee's road story, The Mother Road. And for cabin stories, my favorite might be Angela Hunt's Uncharted, which is kind of similar to the series Lost.

  2. Dina, was it you and I talking the other week about how we doubted the authors of the classics deliberately set out to do have of the stuff that English teachers give them credit for?

    I was thinking of it last night. Hopefully Anita will weigh in. I don't know if she said, "I'll think I'll write a story that combines a road story with a cabin story." But for me as a reader analyzing the finished product, it was pretty neat to see how she had taken elements from both types.

    1. CJ, said: Hopefully Anita will weigh in. I don't know if she said, "I'll think I'll write a story that combines a road story with a cabin story."

      Actually, I did. Except I didn't know I was mixing two story types...

      My 1st note on this story reads, "A working girl tries to get home for Christmas but a comedy of errors gets in her way."

      And then I started listing what could get in her way. Four of the initial eight possibilities were people. So I combined the people with the possibilities, added some more characters to balance it out, and threw in the question of what awaited them at the end of that long ride on a wintry Christmas Eve.

    2. I hadn't thought about the two types either, until I started analyzing the road story portion. And then I realized that the road story had elements of the cabin story. It was just kind of neat because they are so very different.

      I'd give more details on what it was that made me read it as a combo of story types -- but I don't want to give anything away.

    3. Thanks for being sensitive and not throwing in a spoiler alert, CJ. I really appreciate that.

  3. I love Jen's The Mother Road, too! I also enjoy Oregon Trail stories.

    I enjoy cabin stories too but am at a loss right now for titles. As a fan of holiday romances, I know of a few Mary Balogh Regencies where people are snowed/rained in, and I just love them.

    Nice post, CJ!

    1. Years ago (as in, so many years ago we didn't have kids), my husband (!) would sometimes buy me those Regency Christmas anthologies as a gift. There was always at least one cabin romance set in either a country house or hotel during a snow storm.

      And isn't my hubby a sweet guy?

    2. Thanks, Susie... I couldn't think of a cabin story either until you mentioned holiday romance and then I remembered one I've been thinking of all year...

      Last Dec it seemed that many channels carried a holiday movie of the night - great news for writers and movie watchers. :)

      One of the ones I watched was Debbie Macomber's Trading Christmas which was a made-for-TV Movie for 2011 that I somehow missed until 2013.

      Trading Places involves 2 couples, both very in interesting circumstances, but only one couple could be considered a cabin story. Consider a writer who's on a deadline and happens to be stuck in a house with a stranger who won't leave him alone. Very funny, relatable, and satisfying. :)

  4. cool post about the two story types. i'll have to look at my MS to see which type best fits mine. i'm here to say another "hooray for Anita!" I'm uber excited to get a peek at her story. Thanks for celebrating - I always enjoy how y'all celebrate and teach with each of your book parties.
    nm8r67 at hotmail dot com

    1. DebH, thank you again. I'm anxiously awaiting my books which were supposed to arrive after 3 days ground shipping but it's going on 5 working days. I hope they didn't get turned back at the border. :(

      I don't think your story fits either of these 2 story types.

      Anybody know what story type DebH's would be if it's about a murder investigation in a seaside community? More like an NCIS episode without Ducky?

    2. Based on Anita's description, I'd have to agree it doesn't seem to fit either of these.

      I've never written either. The one time I proposed a road romance to my editor, she shot it down before I ever typed "Chapter 1."

  5. I just watched "Key Largo," along with the other three Bogie/Bacall movies. I'm also an annual "It's a Wonderful Life" watcher (that and some version of "A Christmas Carol"). I guess I think of Barrymore mostly as Mr. Potter, but I have no trouble with him in other roles. He was most horrible as Rasputin (the only movie, I think, he did with brother John and sister Ethyl both).

    1. I was sad to hear that Lauren Bacall died not too long ago. That lady had class.

    2. I haven't watched Key Largo in ages and ages. Probably decades. My husband said, "Isn't that a song?"

      Speaking of my husband, I started to play the Gilligan's Island theme song when he was in the room, and he practically ran screaming out with his hands over his ears. "Don't put that song in my head! I'll never get it out."

  6. CJ, thank you for this post. I now have something else to add to my writer's tool box.

    It's funny that as soon as you mentioned people stuck together, I thought of Gilligan. And funnier that when we visited Balboa Beach in Orange County, CA back in 2012, Suzie and I saw the exact beach where Gilligan's Island was filmed. It was so small!!! Not a single tree!! Only a rocky wall around the beach with expensive houses on top! Too funny. :)

    1. When I was a child, I couldn't figure out why the people could never get off the island. My mom explained that if they got off the island, there wouldn't be any more shows. (Actually, it would have already been in syndication by that time, but they all seemed new to me.)

      It was one of my first lessons in logic, and I've never forgotten. To this day when I'm watching something with my husband, if a main character is in danger, I'll snark, "Don't worry. You're the title character. You won't die because the show would end."

  7. Blogger ate my comment this morning, apparently. Thank you for this, C.J. This is a way of looking at story types I've never considered, and I like it!

  8. Oh my. I'm not sure I'm ready for Christmas stories yet! It's almost that season, isn't it? Yikes.

    I totally love travel stories. Guess it's the wanderlust, but I'd rather be traveling than locked in one place.

    Unleashing the Dreamworld

  9. I enjoyed reading about the two story types, CJ. In the future as I'm reading, I'll be on the watch for these two themes.


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