Driver's Ed for Characters

When I first began writing books, I was just barely learning to drive.
Since the characters in my first story, Unperfected, live in a futuristic world where the population has dwindled immensely, I figured I could easily write the characters driving and not have to worry too much about the driving scenes since there was no one else on the roads. Right?
Looking back, the scenes where my characters are driving drive me (HA) insane. Because now that I've had my license for a few years, I know what it's like to get behind the wheel of a car--and how to implement that knowledge in my own writing. Writing driving scenes can be difficult, and I've seen my fair share of mistakes writers have made while writing these scenes.
So whether you have your license or not, if the characters in your book drive at all, you need to send them to Driver's Ed!

1. Drivers (usually) only do what they know how to do.

Have you ever read a book where a character magically knows how to work a car they've never been in before? This is a mistake I've seen a lot of young writers make, and it's one I made myself when I was younger.
In my story, my characters steal a truck to escape from their city. It's a fast-paced scene and reads quickly, so it took me a while before I realized a very important fact: my characters have never been in a truck before. So how the heck do they know how to drive one?
Granted, it's not that hard to understand how a car works. You can pick up on driving pretty easily just by watching someone else do it.
But what about working the windshield wipers? Turning on the lights? Parking? These are all things my characters did that they wouldn't technically know how to do because they had never seen it be done before.
Obviously, this is something that depends greatly on your genre and time period of your story. But it's still a good thing to keep in mind when writing driving scenes. Ask yourself:

- Has this character ever driven before?
- Do they know how to work the radio/air conditioning?
- Do they know how to work the windshield wipers and turn on the headlights?
- Do they know how to drive this specific kind of vehicle?
- Is there anything that I have written them doing that they wouldn't actually know how to do?

Keeping things realistic is a super important part of writing scenes. So when your characters are driving, make sure they are only doing the things they know how to do. If your character has never driven before, odds are they won't have the smoothest of rides or know how to work everything in the car.

2. Road conditons vary!

Continuing on with the idea of keeping things realistic, how are the road conditions?
Roads are not always perfect. This is especially important to keep in mind when writing a road trip novel or any kind of book that takes place in a real location.
For example, if you are writing a book that takes place in Michigan and you have never been here, let me tell you that our roads are TERRIBLE. Awful. Horrendous. We have a joke that you can spot a drunk driver in Michigan when they drive straight rather than swerve to miss all the potholes. We have potholes so big you will lose a tire. Heck, you'll lose a car.
If you're writing a driving scene in the middle of winter in a place where it snows, odds are the roads will be a little slick. If your characters are driving through mud in the rain, they may get stuck.
Again, the most important part about writing driving scenes is being realistic--so add realistic road conditions!
This could also be a great way to add a few extra scenes to your book, such as traffic jams, getting caught in construction or a snow storm, etc.
Heck, maybe your characters get a flat tire from a pot hole in the middle of the night and are then attacked by zombies while trying to change the tire. I don't know. Just make sure your road conditions match your setting and are realistic!
It's also important to note that roads are not always straight and empty. They curve. They have other people on them (usually.) Some are narrow, some have lots of lanes, some have roundabouts (traffic circles, for all you non-midwesterners.) It can be very easy to get into the dialogue between characters that are driving and forget about the roads they are on, when in reality describing the curve of the roads can be very beneficial--especially if your characters get carsick.

A few examples of some potential road conditions are:

- Texture of the road
  • Dirt, gravel, asphalt, etc.
- Weather
  • Rain, snow, hail, wind
- Traffic/ rush hour
- Construction
- Pot holes or rumble strips
- Speed bumps/roundabouts

3. I'm driving, but wow your eyes are like the brightest of stars on a clear moonless night...

No. No, no, NO.
This is probably the most common mistake I have ever seen while reading driving scenes, and I am definitely guilty of making it.
Way too often we see characters driving and talking to the passenger next to them while taking their eyes off of the road for several lines of dialogue.
NO. This is not very realistic, and it's not very safe.
Often when I'm driving and talking to a passenger, I will glance at them for a second every few minutes or so maybe. And that's only if we're talking about something really important.
In Unperfected, when my male MC Tripp is driving, he looks at the female MC in the passenger seat, Avalon, a lot. And on top of that, he's hardly ever driven before. And on top of that, he goes into thought detail about Av's eyes or how he feels bad for her and blah blah blah. It's just not realistic, and reading it now makes me cringe.
When your character is driving, their focus should be just that--on driving. Yes, they can have conversation with the passenger, but they shouldn't be constantly looking at the passenger/think deep thoughts about the passenger.
Again, this is subjective as it completely depends upon your character, your world, and your setting. Your character may be a super professional driver or someone who's driven for years and has plenty of practice multitasking.
Regardless, your character's capability of looking at things other than the road for long periods of time should be limited. It's not realistic, and describing your character looking back and forth between the road and the passenger gets repetitive very quickly.
(Also, don't forget--you drive where you look! Keep this in mind when your characters drive, too.)

4. Consistent conversation flow is hard.

Along with your driver looking at the passenger too much comes another common mistake writers make when writing a character driving--consistent conversation flow.
Have you ever driven/ridden with someone you're talking to, and suddenly you/they just stop talking or listening?
I've done this countless times with the passengers in my car. Sometimes I'll be talking on the phone and stop talking/listening. Sometimes my cousin will be telling me something great an awesome about her book, and when she's finished I'll glance at her and have to ask her to repeat something.
Why? Because I was focused on driving!
Driving takes focus and attention. And while it's perfectly normal to have a conversation while driving, it's not always easy to have perfect conversation flow. It's easy to lose your train of thought when you're watching the road because your mind is not fully focused on what you're saying.
This should be the same with your characters. Not only will it make your writing more realistic, but it will vary your sentence length and add variety to your scenes.
It's a good way to cut off a long patch of dialogue or help transition from one topic to the next.
It can also help with scene description and setting, as you can describe whatever it is that's making the driver distracted. Did the driver notice a something on the side of the road? Is there a swarm of zombies ahead? Did they miss their exit?
The only case where I do suggest having consistent conversation flow is if the characters are arguing. Since this kind of dialogue is more heated, drivers usually won't stop talking or become distracted by the road as easily.
Unfortunately, this is the case in real life, too! It is much easier for drivers to become distracted and lose control if they are arguing because their focus is more on the argument than it is on driving.

And that's the end of this Driver's Ed for characters class! Again, all of these tips are subjective and can be used in multiple ways. This is simply a tool to help make your driving scenes more realistic and less cheesy.
I hope you all have a fabulous rest of your day, and drive safe! ;)