Driving scenes are ubiquitous in movies, but some authors turn their noses at them in fiction. Unless the scene of two people side-by-side in a Toyota Camry is crucial to your story, most will suggest you trash it. I get why they happen in film: chronological, visual storytelling requires that the viewer see the character get from point A to point B for tracking. It’s also hugely relatable. Whenever I’m in the car with someone new, I find myself struck by the vulnerability and privacy of it. But on the page, we have other tools to establish that. If we’re using a driving scene to fill in a few crucial details, we’re better off finding an existing scene where we could do a little weaving.
But if you’re really committed to writing a driving scene, make it count. Angie Thomas’s acclaimed novel The Hate You Give offers brilliant examples of how to do that right. In the second chapter of the novel, the novel’s protagonist, Starr, is the passenger in her friend Kahlil’s car when he is repeatedly shot and killed by police. By placing the reader inside the vehicle with the protagonist, we see a tragedy from an unfamiliar and fresh view. But because that is such an explosive scene, I want to consider another, less crucial driving scene first. Only one chapter later, Starr is driving alongside her father on their way to his small, urban grocery store.
Daddy hums to Marvin, but he couldn’t carry a tune if it came in a box. He’s wearing a Lakers jersey and no shirt underneath, revealing tattoos all over his arms. One of my baby photos smiles back at me, permanently etched on his arm with Something to live for, something to die for written beneath it. Seven and Sekani are on his other arm with the same words beneath them. Love letters in the simplest form.
He’s a complex man. She has already told us about the roses he tends every morning that, as he puts it, need to be talked to. Here she reveals what the world beyond his gates would typically see of him: a man in a sleeveless jersey with tattoos up and down his arms. They are covered, perhaps protected, even without long sleeves and a tall collar. Fundamentally, the shirt and tattoos convey his class and culture. He’s a man familiar with using and showing his body, a man whose tattoos aren’t just decorative but deeply personal.
Seeing them portrayed this way also communicates Starr’s deep love for and comfort with her father, and her unmitigated watchfulness also tells us he’s unselfconsciousness around her. The photos of his children on his body may be testaments to the only place he can with certainty call home: his body. They may be talisman or reminders; they may be markings of belonging; they may be all of these things. But they are not foreign. “One of my baby photos smiles back at me,” speaks of tenderness and joy. If the pleasure Star takes in these tattoos isn’t clear enough, she finalizes their value. “Love letters in the simplest form.” Some readers will recognize this man’s body as their own or of their fathers’. Being able to see oneself in literature is heartening, dignifying and crucial as art is a response to our world.
For those who aren’t from the narrator’s culture or circumstance, this car scene provides another gift: the opportunity for empathy. For me, a white woman who grew up in a white neighborhood in an aspiringly white-collar household, these tattoos and jersey would typically signal otherness to me. Thomas’s writing made me aware of that truth and offered me another means of encountering it—from an intimate distance, with the love of a family member who understands something that I had yet to—that these tattoos are love letters, as they likely are for so many others I will and have encountered. This man is her loving father, no fear needed.
What scares each of us, what signals danger, is specific to our histories. For people of color, a stop by the police can and does sometimes lead to terrible grief. The media’s portrayal of a police shooting is often from the officer’s point of view, the dash cam. But that view removes the humanity of the people being stopped. Thomas knows that and wisely keeps us inside the car during the stop.
“License, registration, and proof of insurance.”
Khalil breaks a rule—he doesn’t do what the cop wants. “What you pull us over for?”
“License, registration, and proof of insurance.”
“I said what you pull us over for?”
“Khalil,” I plead. “Do what he said.”
Khalil groans and takes his wallet out. The officer follows his movements with the flashlight.
My heart pounds loudly, but Daddy’s instructions echo in my head: Get a good look at the cop’s face. If you can remember his badge number, that’s even better.
With the flashlight following Khalil’s hands, I make out the numbers on the badge—one-fifteen. He’s white, mid-thirties to early forties, has a brown buzz cut and a thin scar over his top lip.
Khalil hands the officer his papers and license.
Thomas’s use of sentence length, her incorporation of Starr’s internal dialogue and her observations of Khalil and the officer all work seamlessly. They embody the terror she feels and Khalil’s resentment for having to acquiesce to the subservience and embarassment. The view from inside and outside these vehicles are starkly different, and Thomas has ensured we understand that. From inside, the police approaching your car window is terrifying. The tattoo-covered arm of a Black man in the driver’s seat? That’s tenderness.