The field of urban planning uses terms like wayfinding and desire lines. When I first heard of the latter, my thoughts traveled to 900 numbers. Maybe that’s why transportation planners now mostly refer to this phenomenon as a desire path. A desire line/path is what we Bostonians call a cow-path. How to get from point A to point B regardless of sidewalks, paved pathways etc. If I can get home quicker by cutting through Mrs. Delorey’s driveway, that’s where I’m going. Wayfinding is how we navigate, what tools we use to get there. How do we find our way? Some find their way using desire lines, others are more apt to follow the way set in concrete by others before them.
Having grown up close to Boston, I gotta tell you, most of us use the desire line method. Try driving through through Downtown Crossing or the North End or pretty much anywhere in the city on a Saturday afternoon. You will see all sorts of desire lines forming.
When writing creatively, it is all too tempting to take the desire line time and again. Having my characters solve their problems by taking shortcuts is more apt for a one-hour television mystery. Hey, Mary-Jo was last seen with a kitchen knife in her hand while walking through Boston Common, she must be the one who killed the hockey player outside the Parker House Hotel!
In an age of instant information, we writers worry our readers won’t hold on for more than a few chapters. How to keep our readers interested and at the same time be true to our stories is always a challenge.
The quickest way from A to B isn’t always the best arc for characters on the page. A writer needs to delve deeper, let the story unfold in its own time. Taking the subway, light rail, a Ford Mustang and even a 737 once in a while will still get us to where we are going. By using various methods to keep to the reading (and writing) fresh and interesting with new scenery along the way is the true desire line in writing.
I just have to watch out for my readers in their own desire lines when maneuvering through Downtown Crossing in my Mustang.