Jul 07 2009

How to make travel-scenes interesting

Published by at 12:16 pm under Plotting,Setting,Writing Articles

Many novels, particularly fantasies, spend a lot of time on traveling scenes.  Here are some suggestions to keep the journeys smooth and interesting.

1. Don’t give the journey more length than the goal merits. If the characters take a 20-page trip through the wilderness to find something minor, readers will probably feel annoyed.  In contrast, a journey that is absolutely critical to the plot might span hundreds of pages.  For example, if the book is about settlers on the Oregon Trail, then almost all of the book is probably going to be in transit.

2. Make the journey urgent. For example, the characters are running out of time and/or they are in danger.  Urgent journeys are usually more interesting.  Urgent journeys also go farther to develop how impressive the characters are.  Anyone can get around the world, but doing it in 80 days in 1872 is pretty remarkable.

3.  Use the trek as an opportunity for character development. A strong journey usually requires chemistry between the characters.  Chemistry is hard to pin down, but it generally entails a bit of conflict and style.

4.  Show us some new scenery. In a fantasy, this is a great opportunity to use your imagination.  Why should travelers should stay away from the Mangled Forest?

5.  Stay away from redundancy.   For example, if the characters defend themselves from bears one page, it would be pretty boring if they had to fight off wolves or wild zebras or rabid gnomes or whatever a few pages later.   Also, don’t spend too much time building the landscapes. Show us just enough to build a mood.

6.  A journey depends on effective use of low-intensity pacing. Unlike, say, a car chase, a journey is going to consist of scenes that are mostly unintense.  There may be brief intervals of intense action (probably combat), but those will get redundant fairly quickly.  In general, suspense and/or spookiness usually go farther than a battle royale rumble through the jungle.

7.  If at all possible, just cut out the description of the journey by having the narrator tell us that the characters made it. If you can do that without eviscerating the plot, chances are that the journey isn’t important enough to draw out.  Readers will really thank you for glossing over minor, boring details.  (For example, see our review of Empire of Ivory).

15 responses so far

15 Responses to “How to make travel-scenes interesting”

  1. B. Macon 04 Jul 2009 at 12:23 pm

    Also, this article doesn’t really apply to comic books very much. Because of length requirements, most comic books avoid long traveling sequences. Additionally, most comic books are set in modern times where traveling is not very dramatic. (Would you want to read 20 pages of the X-Men traveling from New York to Japan?)

    The only exception I can think of is that the protagonist in Y: The Last Man has to travel thousands of miles across a post-apocalyptic United States.

  2. J.M.on 04 Jul 2009 at 4:06 pm

    Just finishing up the Dark Tower series, and King does this particularly well, especially in the first two books.

  3. Ragged Boyon 04 Jul 2009 at 4:10 pm

    Hmm, I’ll have remember this. I’ve been planning a survival story.

  4. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 05 Jul 2009 at 8:12 pm

    This will help me a lot. At least two of my ideas (it may become one, because I can probably combine them) have lots of travelling in them, because in one the protagonists are trying to cross the country to a place that is safe from the invading army. In the other they are trying to find a diamond that will save the main character’s country from being trapped in crystal for all eternity.

  5. B. Macon 05 Jul 2009 at 11:22 pm

    Hello, JM. What do you like about King’s traveling scenes?

  6. Jeremy Melloulon 12 Dec 2010 at 2:50 pm

    I like the unique obstacles they encounter along the way and the differing modes of transportation. The train, specifically, comes to mind.

  7. Crystalon 13 Jun 2011 at 12:16 pm

    Just one quick question: What would you suggest to be the best way to travel across five states? Superhumans are not allowed to use public transportation systems, and no one is going to let three mutants get into their car, so hitchhiking is out, too. They don’t have a car…Do you think that it would be realistic for them to walk all the way?
    The two other options that I have are:

    1. Daniel and Rebecca are ‘normal’ enough to be able to get on a bus, no prob. Someone could then smuggle Eva in.
    2. Daniel’s fifteen (close enough; he’s tall for his age, and somehow, I can’t see him being that reckless of a driver) , so someone could, I don’t know, hotwire a car or something, and he could drive.

    Which one would work best?

  8. B. Macon 13 Jun 2011 at 3:24 pm

    “What would you suggest to be the best way to travel across five states? … They don’t have a car…Do you think that it would be realistic for them to walk all the way?” Depending on the states, possibly. The northeastern states are smaller and not very mountainous, so I don’t think it’d be too hard to hike across five state lines. For example…

    Philadelphia, PN to Trenton, NJ is 30 miles on foot. (1-2 days).
    Trenton, NJ to New York, NY is 60 miles on foot (2-3 days).
    NYC to Hartford, CT is 110 miles on foot (4-5 days)
    Hartford, CT to Providence, RI is 80 miles on foot (3-4 days).
    Providence, RI to Boston, MA is about 40 miles (2 days).

    I think you could hike from Philadelphia to Trenton to NYC to Hartford to Boston in 1-2 weeks with rest time factored in. Maybe they’d go a bit slower if they’re cautious about minimizing contact and/or dodging police. PS: If they own bikes (or steal them), they could probably go much faster—maybe 10-15 miles per hour, so this hike would drop to 2-3 days, I think. Stealing a bike is a much less serious crime than stealing a car and a kid on a bike’s going to attract a lot less attention than an unlicensed teen trying (probably not very well) to drive. It’s not just a matter of recklessness, but of competence/experience. (Also, even a tall 15 year old’s going to raise some eyebrows at the toll-booth 😉 ).

  9. Crystalon 13 Jun 2011 at 5:22 pm

    Thanks! 5 states was just an estimate that I had…I’m not sure even where the story is set. Right now, I’m kinda considering Ohio, but that could change. I know that they need to get to Washington, DC, though
    Anyway, hiking was originally my first thought, but I was worried about the toll that it would take on some of the younger people. I had an idea that some people would be sympathizers, and, therefore, be willing to let a few mutants sleep over, so that they don’t have to camp.
    Also, I can just see Daniel getting frustrated with his (slower) companions: “Come on, guys, we don’t have all day! Can’t you go any faster?”
    Yeah…Great idea! 🙂

  10. FotV/Annaon 13 Jun 2011 at 6:52 pm

    I suggest the stealing bikes thing. Though if Daniel has stolen cars before he might have enough experience to drive competently. Additionally he could have a fake ID.

    Maximum Ride (yes, I know. The worst and most inexcusable, cheesy, and contrived deus ex machina in I think the third book?) has the kids hotwire cars and drive across the country when they aren’t flying so you could probably get away with it if you go that route and actually know how to drive and research how to hotwire a car for accuracy.

  11. B. Macon 13 Jun 2011 at 9:52 pm

    “Though if Daniel has stolen cars before he might have enough experience to drive competently. Additionally he could have a fake ID.” I dunno. If the police have pulled him over, I don’t think a fake ID would help very much. (When you hand over your license and registration, the officer will check the license and registration in his computer to see if your registration is current, if there are any outstanding warrants for your arrest, if your license is legit, etc). I don’t think a fake ID can withstand electronic scrutiny very well–there won’t be any record of your alleged license number and your alleged name in their database.

    Realistically, if a character has been pulled over by police (for, say, speeding or appearing young enough to concern a tollbooth operator or because the police were looking for this particular stolen car), there’s pretty much no way the police could go through this encounter without discovering the car was stolen. So, if the character doesn’t do SOMETHING, he’s getting arrested. The only remotely plausible escape opportunities I can think of involve 1) using superpowers, 2) driving away while the police officer is going to use his computer (very likely to end in an arrest, especially if they aren’t experienced drivers*), and/or 3) being a Congressman.

    *Unless they’ve done something sneaky like sabotaging the police cruiser in some way.

  12. Crystalon 14 Jun 2011 at 9:43 am

    FotV/Anna: Guess where I got the “hotwire a car” idea from? You guessed it…Maximum Ride I didn’t even know that this would work out in real life…That same scene, where they get pulled over, was when I stopped liking the series so much. (Yes, the main reason I liked it was because Angel was cute. 🙂 )

    B.Mac: If they got pulled over by the police, they are definitely in trouble:
    1. Stealing cars is, y’know, pretty bad. Jail time!
    2. Mutants are not allowed to do a whole list of stuff. Traveling outside of their home city is one, as is driving…There are others. This is not just jail. This is getting thrown in a top secret facility in Washington, DC, where Adam is.

    Yeah…Still deciding between walking/biking…I don’t know if Eva would even be able to ride a bike, though, without being too obvious, but, then again, who wants to walk from Ohio to Washington, DC? Not me, I can tell you that.

  13. Tido d'CLABon 05 Jul 2012 at 10:42 am

    Ok, so I have a question regarding redundancy, and for anyone who has an opinion on the matter I’d love to hear it. A man finds a woman, makes a family, and that family leads to the building of a kingdom (Biblical Abraham style) — two kingdoms actually, but they are sister kingdoms. The man becomes leader of the kingdom(s) and in doing so learns the lesson that peace can be created through domination. Later, because of his “diplomatic” skill, he is asked to resolve a conflict between two other kingdoms. In establishing peace between THESE two kingdoms, he learns to have confidence in his abilities.

    Can you see why I’m conflicted about the redundancy issue? He is sort of completing the same goal twice, but the lessons that he has learned from them are different. So what do you all think? Am I okay, or should I change the goal to be completed?

  14. B. McKenzieon 05 Jul 2012 at 11:47 am

    Some possibilities that come to mind:
    –After creating peace between the first two kingdoms through war/domination, a threat to the peace arises which cannot be handled in the same way. (For example, maybe there are a lot of people who are unhappy with his rule and/or starving and he doesn’t have the funds to make war). Then it’s more of a matter of statesmanship/diplomacy to hold together what he has until, say, the next harvest alleviates a famine.

    –After creating peace between the first two kingdoms through war, the next two kingdoms call him in as an arbitrator because he’s one of the few leaders in the region who might be powerful enough to hold them to their commitments. (Other potential arbitrators might have been disqualified because they leaned towards one of the sides). Not completely unheard of in real life–U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt arbitrated a peace treaty between Russia and Japan even though he had more military than diplomatic experience. For a bit of a complication to raise the stakes, maybe the protagonist’s kingdom is dependent on the steady flow of goods from each kingdom (e.g. it gets much of its food from Kingdom A and much of its wood from Kingdom B, so war between Kingdom A and B is highly likely to cause trouble such as shortages of vital supplies, a refugee crisis, lawlessness along the borders, the potential for serious diseases, etc). Another potential complication might be something like a past friendship or a complicated relationship with one or both of the parties involved. Another potential complication might be that his past leadership is, for whatever reason, outdated and he needs to adapt his own approach to achieve his goals. For example, how does a diplomat in the vein of Roosevelt succeed if (say) his military situation is so precarious that military threats are not credible? How quickly could he learn to adapt his style and what sort of problems might he run into along the way?

    “He is sort of completing the same goal twice, but the lessons that he has learned from them are different.” I think it might be coherent and efficient depending on what you emphasize. For example, if the character’s evolution as a leader is a critical element of the book, hitting him with a problem which requires a different approach to his leadership strikes me as promising.

  15. Tido d'CLABon 08 Jul 2012 at 5:18 pm

    How about his daughter his sick and one of the warring kingdoms harbors an antidote? Would that be considered high stakes, or too contrived?

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