The Epic Journey From A to B: Narrating Travel in Fantasy Novels

One thing that has become ever clearer to me over the past few months is that traveling is exhausting.  It seems like such a simple, straightforward sort of thing going from A to B, especially when the prospect of arriving at B is so very appealing (because, as a hypothetical example, B is a gorgeous castle sitting on the edge of a cliff overlooking the sea and you happen to love castles to what is perhaps an unhealthy degree).

So you do your research and find out that to arrive at B, you will need to take a train.  But wait, to get to the train, you need to walk through a city, or maybe take a bus.  Okay, not too difficult.  But then, you realize that you aren’t quite sure how far from the train station on the other end B is.  Is it a short walk or is it a long trek?  Will you need to take a bus again?  If so, which one?  Will there be a bus to take?

Waiting for a train at the Aberdour stop (after seeing a castle!)

So you do more homework and gain the vague notion that if you walk down such and such a road, you will find a bus stop that will most likely have a bus come along that will probably drop you off somewhere in the vicinity of B.

B is calling to you and you are determined to find it, so you begin your journey the following morning with a fierce and courageous spirit.

Of course, it’s raining and the wind is a bit stronger than you had expected.

But never mind that.  Surely, it will clear up by the time you arrive in the town where you will walk to the bus that will take you to B.

Beautiful, frustratingly distant B.

The train ride goes smoothly, but the sky remains a glum, stubborn grey color that does not suggest any sunshine in the near future.  You alight from the train and stare hopefully toward the town.  What was the name of that road again? And why didn’t you write it down?

If only every bus was as easy to find as this one...

A few missed turns bring you at last to the stop, where you stand in the rain (there is no little shelter at your bus stop, of course) for twice as long as you had hoped and are just about to give up and set out on foot when the bus arrives.

You forgot change.

But B!

The bus driver kindly gives you change for a five pound note that God in His goodness allowed you to discover in your coat pocket and you climb onto the bus with sad squelches of your quickly dampening shoes.  The bus takes you slowly through the town to your stop.

And there is B.

It is everything you could have hoped for, if a little wet.  You enjoy every inch of B and glory in its wonders.  After everything, this – this – was worth it.

Walking through the forest: harder than Aragorn makes it look

But wait!  You have to get back home again!

You sigh, leaving B behind, and begin the arduous journey back to A.

Travel can go smoothly, but for whatever reason, it rarely ever does.  Even the shortest journey somehow manages to have half a dozen little unforeseen problems.  All of the difficulties of the in between don’t really register until you are dealing with them.  Even when you plan for as many of them as you can (we all give a shudder as we think of dealing with airports), travel will take its toll.

When I think about traveling in fantasy novels (yes, this post does have something to do with books and writing and that sort of thing!), I see two major issues that writers face:

  • First, many of us want to ignore it all together.  We like A and we like B, but the line in between is just a nasty, rainy, stressful mess and what reader really wants to hear about that, anyway?
  • Secondly, there are those of us who, when writing a novel centered around an adventure or quest, realize that the process of journeying is an important element in the story and ignoring it creates a very false world, so we feel compelled to focus on every little detail of the journey.
Wandering the woods isn't quite as fun when you know something unfriendly is out there...

There really isn’t a hard and fast rule with writing travel into a story.  It depends on the story itself.  Some will need less because they are about the A, B, and C locations; so examining how Jimmy built the fire each night, how Lady Sue hated the rain, or how getting lost in the woods (twice!) is such a bore when you have urgent business will make a story incredibly dull.

On the other hand, perhaps focusing on the campfire scenes, the dangers on the roads (maybe they are important to the plot?) or how different characters bond, argue, or grow throughout the travel is integral to your story.

We have to find the right balance when we narrate travel:

  • You might find a way to describe a few notable incidents on the road that add to the plot.
  • Give a sense of time passing and how long the journeys take so your reader doesn’t feel like the characters are magically being transported from one place to another (unless they are being magically transported, in which case, well, yeah…).
  • Add some dialogue between characters.  Being on the road is a good time for some character development and relationship definition.
  • Find ways to incorporate a bit of realism to show that you understand the frustrations of travel without narrating every painful detail.
  • And you might show some genuine sense of relief when your characters finally, after days, weeks, months, or years, finally reach their longed for B.
One of my 'B's, though not nearly as difficult to reach as my little story made it out to be...

One thought on “The Epic Journey From A to B: Narrating Travel in Fantasy Novels

  1. I completely understand about A and B! I experienced this the other day in particular. A was Sanbon, B was Samsung Hospital. The internet made point B seem right next door to Exit 6 from the Gangnam subway station. The internet lied! After I got thoroughly lost/frustrated/late for my appointment, I finally broke down and took a cab . . . only to learn that Samsung Hospital was NOWHERE near me! It was a 7,000 won taxi ride away (about $7 — definitely not what I consider a reasonable walking distance in a HUGE city like Seoul)!

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