Sometimes your heroes have to get from one place to another, and there aren’t any eagles to help them skip the distance in between. Then, you’ve got a travel story on your hands! But what is a travel story, exactly? Is it any story where the character travels, or does it have to be about the travel? We answer that question while also discussing the reasons for telling a travel story in the first place, what kinds of plots best support travel, and why Bran totally has the best story of all.
Generously transcribed by Anna. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants Podcast. With your hosts, Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle.[Intro Music]
Oren: And welcome everyone to another episode of the Mythcreants Podcast. I’m Oren, and with me today is:
Oren: Now we have to take this podcast on the road, record under the stars, try not to get eaten by bears. It will be a very fun time because we’re talking about travel stories today, which may or may not be because I just read the first Percy Jackson book, which is a very interesting travel story. Not necessarily good, but interesting. [Wes laughs]
Chris: It’s a great example of what happens when you try to do a travel story in a setting that is not optimized for it.
Oren: I would argue that trying to cross the United States via public transit only is quite the quest! [laughter]
Chris: So, travel stories. I don’t know how you’re defining these. I usually define them as stories that don’t just involve travel, but have it being more about the journey than the destination, which is a blurry line. Generally the characters are going somewhere, but a lot of times the tension is not super high for getting there. It’s usually just not super urgent. And so it feels like there’s plenty of time. Usually it’s the urgency aspect, but sometimes the stakes aren’t that high either, it depends on the travel story we’re talking about. And so it has individual episodes that hold up the plot more. So it’s kind of episodic, and because it’s episodic, it kind of feels like it’s the journey that matters more than the destination to a certain extent.
Oren: So in your definition, a travel story is also an episodic story?
Chris: Yes, but an episodic story is not necessarily a travel story.
Oren: Fascinating. Maybe I should title this podcast, “travel in stories” then. [laughter] I had a whole thing about stories that were travel stories, but not episodic and stories that were both. So I might have to throw that all out right now.
Chris: But there’s some variance, right? There’s some stories like Lord of the Rings. It has a lot of traveling in it. It does care about the destination and the destination is dangerous. It’s not necessarily that urgent. And so some parts of the Lord of the Rings feel more like it’s about travel and other parts of Lord of the Rings feel more like, “no, we need to go to X.”
Oren: Well, like Lord of the Rings versus The Hobbit (at least, Frodo sections of Lord of the Rings, the other sections are a little weird), but, Frodo sections of Lord of the Rings, his goal is urgent enough that it doesn’t make sense for him to stop and do separate stories on the way there. Basically everything he does is in service of reaching his destination. He occasionally stops to rest so that we can have slow scenes, but it would be weird if in Lord of the Rings, Frodo stopped to do a little sidequest, cuz we’d be like, “Do you, you really have time for that? Don’t you have to take the ring to Mount Doom?” [Wes laughs] Whereas in The Hobbit it’s like, “Yeah, I mean, you know, Smaug will still be there. We got time.”
Chris: At the very least, you want time for the characters to stop and rest. I always think of Voyage of the Dawn Treader because it’s one of the best examples of travel story, where their quest is to find some dudes that went missing many years ago, or find out what happened to them. Not super high stakes, it’s really just there to motivate the characters to go on the journey, but it does provide some uncertainty in the fact that it’s a question that needs answering. It’s not high tension, but it is technically an arc. And then they go to various islands and they have a little adventure on an island and they learn something about one of the dudes. But most of the time that they spend is not directly in service to discovering what happened to a particular dude.
Oren: And then you have stories where the characters travel a lot, but there isn’t a ton of emphasis on the actual travel. It’s more like, we get to an area, we do some stuff in that area, and then we summarize going to the next area. Children of Blood and Bone is like that, cuz the characters travel for the whole story, they have to get to a pretty far away location, but there’s very little time devoted to the actual moving between places. Almost all of the action of the story happens in set locations.
Wes: I’ve been talking about this with fellow game masters, just how you would do travel more in role playing games. And I think there’s some similarities here because if you’re playing a game and telling a shared story, it’d be tedious talking about needing to stop and water the horses and then eat your food and keep going, blah, blah, blah. But it’s more about having distinct locations along the journey. How can you emphasize the journey if you’re not stopping to look at interesting things as part of the travel?
Chris: You can stop and have a location that’s interesting outside of a town.
Oren: Well, if you will allow me to sound my own trumpet, I believe is the term, [Wes laughs] I happen to have designed and written a role playing game called Rising Tide, available for sale on Mythcreants.com, and the point of that is to make travel part of the story and it’s ocean travel, cuz everyone’s on a boat. Cuz apparently I design games about boats. I don’t know when that happened, but that was a thing.
Wes: Boats are great!
Oren: Apparently I like boats. [laughter] So the idea there was to make the actual voyaging part of the story and make it interesting because the players have interesting choices to make. And of course, this is getting into role playing, which is a very specific storytelling medium, and its lessons may not apply to others, but the players have to make choices about what resources they’re using and how they’re spending them, and they run into problems along the way. And I designed a whole setting of “weird ocean” that would put lots of problems in front of the characters because describing, “and then you spend 10 days sailing across the water”, even if there’s like weather that happens every once in a while, that’s still gonna not be that interesting, so it has to be like a setting full of magical anomalies. Because I was basically copying the video game Sunless Sea. So in that situation, the actual travel is part of the story because there’s conflict there and things that the players have to do. And if you wanted to simulate something like that in a written story, it would be because you’re basically turning up the difficulty of getting from place to place.
Chris: But most travel stories do something similar, where if you’re on the sea and you run into an anomaly, there’s a location that isn’t a town, isn’t an island, but there’s an obstacle there. And so you spend more, at least playable time, if not in story time, in that location, dealing with that obstacle. Similarly, if you have, for instance, Voyage of the Dawn Treader, you stop at various islands, but then also you get attacked by a sea monster when you’re out in the water. So often it does include some kind of survival or environmental obstacles, as well as dealing with the towns that you enter. And like once you make a conflict out of it in the story, it does feel like, okay, we’ve set here, and now we’re dealing with stuff in a particular place along the journey.
Oren: Technically speaking, all actions in a story happen in a specific place due to the linear nature of space-time. But I would say that there is a difference between something like Blood and Bone, where most of the situation it’s like, “okay, we need to go to that city”, and it just summarizes us getting to that city as opposed to something like Logan’s story in The Blade Itself, which not a good book, I wouldn’t recommend it, but I do like Logan’s part of that story. And here Logan’s, like, “I have to go to this wizard’s tower” and to get there, we have to find new boots because his boots are wearing out and we have to fight some brigands along the road, and the horse dies, and then he has to carry this wizard apprentice that’s with him. And that’s a series of scenes that are set during their cross-country movement.
Chris: When we’re talking about stories that are about the experience in traveling, as opposed to the destination, we define this travel story that way. They’re kind of like modern, fictional travelogues. And so there is a exploration element often, that is not common in a story like Children of Blood and Bone where, yes, we are traveling, but we’re going to places that people go to all the time, whereas something like Voyage of the Dawn Treader, they’re specifically exploring places that few people like them have been to before that also, again, emphasizes the travel aspect and provides generally more novelty. So if you have a lower tension story, you can have higher novelty and do something like Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which is quite light and has a really low tension throughline, but is very entertaining.
Oren: Here’s something I’ve been wondering about: in TV, there is a phenomenon in which characters who live in a low tech setting that doesn’t have high speed rail or airlines are still always able to get exactly where they need to be by the next scene. It’s kind of jarring. I had this problem with The Witcher where the characters are like, “now we’re in Cintra.” And then in, like the next scene, “now we’re at the Witcher castle” and it’s like, are those things close together? It didn’t seem like they were. [laughter] How long did it take for you guys to get here? And of course, technically any amount of time can pass between scene cuts, but like, based on the other things that are happening, it doesn’t seem like it could have been weeks.
Chris: The best part is when Ciri and Yennefer go to an abandoned house and walk outside and there’s like, a couple horses waiting for them.
Wes: [laughs] Yep.
Chris: And they, they portaled there with their magic, okay? They portaled to an abandoned house in the middle of nowhere, walk out the door, and there’s these horses that are just tied up, they’re all saddled up and ready to go, they look well tended.
Oren: Where were those horses from??
Chris: If they had just shown them leaving, and then cut the scene and then shown them later with horses, it would be less conspicuous or shown them arriving at their destination, but they decided to show that they had magical horses prepared.
Oren: And it was especially weird, cuz it wasn’t just that the house was abandoned, it was that the people living there been murdered. Like their bodies were stuffed in a closet. So it’s like, are those horses, the murderers’ horses? Did the murderers step out to use the bathroom?
Wes: Or the horses are the murderers![all laugh]
Oren: Yeah, the horses did it!
Chris: Oh no, don’t get on those horses!
Oren: We’ve discovered the secret season three reveal!
Wes: That’s right, the big bads!
Oren: It was these two horses the whole time![all laugh]
Oren: It was so weird, like, they walked out of the house and saw these horses and they didn’t think it was weird at all. They just got on the horses, it was this absolutely surreal moment.
Wes: Yeah, I kind of thought with the uproar for the last few seasons of Game of Thrones, with the fast travel that was happening there, that maybe other storytellers would keep that in mind, but I guess they just don’t care. [laughs]
Chris: It’s more like, the traveling is not what the story is supposed to be about, it’s a logistical obstacle in the way of the story. What the storytellers want is a big fantasy world, but they also want the convenience of having their characters in any location that they want for the plot to work at any time.
Wes: And that’s like what you mentioned, the challenge of having an episodic story structure for travel, when suddenly the plot becomes more immediate and suddenly it’s like, oh no, we can’t travel anymore because we’re on a timer.
Oren: The same thing does occasionally happen in written stories. Not very often, the only written story I can think of off the top of my head that has this kind of travel logistics problem is the first Narnia book, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, where it takes like 15 minutes to walk across Narnia, but you do sometimes see the reverse incidentally. Game of Thrones, the books, not the movies, had the reverse problem where in most of Game of Thrones, the travel is summarized, which gives the impression that it doesn’t take that long. We might academically know that it takes days or weeks, but we don’t usually spend that much time traveling narratively. And then suddenly, I think it was in book four where like Asha was stuck in the snow for like, an entire book? Traveling through the snow? And it was like, wow, suddenly getting somewhere takes forever in this book.
Wes: That was always the frustration with Bran’s stories. I mean, I know he is up north, but for every, like, foot they take, it’s like everybody else in the world gets to go like 30 feet or something like that. [laughs]
Oren: [joking] Like, no, Wes, he has the best story, they told us. You can’t say it’s not good. It’s the best one!
Wes: Oh, right. I forgot, he earned it. I’m sorry. I take it back. [laughs]
Oren: Alright, I have another question for you guys: Why write a travel story? Why would you do this? Why would you inflict this on people?
Wes: Because you have tons of cool ideas for locations, but really thin ideas for plots.
Oren: That’s a great reason. [laughter] That’s exactly the reason I was gonna go with.
Chris: Well I’m gonna say, cuz you really, really wanna show off your world.
Wes: I like the idea though, of you’re showing off your world, but maybe you get really excited about a few world building elements and you can feature those as part of the travel and say, yeah, and there’s like trees and stuff, you know, like you don’t have to like go into extreme detail, but front the parts that are most exciting and novel to you. And then at the next location, you can do that again. Some other people prefer to just be set in their grimdark city and focus on that. But I feel like it offers you a different opportunity to display your world building, if you’re more intrigued by a couple things at different locations and hint at a larger world.
Chris: I would also say that it is a good match if you do something that’s like Voyage of the Dawn Treader with a light throughline, and that’s very episodic and the characters are moving around. It is a good match for a light, but long story, because generally with lighter stories, you have lower tension and then you have to make up for that lower tension by adding other A.N.T.S. in there, including novelty, and keeping up novelty for a long story is difficult, hence why a lot of times short stories lend themselves better to being light. But if you have a travel story where you’re continually changing location, it gives you the opportunity to introduce new things that are novel and then keep up the novelty better.
Oren: It is, I think, a good concept for someone who is a world builder and likes to create entire areas, because you can also get a lot of depth out of staying in one place and showing all of the things that are in this city or even a town, but if you want your story to make sense, certain things, can’t feasibly be that close together. Like you can’t have your dragon hunting grounds where your densely packed urban area is, that’s just not gonna work. So if you wanna show off multiple areas, going with the travel story is a good format for that. I would much rather have that than trying to do a “stay in one place” story and have the characters continually find reasons to exposit at me about other places I’m never gonna see. [laughter] Or the dreaded multiple points of view where it’s like, well, we need one POV in this country, and one POV in that country and one over here because of the glaciers that I made, everyone loves glaciers.
Wes: How else are you gonna see it all? Come on. [laughter]
Oren: Just write a travel story. If you wanna do that, it’s right there, it’s a good format. We know how this works.
Chris: So I think we should talk about Percy Jackson, since this is probably one of the few stories I’ve seen that has in, at least not all of the novel, but a good chunk of the novel is more episodic plot that takes place in the modern US, which is interesting. First, the author has to come up with a reason why Percy can’t just fly across the US.
Oren: Until he suddenly can.
Chris: Well, see, that’s one of the tricky things is that, if you have a travel story and you aren’t having the characters just stay permanently at their new location, you have to come up with a reason why they can get quickly back to their starting location after they spent the entire story getting to their destination.
Oren: In this case, I actually think, because what they tell us is that Zeus is mad at him because Zeus thinks he stole his lightning bolt. And so if he gets on a plane into the sky, which is Zeus’s domain, that would be real bad. Like Zeus would mess him up.
Wes: [joking] Lightning can’t touch earth.
Oren: The idea is that Zeus is stronger in the sky. I actually think that works fine. Now it does feed into a different problem where the gods are portrayed as, I think, more gullible than they should be? I know this is complicated, cuz people’s ideas of how the Greek gods should be portrayed are very different. It frustrated me a little bit, but if you can accept that premise, then Zeus wanting to smite him is a reasonable thing for him to not get on a plane.
And I actually think him then getting on a plane to go back to New York at the end of his quest would have made sense if they had just explained it a little better. Because in the story, all that happens is, he’s like, “well, hopefully Zeus doesn’t smite me.” And then he gets on the plane. And it’s like “hmmm”. and later we find out the explanation for why Zeus didn’t smite him, and it’s like, just give us that explanation earlier and I think we would be okay.
To me, one of the things that Percy Jackson does that I think demonstrates a potential issue with a travel story is that Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief (there are a bunch of Percy Jackson books, but we’re talking about The Lightning Thief specifically), it has a pretty urgent prop. They have to get to LA because that’s where the door to Hades is, lololol LA jokes [laughter] and they have to get there in like 11 days, or there’s gonna be a war between the gods and it’ll be real bad. So in that context, it really feels like everything they’re doing should be in the service of getting to LA; and that mostly works okay, most of the people that they run into are trying to stop them, but then there’s this weird part where they run into Ares, and Ares gives them a sidequest and it’s kind of frustrating, it’s like, you guys don’t have time for this. The story tries to cover it by having it be like, well, you need to do this sidequest or Ares won’t give you the thing you need to get to LA. But like, it still just makes you sit there wondering: Do you really need Ares’ help? Is this really the fastest way to get to LA? Should you be wasting your time with this? And that’s something to be aware of if you were writing this kind of story,
Chris: And it’s kind of hard to tell because they run out of money. That’s one of the other things is, in a modern US, the trick is to make it not too easy for Percy to get all the way from New York to LA. So it’s kind of unclear because they lose their money, but it does only take like a couple days if they just manage to get on something. So it all leaves you wondering how much time do they actually have compared to how much time do they need. Eventually what he does is they go into a place that lures them in and they lose track of time. There’s been so many stories I think that have like the timeless hotel trope, where you go into a hotel and there’s like people from all eras and ages in there.
Oren: And that part was especially weird because every other aspect of Greek mythology that shows up in that story is explained. Like when they run into Medusa, it explains who Medusa is, when they run into Ares it explains who Ares is, all the monsters, we know about all of that. But then there’s just this hotel that they call the Lotus Hotel and it doesn’t mention what that is or explain it at all. You have to look up afterwards that, oh right, there were Lotus eaters in the Odyssey, it’s an Odyssey reference, which Chris had to do for me, cuz I was too lazy. [laughter] That was a weird moment in that story.
Chris: Well, again, it was an excuse to be like, oh, they lost track of time. Now they need to get this thing today to stop the gods from going to war and up that urgency so that the end of the story could actually have higher tension. Because again, once you have a low tension throughline and you have an episodic structure, the question is okay, what do we do for the climax? How do we make the climax exciting? And one option is to have a low urgency quest that becomes urgent towards the end so that you can escalate tension. So that’s what Riordan decided to do in this particular case.
The funniest thing for me is that we’re going with these tropes of what happens in a lot of Greek mythology, where heroes are like, lured into all these situations and the characters, because they have no money, they need to eat somehow. [laughter] And so we keep having this really funny repeated thing where they always eat food that their antagonists give them. That’s like how their every meal comes from. When you get to the third time, you’re like, “really, Percy? shouldn’t you know, that you’re being lured to your possible doom by now with the food?” But in order for Percy to be lured into this situation, like a Greek myth where somebody’s like, “oh, I’ll lure the hero in with offering them things, and then trap!” For there to be tension in a situation like that, the readers have to know that the situation is gonna turn out badly, but then why does Percy just walk into it? Well, you know, Percy’s just really hungry.
Oren: He’s very hungry, look, those are good hamburgers, okay? Percy is very fortunate that none of the bad guys thought to try to poison him.
Chris: So that was another thing with the like, okay, well, it’s hard for them to travel because they don’t have money, but if they don’t have money, how do they eat? The logistics of doing a travel store in the modern US, especially if you’re traveling all the way across the US, it would almost be easier if it was a short enough journey that Percy could just walk on foot.
Oren: It also gets into the issue of, if you start to think about this more, and maybe you shouldn’t, cuz it’s somewhere between middle grade and Y.A., but if you do think about it more, you start to run into issues of like, okay, they’re at a place where everyone has giant bags of gold coins. They could probably just hire a car to drive them across the country, instead of relying on Greyhound buses and Amtrak. They wouldn’t do that because that would be a boring quest, but it’s kind of unclear. It’s like, is the point of this for Percy to do something impressive? Or is it for him to get to Hades before a war starts?
Chris: But they DO do that Oren, don’t you remember? That’s how they get from Las Vegas to LA. So we up the urgency and then suddenly we’ll do the thing we could have done before, was get a car. [laughter]
Oren: Just hire someone to drive us.
Wes: Is that like a feature of some travel stories? It’s like, “Hey, you’ve got two weeks to do this thing.” And they’re like, “Oh, okay, we’ve got all the time we need-Oh no, we don’t!” Or some person shows up, like Ares comes to show them a sidequest only to just eat away their time so that they have to take a car at the end. It’s like, “Aw man, I gave them too long at the start. I should have cut the deadline in half.”
Oren: So different stories try to come up with different ways to do what Chris was talking about, of take the problem that is less urgent and make it more urgent by taking time off the counter. And they come up with more or less convincing ways to do it. In Percy Jackson, it’s okay. This is a mystical, magical place, the idea that there’s a mind-control hotel that lures you in and keeps you there for several days is like, believable. It’s a little frustrating that the kids fell for it so easily, after three other times of this happening, but it’s okay. If you want something really bad, you have to look at like, in Blood and Bone, they’re traveling and they’re getting close to their destination, and they have three days, and if they don’t get there in three days, all of magic will go away forever. But then they decide to stop for like an entire day to do a festival [laughter] and it’s like, what? It’s one of the most frustrating things I have ever read. What are you doing? Go, go! And they’re like, “It’s okay, we have time, we’ll get there ahead of schedule.” And it’s like, fine, you want some more lead time built into that. [laughter]
Wes: Did they also pause to play beach volleyball?
Oren: Not quite. I’m giving you the wrong impression. This is not a fun beach episode, this is a grimdark murder episode because everyone at the festival gets murdered and it’s like, “Yeah. Who could have seen that coming? It’s not like you knew the army was chasing you this whole time.”
Chris: But to be fair, raising urgency isn’t the only way to escalate an episodic travel story so that it’s more tense in the end. You can also just have them go into more dangerous places. That’s one option, just have the episodes get tenser. Or, Voyage of the Dawn Treader is a really interesting one here because instead of escalating by raising tension, it escalates by raising novelty. Because as they go out further and further, it gets weirder and weirder. That’s very interesting, I don’t know if I know any other story that does that. But the point is you up the entertainment factor and there’s a variety of ways to do that. I like the idea, if you have a mission of introducing antagonists for the later chapters that tries to keep them from accomplishing the mission, that would be a one way you could do to raise tension.
Oren: One more thing that I just wanted to talk about, now, I think most authors get this but I have read a few stories that didn’t, and it was weird, is that if your characters are traveling, it is, I think, extra important for their protagonists to have other characters who travel with them. Because if they’re moving from place to place, that means any characters they meet, they’re gonna be new, so there’s less time to develop them. So that can really cut down on the amount of time you have to build attachment, but if they have buddies with them, then can do that at the same time. Not gonna say this is universal, obviously, I love The Martian, but just as a rule, I would say, make sure your, your traveling friend has some buddies.
Chris: Depending on how long the story is. If you were talking about novel length and if you want more than one character, but not too many, cuz if they’re traveling together, they’re gonna all be in a lot of scenes together. So what we found is that, C.S. Lewis, he struggled with four characters traveling together. [laughs] He had a lot of trouble, then he did much better when he went down to three. Doesn’t mean that you couldn’t make four characters work, but make sure that they’re all distinctive and they all actually have a way to contribute together. And that might still be challenging. Doesn’t mean, though, that you can’t have, like, a crew that’s in a background and like a B cast, like Reepicheep in Voyage of the Dawn Treader that is familiar to readers. It’s just that, you need a smaller number of people who are really plot important because they’re just gonna be there all the time.
Oren: Probably shouldn’t be 13 identical dwarves is all I’m saying. [laughter] With that, I think we have reached our destination, which was the end of the podcast. Fortunately, we did not suddenly get the time limit moved back. We’re good, we can have a nice stately ending.
So before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons:
First we have Kathy Ferguson, who’s a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next we have Ayman Jaber, he is an urban fantasy writer and connoisseur of Marvel (thefantasywarrior.com). And finally we have Danita Rambo. She lives at therambogeeks.com. We’ll talk to you next week.[Outro Music]
Chris: This has been the Mythcreants podcast, opening/closing theme, The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Colton.
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