As a reader and writer of fantasy, I’ve found the travel aspect can be… tedious. Either it’s pages and pages of scenery with characters walking, walking, walking, or it’s one quick scene where nothing happens. If your story includes travel, try these tips for making it more entertaining.
1. Show Off Your World
Having your characters travel from point A to point B is the perfect opportunity to incorporate the unique aspects of your world. Consider sprinkling in some interesting and distinctive landmarks, incorporating the history of the region your characters are traveling through, and really taking the opportunity to show off your setting. Your characters might travel through an ancient forest that was twisted by a curse, so you can weave in the history of magic. Or maybe they travel through some old ruins that one character has read about. Doing so will add depth to your world and characters.
A book that does this beautifully is The Lord of the Rings, by J. R. R. Tolkien. In it, Frodo and Sam go on a long and dangerous journey and find themselves along the way. On each leg of their adventure, they stumble upon new and exciting places: Rivendell, Balin’s Tomb in the mines of Moria, and the Dead Marshes, to name a few. And in each new location, Frodo finds the courage to keep moving forward and make his footprint on the world – small in stature but large in heart. This blending of setting and character introspection makes the journey meaningful to readers.
2. Develop Characters and Relationships
Another aspect you can focus on while traveling is expanding on your characters and building (or breaking) their relationships. After all, the characters are stuck with each other during these trips, so something will happen between them – be that a deeper friendship or a falling out. The characters might bond after discussing their past or the reasons why they’re on this adventure. Or perhaps they fight over the best path to take. They could even come into conflict over their dueling morals.
Usually these character-building moments happen around a campfire after a long day of travel, but consider adding in these conversations while they’re walking. If the scenery stays much the same – for example, a rolling grassland or a seaside beach – people will often chat simply to give themselves something to do. As long as they aren’t galloping on horseback, they can carry on a conversation.
In my fantasy novel Sunkissed Feathers & Severed Ties, my main character Misti is on the road with her traveling party. They come across a wagon – a musical troupe – that is being attacked and decide to save them. After, Misti strikes up a conversation with one of the musicians. The musician asks why Misti’s companion animal is sunkissed (orange, red, yellow). None of her traveling party had asked her about it, and after the conversation, I was able to bring in the terrible history of those colors and the overall attitude toward them, and then contrast it with Misti’s point of view. That conversation allowed me to do some important character development.
3. Add a Fight
First, your characters could be ambushed! This works only if they’re using well-worn roads where travelers are expected. A known route is the perfect place for thieves, mercenaries, or even the main antagonist’s lackeys to get the jump on your protagonists.
If your characters are off-roading it, maybe taking a dangerous shortcut cross-country, you could also add a dragon fight! And no, this doesn’t have to be an actual dragon, it can be any kind of fantastical beast that you have in your world. Adding an interaction with a beast would give you the opportunity to show off your super cool fantasy creatures. Did you create your own mythical animals? Add a twist to the classic dragon? Maybe I’m biased, but one amazing element of fantasy is the creatures. So show them off!
No matter who the enemy is, fights are exciting! They force your characters to defend themselves, showing your readers if your protagonists are brave or scared. They also add a sense of urgency. Maybe the road isn’t as safe as the characters thought it would be. Just remember not to treat these fights as isolated incidents with no impact on your characters. Let them think on the moment after it’s over – maybe something significant happened during or after the scuffle. Or you could have another fight later in the story, and show your characters’ growth (or lack thereof).
K. D. Edwards’s The Hanged Man has a good instance of a struggle against a magic beast. His characters are traveling through a very tall tower – encountering different magical biomes along the way – when suddenly the main character Rune gets swept up by a flying creature called an ifrit. Edwards gives some awesome descriptions of the ifrit’s fleshy wings, furry body, and how it uses air magic. Not only is this a cool fight, but since the ifrit is an ancient, powerful being, the fight also shows just how formidable the antagonist must be if he sent this creature to thwart Rune. Two for one!
4. Make Travel Challenging
Traveling might entail a sudden injury, a wagon wheel shattering, horrible weather, or an inn that’s unexpectedly shuttered for the night. These events can show the characters’ reactions to small – or large – things that just happen. If they’re traveling with a group, this can also show how they work together as a team. Does one character stay calm throughout the whole ordeal while another gets really angry? Does a leader emerge? These annoying moments would add a sense of realism, too, because when you’re traveling in real life, you know at least one thing will go wrong.
In The Priory of the Orange Tree, Loth is traveling through the Spindles, a cold, windy, frozen place. He’s been traveling through this area for a few days. The weather is terrible, with the snow basically falling sideways, but Loth continues on. A lesser character might have turned back, and the fact that he doesn’t shows his determination and loyalty to his mission.
5. Use Unique Methods of Travel
You don’t need to have your characters travel by horseback, sail on a boat, or even walk everywhere. Try to think of novel ways your characters could journey through the land. Maybe the characters can fast-travel by magic but it demands a specific and steep price to do so. Maybe they have unique non-horse mounts that you’ve imagined and would like to show off, like a dragon. It all depends on the kind of world you’re building.
In Shadowbridge by Gregory Frost, the characters traverse through the bridges connecting nearly all the cities. The world is basically one big ocean with some smaller islands, so bridges are the way to go! In The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo, the protagonist travels through the otherworld, or spirit realm, trying to achieve her goals. In the story, a paper-horse burning funeral creates a life-size spirit horse for the main character to ride in the otherworld. Make whatever type of travel you choose stand out!
6. Just Summarize or Skip It
If nothing important happens during travel, you can skip forward. Just end one chapter or scene with the character starting their trip, and begin the next chapter or scene with them arriving at their destination, adding in a line or two about the journey. Skipping the actual walking part could be useful if what happens on the journey doesn’t move the story forward. So instead of a whole chapter of traveling, simply add a short paragraph about how long the traveling took. This would give the sense of passing time.
If you do use this technique, remember that while readers didn’t see the few days or weeks of travel, the characters lived it – had conversations, conflicts, maybe met some new people on the way. Be sure to reflect that in their attitudes. Perhaps they are really tired and that one character who doesn’t deal with stress well is really pissed. Their friendships might be stronger or cracks that were already there might have widened.
However, if you find your characters reflecting on something particular from the trip, maybe you should add that part of the trip into your story. That way, you can show it happen rather than having your characters just talk or think about it.
There are a ton of books that use this skipping forward idea, like Megan Whalen Turner’s The Thief. During one brief skip, she simply writes, “After a quarter of a mile…” It gives the sense of time passing, but it does so in a succinct way. You can do the same!
Remember, not all who wander are lost. When done well, travel can add layers of worldbuilding, characterization, and quite frankly a unique spin to your story. Enjoy the adventure!
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