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I have always had a problem with travel in my stories. Since I'm writing an epic fantasy novel, travel is a big theme as characters often have to move from where they are to where the plot dictates.

However, one of the difficulties I have is that the travel itself is often not important to the plot. In the novel I'm reading now (Wizard's First Rule by Terry Goodkind), there is a huge amount of travel, and the author adds needless encounters with various magical beasts just to keep tension high. The story I'm writing is already large enough in scope without needless extra diversions. I am not a fan of action scenes just for the sake of having something happen; I want everything that happens to advance my main plot.

Additionally, the acts of the characters dealing with innkeepers, staying the night, paying for their food, eating, etc., is boring both to write and to read.

To make my current dilemma even more frustrating, the two characters who are traveling together in this specific instance have just met each other and should be forging their relationship during the travel. So while I don't want to focus too heavily on the travel, I do want to be able to expose their interactions.

How can I gloss over the uninteresting parts while still keeping enough to show this character development?

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I felt more and more like this is an unanswerable question as I wrote it, but I still want to see what ideas you guys have. – StrixVaria Nov 25 '10 at 15:53
I agree, but +1 it's an interesting question. – mootinator Nov 25 '10 at 16:00
up vote 14 down vote accepted

If I'm following you, it seems that the travelling itself isn't important, but that the characters have traveled is advancing the plot.

You can cut out most of the actual journeying, showing the quest in what the characters do when they stop moving. You can have characters refer to the travelling enough to make it clear how far they traveled -- gods damn it, my feet hurt.

As a bonus, if you have on-the-road scenes after setting up this pattern, they'll come across as fresh and different.

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I couldn't agree more. Anything unimportant to the story can often simply be skipped entirely. Just insert a blank line! E.g. "Bye now, and bring back some good pictures!" <blank line> "He arrived in Istanbul only two days before the festival." – Koen Van Damme Mar 13 '11 at 19:09

So, the inner purpose of the journey is to forge the relationship between the two characters, show the reader how they interact with each other, and also show the reader who each character really is.


There doesn't need to be any major conflict, but even a minor conflict, just to show how each character reacts.

I'm pulling this out of my head as an example, not knowing anything about your story or the characters, but what happens if they get to an inn, and it's not there, or it's closed, or all the rooms are taken? How does each respond to this news, how does this change how they treat each other? Do they go with the flow, get aggravated and stressed out, try to offer more money to get a room?

What if the wagon breaks down on a path far away from town? Or they pass a hitchhiker. Or one gets sick for a day and slows the travel down?

Every minor conflict (with each other, environment, themselves, whatever) has a chance to show each characters true personality and also gives each personality a chance to interact with each other. This could be as small as a paragraph, or as long as a chapter, but still relatively separate from the primary plot.

Later in the story, this will also give you events to call back to as the characters are interacting with each other.

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This is essentially true of every scene in the story. If there's no conflict, there's no scene. – StrixVaria Nov 28 '10 at 16:02

If your story is large in scope as you say, it should be fairly simple to switch scenes for the majority of the boring travel.

Jumping to other characters and happenings and back again means you will be able to put in just enough about the travel to show some character development through interaction, while also advancing plot in other areas.

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One mistake I made early in my writing is that I felt that everything had to be described at all times. If the bad guy was fixing a presidential election, over the course of the novel I'd continually update the polls as the bad guy's plan unfolded. Boring.

Christopher Buckley does this well in his novel Boomsday. The protagonist's actions are meant to provoke civil unrest. Buckley does not just smash in a bunch of needless scenes to illustrate this, though. Instead, he just updates us with a paragraph or two at appropriate times. The reader knows what is going on in the backdrop, and we can go on reading the novel.

You say:

the two characters who are traveling together in this specific instance have just met each other and should be forging their relationship during the travel.

There is no need to recount the entire eight-day journey across The Whatever Plains. You can write one scene wherin our heroes are tested, and how they solve or escape the situation will result in a different relationship between the two characters. Maybe they encounter a thief and one guy wants to kill the thief and the other convinces him to spare his life and let him go free. The relationship has thus changed, character 1 respects character 2's council enough to change his mind on something he was otherwise determined to do.

The best stories don't simply make this a throwaway scene. "Oh they found a thief and let him go and now the characters are cool with each other." That's a waste of time. Rather, the thief can crop up late in the story and provide something that spares the characters. Or, if tragedy is your game, the thief can partner with Bad Guy and eventually cause the colossal undoing of our heroes. The novel's moral center is thus conveyed, the reader learns some lesson, etc, etc...

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Sitting around a campfire discussing the highlights of the day's events is a good mechanism for character development during travel. It also gives your characters a chance to bond.

Leave out all the tedious encounters such as checking into the inn. Think how they do it on TV. All the mundane is left out because there is only a short programming window. Readers will assume your character checked into the inn if you tell them, "Creepo Widowmaker sat on the uncomfortable cot in the Ogre's Brew inn staring into the dim candle."

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One warning, though, is you don't want to spend time looking back at something that happened. If it's important enough to reminisce over, it's important enough to show your readers. I'll add that I've wondered about this, too, in something I'm writing. If they run into people, shouldn't those people be important to the story as a whole, not just people who show up along the way? So then I'm trying to think ahead about how they might affect the plot. – foggyone Nov 27 '10 at 16:05
Second foggy, talking about the past is not nearly as effective as immersing the reader into the present. – Reverend Gonzo Nov 27 '10 at 16:29
@foggyone - +1, Good words of caution. The campfire scene can work though, if the writer wants to expose the characters through dialog instead of needless action (as StrixVaria refers to it). The discussions of the day are simply a catalyst to introduce each character's tendencies. The actual events discussed are not so important, thus no need to show them. – JMC Nov 28 '10 at 8:11
Yeah I could see them sitting around and going, "So, Phil, I never knew you were so good at riding. I thought for sure we were going to lose you there for a moment" and then have Phil talk about something in his past that produced his skill. Horrible example, I know. Sort an after-the-fact reaction rather than a rehashing. – foggyone Nov 29 '10 at 2:50
@foggyone, yes you nailed it. It's reflection rather than rehashing. In the midst of an action scene there is little time to expose the inner workings of a character past the traditional one liners. In a casual setting, a campfire, the author is free to use extended dialog to build the relationship and intimacy between the characters as they move the plot forward through foreshadowing. – JMC Nov 29 '10 at 5:26

One thing that should be used as a seasoning in Odyssey tales is the idea of the false destination. The idea that where the characters thought they were going is not in fact the destination and a further journey must be undertaken to complete their objective. Also, the idea of the false arrival where the protagonists consider abandoning their quest because they arrive somewhere that offers them an alternative.

Also the idea of having sub-objectives is useful to make the travel seem necessary e.g.

We want to destroy the dark amulet of goomba but we have no idea how. I have heard that the Enchanter Philip knows of a way but he lives in Footrot Swamp which can only be crossed with the aid of the Footrot Guardian who requires that all whom he assists perform a task for him.

Of course if someone says that then the reader actually knows what they have to sit through before anyone gets anywhere near disposing of the goomba amulet. So better to have a false expectation that it is Enchanter Philip who knows how to destroy the blasted thing and that he lives in a small village on the edge of Footrot swamp. So visit Anklemange Village and the amulet is toast, but when the heroes get there Philip's house is deserted and crawling with nasties. Only then do they find out that Philip had to relocate into the swamp and so on.

If you tell people exactly what the heroes are going to have to do then the heroes may have a heart filled with courage and conviction to get this tedious series of fetch-quests done but the audience will take their own view on whether they want to go with.

If you're always promising that the destination is just around the next corner people commit and you have time to woo them with your excellent characters and richly populated world.

It seems like a con trick but really what you should consider is that you're making one long journey into a series of little sub-journeys, each with their own resolution. If they add to the cause of plot thickening so much the better.

For example what happens if, when the Guardian transports them into the Footrot Swamp they are harangued by a weird sentient swamp lizard who tells them that the amulet can never be destroyed but that it can be changed from a force in service of the dark god Goomba to one in the service of the light god Abmoog. This is new information. Is it a lie? Or could it be true? Besides the legend states that Abmoog was killed by Goomba before the Aeon of the Cedarwood Badger. So having an amulet in the service of a dead god would be useless, wouldn't it?

If the reasons for the quest the nature of the task and even the protagonist's own ethical framework are questioned by the journey they are undertaking it creates tension in the actual journey itself. Your audience will learn that just because it looks like a duck don't mean it won't go "moo".

And all the best stories are about cows that turn out to quack.

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David Weber's The War God's Own has some lengthy travel scenes in it which he does quite well. I suspect this as an older book predates his Heinlenesque tendency to include huge info-dumps. You can get it free from Baen's Free Library. One of the things I like is he shows character growth and learning about each other through relatively minor interactions within the party.

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Uninteresting is subjective, of course. Even "unnecessary" is. You do write just for your own amusement, right? Yes, that was sarcasm right there, because if you aren't, then some (many?) may not like your story.

The mundane makes the story live.

Yes, this is not a straight answer, but then sometimes it's the wrong question.

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