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Writing about Journeys

Vaz

We're in the pipe, five by five.
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Hey Gals and Geezers!

Looking for some advice and tips when it comes to writing about journeys and travelling within stories. How do you deal with it? How much of a journey do you describe? What makes the journey interesting? Do you just skip the travelling altogether?

It's something I struggle with. Hopefully, some of you old pros on here can suggest some tips and advice. Or suggest some books that centre around journeys and do it well.

Thanks.

v
 

J.D. Robinson

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My first thought would be that a journey is only relevant to a story if something happens during the journey that moves the plot forward. Something may happen that builds character, or that provides new insight into a plot thread. Someone may die, or connections may be made. If nothing happens on a journey, then maybe that is the most interesting thing about it—or the resulting wear and tear on your cast—and it can be mentioned in passing.

The way I think about it, any story is a journey, whether it happens in a locked room or across many planets. Actual physical milage bears very little on that. Whatever the case, just find the story.
 

Plucky Novice

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Personally I wouldn't dramatise a journey unless something interesting was going to happen or I was using it as an opportunity to build tension/emotion/world or advance the story. If none of that's happening, get them from A to B and reflect on the journey if you need to - e.g. to show the passing of time.

The other thought that occurs is if you want to set up a contrast when they arrive to give a greater sense of drama to the next scene.
 

Steve Harrison

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I sometimes use a journey to explore the thoughts of a character, interspersed with details and observations during the trip. This can develop character, help with pacing and tension or provide a breather for readers during frenetic action sequences.

Other times I might simply skip to, 'he arrived in Athens after an uneventful flight.'

I just ask myself what the journey means, what, if anything, can I do with it and how much detail is required? Then I hope I have come up with the right answers and write!
 
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Teresa Edgerton

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It depends on the length and difficulty of the journey. If they're going to cross a thousand miles of varied terrain on foot or on horseback, it doesn't make sense to summarize it in a couple of paragraphs. Readers will feel cheated, like it can't have been that easy. (And that's true. A journey that takes months through all sorts of weather and across all sorts of obstacles is going to present challenges.) So there may be a neat plot already figured out, but it's important to think about how the challenges presented by the journey could enhance or change that plot ... and the characters. It's not just a matter of concentrating on the parts where something interesting is planned to happen, but also important not to miss out on the possibilities that the journey offers which we may not have thought about in the beginning.

If you've read the early drafts of The Lord of the Rings (included among the History of Middle Earth books edited by Christopher Tolkien) you can see how very little of what happens in the story was anticipated when Tolkien started writing it, and the story opened up and developed in all sorts of surprising ways as the journey continued. (Of course one might not want to spend a few decades writing a book and letting that sort of thing happen.)

It also depends on how epic the story is. Epics tend toward wide landscapes. If characters are going to travel a hundred miles through villages and towns that are pretty much the same, then there is not much point in spending a lot of time describing them. But if characters will be crossing continents and seas and encountering a variety of different cultures, that's a different proposition. If the writer just says something like "they started out in late spring and arrived in early winter after a largely uneventful journey" readers may feel that the writer has just been lazy. (Although I've always been tempted to write a chapter with a title along the lines of "In which three weeks pass and nothing of any importance happens at all" and follow the title up with a blank page, so far I have resisted that temptation. Because really, I like reading about wide landscapes and exotic cultures. It's writing about them that I sometimes find hard.)
 

tinkerdan

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Journey's were definitely what killed The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin for me--it reminded me too much of what I recall of Jack London's White Fang and Call of the Wild. However there is something to be said for the whole man against nature aspect of the the desolation and death through winter's heartless chill.
 
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K.S. Crooks

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It depends on the nature of your story. Sometimes the journey IS the story and sometimes how the characters get where they're going is unneeded. Remember that you don't have to use the same method for the entire story. Also during a journey is sometimes the perfect opportunity for the characters to speak with each other. This allows for insight into their past and their current mindset.
 
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zmunkz

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I like the answers above. Only thing I’ll add is to always make sure there is a sense of progress so the reader can feel motion during a journey.
 

sknox

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Why is this any different from any other descriptive passage? It could pertain to describing a room, a castle, whatever. You'll put in exactly as much detail as is needed. If that's nothing more than "four days later, they arrived at the gates" then that's fine. If it four chapters to cover the same distance, that's fine, too. Either approach could be just right or incredibly wrong.
 

AnyaKimlin

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I tend to avoid travelling or journeying scenes like the plague. However, my favourite book, Mist Over Pendle, has a lot of travelling by horseback and even a journey by cart from South of England up to Preston, Lancashire. I was never bored by it. Robert Neill (the author) includes only the detail needed, adds a bit of colour like the carter washing out the cart on the second day because the travellers had been bitten by bugs on the previous days travelling. He weaves the journeys into showing the social conventions of the era and deepening the characters.
 
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Ihe

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Journeys for me are a bit like Chekhov's gun. If nothing's gonna happen in it, why have it at all. If that's the case, have the whole plot develop in the one city. Using a journey only as a plot device would be a waste, IMO.
 

scarpelius

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Journey's were definitely what killed The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin for me
And yet that is all that matter in the Rocannon's World :)

@Vaz A journey is a fabulous opportunity to build your characters. It means action, it means exploration, it means countless ways to test the strength of their believes. Unexpected alliances might forge and old friendships shatter like a glass shield.

As for books, you should really read The Hero's Journey, if you haven't already did. It isn't only about physical journeys, but the transfomations of the hero and the necessary steps to craft a great story.
 
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night_wrtr

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My first thought would be that a journey is only relevant to a story if something happens during the journey that moves the plot forward. Something may happen that builds character, or that provides new insight into a plot thread. Someone may die, or connections may be made. If nothing happens on a journey, then maybe that is the most interesting thing about it—or the resulting wear and tear on your cast—and it can be mentioned in passing.

The way I think about it, any story is a journey, whether it happens in a locked room or across many planets. Actual physical milage bears very little on that. Whatever the case, just find the story.
Agree with everything here.

How do you deal with it? How much of a journey do you describe? What makes the journey interesting? Do you just skip the travelling altogether?
I’m writing a journey that takes up about 50% of the book. It’s the bits that is just getting characters from point to point that gave me problems. There are plenty of interesting things that happen along the way that moves the plot forward and develop character. What I had to was think about those scenes that are just traveling and either cut them because they added nothing, or highlight things that add depth to the characters. Dialogue between two characters can do a lot, and a simple passing sentence of them riding horses through a creek, passing a mountain, etc. gives the feel of traveling, but its not the center point.
 

sknox

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Well, my WIP is Into the Second World, a re-imagining of Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth.

It's *all* journey. And I don't even like Journey.
 

Toby Frost

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As with a lot of people, I think many journeys can be glossed over if they’re uneventful. However, there are a lot of variables here, not least the overall style of the book. The journeys in, say, Neuromancer are much less a feature of the reading experience than they are in The Lord of the Rings.

Personally, I think the ideal journey would involve exciting incidents (perhaps some sort of pursuit) and a change in the relationship of the characters. I’ve written a book (unpublished) which is essentially two characters on a road trip, trying to get to some treasure before the villain. In the course of the story, they have gunfights and car chases, and get to know each other better, and thus become better known to the reader. Hopefully, by the end, the reader has a good grip on what drives them, and sympathises with them more than they did at the start.
 
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Juliana

Juliana Spink Mills. "No capes!"
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Good thread! I'm writing a story which has a lot of journeying in it, so these answers have been great.

What I've been doing is two things: one, the journey they're on is initially about tracking someone down, so there's a lot of looking for clues, etc, and not just going someplace. And two, I'm focusing a lot on the dynamic and tensions between the members of the group. So a lot of the drama isn't actually in outside events, but internal ones.
 

The Bluestocking

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I'm writing a road trip novella so am reading all these answers with interest.

I will point out that there needs to be a good reason driving - Ha! No pun intended - the journey. Otherwise, why go on it.

And yes, am planning all sorts of interesting things (pertinent to the story) that will happen to my characters - or that my characters will set in motion - on the highway to Hell.
 

-K2-

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In retrospect, I seem to write a LOT about journeys. Upon further consideration, I suppose that is because much of my life was travelling, much of it on foot round the globe and ultimately, I view my own growth/evolution/maturing as a journey in and of itself.

Drawing upon what I know/have experienced, the journey itself often establishes the life... You turn right here when you should have turned left, what happened. You see this or that, how does it affect your mood? You encounter this person, that if you had taken any of a gazillion other routes you would have missed them.

So to me, the journey itself lends itself to setting up situations, moods, difficulties and even outcomes.

What follows are examples from what I've written... (only read if you're bored).

____________

One of the first longer works of mine, the character hitchhikes to Alaska, then spends a decade wandering it. The HH aspect takes a couple months, noting perhaps ten events, yet is covered in a mere two paragraphs. Its sole purpose to point out the character's determination. On the same token, as the character spends that decade wandering, arriving at and leaving each place is important, yet between is left vague... BUT, there is little question left regarding what the character saw and experienced during those vast swatches of time and distance.
________

In contrast, my next work covered a single day, within a single maze of a building. Well over 100 other characters are encountered and the interactions are noted in significant detail... BUT, the sights, sounds, smells, everything about the journey itself is noted in tremendous detail. I even have an entire chapter devoted to a mere 'ten-steps.' In fact, though the distance is not that great, the description of each step, change in the maze and so on is so well described that most readers claimed they could smell/see/hear the place, everything the character did... and because of that envision it all without question.
_______

What I'm currently working on, finds the protagonist walking through a massive, densely crowded (shoulder to shoulder) city. Each novel in the series uses that base aspect. The exposition during those long walks are what really establishes the mood and sensations of the characters. Otherwise, the reader (I believe) would have difficulty understanding the dire situation, why people act a certain way and why things happen.

The journey itself imposes hardships that must be dealt with. That generates scenes where the trip affects how the characters act and forms them. Without the journey noted, in many cases there is no reason, simply chaos and confusion for chaos sake.

In those works, I'm using actual maps, buildings, considering how the collapsing environment and system would alter them, even geology of the area... which in turn makes it very easy to determine those future shifts and changes. The journey and the surroundings often determine what options a character has. Those options otherwise make little sense.
___________

In my 1870's Western novel, the character from 1871-1877 covers roughly 4,000+ miles. The full story (aspects referred back to and the years that follow) ranges from 1841-1905, the protagonist's life. All of the route is noted on a pair of maps that marks the highpoints in the character's entire life and obviously everything in the story. It takes place in what is arguably some of the most rugged terrain found in the United States and Baja, California (Mexico).

The route follows accurate Native American trails, old immigrant trails, passes that few people today are aware of, and to determine all of that I utilized numerous period maps and documents to get the names, routes and who travelled them right/correct (plus I've travelled those routes myself). It also helped cue me in to population numbers, and aspects of the old West that had vanished by the time the story ends.

Understand, most of it was on horseback, parts on foot and minimal bits by stage and eventually a tiny trek by train. Most areas were unpopulated except by Native Americans and even they were being moved by that time.

Describing the scenery, this difficult trail or that natural terrain significantly immerses the reader into the story. It gave the characters time to interact with a massive backdrop. It also helped to explain the solitude, how certain events and ways of living were acceptable or even mandatory... and in the end described a time and place where absolute freedom clashed with the beginnings of western civilization. Proving out the term "Wild West."

The trip helped make the story seem more like a real life accounting rather than just the events that made up the story. It took little to add a sentence or two here, a paragraph there regarding the journey, yet without it, it's just a bunch of yammering and action.
_______________

Think of you going anywhere or doing anything. How much does the journey affect you and the possible outcome?

K2
 
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