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I suppose this is more of a question of if its even necessary, but I'll just assume it is. I am currently writing an outline for a fantasy story, and I don't know how to deal with distance. It's unrealistic to assume that all the towns are super close to each other, and that these towns are unaffected by external sources, so there needs to be distance, but I don't know how to measure this distance.

In a story that centers around the idea of people trying to stop them from getting to their destination, it's not a realistic thought to assume that the characters walk for a month without encountering any sort of problems, but I don't feel I should force explanations like "they walked for six moons encountering nothing and they marched into the town". I guess I should get around to the question.

How far away should each town be and what should I talk about while they are journeying and not encountering anything? I wanted to get a hint of realism involved, by actually having distance be a factor, but I looked it up and found it would take months to walk across the United states.

So should I just ignore distance and hope nobody notices or force in explanations? I know I can't be the only one who gets upset when stories have characters walk across entire hemispheres or kingdoms or whatever, and not explain what happens in between.

  • I highly recommend you watch Avatar: The Last Airbender if you have not. Season one is largely about a pole to pole trek across the world (though I suspect it's much smaller), Season Two is largely dominated by the single continent controlled by the Earth Empire, and Season three is traveling through the Fire Nation. Even with the benefit of modernish vehicles (a super fast flying animal and modern war ship), the characters have to rely on pit stops, weather, and odd situations to get to what they need to do. – hszmv Oct 15 '18 at 16:06
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    I keep on misreading this question as "time travel in fantasy" – Chris Sunami Oct 15 '18 at 17:49
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There are three ways you can deal with long journeys.

First, skipping time is a time-honoured tradition. If nothing happens during the time of travel, you can just skip it. It is quite common to read things like:

They have been travelling for two weeks when...

or

On the third day of their journey...

Second, if you don't want to skip all the travel time, maybe something interesting happens along the way: they meet some people / they have to deal with bad weather / they run out of food / whatever. You're a writer, make something up. Note that if the encounter does not move the story forwards in any way whatsoever, it shouldn't happen. The characters should learn something, or change in some way, or it should be relevant somehow to what happens later. A scene needs a reason to be there, it can't just be filler. @J.D.Ray mentions Tom Bombadil as an encounter that could be cut out, but in fact it underscores several of the core themes of the novel, stresses the worlds largeness and strangeness, gives several veiled prophecies of things to come, and provides the first time Frodo finds his courage.

Third, you can shorten the distances between locations, so travel times are not that long and serve your story better. It is quite unrealistic, really, for people to live half a year apart. Since people would have needed place to sleep, feed horses and resupply, and travel would not have been safe, in Europe at least, a village would be close enough to the nearest town to go there for a market day and return the same evening. Unless you deliberately walked into uninhabited parts, you wouldn't be going more than a day or two without encountering at least a farm. And if you did go where no man lived, you'd be planning for it. For example, caravans crossing deserts along the Silk Road would be carrying food, water, shelter, they'd know where they could refill water, and there'd be a large party of them - a caravan, for safety.

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People on long journeys talk to each other, about themselves. Even life-long friends (I have traveled with some) talk about what they are seeing, what it reminds them of doing together, what it reminds them they wish they did. If you have people that do not know each other well, this is a chance for them to tell stories of shaping events in their lives. It is a chance for them to argue philosophy.

What you need to devise is a kind of conversation between the characters in the traveling group, so given a conversation or two, the reader sees a pattern. Then you can plausibly skip days or months of uneventful travel time, but the reader believes they are getting to know each other, and through the conversations you DO write, you reveal character for all participants: Both in what they share, and how they react to what is shared with them. So you (as author) find an excuse for characters to relate defining or turning point events in their lives.

Or if it is friends, some things they found funny, or wondrous, or in general fun to remember. On a boring walk, it is natural to seek stimulation and take your mind off of plodding west.

So just about anything to pass the time. In the same vein, you can have them play guessing games, the equivalent of twenty questions for kids while driving cross country, or "I Spy", or riddles or songs.

But you don't have to fill the whole time between Point A and Point B, just show us a scene that gives us the idea, here is how they pass the time.

With one caveat: If there is anything that matters revealed in these conversations, that lets one character make an important decision because she knows her travel companion, that is a conversation to be shown, so the reader is not in the dark and finds the correct choice a plausible decision.

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    +1 with one caveat: it's a bit weird to have snippets of conversation without nothing else happening for the whole of the journey. In the LOTR, conversation when the Fellowship first sets out is intermixed with seeing Caradhras (a landmark), drawing near, talk often starts from the history of the land around and goes on from there. That is, conversation is not separate from the journey. In The Left Hand of Darkness, there's a journey through so much ice. There too conversation is intermixed with the journey's challenges - walk by day, talk by night. If you have one, you gotta have the other. – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Oct 15 '18 at 15:13
  • @Galastel As I said, they talk about what they are seeing... Other than that, as I said, I have a kind of conversation early on, then skip time until something does happen. Something important is revealed, a decision must be made, they meet somebody. I don't have filler conversation (unless it is to set a tone of calm in the minutes before a crisis develops), conversations work on one or more things. Setting, character, plot, sympathy, etc. Relationships (both positive and negative) grow through conversation. Challenges in the journey are certainly a ripe topic, but not the only one. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Oct 15 '18 at 15:53
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If you are creating the setting yourself, just figure out how much transit time you want between destinations, and locate them that distance apart. I actually have a setting I call "Small Earth" which I made just for that very purpose --I want geography similar to the actual world, but much smaller, so that transit times between destinations are more reasonable.

It's worth remembering that high speed transit effectively shrinks geography. The idea of the "Global Village" is that the whole world is now (in terms of transit times) the size of a single city during the era of foot travel. That means that locations that we now might think of as suburbs of a single city would have been conceptualized and experienced as separate cities in the past.

You can see this very clearly in the Bible's New Testament. Jerusalem is about 6 miles from Bethlehem, and both of them are around 80 miles from Nazareth. That could all likely be within a single greater urban area today, but during those times, traveling on foot, they were conceptualized as being very different regions of the country. At 3 miles per hour on foot, you're talking a minimum of 3 days travel. So the equivalent distance for someone in a car would be 1600 miles, which is longer than NYC to Orlando, FL.

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Can you provide a little more detail around your setting and your character goals? If you look at Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings, they adventure group went on an apparently long journey and had a few encounters along the way (Tom Bombadil, who could have been left out without reducing the story any, the bar where they picked up Aragorn, the Elves, etc.). In almost every encounter they picked up another traveling companion. If your adventure party is starting out whole, you don’t have that need. They should encounter some sort of conflict along the way, if for no other reason than to exercise their different character strengths for the reader, but mostly travel is just travel.

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