As I mentioned in my other recent question, my novel in progress has three main locations. I feel those three settings are strong, fully imagined places, with interesting storylines.

However, they aren't side by side, and this is a setting where travel takes time and effort. So I have two more locations that are basically transitional places between the other locations. The problem is that I'm not enthused about those locations. They're just places to pass through.

Do I need to put more thought and effort into those liminal locations? Or can I just drop them? They feel necessary both geographically and psychologically. But I'm not (yet) finding the magic in them. They're meant to be a slog for the characters, but I don't want them to be one for the readers.

3 Answers 3


I suppose it depends entirely upon what you're hoping to acheive. If the liminal location isn't there for any other reason to show geographical distance, then you probably don't spend any time focusing on the traveling there. I think it was "The Wise Mans Fears" that basically implied an entire pirate adventure and ship wreck for the main character in a paragraph. The paragraph before he gets on a boat. The paragraph after he gets off the boat. Apparently nothing too important happened in any of that because we only have a brief "btw, this" and then we move on.

All stories should have a beginning middle & end. What is the story for these locations? If there isn't one, its not important. For your larger story you might want to think about what sorts of problems you're actually dealing with. It sounds to me like you're writing a work similar to one I abandoned (not because it couldn't be done or wasn't interesting) but because it wasn't a coherent story that I could describe to someone else.

[not to be answered here] What is your book about? In a sentance? In a paragraph? As a pitch? Do these locations matter to that? Do the individual sections of your story help build towards that aboutedness?

Consider MICE:

  • Milieu - The story begins by entering a place/ends by leaving the place
  • Idea - The story centers around the information you intend to explore before the end of the book
  • Character - The story is about who the character is, who they want to be, who they must become.
  • Event - The story is about what happens around an event

These are framing devices. You can use many of these multiple times in a story. Each scene is usually one of these. But books themselves tend to work better when they have a primary objective. If you've ever coded, then when you open a paren its because you're opening one of these types of stories, when you close a paren you're closing this type of story. It can be confusing if you open/close separately or if your entire story isn't bounded by one type of frame. When you resolve these sections close together they tend to ramp up the emotional impact and the final close is what can give readers a feeling that they've consumed a whole work and reached a satisfactory ending.

The Hobbit is a Milieu story: Leave the shire - Return to the shire. It has events/characters/ideas; but the primary story is one of overcoming the difficulties of a travel. Having 3+ locations that matter means that Mileu is a framing device for your story. But is it the point? Idea probably isn't very important to the story. (Also, The Martian, which is also an event story, but primarily Milieu)

Game of Thrones: Arguably this is a bunch of character stories in a largely meta-character story. Its about the character of the people of Westeros. There are events. There are places (there's definately a frame of leaving/returning to the north); but the story is all in who these people are and what they're going to become. Lots of stuff, but every device always points back to a kind of character sketch, right down to the way the individual chapters take on different view points. We don't spend a lot of time traveling, though this does happen; but we do spend a lot of time thinking about who these people are, what they should, what they will become and what that will do to everyone else. Ideas actually seem to fall back here. Not super important.

The Prestige is an idea story. It's exploring sacrifice, dedication, duplication, and what is real/imagined? Character is important, but it's not the story. Mileu is the frame for the chapters around Tesla, but it's not the story. Who is in the box? That's the story. Everything else supports that thing.

Deep Impact (picking a movie since these tend to exemplify the frame) is an event story. Everything the ideas, characters and places all revolve around the event. A meteor is going to hit earth, everyone must cope and adapt to this thing no matter where they are. Character and Idea are 2nd tier framing devices and location (since we're not escaping earth/coming back) is a relatively minor affair; though it is the final frame for the final act and it is closed (at the same time we're closing some serious character/idea frames) before we deal with resolving the event.

The point of all of this was that if you're not writing a Milieu story, it is much more acceptable to have hard cuts and simply re-introduce your characters as worn out or slightly changed from their travels. You can explore that travel if it is important only in as much as it impacts the actual things you want to write about. But even in a Milieu story, you might gloss over the details that aren't important.

What do these locations/moments in these locations do? Represent? You can imply time and space with a few sentances. Harry Potter is excellent at this, maybe study it. Tons of locations. Very solid time-frame. Every transition is hard wired into the readership's nostalgia calendar; super effective in a small space and the entire scenery is painted, but the how we transition from one place to another gets very little attention. It doesn't need it. It's not important what happens to the kids between the moments where they learn/grow and are challenged.


If you drop these scenes/locations from your story, where does it leave you? Does your plot still flow smoothly? Are your characters developing the way you want them to? If your plot and characters are the same with or without them the you can probably sum up their traveling in a few short lines.

Three weeks on the road had been hell, if you could call it a road. By the time they reached Storyville, Frances was desperate for a hot bath and a meal he didn't have to skin himself.

If you try dropping these locations, but you feel something is missing, then definitely try fleshing them out a little. It doesn't need to be extravagant, but something important to your story should happen at these places. They could be good areas to work on character development, foreshadowing, or setbacks to the characters progress. They could be opportunities for you characters to practice some skills they might need later on.


TL;DR The magic is not in the place, but in the characters' reaction to it.

The story is told from the POV of the characters. They may find your three main locations interesting, and the places in between a wasteland of boredom. It does not make the in-between places any less interesting in the context of your story. Quite the contrary, you can pack quite a lot of character development in these transitions. You could just show that.

Consider a modern-day commuter. Every morning she walks to the station. Punches the seasonal ticket, waits on the platform, boards the train and spends the next 30 minutes looking at the distant horizon while the countryside just zips by. Every single day.

How well does she know the countryside? Not at all.

Even with such a lack of detail about the countryside, we both can imagine an entire novel centered on the commuter's thoughts and feelings during the daily travel. Such a novel would not even need to mention the destination. The magic is in the character.

In addition, the lack of a fancy background should find a natural counterbalance in a boost to the character development part so that the story remains interesting to the reader. This is not to say that all character development should occur against a grey backdrop, but that the necessity of a grey backdrop transition is an opportunity to focus on the character without any external distraction.

With all that, you should welcome your liminal locations, and by all means, leave them blurry, grey and boring.

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