Maps And Getting There And Back Again: Part 2 – Fictional Modes of Travel

In Part 1 (here it is for anyone who missed it), I discussed travelling in the real world, and the long, endless hours we can take.  Great authors realize the lack of drama in hour-by-hour journeys, and find ways around telling the ‘boring parts’.  Tension is built by the continuous threat of some antagonistic force, be it Nazgul on your trail or a car which keeps breaking down before exploding in flames.  In the hands of a master storyteller, a trudging journey between point A and Point B can become fascinating.

As I mentioned in Part I, I read The Return of the King before the rest of the trilogy.  The book made little sense on its own, but I distinctly remember being engrossed in how hard and arduous Frodo and Sam’s journey into Mordor is. It is the struggle for survival, the lack of sustenance and water which makes the journey great.

However, as the Youtube video “How The Lord of the Rings Should Have Ended” has pointed out, Gandalf could have just called up his friends the eagles, had Frodo fly over Mount Doom, drop the ring in the volcano, and flown off.

There goes months of traveling, hardship, the near-destruction of Rohan and Gondor, as well as the enslavement of the Shire.

And there goes a compelling narrative.

In a well-written story, the mode of transportation needs to match both the world and the needs of the narrative.  In Star Wars, the Millennium Falcon only fails at the worst possible moment as the entire Empire fleet is bearing down on Han and company.  In Iron Man 3, Tony Stark’s suit goes through phases of breaking, misfiring, or over-compensating. While it is able to swiftly get him in and out of danger, it is not always at the right time or in the expected way.

To go back to Lord of the Rings, Frodo and Sam’s plotline is a journey narrative, while much of the rest of the character’s stories are political and/or war stories.  There is a reason Tolkien spends much detail on Frodo and Sam’s plight as they cross the endless miles of Mordor, but swiftly moves Gandalf and Pippin from Rohan to Gondor via the horse Shadowfax.  Gandalf and Pippin must move with great haste, hoping to reach Gondor before Mordor attacks and Sauron figures out Pippin does not have the ring.  They do not have time to go through darkness and suffering.  They just need to get to their destination.

In order to characters just need to get from one point to another, many writers have come up with interesting solutions.  Here are a few:

  • Warp Drive / Hyperspace (Star Trek, Star Wars) – these are methods for cross lightyears of space, to cross impossible distances between planets and solar systems

  • Cryo-sleep (2001 A Space Odyssey, much of space sci-fi) – Cryo-sleep is a way for characters to travel months or years of distance without aging, and, apparently, without boredom.  If I traveled ten years in space, I would go through a lot of coloring books.

She’s only trying to preserve her lovely singing voice (This is from an awesome Doctor Who Christmas Special)

  • Teleportation (Star Trek, various Sci-fi and Fantasy, Eye of the World Series) – This is a common trope of Star Trek.  While it does not always work, it tends to be a tried and true method of moving characters quickly.  In the Eye of the World Series by Robert Jordan and Brian Sanderson, there are various versions of teleportation and moving quickly.

This effect brought to you by: glitter in a glass of water

  • Hidden Passage (Harry Potter, many other stories) – The walk to the Forbidden Forest, or back into Hogwarts always seemed faster with a hidden passage, and no guards to stop them.  Hidden passages create a diagonal, and a conveniently safe way of moving characters when the story needs to speed up.

  • Water Vehicle/ Boat (Pirate movies, anything on or in water) – In reality, civilizations cropped up around rivers and lakes for two reasons: 1. Easy access to water for daily needs (drinking, bathing, irrigation), and 2. Travel by water is a lot faster and easier than travel by foot or horseback.  However, you are limited to waterways wide enough for the vessel.  This includes submarines, which is a great way to travel because submarines are cool.

  • Gateway (Stargate, Eye of the World Series, various Sci-fi and Fantasy) – This is the main attraction and premise of Stargate – a gateway can cross open a wormhole between one point in space to another lightyears away.  In The Eye of the World, there are a couple versions of gateways made between two points via magic to assist main characters in moving across a vast map and world.  There is some interesting stuff done – such as a collapsing hidden road, the description of burning a hole through reality, or of bending reality to bring two points together.

  • Land-Based Locomotive Vehicle (Anything with technology) – This is the basic cars and trains, which can be transformed into exciting things like steam-punk cars or trains, or futuristic variations on the modern car.  Motorcycles are also included.

  • Flying Vehicle (Pretty much everything) – This includes flying beasts such as dragons, unicorns, pegasi, griffins, or flaming ducks, as well as cars, bicycles, broomsticks, umbrellas, oh, and helicopters and planes.

  • Flying – This includes individual flying either via personal powers (Superman), or a individual propelling device/jetpack (Rocketman)

  • Tireless Horse (Lord of the Rings – Shadowfax, many Western and Fantasy novels) – sometimes these are magical horses, sometimes these are poorly written horses.  Either one can gallop at full tilt and arrive at the destination without ever breaking a sweat.

Gandalf and Shadowfax approach Minas Tirith

  • Montage / summary – In movies, the road between two places can be condensed by a short musical interlude with a few quick shots.  In books, it can be done in a few sentences (for example: They traveled, here, there, and everywhere” – that’s a lot of miles in one sentence.)
  • Dream Space (Eye of the World series, Doctor Who, many other fantasy/sci-fi adventures) – Sometimes, meeting in person is not necessary, and communication and/or travel can happen via a magical dream space.  In the last episode of Season 7 (second half), Lady Vastra is able to talk to communicate with people across time and space in order to assist the Doctor.

I want to go to this dog’s dream space.

  • Time Machine (Pretty much any time travel story, ever) – Traveling through time is cool.  Especially when you can ride in the TARDIS.  (H.G. Wells’ machine is pretty nifty too.)

  • Travel by Map (Indiana Jones, The Muppets) – characters magically go from one place to another via a line moving from one point on a map to another.  Seems very effective.

When traveling through fiction, sometimes, it’s the destination which counts.  However, as a writer, we can make the world much more interesting by dabbling in various methods of travel, and then building new quirks and ideas on what others have already done.

What is your favorite method of travel?  If you could have one fictional vehicle, what would it be? (Mine would be Boba Fett’s jetpack.  The spaceship would be cool too, but the jetpack more practical on Earth.)  Do you have creative methods of travel in your story?  Which method of travel would be most terrifying if it were on fire?

More Map Fun

From Dragons 8 My Cats

The Best Way To Travel Through Fantasy Worlds

The Fantasy Map from More Than One Page

Mapping Your Fantasy World from Pace J. Miller

Napoleon Versus The Fantasy Map from Brian Staveley

Side Note: Here’s a rough sketch of the map for my current Work In Progress.  It’s not as detailed as I like, but it is a helpful tool for determining the world, plot, and methods of travel.


15 thoughts on “Maps And Getting There And Back Again: Part 2 – Fictional Modes of Travel

  1. And let’s not forget travel by transformation, when the character changes into something else temporarily to get to the destination. Famously, vampires turning into wolves or bats. Less famously, Hitler turning into a giant robot (though that one was permanent).

    • That’s a good addition. Also, I wouldn’t mind transforming into a giant robot now and then – as long as I can change back, and still be a nice person.

  2. One of the problems I struggle with as a writer, especially in my stories is the mode of transportation.
    For example, walking is an extremely arduous task that I feel isn’t accurately detailed in most books. I say this because when I hike, even with my awesome running/hiking shoes, my comfortable shorts and backpack made of lightweight material, even that is a difficult thing to do, but especially on an incline through harsh brush, poison oak/ivy, and thorns, oaks, and other flora.
    Now imagine a character wearing armor, boots, heavy pants and shirt, backpack, a sword at his waist… Basically, characters in stories tend to have it way worse then we do and yet they somehow survive for more than 2 days on the road traveling cross-country. After a 3 hour hike, my thighs and calves are sore and tired for maybe 1-2 days. In books you have characters doing extreme feats of physical prowess with nothing more than a rest at an inn to recoup their strength.
    Even if the characters wore their equipment on horses and had their weapons on their back, it’s still considerably more cumbersome then how we have it and all the supports and conveniences such as car-trunk space and backpacks designed for cross-country travel.

    I guess the only book that really does this justice, unsurprisingly enough, is Lord of the Ring’s which basically explains that the characters spend many “fortnights” which may help explain how they recover their strength. But most books don’t go into that detail, especially books that don’t have characters use animals as a means of transportation such as the Redwall books. Then again, they are animals themselves so maybe there’s nothing to explain. I digress.

    The point is, in my writing I can’t decide what methods of transportation I want my characters to follow. For a semi-technologically advanced society my characters reside in it would make sense for them to use automobiles, but automobiles are not as nimble or free-roaming as horses. But horses are a bit more archaic and old in my opinion and are featured too much in, well… pretty much every fantasy novel.
    I thought of using stuff like trains, boats, and air-ships, but then I realize my story is nothing more than a Final Fantasy game in book format. To make matters worse, air-ships are cheap. What’s the point in describing the struggle of the journey when the characters eventually acquire an air-ship, making the past struggle pointless? If the characters get an air-ship then there’s no reason to struggle through that swamp or canyon especially if the characters wouldn’t reach those locations after they get the air-ship? Ugh, maybe I’m thinking too much of this. I like the idea of having the characters fly, particularly because it acts as a MacGuffin for a later part in the story during the “epic war scene”.

    A train would be cool, but the train is even more restrictive than an automobile and the only time I thought of my characters encountering a train an “epic train chase/defend the base” takes place.

    I think I may have exhausted myself in this.
    Having written these couple of paragraphs I think I’ve come to the realization how terrible I am at story-telling, rather, I’ve spent so much time on thinking about what my characters are thinking and their dialogue but I haven’t spent much time on the world they live in with the exception of the general background and a few key places.
    How do you decide what your characters use as transportation Laura? Does it have to make sense for the world they live in or can things exist for the sake of existing?

    • 1. I think a general rule of thumb to follow is it’s okay to come up with something if it’s cool. However, it can only be used in the story if it is organic to the world, the characters, and the plot – for example, laser swords are cool (as you and I both know), but would not be organic in most steampunk or fantasy – although, you could create an electro-sword with a current running up and down… hmm… Wait I got distracted.
      2. Following the rule in #1, here are the modes of transportation in my current novel: foot, horseback, carriage – but only in a city, ancient and broken down subway/train system, modernized version of same train system, and boat. Each of these is selected by 1. the terrain, 2. pacing – do they need to get there quickly, or can it take more time?, 3. what would be available there (we’re by a river. Look! a boat!). and 4. the character’s skills [what if they don’t know how to row a boat (sacrilege) or ride a horse?].

      You can always add cool things in the background, but I’d not recommend spending paragraphs and paragraphs describing the cool thing that has nothing to do with the story.

  3. Apparation (from HP) is pretty cool. I wish I could do that. Having some kind of port key that allows you to apparate (teleport) to anywhere would be sweet, kind of like a GPS unit, except that after pinning your destination you don’t have to actually drive there… You just get there.

    I’ve also always fantasized about having some kind of secret tunnel / portal, that condenses the space needed to travel while you are in the tunnel (read something like this in a book once, can’t remember where). So for example if I wanted to get from my town in Japan to my parents’ city in Canada, and I discovered the appropriate portal/tunnel, it would be about 20 minutes of walking rather than a day and several thousand dollars of flying…

    • I can’t believe I neglected the many modes of travel in Harry Potter – Apparation (awesome), port keys, flu powder – though I did mention broomsticks, trains, dragons, and flying cars.
      I love that it isn’t till the third or fourth year that Harry actually arrives at Hogwarts on the train.
      Also, secret portals across the world would be quite handy.

  4. Another great post!!! This is why I love a travel story. So many wonderful ways to get from here to there. And I love a journey on foot, especially when the main character has to run for his or her life. But the other modes you mentioned are fun (especially the TARDIS). Nice map, BTW. I’m working on my own maps for my series.

    • Travel by foot can be suspenseful and fun – the key is the simplicity, and it is up to the character’s individual ability to run, hide, and use their intelligence to get away.
      Maps are always a fun, yet tricky part of world building. Some of my stories have gone through 3 versions of maps. The map posted here is from the back-story time period, and then there is a map for the time period within the story. Both were fun to compare together.

  5. 1. I was referring to real life I guess, not any possibility ever. I think if it was any possibility ever, I’d probably pick a dragon or unicorn. And yes, I would pick it over the Millennium Falcon. Now that I have a real life Falcon, it’s very inconvenient when it breaks down unexpectedly and often in the worst of situations (at a red light with tons of cars behind you or in traffic on the highway). Too unreliable.
    2. Most definitely!
    3. Cool post! I wonder if the author had to pay royalties or anything to the Zborowski family. …but maybe they didn’t have royalties back then.

  6. The best thing to do with travel, which happens at some point in nearly any novel, is to have some interesting mishap occur. Horse throws a shoe, space ship crash lands, whatever. Then you can show your characters responding to the unexpected events in a more engaging way, perhaps becoming better friends, or even lovers falling out of love, based on how they cope or don’t cope. But, like you said, sometimes there isn’t room for all that, and you just have to say “Shadowfax ran all night and Gondor was there in the morning light!”

    • Things breaking down or going wrong is the core of a journey narrative, and awesome. However, these are distractions and word-count vampires when that’s not the point of the story.

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