NOT SHRINKAGE! Fantasy and the Problem of Distance

All fantasy writers must, at one point or another, face down the following conundrum:

1. An epic world is physically vast.
2. A vast world takes a long time to traverse.
3. Too much traversing gets really, really boring.

The author is left to attack one (or more) of the three premises, but each approach has its risks.

Some writers choose to make their worlds smaller. Scott Lynch confines the action of his first book to a single city. Patrick Rothfuss allows Kvothe more leeway in The Name of the Wind, but the vast majority of book one transpires in just two locations; the voyages between are elided pretty swiftly. This can be an elegant solution; all the more so in the realm of fantasy, where concision and focus are not commonplace virtues. Confining the action to one specific locale (or a few of them) allows the writer to fully explore the location and avoid all the tedious traipsing required to get from point A to point B. That said, one of the reasons that many of us read epic fantasy is to explore a truly vast and diverse new land. Tightening the focus undermines this opportunity.

Some writers choose to whittle away at the second premise. The world can be huge, as long as your characters (or some of them) have a way to jump around with a little more alacrity when we get bored of slogging down the dusty roads and stopping at the wayside inns. Robert Jordan has the ‘Ways’ and later, when even those are too tedious, the ability of just about every major character to open a gateway. Tolkien has Gwaihir the eagle tote Gandalf around in two instances (once in his escape from Orthanc, the other after his battle with the Balrog), as well as rescuing Frodo and Sam after the destruction of the Ring. There are plenty of ways to move characters around a fantasy world quickly, but here, too, we run into dangers, although a different set from those mentioned above.

Chief among these new problems is shrinkage. As characters move more quickly, the world seems smaller. It’s harder to have forgotten cities or unexplored primeval forests when people can jump from one end of the world in an eye-blink. It’s harder to adopt an ominous tone, saying, “No one knows what lies beyond the mountains,” when the characters could simply hop through a gateway or jump on an eagle and check. The solution here is to limit the method of travel to certain occasions (e.g. it only works once a year) or characters (e.g. only these two dudes can do it).

But it’s easy to run into unexpected plot consequences. People are forever asking why Gandalf didn’t just stick Frodo (with the Ring) atop Gwaihir – ship him off to Orodruin and have done with it. While it may be possible to respond to this objection, the overarching problem remains: much of fantasy depends on physical obstacles to human movement. The very notion of a quest is generally dependent on geographical distance. Shrink that distance and quests (and treks, and hunts, etc.) shrink correspondingly in their significance.

The dangers inherent in attacking the first two premises lead some writers to attack the third: they disagree with the very notion that a slog of, say, a thousand miles, must eventually get boring. In fact, many writers find opportunity in this challenge. Fantasy literature is replete with epic treks (one of my favorites being the Chain of Dogs in Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen). There’s no question that a long journey in which the protagonists are exposed to strange places – the more frightening, unexpected, and exotic, the better – can be a joy to read. And yet, I would contend that most series can only pull off one or two of these. After that, the reader (and characters) are familiar with the world and we want to get on with the plot already.

There’s no perfect solution. I tend toward option B in my own writing: selective opportunities for fast travel. Having created these opporutnities, however, I’m constantly amazed at how frequently they threaten to screw up my plot. I’d be curious to hear how other readers and writers think about this “problem of distance,” and the solutions you find most compelling.

9 thoughts on “NOT SHRINKAGE! Fantasy and the Problem of Distance

  1. I’m definitely a fan of the Rothfuss method of eliding. Although, as you mentioned, truly epic treks can be interesting, such journeys are usually the subject of entire stories and, in my opinion, suffer greatly for being condensed into a mere few pages. If anything unusual happens during a character’s travels, I’d certainly be interested in hearing about it, but if not, the contents of those trips can be simplified or skimmed over. No one wants to read in detail the contents of the protagonist’s normal nightly dreams, unless they have some actual bearing on the story, and I doubt most readers think differently of simple (albeit lengthy) journeys.

  2. So……is there a ‘middle way’? Your option B seems like one. I think the best solution is the one the better fits you as a writer/reader/human. Not everyone will agree with the way you solve this dilemma no matter how you do it; However, ultimately it is you that must be satisfied with your writings.
    Not being a writer….or a reader (at least in the last 20 years)……your blog reminded of this definition/quote….’ a good traveler has no fixed plans, and he/she does not focus…on arriving”…..and……..the goal of the pilgrimage is….the journey. Namaste

  3. Looking back over my work, I realize now that I’ve never written a story in which the main plot line involved a long-distance quest. Where quests were involved, the obstacles did not include slogging distance.

    The Star Mages is contemporary fantasy, global in scope, but the main characters have a form of teleportation available. In The Green Stone Tower, The first part all occurred in and around one city, with an arduous (but not very long) journey to another world at the end of it. The second involved a journey of a few hundred miles on riding beasts, and a flight to the land of the gods on the back of the Phoenix. In Goddess-Born, everything happened in one country and most of it in or near the capital city. My current work in progress is contemporary fantasy again, so far all occurring in California but that will change, and the characters have all the modern technological means of transportation.

    I think the problem only arises if you write a story in which the plot line mainly involves a long quest, as was the case in Tolkien’s work. There are a lot of fantasy stories that can be written that have nothing to do with this. A quest does showcase different parts of the fantasy world, but there are other ways to accomplish the same thing.

  4. Topic of “epic scope” (whether in fantasy or not) often returns to this idea of having a massive world and trying to show that massivity by passage of time or the difficulty of traveling from place to place. But maybe traversal isn’t the right tool to use to communicate size.

    Maybe it’s just me, but I’m more prone to feeling “overwhelmed” by the world’s size when there are multiple plotlines occurring in multiple places simultaneously.

    If you think about it, traversal from location A to B to C doesn’t really show much in the grand scheme of things. Whether that distance is a hundred miles or a hundred thousand miles, the characters are going to get there eventually. You can say it took a month or a year or a decade OR you can artificially slow the pace of the story to a crawl to convey that, hey, this journey really is long.

    Both of those are boring and neither really give me, as a reader, a sense of world scope.

    However, look at Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire or Sanderson’s The Stormlight Archive and you really begin to feel that those worlds are not only massive but living, and the kicker is that most traversal in those stories are done off-screen. The scope is felt because of the multiple storylines that are occurring in countries A, B, and C – not the movement between.

  5. IT seems to me a conundrum without a solution. To make the world seem immense and fully draw the reader in, you have to make the characters slog. And the reader sort of participates in that slog, as in, “Oh, boy, this journey to Greater Elendrum is long and exhausting for there characters, just as it is long and exhausting for me to read abuot it.” Along the way, you get so many opportunities to fill the readers’ minds with details and connections and other verisimilitude-building touches, not to mention show the characters under strain and fatigue. All in all, it’s usually the least enjoyable part of the book for me, but I’m not sure if it can be excised effectively. As an aspiring writer, it’s also the most intimidating part of the book to (contemplate) to write. How am I going to come up with 50 pages of opening up cans of elf-beans, and how many ways can I say put one foot in front of the other. I will have to check out the Martin books to analyze his method. Thanks for the thought-provoking article!

    • Thanks for the thoughts, Michael. I actually enjoy some of these wandering quest narratives, although it’s easy for me to understand why they get tedious fast for others. No one wants too many elf-beans. Oddly, Martin (in my opinion) handles this issue of covering ground most ineffectively in his most recent book. No spoilers here, but at least one of the characters seems to be endlessly, pointlessly on the road FOREVER. An author whose characters can cover quite a bit of ground without the plot bogging down (for me, at least) is Ursula Le Guin, specifically in A Wizard of Earthsea and The Farthest Shore. Those are some great, great books. Good luck with your own project!

  6. @ R.J.Kessler. you took the words right out of my mouth. I’m currently writing the sequel to my first (unplublished) novel and with three main character arcs I’m employing the “offscreen jump between characters and locations” method as a way to eliminate any tedium within those characters’ journeys between their respective locales. I’m just not good at writing long one-foot-over-the-other passages. I leave that to the inimitable Michael Scott Rohan. No one ever mentions him and it gets me down. Anyway, the method is definitely making the book shorter, more punchy, and hopefully sell-able…
    I also did a lot of the world-building in the first book using its journey/quest and now I get to world-build in slightly a different way, by exploring many of those tucked away “here-be-dragons” places that so entice a reader when they first look at the map and wonder when they’re going to come up.

    I realize I’m replying to a post that’s 8 or 9 months old, but whatevs. I’m enjoying all your posts Mr Stavely! What methods do you use to plan and structure? Short of crisscrossing my bedroom with lines of intersecting red thread and post-its (which I still want to do one day!) I use Excel, making Gantt charts of my characters so I can track realistic and consistent journey time and make people meet on the same day in the same city, or wherever.

    • You’re a lot more organized than I am, Geoff! My wife mocks me constantly for my inability to use Excel (or any other sort of productivity software, evidently). I have all my notes scattered all over the place — on index cards, on post-its, on huge sheets of butcher paper, in files on my computer. It’s a shitty method, really, and I should mend my ways. I’m thinking of trying out the program Scrivener after this series is done…

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