Over Christmas, Jim and I flew to the Dallas/Fort Worth area to celebrate Christmas with his parents, his younger sister, and her family.
(No, Jim isn’t from Texas. Much of his family just ended up there.)
The trip out wasn’t bad, but the trip home wasn’t much fun. Weather delayed our flight, so we left the gate an hour and a half late. Then we spent way too much time on the tarmac, hoping we’d depart before the flight crew “timed out” and we had to return to base.
This gave me a lot of time to think about travel, especially as related to writing. (I would have preferred actually writing to thinking about writing, but the airport was too chaotic, even for me, and I can write just about anywhere.)
Adventure fiction, whether of the completely speculative variation, like SF/F, or of the more reality-based types, such as historical fiction or thrillers, often includes considerable travel. I can’t remember the quote exactly (or who said it), but isn’t that pretty much the definition of adventure? Someone else in trouble a long way off?
To get a long way off, travel is necessary!
With this in mind, I started considering whether Jim and my travel last Sunday qualified as “adventure” or not. My first thought was definitely “not.” We were in a relatively safe environment. Even if our flight didn’t depart, we’d have shelter and access to food. We’d definitely be inconvenienced but, while inconvenience can be an element in adventure, it isn’t adventure as such.
Now, if circumstances changed and we were trapped in the airport – perhaps by a huge amount of snow – and the power went out, and we were in danger of freezing, then that would come closer to adventure. Add in attacking zombies, or a dimensional portal opening and invading aliens spilling through… That would be the stuff of many an SF/Horror film!
External circumstances aren’t the only thing that could turn being delayed at the airport into, if not an adventure, then material for a story. Let’s play with some possibilities. We’ll call our protagonists Tom and Lily.
Perhaps Tom and Lily must arrive at their destination by a certain time. In that case, every ten-minute delay posted to the board becomes an element for building tension. Maybe their need for a timely arrival is purely personal: perhaps Lily is in line for a job that will go to a rival or perhaps Tom is in need of medical care.
Maybe the reason Tom and Lily are desperate to get to their destination is something more dramatic and less personal. Maybe they’re spies smuggling key documents. Maybe they need to deliver crucial information before a certain time, information that can’t be trusted to any conduit less secure than word-of-mouth delivery.
What if you’re more interested in stories with a personal slant? Perhaps Tom and Lily have some personal issues. Will being bottled up at the airport intensify their conflict, or will it provide an opportunity to pull together in the face of shared adversity? Perhaps Tom will discover a secret depth in Lily that will show her in a new light. Maybe Lily will see Tom helping an old lady with her luggage during a gate change and remember how kind he can be.
Or maybe delving into Tom’s overnight bag in search of aspirin, Lily will discover something better not known: a letter from an old flame or a compromising picture. Or Tom will find that Lily’s been writing her former husband’s name with her own intertwined in hearts inside the back cover of the novel she’s been reading.
Then there’s that oldie but goodie – the accidental exchange of luggage. These days, that could be updated to swapped phones or computers… Either way, Tom and Lily might be drawn into someone else’s crisis.
As I thought about this, I realized there are many reasons why travel makes for good stories.
One is that characters are out of their usual element. They lack resources they otherwise take for granted. They may need skills (maybe first aid, maybe riding a horse, maybe fixing a warp drive) that their daily lives never demand.
Another good story element is that people who might otherwise not meet are thrown together in intimate circumstances. Chaucer used this to good effect with the Canterbury Tales. Centuries later, it still works. Where else than in a plane or in a waiting room do you find yourself sitting shoulder to shoulder with a perfect stranger for hours on end?
However, no matter how much travel seems like a great way to frame a story, readers will quickly sense if the material is simply filler. If, at the end of the journey, all that’s going to be different is that the characters are now at Point B, rather than Point A, then it’s enough to write “Two weeks later, the ship docked safely in New York.” Don’t make the reader live through all the days of travel unless there’s a reason, either in incident, character development, relationship development, or, preferably, more than one of these.
Have doubts how to judge? Recast your story in another format. Take your heroic quest and think of it as if it was a contemporary mystery novel. If it would seem stupid to outline every detail in the mystery novel (because, after all, all the person did was drive from Phoenix to San Diego to interview someone), then skip it and move to the real action – that interview. But if something key happens during the drive, then take the reader on the trip with your characters. Both the reader and your story will be richer for it.
Now… What to do with Tom and Lily?