One of the writing classes I’m taking had a forum discussion where writers posted some of their most prominent worries when it comes to their novels, and one of the questions posted really struck me: the writer felt like their fantasy story was whisking from one location to the next too quickly. The reader, they worried, would get whiplash zooming around their fantasy map, seeing too many locations without any one of them leaving a deep impression.
Cue me quietly sweating onto my keyboard, because this is the realest concern, for any fantasy writer.
When you’re writing speculative fiction — or, really, any story that has a big, big world for the character to explore — there’s an instinct to show off that world. To move your character around a lot. Usually, it’s because the story requires it — characters have quests to go on, wars to fight, journeys to undertake, sacred mountains to hike up, haunted forests to fight through, scaly slobbery monsters in vast acid-filled lakes to bring fabled jeweled tea cups to — you get the idea.*
* Is this … not … a normal plot point for any novel?
But, sometimes, we writers can get carried away. It can be fun, and fruitful for your story, to take your characters on a dizzying roller coaster ride across your fantasy map. But how do you know when you’re taking your readers on too dizzying a ride? How do you keep that fantasy map from becoming one big, confusing, smeary blur in your readers’ heads?
Your character, especially in a quest or journey-based fantasy novel, shouldn’t just be walking through a sideways scrolling sequence of set dressings. Every location you showcase in your story should be there for a reason.
As far as I can tell (and I am by no means an expert on this), the trick is to make sure the locations have emotional context for the characters, and to root your settings in your story’s plot. Make your locations matter, in other words, to both your characters and to the story at large.
Let’s get a little deeper into what that means…
Rooting Your Locations In Your Story’s Plot
Let’s say your character is going on that epic journey where they hike up that sacred mountain to retrieve the mythical teacup, fight through that haunted forest to reach the acid lake, and then row across the poisonous waters to meet the sea creature whose ire can only be assuaged by the delivery of that bejeweled cup. You might have noticed something about each of those locations I listed…
They all have a clear purpose related to the story.
The character has to hike up the sacred mountain because that’s where the teacup is hidden. The only way to reach the lake where the seamonster lives is to traverse the haunted forest. And, because the seamonster is splashing around in the very center of that poison lake, the only option the hero is left with is to climb into a rowboat and paddle right up to the snarling beast to hand over that coveted cup. Any other complications which might happen in the course of visiting these locations are lent credibility and weight because the reader understands why the character is in that place to begin with. The stakes are understood.
Because the quest is to get to the mountain’s peak, the reader will appreciate that the climb is arduous, they’ll fear the perilous drops that could send the character tumbling downwards and sabotage their quest. They’ll groan with frustration when the character accidentally slips through a cleft in the rock and crashes into a mountain dweller’s cavern, breaking their dining table right in half. And the reader will sit up a little straighter when the character, slightly dazed and more-than-slightly sore, gazes around this mountain dweller’s hidden cavern and sees the walls are absolutely covered in shelves of tiny, glittering porcelain cups.
Looking back, the reader will remember the mountain as a significant location in the story because it was significant. They’ll remember the perilous drops, the uneasy footing, the moment when the character nudges the wrong stone and sends it clattering down towards the ground very, very far below. They’ll remember the mountain dweller’s den because the character did more than crash through the roof, pick themselves off the splintered remains of the dining table, dust off their (very sore) rump, and head out the door doffing their hat — the character needed to be there, in that cave, having bored a hole through the ceiling roughly the size of their back-end, because that was where the story needed to get next.
Does this make sense? Locations should do more than whizz by in the background, is what I’m trying to say. If you’re having trouble breezing through too many locations in your story, try to think of important events, conversations, questions, arguments, conflicts, or discoveries that could happen (or, better yet, need to happen) in your various settings.
Consider this sequence of events from The Lord of the Rings:
Hiking with his friends from the Shire, Frodo visits the tavern The Prancing Pony in Bree to meet Gandalf. Instead, he meets Aragorn and finds out the Ringwraiths are following him.
From Bree, Frodo and the Hobbits travel to Weathertop, where the Ringwraiths catch them and Frodo is viciously attacked.
The group is then rushed to Rivendell, where Frodo heals from his wound, is reunited with Gandalf, and, having gone through what he has, appreciates what danger the Ring is in and decides to help carry it to Mount Doom in order to destroy it.
Each of these settings are unique and take the characters all over the map, but each setting is also a vital, consistent step in moving the plot forward. We as readers remember Bree not because of the vivid descriptions of the tavern, but because it’s where Frodo meets Aragorn. Tolkien might go to great lengths to describe the stony summit of Weathertop, but the real reason we remember it is because that’s where Frodo gets attacked. And just the name of Rivendell conjures up a beautiful elven haven in our minds, yes, we remember not as a stand-alone chunk of description, but an important location in the story — this is where the Fellowship of the Ring is formed.
This brings me to the next point, which is vital for making your locations memorable in your novel:
Give Your Settings Emotional Context
The best way to give your locations gravity and meaning in your book is to make your readers care about them. The locations should be memorable and affecting. And how can you make them memorable and affecting?
By having your characters remember the locations and be affected by them.
Something important should happen to your character in every unique location of your novel, at least if you want those locations to imprint themselves on your reader’s mind. These events could be anything from conversations with other characters where questions are asked (or secrets revealed) to confrontations with the antagonist or flirtations with the love interest. The key here is to make sure your location stop isn’t completely unnecessary. If Frodo had camped on Weathertop, gotten a good night’s sleep, and moved on the next morning, it wouldn’t have been a location worth dwelling on, narratively speaking.
You can make locations important by having your characters remember them later, throughout the story, so that they were less someplace the character wandered through and more a place that imprinted itself on their memory.
Maybe a flower in the forest reminds them of one of the patterns in the mountain dweller’s obscenely comprehensive china collection. Or when they’re confronted with the sloshing, splashing waters of the acid lake, they remember the twisting and thrashing vines they battled in the forest. Make your locations mean something to the characters that traveled through them.
Let your locations impress themselves upon your character, leaving sweaty little fingerprints. Let your characters be changed and challenged in some way specific to every place they visit. Frodo arrives in Bree eager to meet back up with Gandalf and unload the responsibility of the Ring, and he’s devastated–and worried–to find out the wizard isn’t there. The Prancing Pony tavern is utterly unfamiliar to Frodo, as far away from home as he’s ever been, and he’s already feeling like he’s stepped too far out of his comfort zone. Every element of this location has personal weight for Frodo, challenging him, changing him and the story he’s found himself mixed up in.
I hope this advice is remotely helpful. I guess my overall point is this: it’s really easy, when writing fantasy, especially if your characters are hitching up their ponies and going on a good ol’ quest, to feel like you’re whizzing around your make-believe world without every stopping long enough to let it all soak in. When readers complain of shallow worldbuilding or locations not feeling real enough to them, this is a lot of what they mean. You can describe a fictional city’s architecture all you want, you can infodump factoids about the fantastical economy, but they’ll all just be words skimmed blearily down the page if your locations don’t mean something to the characters actually stomping through them.
So, give your locations emotional weight. And make sure you’re bringing your character to that place for a reason that advances the story, rather than just showing off some clever worldbuilding you’ve thought up. As long as the location is important to the story’s progression, and feels important to the character, it won’t just be another scribble on a fictitious map.
How do you balance your desire to zoom around your fictional worlds with the need to actually, ya know, pause occasionally and let the story breathe? Does my advice make any sense, or am I actually way off the mark? Leave a comment below, let’s talk!!
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