Writing Tips

3 Tips for Plotting an Action Packed Journey

The plots of most modern novels, especially Young Adult, are centered around action. But the action-centered, fast-paced plot that readers want and publishers demand can be difficult to achieve when the primary goal of your characters is simply to get from point A to point B.

Alas, this is the problem I am dealing with in my current work-in-progress, and for a Tolkien lover, this is especially difficult to accept. But we have to remember that many Tolkien readers never pick back up The Fellowship of the Ring after reading half way through the visit to Tom Bombadil or end up putting down The Return of the King as Sam and Frodo walk and climb and then walk some more towards Mount Doom. Tight plots demand a specific type of action and peril around every turn, and if Tolkien can barely get away with a lagging plot in today’s readership, then you and I definitely cannot.

3 Tips for Plotting an Action Packed Journey

  1. Remember that journeys are highly dangerous without technology

In a time when we travel a couple hundred miles in a day just for a weekend vacation, it is hard to remember that travel used to be highly dangerous. So research travel conditions for the time period you are writing about. But here are a few, general considerations for a fantasy or an ancient journey:

  • No paved roads: Horses and travelers tire quickly. Wagons and carts struggle over the terrain.
  • No government paid protection (Policemen): There will probably be robbers and other lawless men. Your characters will have to protect themselves. Bigger groups are best.
  • No communication: There is no way to call for help (unless you have a magic owl or something). Situations may have changed—including wars starting or ending! Your characters may walk right into a war zone or show up at their destination and find out that there is a new king and anyone who supports the old king are now considered traitors.
  • No refrigeration: Some food can be dried, but you can only pack so much. So for a long journey, enjoy several hours of hunting and gathering a day.
  • No or few reliable maps: Good luck finding your destination if your paper map isn’t even right.
  1. All the action should point towards the climax, and most conflict should come directly or indirectly from the antagonist

For a tight, unified plot, the rising action should point towards a confrontation with the antagonist. Just because you are writing about a dangerous journey does not mean you can throw this away. If your antagonist is not a person and is an idea or force of nature, you may have an easier time making the journey’s trials come from the antagonist. But you must make sure that most of the action is leading to the climax and related to whoever or whatever your antagonist is.

So maybe your protagonists run out of food, but it need to be paired with a threat from the antagonists. Do not let your reader forget who the real enemy is in the midst of the struggles of surviving the journey because if you do, they will get bored and wonder why they even started reading your book.

  1. Keep your antagonist actively pursuing; don’t give your protagonists a break.

If you find that your antagonist is hanging back and plotting for a great trap at the end of the journey, you probably have a boring plot. It does not matter if he has planted a traitor or if he is following their every step. If your antagonist does not show up until the end of the journey, your plot will either be flat or the conflict will be random and unrelated to the real plot. So don’t rein in your antagonist and don’t worry about your heroes being able to fend him off until the end. You will figure it out, so take your antagonist off his leash.

Are any of you writing a story that centers around a journey? As many of you know, I am, and I just received some beta reader feedback that my plot is pretty flat for most of the story. These were the three solutions that I found. Do you have any other tips?

God bless,

Gabrielle

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13 thoughts on “3 Tips for Plotting an Action Packed Journey”

  1. Great tips! Thanks for pointing out that antagonists need to be active the whole book, not sitting on the sideline plotting some dastardly end for the protagonist and only showing up at the climax. That really bothers me as a reader.

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  2. Hey! Good post! In my book then my characters do embark on a journey… but there is a problem. My villain doesn’t really know that the characters are coming… he doesn’t even know they exist – yet. Do you think 70-80 pages into the book is too late for the villain to actually be there? (Also, the real villian isn’t revealed at first. Because the “villain” isn’t exactly the real villain, he’s the one being forced to do something for the real villain) sorry for the long explanation

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    1. That is tricky, Sarah, but I don’t know enough about your story to judge. You should ask yourself why your characters are going on this journey to begin with. If the purpose changes dramatically or the reason seems too trite, you might consider starting your story later. Plot wise, it is often best to start in the middle of the action, at the latest spot possible for telling the story. I hope this help, and good luck with your story!

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  3. Thanks for the great points, Gabrielle! Although I’ve never actually tried it myself, I can see how difficult it can be to keep your readers focused when the main characters are traveling from A to B; my tip would be a reminder to learn from examples in journey-centered books. Your post reminded me of the Christian fantasy/allegory Golden Daughter by Anne Elisabeth Stengl I’ve been taking much too long to finish lately. Making a journey is a large portion of the plot, but Stengl keeps it active and intense with highway robbers/traffickers (which, of course, means a kidnapping episode), uncertainty of who to trust within the group, and a mysterious stalker whose intentions the protagonist can not comprehend. In addition, the story shifts between the protagonist making the journey and the antagonists (those at the destination, the ultimate bad guy/Dragon, and those who are antagonists-to-be, the last of which makes wonderful internal conflict scenes). Those are just some of many reasons I highly recommend Stengl’s works. However, a more well-known classic to learn from would be Homer’s Odysseus.

    Good luck on editing your story!!

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    1. I know I need to read Stengl again. I just was not terribly impressed by “Heartless.” But you’d be happy to know that I actually ended up using a quote from Stengl that you sent me in a writing article I wrote for another site a couple months ago.

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  4. Great points! I’m definitely planning on expanding and tightening up certain parts of travel in my stories. It’s one of my biggest struggles. It usually just turns into an internal monologue of the characters and boom, they’re in a new location. Thank you for the post, and best of luck with your story!

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