This is the rant on non-journey stories. Like the rant on non-war plots, it’ll cover things that I have seen done, and done well, in fantasies. Too often, though, authors adopt unquestioned the need for a journey, even if that kind of plot isn’t the one that plays to their greatest strengths.
But it is, at least as much for features that authors don’t get to explore in journey stories as for itself.
1) Themes of confinement and claustrophobia can show up more easily.
Most fantasies include a lot of movement. Heroines run away from home. Heroes run into the wilds to get away from the Dark Lord hunting them. Characters get sent on quests, or on missions to find [insert X group] and get them to help. Though this movement has other effects (see points 3, 4, and 5), one of the biggest is to concentrate on themes associated with movement, especially freedom and wanderlust. Confinement and claustrophobia are to be gotten away from.
Shut the story in a very limited setting—a small town, a village, a house—and you’re writing something different. Threats have a smaller hunting ground. And the struggle to escape may commence, but a struggle that one can’t escape is, again, different than a struggle that ends when the heroine takes off for friendlier territory.
I often look at fantasy protagonists and wonder what they’re like when their backs are against the wall, when they have only two choices (or none), when helplessness threatens to seize them, when it’s a matter of “now or never.” It’s relatively rare to get to see. They generally burst out of confinement instead, sometimes literally, as in a jailbreak. A rescue comes, or they sought the confinement deliberately, as in the confrontation with the Dark Lord, which doesn’t worry me as I know they’re going to win anyway.
What’s your character like in a trap? Perhaps a shining figure; perhaps he even discovers strength that he never had before. Or perhaps he breaks and snaps and screams. If the story’s followed a spiral pattern, wherein something, perhaps, hunts the hero from room to room of his house and now has him cornered in his bedroom, what’s found at the center of the spiral?
Non-journey stories lend themselves well to horror and dark fantasy. One of Simon R. Green’s characters in the science fantasy novel Shadows Fall has lived several years on the lower floor of her home. She can’t leave the house, but also, there is a Thing upstairs that calls her name in her father’s voice. It’s a very effective Thing, and it freaked me the fuck out when I read that book. I’ve read many other books that took the same tack, but since they usually allow the character to escape out the door, it’s not as much fun.
2) Protagonists who aren’t journeying can have more complex and compelling inner spaces.
Admittedly, some journey stories are simply populated by shallow and irritating fantasy stereotypes. But that’s not always the case. The author may have to divide her attention between the passing scenery, the complex plot (it’s always complex, often more than it needs to be), the character interaction, and getting the world’s mythic history in there, as well as the mixture of introspection, backstory, and quiet moments that allows for exploration of the character’s inner space. If she doesn’t handle it just right, the characters come out flat or uninteresting or as less a part of the story than the setting and the battles.
Not a problem with the non-journey story. The setting is doubtless important (see point 6), but the characters aren’t constantly meeting new people (see point 4), and the author doesn’t have to jog around every town they enter describing the new scenery, because they don’t enter another town. The author has more time to explore the characters.
Can this be done boringly? Sure. When the characters seem to have the same kind of backstory as any other fantasy, fall neatly into plot-related categories, share clichéd dialogue, and come to “epiphanies” that the author hasn’t prepared for convincingly, they’re boring. But put a bunch of complicated people into a non-journey story, and it gets intensely interesting. Journey stories get the greater chance to be wide. Non-journey stories get the greater chance to be deep.
3) Do more with up and down, circles and right nearby.
Fantasy often focuses on across. Even when somebody climbs mountains or soars into the air, say on a dragon, the focus is usually on getting to some point that lies a distance away, across waste lands and hostile mountains and Big Places With Ominous Names. If the character descends, it’s usually into dungeons or monstrous labyrinths, and they’re just stops on the way, not the destinations themselves. (I still want more underground fantasies, and especially ones without convenient glowing moss to light the way). The characters move on, across, and over.
In a house? Those dungeons, attics, secret passages, hidden rooms, abandoned gardens, and dusty staircases become the point, the destination. What’s that singing in the dungeons? Why is the attic shut up? Why is there a room just for practicing magic? Why does the house plan say the house is supposed to have a garden, when the heroine’s never seen one associated with it? Why, whenever she starts up this staircase, do the shadows start rippling and moving towards her? Have a great grand secret like this, or link several of them together, and you can create a story that’s just as exciting as a journey, with, perhaps, a clearer plot and less people to keep track of.
In a village? There will be spots associated with local legends, like that hill with the standing stones that you’re not supposed to go near on full moon nights and the abandoned well people claim has no ending. There will be well-worn paths that freak the villagers out all the more when people start disappearing on them. There will be circles, say from the village to the river and back again. Incorporate the circles into the plot, and watch what happens. And if you put some barrier around the village, which is the reason that people can’t leave—say, the great dark forests that once spanned Europe and isolated one village from the other—there can be the sense of standing in a little embattled fortress against the darkness, with the danger not far away across rivers and mountains but right next door.
4) Non-journey stories let you explore the familiar.
There’s no constant stream of new characters to meet, or mysterious names tossed around by the Wise Old Mentor that you learn 300 pages later are the names of enemies or reclusive hermits the characters need to visit to get their Sword That Was Broken reforged. Instead, there’s a whole passel of characters that the protagonists knew before the book began.
Isn’t that wonderful?
Invoking deep and interesting relationships is a must in the non-journey fantasy, even if you cheat a bit and bring in a stranger from outside. The reader is going to want to know exactly what life was like before the stranger came, and what kind of routine he’s disrupting. So the protagonist(s) will need articulated bonds to family, friends, neighbors, acquaintances, employers, rivals, enemies, mayors or other town leaders, teachers, merchants, any mages in town, and so on. It may be a very small group, like a single family. That’s fine. Just articulate them. There’s no severing in here, no running away, no starting out anew. You have a full slate instead of a blank one. And hey, you don’t have to spend lots and lots of time hinting at that dark mysterious past that the protagonist has with Left-Behind Parent X, because Parent X is right there, and the reader can be shown the relationship instead of being told about it.
Or you can use objects, of course.
5) Use objects to demonstrate and characterize.
Say the fantasy novel opens with the protagonist talking to a painting that hangs over his desk. The painting shows a woman running away from something behind her, glancing over her shoulder as she goes, obviously terrified. The protagonist talks to the painting, mediates under it, and ignores other people’s horrified comments about what hangs on his wall.
That’s Garrett and his painting of the woman called Eleanor in Glen Cook’s TunFaire series of detective fantasies. Eleanor’s full story is told in one of the novels, Old Tin Sorrows, but never elsewhere. It’s part of Garrett’s character the rest of the time, a small part of what makes him who he is, but never solely a memory token.
This is part of the problem with familiar objects on journey fantasies. If a character is carrying an object from home, 99.99999% of the time it is one of two things: a keepsake from someone who passed away, or the Mysterious Object of Inscrutable Power. (It can get to be both). It’s never something that adds to the character in any other way. If it’s the Mysterious Object, most of the time it even fulfills a new function, since the possessor didn’t know about its world-saving power. Journey fantasy can’t resist turning a little object into a blank slate for the adventure.
At home, objects can be part of the story without having to serve the Mighty Angst or the Mighty Heroism. Just what a character chooses to put on his walls says a lot about him. What are his cups like, his preferred instrument if he plays several, his favorite clothes? How does he treat those objects that someone else gives him and which he doesn’t really like? What’s at the bottom of his closet? What stories could he tell you about the nicks and dents in the walls?
Protagonists who move constantly among new objects are almost always going to use them for the plot in some way. Characters who stay at home get enfolded by a new, subtle, soft mantle of characterization that simply isn’t available otherwise.
6) Know your floorplans.
The maps that authors worry the most about are the world-maps, with such and such town in such and such place, and having to work out how long a journey between points would take. However, this often means that towns, villages, houses, castles, and so on come to a) resemble each other, b) be royally fucked-up, or c) both.
Going to write a non-journey story? It is crucial that bedrooms stay where you put them. I don’t care if you really want the protagonist’s room at the top of the eastern tower in the beginning, so that she can watch the new arrival gallop into the courtyard, and then want a scene where she stares out her window in the western tower at the sunset and daydreams. People will notice this. They will especially notice this if you switch rooms around for a plot-convenient reason, such as wanting heroes to charge up stairs to rescue their good buddy, despite there being only one floor in the house.
Get good at figuring things out. Get good at figuring out where the stairs could comfortably be, where the rooms are, which direction the windows face, and where the lord of the manor actually keeps his prisoners as opposed to his guests. For a journey story, it might be okay not to be too specific. For a non-journey story, you had better know where everything goes.
Really, what is it about journey stories? When I start plotting, the first thing that springs into mind is “Point A to Point B.” It’s taken training to make myself start thinking, instead, “But do they really need to go anywhere?”