Away from telling stories for a second, and on to asking questions of travel writing. Stylistically and storytellingly (yes, that is a word now) At Matador, the question occasionally pops up as to what makes for honest, compelling travel writing – the stuff that makes you read to the end, leaves an impression and makes you want to do something, change something, see things differently? In journ. class, particularly the literary style course, there are questions of how to make a story which is more than simply a recounting of events, how to connect a story so that it engages, moves the reader. For what it’s worth, these are my thoughts on what can work.
As a disclaimer, this isn’t gospel, and there are as many ways to write compellingly as there are ways to break every single suggestion I could put down into a thousand beautiful pieces. That said, I can think of at least three things that might be useful to think about when structuring, editing, re-editing, swearing at, or otherwise engaging in the story-writing process. There are certainly more. But these are probably worth paying attention to.
The story itself.
In most cases, narrative is important. Having a story with characters which progresses somehow, is important. It’s an obvious point in most cases, but often in even the most intellectual posts, narrative is important. The stories that are about intellectual ideas of travel, of exploring the world and yourself, are often enhanced when you are able to tell them through a sequence of events. When you explain them in terms of interactions between people, places or circumstance – rather than trying to describe and outline the ideas explicitly.
In trying to share an experience that meant something to you, it’s often more powerful to take the reader to that place, to see it as those present did when the moment happened
Some of the most powerful ideas of the world that I can recall realising came about when circumstance happened to come together in a particular way. A specific place. A conversation. A throwaway line which unlocked some new understanding because of where and who I was when I heard it. Something interesting and powerful which would never make quite the same sense or have the same impact if it wasn’t for the context in which it happened. In trying to share an experience that meant something to you, it’s often more powerful to take the reader to that place, to see it as those present did when the moment happened. It’ll hit harder when they are in that world, feeling and realising for themselves, than if you tried to draw the idea directly for them.
The colour of the story
It’s writing 101, but it bears repeating. The words and actions you choose to convey your story each have their own colour. A specific way in which the reader will interpret them. People and places that are dark will behave a certain way, a Mozambican village at night has a certain feel to it. A feel which some choices of words, some descriptions and actions will make people see more deeply others. When re-reading a piece, ask yourself whether what you are reading make you feel as you would if you were there? If a place was melancholy, do you feel it when you reread the words you chose?
But, and it’s a big but, don’t tell the reader what they should be seeing or feeling directly. That’s like entering a competition when you are just given the prize at the outset. It’s unsatisfying. It’s not engaging. Telling the reader that a street was creepy means nothing. There are a thousand places that are creepy, which one do you mean, how creepy? So instead of telling the reader what something felt like, show them how it was. Who or what was in the street? How did they behave? how did you react? Drawing a picture of the world, with words carefully chosen so that the reader will associate them with certain fears, certain unease, will result in them feeling for themselves that the place was scary. When the reader feels a certain way themselves, rather than being told to feel a certain way, the result will be far more powerful.
So choose your words carefully to set a scene. Pick ones intended to draw the reader down a particular path, make specific associations. But leave the truth of what something means, how it felt, for them to feel for themselves. The experience that results is theirs, felt directly.
The Story above the story
Finally, a good story is often one which is about something bigger than a sequence of events that occurred somewhere colourful. Travel is about more than things which are simply interesting. It’s about confronting different ways of fundamentally understanding the world and coming to grips with what that means for your own beliefs. In some places its about differences – in income, culture, humour or power. It’s about the excitement of exploration, about reinventing yourself and learning in the process. This and more. Travel is a rich source of intellectual and spiritual challenges which are felt to some degree by most people in their own lives. These issues fascinate and provoke us.
A story of meeting an interesting figure in a Mozambican tavern is interesting if told well. It’s captivating if it comes to have a meaning larger than the obvious events described.
A story, well told, can have so much more power when it resonates with these bigger questions of how we are in the world. When it engages our own fears, frustrations, and our attempts to connect with others and find meaning. A story of meeting an interesting figure in a Mozambican tavern is interesting if told well. It’s captivating if it comes to have a meaning larger than the obvious events described. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness resonates in a large part because of what it says about how the world saw Africa, not simply because it was an interesting set of events, well described.
So the point is that writing compellingly is complex. It’s about more than simply a good description or an interesting set of events. Nonfiction is particularly difficult in its own way, because it means that you find yourself trying to communicate meaningful stories through experiences as they happened. It’s a tough constraint, but it should also develop in a writer a keener sense of looking for meaning in the world. Seeing a deeper colour in chance meetings and interesting places. And that, regardless of your writing, makes for a richer way of seeing things. Once you can look a little more deeply into how the world is, taking others down that rabbit hole a little will become so much easier.