The secret formula for writing a successful travel narrative

For years people have been asking me for the secret formula for writing a successful travel story. I did my best to conjure this formula into my book Travel Writing, but as you know, there really isn’t any secret formula. Or is there? This year, in preparing for a spate of appearances where I was talking about travel writing – notably TBEX, a talk with Julia Cosgrove of Afar magazine, and a one-day in-the-field writing workshop that was part of the Book Passage travel writing and photography conference — I realized that I could distill what I’ve learned in three decades on both sides of the writer-editor relationship into a few pithy points.

So here’s my version of the secret formula.First of all, what is a travel story? There are many different kinds of travel stories, of course, but the kind I’m focusing on here is the travel narrative. Here’s my definition: A travel narrative is the crafted evocation of a journey, usually written in the first person, that is structured as a sequence of anecdotes/scenes, and that presents a quest that illuminates a place and culture.

Which brings us to a very important point: The narrative should have a theme – lesson, message, point, illumination – that you as the writer are trying to convey to the reader. If you don’t know what you’re writing about, then there’s no way the reader — or editor — is going to know, so don’t write your story until you know what you’re trying to say. Well, let me rephrase this: It’s fine to start writing before you know what you want to say, but at some point in the writing process, you have to figure out what you want to say – and then you need to go back and rewrite/reshape your story so that it conveys most evocatively and effectively whatever theme/lesson/point you want to make.

How should the travel narrative be organized? It goes back to the cave-and-campfire scene where one of our adventurous ancestors was describing the hunt for a Gnarly Mastodon. Like that Stone Age storyteller, you should give your narrative a beginning, a middle and an end.

To my mind, these break down like this:

The beginning introduces the place where the story is set and suggests the writer’s quest or reason for being there. (To test this notion, I recently looked through the feature stories in the current issues of three prominent travel magazines. In every one, by the end of the fifth or sixth paragraph, the writer had given one sentence that clearly articulated the reason why he/she had come to that place: the quest.)

The middle reveals the writer’s experience through a series of scenes that are ordered chronologically or thematically. (Usually, it’s easier to arrange these chronologically, but sometimes for dramatic purposes, it makes more sense to organize them thematically. You want to make sure that your anecdotes ascend in power as the story progresses, so if your best anecdotes are from the beginning of the trip, you’ll probably not want to tell your tale chronologically.) These anecdotes/incidents/encounters are the critical stepping stones that led you – and so will lead your reader – to the illumination/point/resolution that inspired your story.

The end presents the resolution of the quest and ties the story back to the situation introduced at the beginning. In the best narratives, this creates a kind of closure that gracefully sends the reader back into the world, but enhanced now with the experience and lesson your story imparted.

So, here’s what you have to do:

  1. Figure out what the lesson of your travel experience/story is.
  2. Figure out what steps led you to learn that lesson.
  3. Recreate those steps in your mind.
  4. Recreate those steps in words so the reader can live them with you.
  5. Craft your tale with a beginning, middle and end that shape and convey your lesson.

Voila! Instant travel narrative. Just add wonder.

Of course, the truth is that success in travel writing is ultimately in the execution, not in the design. But at least having the right design can get you off to a great start. The rest is up to you: First of all, to travel deeply and secondly, to choose and evoke your travel experiences in a way that transports the reader with you.

In this way, every travel narrative is the process of at least two journeys – the journey in the world and the journey in the words.

Bon voyage!

[flickr images via merrah's and woodleywonderworks]