“What I did on my summer vacation,” aka How to Craft a Compelling Travelogue
By Carla King
Most travelogues, whether in short story or book form, follow the narrative archetype defined by Joseph Campbell as the Hero’s Journey or Quest. The story is about how the hero—that would be you—is inspired to set out into the unknown and, through challenges and temptations (inner and outer), experiences a transformation.
The inner and outer journey
A lot of the fun of reading a travelogue is the two-fold journey. The first is the obvious outer journey toward some quest, whether it’s motorcycling through China, sailing to Hawaii, or driving your family across Spain.
If all goes well, great trip, terrible story; maybe you can salvage it for a travel article. But if the station wagon you rented breaks down in the Pyrenees and your husband confesses that his VP embezzled all the money from his business and you’re going to lose your house, or your boyfriend breaks up with you via email in the middle of China, or your mainsail mast breaks in a storm, then you’ve got something. Disasters and setbacks and how you get out of them make for great scenes and the associated potential for personal growth is what makes your story a travelogue rather than a travel article.
The problem of sequence
If the journey did not provide the required elements of a hero’s journey in the proper sequence, you’re going to have to structure your story so that it does. In my first book I completely failed at creating a classic narrative arc because I arranged my scenes sequentially and not thematically, causing a reverse narrative arc with all the action and strife in the beginning and petering out in the end. I probably should have slowed down and fleshed out the more exciting parts in the beginning of the trip and summed up the last half of the trip in one or two chapters.
There are two kinds of narrative; explanatory narrative and story narrative. There’s nothing to stop you from using the former, which diverges from the journey to explore related topics, wandering off into scholarly discussions or reportage before rejoining it. This is a fine structure for travel reportage when your audience is hungry for information. I did this in early drafts of American Borders, wandering away from my trip to explore the mechanical workings of the Russian motorbike that was constantly breaking down. Gear-heads loved it but it didn’t work for the mainstream market.
More common is the classic story narrative found in most novels with the introduction of you (the protagonist) and your mission (challenge or quest). Here, you enter the wonderful realm of rising action to deal with complications and barriers to your quest. The worse things go, the better! You want readers to constantly ask, “How will she get out of this!?” The resolution of a major, life-changing crisis is the climax of the story and from there you wrap up all the loose ends.
Presently past perfect
The action in a travelogue occurs both in the present physical journey and inside your head. Writing the inner journey requires exposing your thoughts about the current situation, which is fed by personal history, which you may want to enrich by providing flashbacks. How do you place readers in your shoes without giving them whiplash? The answer is verb tense, the inconsistent use of which is one of the biggest issues editors must grapple with in travelogues.
Assign a verb tense to each scene related to the story timeline. For example, the current journey in present, ruminations in past tense, flashbacks in past perfect. There may be many scenes in a chapter. Separate them with white space or those three asterisks. When you get it right the reader may not even consciously realize that a shift in time has occurred.
Writing in scenes
Writing in movie-like scenes goes a long way to preventing muddled stories. Try to write each scene as if you are directing a movie on location. You may protest that this is an awful lot of detail, but most would-be authors of travelogues move too quickly through their story, omitting the kind of sensual detail that allows the reader to almost literally ride along on the trip. Wired for Story author Lisa Cron reports that readers actually create a mental simulation of the story they’re reading and that “the areas of the brain that lit up when they read about an activity were identical to those that light up when they actually experience it.”
Editors also complain that travel authors feel compelled to document each day from morning to midnight, no matter how mundane. Writing in scenes will help you to cut ruthlessly, realizing that parts of your story should remain in your private journal.
Your theme may be tied up with your quest or goal but subthemes will emerge that reveal a more personal internal struggle. Ask yourself what your story is about; what lesson or message are you trying to convey? Many authors even set their themes out in the subtitle: Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream; Paul Theroux’s The Last Train to Zona Verde: My Ultimate African Safari; A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering American on the Appalachian Trail by Bill Bryson. Whatever the theme is, even if you don’t know what it is yet, it is driven along by the plot.
Plot is how you get from A to B in both your inner and outer journey, describing cause and effect. The most interesting part of your story is what actually happens on your journey and how it affects you.
Write down how your inner journey affected the outer (and vice versa) and you’ll find sequences you hadn’t realized were there: the forewarnings, the emotional and physical costs and the rewards and obstacles (people, vehicles, borders, illness).
What are your obstacles? There are seven classics: yourself, another person, society, nature, the supernatural, God, or technology. I’ll bet your story moves through most of these.
The beginning, middle, and end
If you write in scenes you’ll avoid that basic error in travel writing of starting with the mundane: packing your bags, locking up the house, boarding the plane. Your backstory can be revealed later. So jump into the action, grab your readers’ attention by the throat and force them to keep reading. Have fun with the middle part where all your disasters happen. Draw out your scenes and light up the readers’ brain. Carry the theme through the plot points and illustrate what changed and what you learned. At the end, when you wrap up all the details, your reader shouldn’t have to ask, “What’s the point?” It will be obvious.
Carla King is an adventure travel writer and founder of the small press Misadventures Media and the Author Friendly service that helps authors to self-publish well. She also runs the Self-Pub Boot Camp educational series of books and workshops. Carla is a member of the North American Travel Journalists Association and has published seven books and many stories online and in anthologies. She splits her time between San Diego and Baja, California where she enjoys motorcycling and paddle-boarding. Wherever she is, you can find her at CarlaKing.com.