10 storytelling tips from the pros
How do you supercharge your travel writing and photography? David Miller of Matador Network gives us his top 10 professional tips…
“As travellers in the digital age, with every image we share, with every post we write, we’re adding to the larger narrative of how travel and place are described around the world. We become, by default, storytellers.
Whether you just want to share your travels with friends and family, or you want to develop writing, photography, or video as part of your career (or even pursue a career in travel journalism), these simple tips from Matador’s leading photo faculty, productions department and Ambassadors can help supercharge your work.
A final note: As so much of travel media and the Internet is image-driven, or ‘visual storytelling’, the following points take ideas from image-based work and draw parallels with writing / journalism, or vice-versa.
1. Good things happen at sunrise
Travel journalist, filmmaker and Matador head of productions, Scott Sporleder explains that no matter what happens, when he’s traveling and on a shoot, he always gets up before sunrise.
2. Don’t just write when it’s convenient to your schedule
A writing parallel to getting up before dawn: When exactly are you observing / writing about place? Is it only when it’s convenient / easy for your schedule? Do you wake up late, roll down to the cafe, and just write in your journal for half an hour, and that’s it? Consider what transpires at other times of the day and night. Are there entire cycles of activity to a place that you’re missing?
3. Simplify your composition
As MatadorU’s Director of Photography Colby Brown explains, “when it comes to determining the composition for a photograph, many photographers instinctively try to capture as much of a scene as possible. While this sounds like a solid frame of mind, often the image becomes too complex. With so much being captured, many viewers will lose interest and move on as they don’t know where to focus their attention.”
Instead of trying to capture everything in a given scene, focus on one or two key elements. For example, had this above image tried to take in all of the destruction in this area of Haiti post-earthquake, the viewer would likely have gotten lost. By focusing on a small portion of it, and having a subject, the photographer, Colby Brown, tells a compelling story.
4. Focus on the key events or “windows” into your overall journey
Similar to the issue of photographers trying to capture too much, many writers and bloggers narrate their travels chronologically, including every single detail – the food in the airport, the cost of the bus ride to the hostel, etc. – as if each of these things held equal interest for potential readers.
As with photography, simplify your compositions. Build your vignettes or blogs or narratives around small events. Let’s say, for example, you’ve been staying at a hostel for two weeks. You’ve been going out each night, touring the city each day and going on occasional excursions to the surrounding countryside. Instead of encapsulating or listing all this out in a broad travelogue, identify the most important details from each element and build a separate piece around it.
5. Always put a subject in your images
From Matador Ambassador Chris Burkard: “Without a subject in a photo, it’s impossible to tell the depth of the landscape.”
Imagine this photo by Chris Burkard without the subject. It would still show an amazing landscape, but the human subject and how he’s interacting with the surroundings is what allows the photo to really tell a story.
6. People are what make a travel story
Too many travel pieces seem to be in “overview” mode without having a central, specific subject (outside of the narrator). Let’s go back to the hypothetical situation above – you’re staying in a hostel – and each morning you notice an old woman wringing out laundry and hanging it on the clothesline. You’re not sure why, but you always take a second to watch her each day. Something about her patience, her indefatigability, feels foreign and somehow meaningful to you. How many writers would simply skip over her, never considering her as part of a story? Here is where you can make the jump from simply blogging about travels to telling potentially great travel stories: Talk to the woman. Interact. Respectfully ask her questions. What is her story? How long has she been working there? Be transparent: You’re a traveller and writer and interested in learning more about this place and culture. Chances are a 5-minute conversation with her would teach you more than you’d learn in 5 weeks of just touring without interacting with local people. Now write that story.
7. Carry a tripod
Yes, it’s cumbersome, but if you really want to capture vital imagery of your travels, carry a tripod. As Burkard says, “This allows you a longer shutter, a longer exposure and it just helps you soak up more saturation.” Psychologically, just lugging around a tripod can help remind you of your opportunity to capture stories that might not otherwise be seen.
8. Imagine your narrative as a camera
A writing parallel to the concept of getting more saturation is envisioning your narration as a kind of camera. Many writers simply state what they saw. For example, “I saw taxis speeding down Avenida de Mayo.” In this way, their “I saw” inadvertently gets in the way of the camera. Instead, simply narrate as if you were the camera: “The taxis sped down Avenida de Mayo.”
9. Expect to lose or break something
One last photo tip from Scott Sporleder: “On each trip I think about losing something or breaking something as part of the game.” The idea here is that too many photographers allow their fear of losing / breaking gear to hold them back from the very situations that lead to the most meaningful shots and experiences. It’s not about being reckless with gear, but simply acknowledging that if you do lose / break something, this means you’re going for it, putting yourself out there to get the shots.
10. People are just waiting to tell you their stories
The same concept exists in writing. It’s not about gear breaking, but pushing your own comfort zone / level of engagement with people and potential stories while travelling. Are you a passive traveller, simply on a tour? Or are you taking every opportunity as a travel journalist to talk to whomever – the taxi drivers, the guides, the local butcher, the restaurateurs, anyone and everyone – about their stories? If you travel inquisitively, actively, the stories you share will resonate with this sense of learning.
David Miller is the Senior Editor at Matador Network, the largest travel magazine on the web.