Once Upon a Time: How to Tell a Great Story in Your Written Travel Content

From first-person adventure articles in travel magazines to storytelling TV adverts for tourism brands, narrative has always played an important role in travel content writing. Just laying out the cold hard facts doesn’t always do the trick – even the most avid of travellers need a little inspiration and encouragement to visit a new place, try a new service or buy a new product; being told to do so isn’t enough. That’s where telling a compelling story can help.

Read on for examples of great travel narratives, and advice on how to use storytelling in your own content writing.

Truth and honesty
Integrity is vital with travelogues, and readers should be confident that a writer has experienced what they are recommending. A travel article, guide or even blog written without first-hand experience cheats the audience. However, there are examples of fictional travel writing that work by 1) being honest about the fiction of the piece and 2) evoking a real authenticity, by reflecting real-life experience and by speaking to a relevant audience.

A good example of a relatable fiction is in travel brand advertising. Travel agents Thomson have a campaign featuring Miles, a raggedy and disenchanted one-eyed teddy bear, who finally finds a reason to smile during a holiday with his family. As luck would have it, his smile also bears a striking resemblance to the Thompson logo.

It’s a classic story: sweet, simple and relatable in so far as the bear’s humdrum existence probably isn’t too far removed from that of your average nine-to-fiver. They too could find a way to escape the tiring repetition of day-to-day life. How? With a holiday booked through Thompson. Of course, the audience isn’t explicitly told this. They’re told a story and given just enough breathing room to come to this (truthful) conclusion by themselves.

Development is the most basic attribute of a story. Presenting the facts alone won’t cut it. There has to be a sequence of events to qualify as a story. One thing happens, then another, then another, and so on, so forth, until your reach your conclusion. If your story is fictional, it’s easy to get things happening, but if it’s a factual piece, you may have to mould it into the right shape.

This is something Chris Haslam does effortlessly in this story about a marooned baboon, which he penned for the BBC. It’s a classic desert island narrative about a baboon stranded on an island. Haslam uses this narrative to draw our attention to a secondary, more important story — that of the ageing Kariba Dam, whose impending destruction could spell disaster not just for this lone baboon but also for the wildlife and people of the Zambezi Valley. Instead of merely relaying the facts about this perilous dam, he draws us in with a compelling narrative arc.

Drama and suspense
Every good story needs conflict and resolution. There must be ups and downs, which is why a travel article comprised solely of effusive praise without caveat won’t have much impact. There has to be some sort of tension, some form of setback or suffering. There must be high and lows, even if they’re only mild. If you can get your reader to feel that they are involved, even if only for a moment, you have succeeded.

In this article about being pulled from his vehicle in the Sahara, Bill Donahue heightens the dramatic nature of the events by taking us along with him every step of the way. Each detail he reveals brings us a little further into the story, until we’re holding our breath along with him, waiting in anticipation for the outcome.

Make it relatable
Familiarity doesn’t breed contempt. Quite the opposite. A good travel story has something an audience can identify with. It might be a narrative trope that’s familiar to them, such an the underdog winning or a classic romantic arc. Or it might be that they can relate with the main character. So even if the reader is a somebody who has never left and will never leave their hometown, they should still be able to identify with a piece from a traveller trekking through the Kokoda Trail in Papua New Guinea. To allow them to make this connection, there must be something that reveals the writer as an ordinary and like-minded person. It’s part of the reason the “I-quit-the-daily-grind-and-embarked-on-a-full-time-adventure” narrative works so well. It’s also why humour and self-depreciation works in travel writing — it helps the reader trust the storyteller and to identify with the story.

In this piece on Voodoo and Haiti from National Geographic Traveller, the writer makes herself relatable by acknowledging her own misconceptions about Haiti; ones the audience and readership may well share. The ultimate goal of having relatable characters is that the reader might be able to place themselves in the story, or even momentarily imagine themselves in the main character’s position. The more people immerse themselves in the story, the more likely they are to behave in line with the message of the piece.

The moral, message or point
It’s not necessary to have a moral, but you probably need to have a message of some sort in your travel content. Just don’t jam it down your readers’ throats. There is a very fine line between storytelling and manipulation and your readers need to think they’ve come to the conclusion at least partly by themselves. Allow your audience to glean the point and make connections for themselves. This way, they’ll become more involved in your story. It will also make them feel a bit cleverer, which is always a good thing.

If you’re not thinking about storytelling in your travel content, you’re missing a trick. Sure, you could try wooing your audiences with practical information, statistics and science, but no one was ever moved by a PowerPoint presentation. It’s the story that remains long after the dry facts have faded from memory.

To see how we incorporate storytelling techniques into our written travel content, take a look at our latest projects. If you have any more storytelling techniques or thoughts to share with us, let us know on Twitter.  

This is an updated version of an article first published on this blog in November 2014. Read the original here.

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