It’s not enough to merely relate a series of events. Think about the narrative of your story. What is the point of the story you are telling? If it is a memoir, what is your goal? What was the initial motivation? What problems and conflicts got in your way? How did you overcome them? These are the ups and down of the story –what keeps the reader turning the page, wondering what will happen next. They should be rooting for you all the way.
Read your favourite books and make notes about how the narrative is structured. What makes the story compelling? There are lots of useful reference books about story structure; read them and start analysing books and films to see how storytelling works. It’s a fun exercise that you can apply to all art forms: film, TV, theatre, books, even magazine and newspaper articles.
Your personal experiences are inextricably linked to wider stories happening in the world around you such as political movements or social changes. For example, a memoir about a midwife’s life in the 1950s could also tell the larger story of the birth of the NHS, the welfare state and Britain recovering from WW2. Or a travel tale of your journey on the Trans-Siberian Express could also shine a light on life in modern-day Russia and how the nation has adapted post-Communism. Using your story to tell a wider one immediately deepens the experience for the reader.
Some aspects of your experience, research or story might have been great fun or fascinating to you, but may not make for such great reading – it’s the you-had-to-be-there phenomenon. Remove yourself from your own personal attachment to the material and try to look at your theme with an objective eye. Only include elements that are relevant to the story as a whole. The same goes for technical details – facts and figures can be part of the bigger story but they are dull when related in isolation.
There is no need to relate everything as it happened in ‘real time’. In fact, slowing and quickening the pace of your story can make for a more exciting and engaging read. It could be that one scene that lasted an hour in real life deserves a whole chapter due to its significance in the overall narrative. While you could easily skip over a whole week, month – or even years, if nothing that happened in that time is relevant to the wider story.
Writing descriptions of scenery and places without straying into clichés can be tricky. Use all five senses when describing your experiences – not just what it looked like. What did something feel like to the touch? Smells are particularly evocative as are textures and sounds. Every human being understands these sensations. Give us the full bodily experience!
Be vulnerable in your writing. Lay yourself bare on the page. Don’t try to project an image that you imagine the reader wants to see. Tell the truth. Yes, include the tales of your triumphs and bravery but also write about the times you were scared or lonely or miserable. Even include the bits when you were mean, weak or did something shameful or embarrassing. Your readers will connect with you and be rooting for you if you come across as human, rather than some superhero. They will see some of themselves in your story.
It’s easy to be influenced by your favourite writers and it’s natural to want to emulate what you enjoy reading, but it is important that you write as your true self. This is what will engage the reader. Narrative non-fiction such as travel/memoir/life writing is a very personal, human affair – it’s not a report of dry facts and statistics so don’t be afraid to let your personality shine through. You are taking the readers on a journey so make sure you are an engaging companion.
Lois Pryce is a journalist and speaker and has written for the Telegraph, Independent, New York Times, CNN and the Guardian and is a contributing editor for Overland Journal. She was named by the Telegraph as one of the 10 Great Female Travellers and is the author of three books about her adventures by motorcycle, most recently Revolutionary Ride: On the Road in Search of the Real Iran.