September 13

Why humans need stories, and how to write them

 In March 2020, I started a Virtual Travel Writers Group, which led to creating an online travel writing course and live workshops to complete and edit travel stories to publication.

Of the professional writers and would-be writers in the groups I've led were bloggers, journalists, memoirists, and authors of stories to be collected in anthologies.

Some of the stories we workshopped were brand new. Others were resurrected from the proverbial drawer. 

In the workshop, we helped the authors organize their stories, enrich the scenes, and pin down the theme and the lesson or point of the story.

The single biggest challenge to writing a story that works

This structuring of story has been the single biggest challenge of all. New writers—and even professional writers, oftentimes—struggle to follow the formula of beginning, middle, end. Hook and conclusion, or lesson learned. 

It's almost impossible to do this alone and that's why writing groups and workshops (well-led) are a safe place to get feedback and ideas on how to organize the material. And an organizing task it is!

In a travel story—unless it's a service piece or a gear review—we follow the three acts and 12 steps to classic hero's journey storytelling.

12 steps of storytelling

It's so interesting to me that we do this so naturally as we tell stories around the campfire or dinner table. Often, someone else will even provide the hook for you.

Hey everybody, have you heard Carla's story about ending up in a brothel on her trip through China?

That's a great hook, right? So you tell the story, build tension, then get to the punch line, then what you learned (or didn't), what you did next, as in how you changed.


My theory is that writing gives us too much time to think and second-guess our story. Somewhere in the writing process, we discard structure, forget about our audience, and clutter our narrative with TMI: backstory, fancy prose, lengthy description.

When I tell my Chinese brothel story, I don't tell the story of why I went to China, a history of the motorcycle I'm riding, how I came to be a female solo motorcycle adventure travel writer, the thrill I feel when out exploring, or the troublesome relationship I left at home. I just tell the story. 

But in writing, I struggle, as do we all, to stick to it. So we write it all out, the background, the history, the flashbacks, the scenes that built up to the situation.

That's okay. We need to get it all out. Lots of our writing is part of a healing journey, and you've got to get it all it. So cry on the page as much as you need to. Then, and only then, can you step back—maybe with the help of others—and pick out the bones of the story to focus on.

In a group setting, we only have so much time to tell a story, so we simplify. But when you've got somebody alone, on their couch or on a plane, and they're primed to immerse themselves... that's when we can transport them to another place and time and give them a glimpse into another person's experience. 

But how much to reveal? How much is too much? When do we get boring? Is there enough conflict? Is there a lesson learned? What's missing?

That's the beauty of workshopping with a critique group. A good critique group is worth its weight in editors. Members will let you know where the boring parts are, where the juicy parts are, what they want more of, and in what order. Because...

The secret to good writing is structure

Beginning. Middle. End. Hook. Plot. Theme. Conclusion. It's a script. It's a formula. It's an exercise in organization.

Funny though, in the process, you see the gaps and memories are recovered. So while you may hate the thought of "writing to script" it it is absolutely part of the creative process.

Want to break the rules? Throw away standard structure? That's fine. But wait...

Wait until you've mastered the craft, and then, like Picasso mastered the craft of painting and then slowly, over time, broke the rules, so can you.

Picasso - breaking the rules of art

Picasso followed the rules before he started breaking them.

But here's the thing. Humans need stories told in particular ways. We are wired for story and, in fact, that's the name of a book by Lisa Cron. Story is the way we learn how to cope with life. Your story can help others when they find themselves in a similar situation.

Wired for Story: The Writer's Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence

Say you write about your healing journey after losing a loved one. Your story can help others cope with the loss of their most beloved.

Maybe something funny or disturbing happened to you on a trip. Granted, things happen on every trip, but for some people, things happen a lot. 

Half my job is guiding this process—with the help of the group—to unravel the story from the thing that happened. To add a theme to the plot. To lay bare the very hard truth of what that feels like and how you cope. To identify what stays in, what needs deeper exploration, and what to discard.

Maybe you have given up your job, your belongings, and are heading off on a journey with no return date. 

How does one do that? Leave a job and a home and all of your carefully acquired things? Do you put it in storage or give it away? How much money did you save? What is your plan? What does it feel like to be on the road, not knowing where you're going to end up that night, or to have your plans thwarted by a missed train, a flat tire, or a stolen wallet? 

Your story gives others a roadmap.

And travelers whose curiosity guides them to a niche they want to share with the world. (In India I met a writer researching musical temples.) Or who want to tell a funny story at their own expense, to make their readers laugh. A great example of this is Janna Goodwins book, which I often recommend to writers as an example of being LOL hilarious but still having a message, an underlying shared humanity. It's also a great example of a book of loosely connected stories.

So... your story doesn't have to be serious. And it can be serious and funny at the same time, or in intervals.

My point is that your story doesn't have to be a healing journey to be successful. But many are. The death of a loved one, a recovery from cancer, a bad breakup, a career failure.

In the hero's journey there is a quest, a goal, a hope, and a dream, and all the things that get in the way. That's pretty easy to identify. It's plot. It's the inner journey that makes it personal and unique. That can be harder to get to. Shawn Coyne explains how important this is—and better yet, shows us how—in his book The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know.

How we are convinced finally to change is by hearing stories of other people who risked and triumphed. Not some easy triumph, either. But a hard fought one that takes every ounce of the protagonist's inner fortitude. Because that's what it takes in real life to leave a dysfunctional relationship, move to a new city, or quit your job. It takes guts, moxie, inner fire, the stuff of heroes... Change, no matter how small, requires loss. And the prospect of loss is far more powerful than potential gain. It's difficult to imagine what a change will do to us. This is why we need stories so desperately... Stories give us scripts to follow.

Teaching and learning the art and craft of travel writing

I use all kinds of knowledge to help writers edit their stories to publication—my degree in Literature and Creative Writing, all the editors I've worked with, the writers I've worked with, books I've read starting with The Elements of Style to the books mentioned above.

There are many resources to help understand how to craft a memoir, a collection of stories, or a blog series, or articles for magazines.

In all cases, learning the rules of craft and applying them to good effect before you dare to break a few, is key.

Let's look at the first five lessons of The Story Grid.

But first, hey, are you interested in my next travel writing course and workshop? It's for writers and would-be writers to workshop chapters for a travel memoir, stories for an anthology, blog posts, or work on your travel journalism for magazines. Here's the application and an invitation to talk on Zoom about your goals.

Join my travel writing workshop!

I hope this post and these resources start your journey to writing publishable travel stories. And I'd like to invite you to talk with me about the next travel writing workshop. If it's not time yet for you to join I can set you on the right path with books, courses, and other resources. Fill out the application. No committment required!

Thanks! Now, check out this series about the craft and structure of effective storytelling.

The Story Grid method

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