Previous Next
Visit MatadorU to learn more about Matador’s online travel journalism courses.

Keep moving. Photo: huong-lan

STRONG NARRATIVE ESSAYS are always moving. They start with action–the narrator snowboarding with the Aspen Ski Patrol, for example, then deepen the scene with descriptions–the dry powder, the steep bowls, the late January sky.

Then they quickly move to background information–aspects of the ski patrol, how they respond to calls–and then cycle back over and over.

When the writer does this well, the reader keeps moving too. Information that might otherwise slow the reader down (for example, details of the training and certifications needed to get on the ski patrol) becomes acutely important and relevant when it’s sandwiched between dramatic scenes of patrol-members getting a call, then riding out to help the victim.

Your ability then, to maintain and control momentum throughout an essay depends on the way you form scenes.

How to Break Your Essay into Scenes

. . a scene is a unit of drama.

The easiest way to create scenes is to decide on a simple and single “event” to use as a narrative framework. This is the ongoing “story-line” to which you’ll add the facts, ideas, and information you want to convey.

The most obvious events already have a kind of inherent dramatic structure built in, like climbing a mountain or going on a date. Or, simply using the chronology of a day (“a day in the life”) or night, following the hours, the position of the sun / moon and other environmental factors, can be an easy and natural way to create scenes, especially for beginning writers.

Regardless of what you choose as your event, what matters is the movement between the scenes and the narrator’s ruminations, thoughts, and whatever information is offered. It must be dynamic.

It’s important to note however, that the event doesn’t necessarily have to be dramatic in and of itself.

In one of my favorite essays, Sleet by Coleman Barks, all that ‘happens’ is the narrator gets stuck in his cabin in the North Georgia mountains and spends the night reading the thesis of a student who has died. In this case, the movement comes through the narrators recollections and imagination.

Regardless of what you choose as your event, what matters is the movement between the scenes and the narrator’s ruminations, thoughts, and whatever information is offered. It must be dynamic.

An Example of Weaving Scenes / Information

Once you’ve decided on an event, and have a general idea about the information you want to discuss, the scenes usually begin to emerge naturally.

Let’s say you live in Las Vegas and want to write a narrative essay about foreclosures there. You want to discuss economic factors behind the foreclosures, the current situation, historical context, and outlook for the future. You spend a day driving around looking at foreclosed homes and talking to different people about it.

Here’s one possible breakdown of scenes followed by what info. will be discussed

  • Scene 1: driving around suburban sprawl >>> info 1: facts about current foreclosure situation in Vegas
  • Scene 2: stopping and talking to homeowner >>> info 2: overview of economic factors leading foreclosures
  • Scene 3: stopping for lunch at restaurant, then visiting casino >>> info 3: historical context of residential development in area contrasting with recent trends
  • Scene 4: driving up to surrounding mountains for vista of the city >>> info 4. future outlook


Weaving scenes and information together requires the reader to make quick leaps in and out of the story. This can be disorienting and disruptive unless you tie everything together using smooth transitions.

In the following example, Hal Amen recounts a hike up Chacaltaya Glacier in Bolivia.

On one hand he’s describing the climb, but at the same time he’s really writing an essay about Bolivia, the local community, and the impacts of global climate change.

He opens the story by placing the reader right there on the mountain, in the action:

I stumble, missing a step. A little lightheadedness is all. Maybe I should’ve eaten more for breakfast.

Then using a simple but effective transition, he moves directly into a bit of background information about the area:

Mild dizziness aside, summiting is a cakewalk. Miners do it—the upper plateaus are littered with ore buckets and little lake-lets are stained blood-red from iron and green from copper.

Die-hard skiers do it. Chacaltaya has held the record of world’s highest ski resort since 1939, when Club Andino Boliviano built an access road, small lodge, and rope-tow lift up the glacier.

The narrator continues to give several more paragraphs of information about the history of the area, then uses a quote from the guide to bring the reader right back into the “story”:

“It’s their only source of water,” Juan tells me as I stand shivering at the summit, taking in the smoggy sprawl of El Alto on the Altiplano far below.

When done well, this movement from background information back to scene not only educates the reader but creates this effect of time having passed in the story. It almost seems as if the narrator, while explaining things about the mountain, was actually climbing.

That’s the goal: to convey information or ideas while at the same time create a sense of forward movement. Think of a river, turning, twisting, moving through different kinds of terrain, but always pushing downstream.

*The MatadorU Travel Writing program will help you build the skills you need to become a travel writer.

Travel Writing Tips


About The Author

David Miller

David Miller is Senior Editor of Matador (winner of 2010 and 2011 Lowell Thomas awards for travel journalism) and Director of Curricula at MatadorU. Follow him @dahveed_miller.

  • Tim Patterson

    Excellent advice, clear and well-illustrated. Thanks, DM.

  • Turner

    Good example. Now to go climb Enchanted Rock and discuss Austin’s hippie-esque nature…

  • Jerry Jaz

    Wonderful example. Reminds me of the most recent Utne Reader and the article ok the mine that eats men.

  • Hal

    Echoing Tim, I love instructional essays that also read simply and smoothly. Thanks also to the guidance you provided for that Chacaltaya piece.

    Turner, if you’re going to climb Enchanted Rock, shouldn’t you be talking about the German heritage of Fredericksburg? :)

    • Turner

      It could go either way – I’d be willing to bet more residents of Austin climb it than those of Fredericksburg.

  • David Miller

    Thanks for the bigups y’all. I spent a few years really dedicating to this form, trying to turn almost anything you could think of–a day on a farm, a day in the life of a chef, a longtime restaurateur trying to open a new place–into a “story,” into something that read differently from everything else that was being published at the local alt. weeklies and newspapers I worked for. I was heavily influenced by Gay Talese at the time.

    Writing this way can be super time-consuming, but as a reader, I’m always thankful when something moves along with action, scene, tension. When all is ‘said and done’ I still think most people see the world as protagonists in their own drama. So reading essays as stories makes sense. It seems natural.

    • Simone Marie

      I think it is, to a certain degree, very natural, more natural than the way most short, destination-oriented travel articles are written. I’d love to see more like them, and more venues looking for such pieces. They really sink into the reader; they can be heart and soul changing the way no purely expositional pieces can be.

      Thanks for the very straight froward, easy to grasp advice. Short of reading your article, the more beneficial research we writers can all do is read the best narrative work out there. For something you can pick up each day for a buck 75, The New York Times feature articles often do this very well, and succinctly (that last attribute being a bit rare when it comes to this style.)

      • Simone Marie

        Oops — meant *most beneficial.* They are equally beneficial!

  • Tabatha

    Such helpful information, thanks!

  • Shelley Gable

    As a budding writer, I always appreciate it when how-to pieces like this include concrete examples…it helps a lot! Thanks!

  • top essay services

    That kind of information is really cool. You can be able to use those kind of tactics in order for you to have a better output in your writing. It’s one of the most important thing that you need to apply for you to succeed on the things that you want.

Maximizing readership is about reaching out personally through the internet.
If you want to learn how to present characters, find a mentor or master.
Ironically, creating a new framework for expressing your perceptions is just another way...
Here are three websites so full of writing prompts, collaborations, games and exercises...
Start flexing a larger vocabulary now with these simple tips.
Achieving maximum Renaissance-hood is admirable for anyone, but for travel writers, being...
The Ladder of Abstraction is a simple but powerful way to habituate a critical attitude...
Every day, in many different ways, I massage my brand and am pitched by other writers who...
5 tips for writing about the world's social problems more effectively .
How to deepen your ability to find and tell stories by strengthening your skills in...