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2 Powerful Techniques to Illuminate Your Travel Writing

by David Miller Oct 11, 2007

IN REAL LIFE we simultaneously process dozens of thoughts, memories, ideas and emotions. The stories that seem real and alive are stories that contain multiple layers.

The beginning writer, however, usually tends to focus on one thing at a time.

Here are two techniques that will add depth and layering to your travel narrative.

1. Object Correlative

One of the simplest but most powerful techniques to layer descriptions, narration, and characters’ emotions, is called the object correlative.

The idea is that instead of simply stating how a character feels or thinks, the writer suggests it, using a correlation between an object and the way a character observes or acts upon it.

  • Example 1 (Basic) “I felt lonely.”
  • Example 2 (Object Correlative) “I’d go out to the harbor around dusk and look at the ships tied to their moorings.”

The first example-“I felt lonely”-only works on one level, telling how the character feels. The second example-if placed within the proper context-works on at least two levels, suggesting how the character feels while seamlessly continuing the narration of the story.

One of the most noted examples of all time is the “bacon fat” scene in Hemingway’s story “Soldier’s Home.”

Harold Krebs, a young soldier back in Kansas after being wounded in WWI, is unable to return to work, to his mother’s ideal of “a normal life.” Now he must endure her questioning at the breakfast table:

“I’ve worried about you too much, Harold,” his mother went on. “I know the temptations you must have been exposed to. I know how weak men are. I know what your own dear grandfather, my own father, told us about the Civil War and I have prayed for you. I pray for you all day long, Harold.”

Krebs looked at the bacon fat hardening on his plate.

In your reading, begin noting whenever a writer uses an objective correlative to express a character’s feelings. When applying it to travel writing, a good starting point is to remember a scene and note what comes to mind first.

Keep in mind that the most effective objects are universal, things that everyone can picture and relate to immediately.

Was it a certain music that was playing? A feature of the landscape? Keep in mind that the most effective objects are universal, things that everyone can picture and relate to immediately.

Experiment with whatever thing you want to use, trying different ways to correlate the object to your central character’s thoughts and emotions. As with any new technique it will probably come out stilted and forced at first, but will flow naturally with practice.

2. The Minor Character As Mirror

Similar to the object correlative, the way a main character interacts with a minor character can also be utilized like a mirror – reflecting emotions while driving the narrative forward.

Here is an example from Arthur Miller’s memoir Timebends. Arthur has just met an old acquaintance while getting a haircut. Note how, like an object correlative, the actions of the barber (the minor character) are used to suggest the multiple emotions that the main character feels:

“I’ll come by again,” I said, with the foreboding that I would not because nothing was left of any life between us, or that if I did she would not be here. She nodded and seemed to know this too, and walked to the door and into the dark street at the end of another day. The barber, finishing up, slipped off my semi-shroud and shook the hair off into the floor, saying nothing. He had caught her coolness, the disturbance I had brought her.

As before, look for places where writers use a minor character to help illustrate a main character’s emotions. Then experiment with the technique in your own writing.

Using a minor character as a mirror can be especially useful in travel writing, which is so often rich with minor characters-people on the streets, fishermen, merchants, fellow travelers, etc.

When the writer fails to incorporate these people into the emotional context of the story, they often become like scenery, or cardboard cutouts-and thus the story loses its verisimilitude.

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