The tips in this article complement the curriculum of the Travel Writing program at MatadorU.

Lagos, Nigeria. Photo: Lola Akinmade

WHEN WRITING a travel story, sometimes you have a minor character or incident that doesn’t fit well in the plot, but which, if included, would add a particularly rich detail or reinforce the story’s overall theme. This is when you need to utilize anecdotes.

Take the following example from a story about a typical day in the life of a young woman with her family in Lagos, Nigeria:

“You get Punch? How about Guardian?” my mom yells out in pidgin English to a newspaper vendor racing alongside the car in traffic. Balancing a stack of newspapers on his head with a few stuffed underneath both armpits, he skillfully pulls out a Punch and exchanges it for a 10 Naira note. Twenty years later and now 100 Naira a pop, this daily ritual of buying Punch Newspaper remains.

Up until this point in the story, the reader has only been given details of the family at home: the mother cooking breakfast, the girls putting on their uniforms and getting ready for school.

Although the girls are moving quickly to get ready for another day, overall there is a very orderly and peaceful sense about the house (which is also the theme of the story–the strength of family and ritual). So when this anecdote of buying a newspaper is presented, it works in multiple ways, making the reader feel as if he or she has suddenly gone from the peace of the house into a much faster-moving world outside.

Also notice how the anecdote ends with a good transition right back into the story: “Twenty years later and now 100 Naira a pop, this daily ritual of buying Punch Newspaper remains.”

An anecdote works best when it returns the reader to the story with a new sense of understanding or awareness of the characters.

Not only does this transition move the reader back into the story, it also serves to reinforce the theme, the daily ritual.

An anecdote works best when it returns the reader to the story with a new sense of understanding or awareness of the characters.

Remember this when you’re deciding whether to include an anecdote. If it’s an amusing or interesting incident on its own, it still isn’t necessarily good for the story unless it adds to the theme, setting, or reader’s visualization of the characters.

*Get access to paid freelance travel writing opportunities and an active community of travel journalists by enrolling in the MatadorU Travel Writing program.