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Transform Your Travel Writing, Pt. 4: Know Thy Subject

Travel Transform your travel writing
by David Miller Feb 26, 2014

STORYTELLING IS AN extended process. To borrow from audio/video terminology, there’s a production phase and a post-production phase. Production is where you’re out in the field gathering raw material — taking notes, interviewing people, setting up shots — in other words, “getting” the story.

Post-production comes afterwards. It’s the editing phase, the period photographers correct the colors, cropping, and different image levels to best represent the emotions and feel of the experience. The period videographers will scrub footage, logging scenes before beginning to put them in order. The process of journalists retracing through pages of notes, figuring out how the different bits of dialogue and observations fit together cohesively into a story.

For some, such as bloggers, “post-production” may be very short, a matter of just quickly posting about your experiences or insights just hours or even minutes after they happen. But no matter what kind of story you’re telling, there are some important takeaways when looking at the patterns of production / post-production.

First: You can edit and polish work forever, but typically, whatever you have to work with is all you’re going to have. It’s usually difficult or impossible to go back and get more raw material. This is why pros schedule their work around specific “shoots” where they have their subject (whether it’s an athlete or model or a specific place or product) and all the lighting, audio, and other elements they need there at the correct time.

No matter what kind of storytellers we are, we can adopt this same logic. Simply put, the more you’re able to clearly identify your subject, the more effective stories you’re going to tell on every level. This is both over an extended project, and just within each moment — taking a single photo or notes about a particular scene or conversation.

Most filmmakers, journalists, and others working on large projects don’t necessarily know where the exact story is going before they begin. In fact, many have no idea; this is something they often figure out during post-production. But going into a project — whether it’s a documentary about endangered languages in Chile or just traveling to Alaska in hopes of photographing the aurora borealis — they’re absolutely clear on what the subject is. This is the difference between pros taking a mission-driven approach, taking every advantage of their production phase, and the beginner who may be just traveling around taking images and notes randomly at whatever strikes their fancy.

Pros determine the subject. If they’re photographers, they’ll observe their surroundings and define their subject before anything else, then adjust their composition so that every element of the image emphasizes the mood, the emotions and atmosphere of that subject. If they’re writers, they’ll hone in not just on a place or “character” but the key details of that character or place which support the story they’re trying to tell.

Complex vs. multi-layered

Most beginners’ stories tend to be complicated but single-layered. They’ll take dozens of different things and attempt to put them all together. By contrast, pros’ stories tend to be simple and yet multi-layered. In other words, there’s an easy-to-identify narrative arc or subject, but through this simplicity are complex layers of information, emotion. Again, this comes down to how clearly the storyteller grasps his subject.

What is your subject?

It’s important not to limit yourself when determining your subject. In an image, for example, the subject may just be a mood or a pattern, such as the emptiness of the photo to the right below. It can be a certain light, or the look in the eye of a person or animal.

In a written story, it might be a particular character or place, but it could also be a quality or dynamic — say, the resilience of a group of people faced with changing economic times. In this case, each detail of your story — what you’re after in the production phase, and the way you shape it in post-production — needs to support this subject.

As with everything else in storytelling, figuring out your subject is a skill that takes time and practice. Here are two considerations to help you get started:

1. Model success.
Model the way master storytellers portray their subjects. Find a mentor. For me it was the new journalism masters such as Gay Talese and Truman Capote. I loved the way they profiled characters, and so modeled their methods of “shadowing” someone during a day in their lives.

If you’re a photographer, whose work inspires you? How do their compositions tell a story? Spend so much time deconstructing them that you become an expert on their techniques. After enough time, you’ll begin to figure out your own original ways of finding subjects.

2. Don’t confuse your personal story (especially during production) for the subject.
Many beginning storytellers confuse moments as being “part of the story” simply because they happened during production. For example, on my first journalism mission to South America (a series of interviews with the Madres of Plaza del Mayo), I found the whole experience put me in a kind of trance. Every day I was hearing mothers’ stories of their children being “disappeared” during the Dirty War. And then throughout other moments of the day in Buenos Aires things would happen that were charged with the emotions built up through these interviews.

Once I got out of a taxi and came face to face with an aging militar (army officer) who could’ve been involved in the very disappearances the Mothers had suffered. But instead of talking to him, asking him questions, staying mission-driven, I forgot the subject (sharing the Mothers’ stories of courage) momentarily, and juxtaposed my own sense of being overwhelmed as “the story.” This is an amateur move.

Right now, wherever you are, consider: What really matters to you? What could you see yourself writing about not just today, but 10 years from now? How can you break this overarching theme down into little pieces, each of which might become subjects for future work?

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