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Travel Writing Tips: Transforming Your Narrator Into a "Camera"

by David Miller Feb 13, 2014
The travel writing tips below are excerpted from new lessons at the MatadorU Writing course.

WE MOST COMMONLY describe place through our eyes. In some ways we can think of a narrator almost like a camera.

One thing to keep in mind however, is not to “get in the way” of the camera too often. Take this example:

I looked out over the vast playa as the sun was setting.

Notice how the narrator (“I”) is “in the shot.”

When we remove the narrator from the shot so it’s just a description of the terrain, the visuals tend to come out more direct and vivid:

The sun was setting over the vast playa.

As writers, we “get in the way” simply because we’re unconsciously stating what we saw, for example:

I saw taxis speeding down Avenida de Mayo.

But by not being super-conscious of exactly how each word affects the reader’s experience of the story, we may inadvertently “clog” the composition. Note how the unclogged version reads more crisply:

The taxis sped down Avenida de Mayo.

Sometimes this extra layer of inserting yourself as narrator into the action (ex: “I saw”) is important however, especially if it allows you to reveal something about changing emotions or moments of new awareness. But again, this should be a conscious decision on how you’re trying to shape the narrative.

It’s also important to note that this sense of being a “camera” isn’t limited only to what the narrator “sees” but how he or she interacts in the story overall:

I climbed stairs zig-zagging upwards past dimly lit bars until I came to the top level of Sky Garden. I leaned against the bar and watched sun-bleached Australians dance with drinks in their hands to LMFAO’s Party Rock Anthem.

Notice that if we remove the self-referential parts it allows the reader to “inhabit” the narrative in a much more direct way:

The stairs zig-zagged upwards past dimly lit bars until the top level of Sky Garden, where sun-bleached Australians danced to LMFAO’s Party Rock Anthem.

How do you achieve a balance of “acting” vs. “narrating” in your storytelling?

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