JULY 2019 – from The Travel Writer’s Way
KILLER QUOTES Here’s how to bring your stories alive with what people say.
What really brings characters alive is what they say. The judicious use of interesting quotes is a key skill for travel writers.
When you talk to someone, the conversation often drifts from topic to topic in half-formed phrases that would never translate onto the page. So what you have to do, to write it up, is nd the bits that are signi cant and reassemble them.
You’ll be looking for what journalists call the ‘killer quote’ – a phrase that leaps off the page because it says something amazing about the speaker, the situation or the theme of the wider story. ‘In winter I skate from island to island selling sh.’ ‘This hotel suite costs 18,000 euros a night.’ ‘It’s the best place on earth to see rhinos in the wild.’
The trick is to be highly selective about this. You might have chatted for an hour but only nd two key sentences. That’s ne. The reader won’t want to hear too much from any one character, unless there’s a good reason. Speech is so powerful, compared to descriptive writing, that it can easily overwhelm the rest of the text. So feel free to keep your quotes short and sharp.
If you read published travel stories, you’ll see that most quotes are a couple of sentences long at most. Dialogue between two characters tends to be restricted to a very few speeches each. That’s rather different from novels, where much of the space might be lled by dialogue.
I’d hazard a guess that this is because travel writing is more concerned with place and context and less focussed on personality. Even where a travel story is lled with people, the characters tend to change as the journey moves on – and often it is their world that is the real focus.
So spread your quotes sparingly across your tale. A good use for them is what we call ‘structural effect’ – to illustrate a theme, add emotion to a situation or create a dramatic interaction between your characters.
As in life, a dull bit of journey can be cheered by a sparkling bit of chat. Dry facts can be conveyed more interestingly if a character tells us about them. Opinions offered by a local person will carry a special weight.
It follows from all of this that to get the quality of quote you want, you may have to work at it: nd the right person, ask the right questions, build a rapport and keep on chatting until you’ve got what you need.
That might sound exploitative, but not if you treat the person and their words with respect. You have a choice in this. Of course you may need to polish what they said slightly, maybe ironing out repetitions and hesitations. But you don’t need to give them a silly accent or re-sequence their words to mean something else. Tempting as such options are, they’re probably a sign that you need to speak to more people to get those killer quotes.
Extract from The Travel Writer’s Way, copyright Jonathan Lorie 2019.