Start with a story. Don’t start at the beginning, though. Start with the most surprising/exciting/interesting part. Don’t worry about spoilers. Readers will still want to know how you got into that situation or how you’ll possibly get out of it. Halfway through, they’ll forget that you already gave away the ending.
After hooking the reader with an exciting opening paragraph, you can take a step back and tell the story chronologically, developing characters and a theme along the way.
This is a common narrative structure in movies, books, and travel essays. Many of the essays in Rolf Potts’s latest book, Marco Polo Didn’t Go There, use a similar structure. Building a story this way is much easier when you have narrative hooks like crashing the set of the Leonardo DiCaprio movie The Beach, running low on water during a solo desert trek, and waking up robbed and bloodied in Istanbul.
Potts is most famous for his previous book Vagabonding, which is the de facto bible for long-term world travel. He, quite literally, wrote the book on backpacking. While Vagabonding is an inspirational pseudo-how-to book, Marco Polo is a collection of some of Potts’s best travel essays from a decade of writing for publications like Salon, Condé Nast Traveler, and Slate.
Even if you’re familiar with Potts’s essays about taking a tantric sex class or being “kidnapped” by a Lebanese businessman, the endnotes of each chapter offer plenty of new material. Each essay is followed by endnotes that provide further color to the nonfiction stories.
[T]hese endnotes aim to remind the reader of the gap between story and experience, traveler and writer, truth and presentation. The endnotes reveal things about the journey that – for the sake of good storytelling – one can’t reveal in the main text.
Most of the endnotes serve as anecdotal lessons in travel writing. Potts details which elements he left out or tweaked to turn reality into a compelling narrative. Marco Polo includes not just examples of great travel writing but also a glimpse into the writer’s mind and process.
The essays and endnotes are a great read for anyone, but travel writers and bloggers will find them particularly helpful. I know I did.
Have you read Marco Polo Didn’t Go There? Share your thoughts in the comments.