Wednesday, September 17, 2014

How to Write a Short Story Based on Your Exotic Travels [A Template]

[You have to start with some “local color.” Paint the scene for the readers. Make them feel as if they’re there. Make them wish they were there. Make them rue the choices they’ve made in their lives, or the unlucky star under which they were born, or both, that render them shackled to their dreary office or retail or blue-collar jobs or domestic responsibilities with precious little (if any) paid vacation time, let alone “disposable income,” to embark on such envy-inducing journeys.

Make their small lives pale in comparison. They will emit a wistful sigh, and snuggle deeper into the armchair or bus seat, or fluff up the bed pillows, and they will read on, lulled by the illusory sensation of escape.

(Mention spices, and smells – folks love to read about smells. Bonus points for any reference to non-Western spirituality.)]

[Next, you must introduce the contrast between Western life back home and wherever this exotic place is. Have your protagonist get a hankering for Starbucks, say. Or perhaps he or she is listening to indie music on an iPod while looking out the dirty windowpanes of a backpacker hostel as some saffron-robed monks go through the village begging for alms. The feeling you need to convey is: “Wowwee! Goll-ee! This is different from what I’m used to! What a horizon-expanding experience!”]

[OK, now it’s time to get personal. In all likelihood your story is in the “thinly veiled autobiography” vein, and based on your own recent travels. You took a big trip, and it got the ol’ synapses firing. In addition to acquiring a taste for yak’s milk or didgeridoo music, you came home aflame with the notion that you would write a story set in this awesome (literally awe-inspiring) place. You figured it didn’t even really matter what the story was about; you could hook folks into reading your words with the aforementioned colorful intro.

Now's the time to get going on the plot, which is probably mostly incidental to this story, because let’s face it – the location is the real star here.

This personal story of yours – a long-simmering tension between two travelers who are in a relationship; existential angst ‘n’ ennui that the traveler had hoped to mitigate by taking this very trip; some family trouble back home, maybe a perpetually disapproving dad who has just gotten terminally ill – will necessarily be heightened due to the protagonist’s change of scenery, his or her temporary exodus from white-bread land.

There might be a phone call (“Your father isn’t getting any better – the doctor says he only has a couple of weeks to live, so you two had better reconcile!”), or a postcard – something to connect the traveler with the world of “back home.” Have the protagonist reflect on all that back-home drama while, say, strolling among bamboo forests and rhododendron on a trek in Nepal, while completing an arduous and breath-sucking jaunt up Kilimanjaro.

This contrast between back-home troubles and exotic-locale novelty will accomplish the following: a) it will make the protagonist’s life and troubles infinitely more interesting and palatable to the reader; b) if it doesn’t do that, then oh well, at least the reader has some pretty scenery, perhaps interspersed with historical tidbits to bust out at a cocktail party.]

[Throughout the story, make sure to impart the sense that the protagonist has journeyed to a virtual minefield of real dangers as well as humorous faux pas – a malarial swamp inhabited by a people who have evolved an immunity to the disease; Malaysian gang members who don’t take too kindly to Americans cheating at betting on horse races; confusion wrought by locals who shake their head side-to-side for “Yes” and up-and-down for “No,” etc.

Again, you want to trick the reader into liking your story, whether it’s actually a good story or not – sprinkling in a bunch of these nuggets is one way to keep ‘em reading when the plot is about as riveting as porridge.]

[The protagonist must experience at least one significant-seeming brush with non-Western spirituality, and this should effect a perspective shift that, within the limited purview and concern of the short story, will seem more permanent, paradigm-smashing, and personally cataclysmic than it really is.

You have a couple of choices:

a) You could go ahead and let this experience (a moment of karmic connection with a wise or innocent local, exposure to some bit of local and/or ancient philosophy, communion with Nature-with-a-capital-“N”) feel permanent; end the story with the protagonist all, “Wowwee, goll-ee, that sure was life-changing!”; or

b) You could bleakly admit that this moment of transcendent clarity, like most things, was fleeting, ephemeral as a cherry blossom or a life, and that it will be lost to the traveler once he or she is back home in his or her real life.

Choose carefully, because your decision determines which “camp” of writer you’ll be placed in, and what kind of image would run alongside your story in a magazine:

a) the feel-good, life-affirming, motivational, Oprah’s-Book-Club kind of writer (corresponding photo: a color image of a sunrise over the Himalayas/Andes/African savanna/etc.; a smiling native of whatever exotic place you just went to; a village or street scene throbbing with the hustle and bustle of local commerce); or

b) the deadly serious kind of writer, the kind who grimly radiates gravitas, the “spare-me-the-b.s.” kind of writer who tells it like it is, man (corresponding photo: a black-and-white portrait of some downtrodden alley complete with child beggars; McDonald’s litter in a foreign gutter (imperialist pigs have taken over the world, etc.); a close-up of a tourist visa to emphasize man’s essential foreignness to most places and people in this world, his not belonging to the place he has just gone to, if in fact he belongs anywhere).]

[The trick, throughout, is to make your story’s location seem incidental, when the truth is that it’s anything but. The last thing you want is for your story to imply: “I took a trip to a foreign country and now I am setting a random story there.”

The reader should trust you – should think that you spent some real time in the country (not just a week’s worth of paid vacation time off from work, bookended by two solid days of airplane travel plus a couple jet-lagged days catching up on sleep and crying for Starbucks); maybe you lived there while in the Peace Corps. Or else the reader should think, at the very least, that you have done your homework – completed months of bona-fide research (maybe even at a library!) about the chosen locale of your tale.

Never let on that your story is really an extension of your photo album – the thoughtfully captioned one you posted online and shared via all your social-media outlets – or, to be more precise, that it’s more like a postcard, the kind that says “Wish You Were Here” when what it means is simply: “I Was Here.”]

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