Travel Catastrophes for Fun and Profit
How to Write Travel Humor: The Dysfunctionally Perfect Marriage of Two Genres
By Dave Fox
May 10, 2012
[The following article is based on a workshop I presented three weeks ago at the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop in Dayton, Ohio.]
“When you travel, things go wrong.” That’s been my number one travel motto for years. It might not sound like uplifting advice, but embracing this reality helps you roll with and recover from the mini-disasters inevitable on every journey. For humor writers, there’s an added bonus. When things go wrong, we get stories!
Years ago, when I decided to pursue professional humor writing, I took a methodical, geeky approach to studying comedic structure. I read books. I took classes. In one workshop, taught by Seattle-based humor consultant Bill Stainton, Bill offered this simple definition: “Comedy happens when something goes wrong.” When he shared his explanation, it so closely echoed my own travel philosophy. I realized then that travel writing and humor writing are two genres that fit together perfectly – like chocolate and peanut butter in a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, but with fewer calories.
Travel is full of confusions, incongruities, and conflict. Whether it’s lost luggage, cultural misunderstandings, or a herd of wildebeest stampeding through your hotel room, your most frustrating moments on the road often make for your most hilarious travel tales later.
Keeping a travel journal as you go is critical in order to capture the details. Don’t try to create your best writing in your travel diaries. You don’t have enough time during an exciting vacation. Instead, splash as many thoughts onto your pages as quickly as possible. Those scribbled notes will jar your memories when you’re back at home, crafting more polished travel tales. In addition to a journal, always carry a pocket-sized notebook. Jot quick thoughts – story ideas, funny musings, names of characters or locations that might appear in your stories, and so on.
When it’s time to polish your tales, dive right in. Many aspiring travel writers make the mistake of front-loading their stories with extraneous information. You must hook your readers in the first 30 to 40 words. If not, they’ll quit reading. Get right into the action. You can always backtrack and fill in details later.
Here’s an example of a mediocre lead:
It all began one morning when I stepped out of the shower. The next thing I knew, I saw a snake in my bed.
Here’s a better lead:
The snake poked his head out from under my pillow as if the bed belonged to him. I froze, dripping and naked, wishing I had more than a towel to defend myself.
Don’t be shy about embellishing. Stretch things with colorful examples. “I can’t swim very well,” might be needed information in a story about falling off a boat, but “I swim with the prowess or a Golden Retriever” is a funnier way to say it. In one story, in which I wrote about trying to put on a tie, my rough draft said, “I hate tying ties.” Not funny. I changed it to, “It took me six attempts before I had my tie on.” Still not funny. In my final draft, I wrote, “After 37 attempts, I managed to origami myself into a tie.” Better. Coming up with lines like this takes time. It’s a trial-and-error process. Sit with your non-funny sentences and brainstorm creative ways to write them.
Keep your writing tight. Don’t say in 900 words what you can say in 600. Concise writing makes your stories easier to read. The humor punches through more strongly. Here are some examples of flabby versus tight writing:
Flabby: The building was surrounded by a tall fence that was made out of iron.
Tight: A tall iron fence surrounded the building.
Flabby: The shark went swimming through the water at breakneck speed.
Tight: The shark plowed through the water.
At times, you’ll choose longer phrasing to add character or a more comedic voice. That’s fine, but make every word count. Comb through, sentence by sentence, and see if there are phrases you can shorten or words you can eliminate.
When writing about unfamiliar cultures, be careful how you frame the things that go wrong. Ripping into a place you are unfamiliar with can make you sound like a culturally insensitive jerk. If you turn things around, however, and make your own confusion the source of the problem, your humble (or overblown) self-deprecation will get readers on your side.
When we travel to new places, confusion is natural – and wonderful if we accept it as part of the thrill that comes with being foreign. So when you venture to new places, expect and embrace that confusion. Even if things seem horrible in the moment, know you’ll have a great story later. My worst travel experience ever involved a hospital stay in Turkey. An evil salad did terrible things to my insides, to the extent I was barely conscious and afraid for my life. Reliving the experience years later when I wrote my travel humor book, Getting Lost: Mishaps of an Accidental Nomad, was painful. I wondered how I could find humor in those moments. But after a lot of work, it ended up being one of my favorite chapters.
As a travel humorist, I’ve come to see things going wrong as things going right. The crazy and chaotic moments in my journeys are the fodder I need to write my best travel humor tales. So when things go haywire on your own trips, don’t get frustrated. Get writing! Jot it in your journal. Then when time allows, polish those rough-draft journal entries into crazy adventures that will make your readers cackle.
Do you have hilarious travel tales of your own to share? Globejotting is looking for guest writers.
Who are your favorite travel humorists and why? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!