3 GREAT STORIES: Starring travel, salt flats, and a loyal soldier

Every week, I shine the spotlight on some of the best storytelling in the business and offer my comments. “3 Great Stories of the Week” will post every Monday at 8 AM.

What is the most effective way to inform others about travel?

Is it through a photo gallery? A beautifully written essay? A video?

As the media landscape keeps trending toward multimedia and interactive storytelling, storytellers of all genres are presented with the challenge of mastering it all. Perhaps one story is best told through the written word, perhaps another through audio or video, and yet another as a combination.

This is particularly true with travel stories, where the visuals are often stunning but the experiences are often complex and powerful.

Take a look at two different ways of telling similar stories, along with one heartfelt memorial to a “ragged soldier”:

Impossible Rock (January 2014, National Geographic): Here is what you might call the “traditional” way to tell a travel story.

Mark Synnott of National Geographic documents his journey to the top of a mountain in Oman with a pair of twenty-somethings; all three are avid climbers, though Synnott fills his pack with a little more trepidation.

For me, Synnott is most effective in this piece when describing the non-climbing parts of the trip, such as his interplay with the locals. Within these asides and vignettes are moments that could not possibly be fully captured with a photo. They are best told verbally.

He describes the hike with similar gusto, but here I really benefited from the story’s attached photo gallery. (I am assuming, of course, that photos were featured far more prominently in the magazine story than they are online.) A link in the top left corner of the page directs the reader to the work of photographer Jimmy Chin, whose dramatic snapshots truly drive home the daring nature of the climbers.

Salar de Uyuni: My trip to see the world’s largest mirror (1/17/14, Medium): Now, compare the National Geographic piece with this one.

Derek Low has a story to tell too, and he does so on the Twitter-for-longer-writing format of Medium. He took a trip to the world’s largest salt flats, which becomes “the largest mirror on the planet” when covered with a thin layer of water.

In terms of writing, Low does not craft sentences like Synnott. His sentences read more like a tossed-off Twitter post than a carefully constructed thought. To critique his writing, however, is to miss the point.

Low lets the photos do the talking … and what magnificent photos they are. He uses a dash of writing simply to get the reader from Photo A to Photo B, and in doing so he tells a visual, visceral story in an informative, powerful way. As a traveler myself, I leave Low’s story knowing exactly what to expect from a trip to Salar de Uyuni.

And let me just say again … the photos are magnificent. I mean … wow.

Hiroo Onoda, soldier who hid in jungle for decades, dies at 91 (1/17/14, New York Times): I leave you with a powerful obituary about an unlikely legend.

On Thursday, the Japanese government announced the death of Hiroo Onoda, a soldier who remained at his post in the Philippines for 29 years, not realizing World War II had ended. He returned to a hero’s welcome in 1974.

Onoda’s story is extraordinary, and Robert McFadden tells it masterfully in this obituary. The New York Times writer lays out how exactly someone like Onoda could remain at war long after his country surrendered, and one cannot help but feel for the soldier as one hears about his journey.

To say much more would be to spoil a touching story. Read it, and enjoy.


Have a suggestion for “3 Great Stories of the Week”? E-mail me at matt@tellingthestoryblog.com.

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