How to use dialogue to enhance your travel writing

Including dialogue can add so much to your travel writing, but how should you go about it? How can you record conversations? Are you allowed to embellish a little? Take in author Peter Moore's advice...

4 mins

Dialogue was not always an important part of travel writing. For a long time the genre was largely objective, concerned more with facts, figures and geography than people.

It took writers like Paul Theroux to show how dialogue could be used both effectively and evocatively. It helps, of course, that Theroux is also a novelist. “When you are writing fiction you pay attention to what people say and how they look, he told me in an interview. You get the texture of life.” It’s that texture you’ll want to bring to your writing.

Good dialogue can bring a scene in even the shortest of stories to life. Dan Linstead, a former editor of Wanderlust, gave a great example in his article about travel writing tips. “Look! There! The tiger is on the prowl,” whispered Joseph. Or: “We could see the tigers heading off hunting.”

The first example is clearly so much more interesting to read and conveys the same information, but with more colour and excitement. Dialogue gives personality to the people in your story and conveys important information and moves your story along in a punchy way. 

Here’s how you can use it more effectively...

Stop and listen

For those just starting out dialogue can be daunting. Not just in writing it but in ‘sourcing’ it, too. Unlike novelists you can just make up dialogue. You’ve got a little more creative license than a news reporter, for example, but you’re writing non-fiction and your reader is expecting what your telling them is true.

Thankfully, your travels will dish up dialogue so much better than you could ever make up. Step back and listen – really listen – and you’ll hear great dialogue everywhere.

Write it down

While your story isn’t a court transcript, it’s important that you get the fantastic dialogue you’re hearing down on paper or into your phone as soon as possible. I’m a bit old school in that I keep a little notepad and a pen in my back pocket. But the notes app on your phone works just as well.

Nor do I take notes while the person is talking to me. As soon as I get the chance – as they head off to the bar to get a round in, for example – I jot down the key points, especially any amusing turns of phrase or evocative words.

You’ll be surprised how little it takes to jog your memory and bring entire conversations back.

Polish your uncut gems

This is the creative element of using dialogue in your story – picking out the snatches of conversation that elevate your story and help you tell it.

It’s very rare that you’ll use entire conversations. Instead you’ll hone your encounters down to their essence, focussing on the statements and phrases relevant to your story.

You can tidy it up a bit. Maybe fix the grammar. But only use the bits that move your story along, add a little colour to your story or convey an important thought or concept.

Capture the mood

Dialogue is a great way of conveying the mood of your piece as well. Think about the different moods you’ve come across in your travels and how dialogue can convey that. Banter in the markets. Fearful near-silence at border crossings. The insistent desperation of touts. It’s can be a vital element of your story.

Keep it real

For your dialogue to really work it needs to be natural and authentic. Stilted, unrealistic conversation will quickly undermine your story. Get the tone of your dialogue right, however, and it will resonate deeply with your reader.

Read back through your dialogue, maybe even read it out loud. Does it sound right to you? Does it sound like something someone would say? Does it sound like it was said to you on your travels? Compare it to the snatches of conversation you hear on the train, in the supermarket, on the streets.

Does it sound real?

Speaking like a local

A little bit of local dialect and the odd foreign language phrase can be an effective way to add a bit of local colour to your piece and flesh out your character as well.

As with everything, use it sparingly. Reading entire passages in local patois can be exhausting. And be sensitive in using it too. You don’t want to come across and patronising or condescending.

Keep it appropriate to your character

While something someone famous once said might perfectly sum up a situation you find yourself in during your travels, it is extremely unlikely a local will recite that quote to you word for word. Why would they? Their own thoughts and experience are much more interesting and relevant. 

Keep things appropriate for the situation you're in. That Sri Lankan fisherman you met may well be up to date with the comings and goings of the Kardashians, for example, but it will be far more powerful if he talks about the things that affect him and his livelihood – like local politics and pollution in the ocean.

Dialogue tags are your friend

Dialogue tags are like signposts, telling the reader which character is speaking and how they are doing it. In its most basic form it’s simply ‘he said/she said’. But throw in an adjective or an adverb and a whole new world opens up.

All of a sudden your character can shout, whisper, exclaim or murmur, adding new depth to your story and your characters with a single word. You can even extend your tags into longer phrases describing action or context.

For example: “I don’t know where your camera is,” he said guiltily, eyeing the room for the nearest exit.

It’s OK to be indirect

It doesn’t all have to be quoted directly. Sometimes the person may have taken a roundabout way to get to their killer quote but it is still needed for context. Consider summing it up with an indirect quote to give your quote context in an economical and effective way.

Like in this example: She told me that things had been hard for her family since the new year. “The crops failed,” she explained. “I cannot feed my children.”

Finally, enjoy!

One of the unexpected delights of introducing dialogue to your writing, is how much ‘listening’ for it adds to your travels. Like a certain smell or a certain song can take you back to a particular time and a place, so too can a certain phrase or snatch of conversation.

I spent New Year’s Eve with a mate in a local bar in Malindi in Kenya. On the way back from the bar, he was waylaid by a lady who insisted on dancing with him in a rather suggestive manner. Noticing the terrified look on his face, she lent in and hissed, I don’t wanna f*** ya, I just wanna welcome you to Kenya. 

Like I said, you couldn’t make up better.

Discover Peter's travel writing

In addition to writing for, and hosting his new podcast No Shitting In The Toilet, Peter Moore has authored seven beloved travel books, published by Penguin Random House.

Expect tales of mishaps and misadventures around the world, including Central America, Africa, Italy, Australia and beyond. You can download his ebooks for as little as 99p here.

Buy The Books

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