What’s the story? Presented by Jillian Walters, ffi communications Manager

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What’s the story?
Presented by Jillian Walters, FFI Communications Manager

October 2014, World Conference, Auckland, New Zealand

When a Friendship Force exchange ends, you’re left with a lot of stories. But how do you identify the stories that will move people, the stories that get at the real meaning of Friendship Force? And how do you tell those stories?
Before the exchange, you might write a press release (like a news article) about the event. If it’s a very unique and unusual event, you may get some media coverage. FFI provides guidelines for writing press releases on the website: here.
But after the exchange, you have the opportunity to truly show, through writing, how powerful and unique the Friendship Force experience can be. Writing that story is much different from writing a press release, but that story can be published immediately on your club website, sent to FFI for use on their website, shared on social media, and pitched to your local magazines, newspapers and community websites.
Below are some guidelines and some brainstorming exercises to help you start thinking and writing creatively.
What are some elements of a good story?
Brainstorm elements of a good story. You can probably think of many.







The list goes on!

Not every story has to have all of these elements. Let’s look at four main elements.

Your Friendship Force story doesn’t have to have a conflict, but it does need something I describe as “tension.” This could be:

  • facing a struggle and overcoming it

    • ex: visiting a prayer site in Guatemala, I climb a scary, steep mountain and ultimately achieve a rare cultural experience

  • exploring a question – this is unfamiliar, what is this about?

    • ex: exploring elements of spiritual life in Japan through my homestay experiences

On the exchange: Notice the tension and follow it. Where does it lead? Let your cultural curiosity lead you to discovery and personal connections!

While writing: Be honest about your feelings (you can always edit a bit later). Allow yourself to mentally process those feelings of tension through writing. You don’t have to know exactly how the story will come together in the end.

Think of a Friendship Force experience in which you felt uncomfortable or anxious – when you felt some kind of “tension.” What were you anxious about? Why? What signs and happenings along the way made you feel more or less anxious? Ultimately, what happened?

Marvel, or Wonder
Travel writer Elizabeth Gilbert, author of “Eat, Pray, Love,” said:
Here are two facts I learned long ago about travel writing:

  1. There is no story in the world so marvelous that it cannot be told boringly.

  2. There is no story in the world so boring that it cannot be told marvelously.

The purpose of the travel writer is to “infuse marvel” into the story.

On the exchange: Inhabit the spirit of wonder as you travel. Take inventory of all your senses, emotions, and be curious.

While writing: Inhabit the spirit of wonder as you write. To help you get into that mindset, draw yourself deep into the details of your memory.


Describe a memorable dish, meal or beverage – good, bad or strange. Describe the texture, color and smell as well as taste.

Describe the act of eating it – did the juices run down your fingers? Did you bless it together first? Did someone serve you?

Describe the room, the tablescape, the people eating with you.

Little details can lend a sense of reality to your setting.
On the exchange: Notice the little details that make a place unique.

While writing: Remember those details and include them. Even if you edit them out later, including them at first will help you fully recall your experiences.

On the exchange: Your mission – getting to know people. Notice their expressions, talk about their thoughts and feelings. Notice their behaviors. Jot down interesting quotes.
While writing: Reflect deeply on the people you encountered. Think about what they might say if they were writing the story with you.
What stories are we NOT writing?
News articles, usually.
What I Did On My Summer Vacation
What stories ARE we writing?
Features – human interest stories

Half travel essay, half personal essay

Connect with readers
NOT advertising destinations – don’t try to include every sightseeing highlight. Travel element is critical, but so is personal element. Therefore, don’t try to cover everything
Exception: Daily Travelogue (blog)

How do I start?

  • Exercises like the one above.

  • Recreate an image from your memory, in writing.

  • Just start – often you don’t know what the story really is until you’ve been writing for a while.

Still need help? Try one of these formulas.

Narrative formula:

Typical story

Beginning, middle, end

Intro, tension, resolution

Diamond Formula

(leads with an anecdote)

Example of diamond formula

<< Anecdotal lede
To this day, I don’t know how I summoned the courage to eat the steaming grey entrails on my plate. But I had traveled halfway around the world to experience daily life in Mongolia – I couldn’t chicken out now.

<< Factual context
One third of Mongolians live this way, as nomads. Their homes are portable and so is their livelihood, as they move around the vast steppes with their herds.

Hourglass Formula

(leads with an interesting

fact or observation)

Example of the hourglass formula

<< Summary lede (factual context)
One third of Mongolians still live the old way - as nomads, roaming the vast steppes with their herds. It seems an unbelievable fact for the 21st century. But when my husband and I arrived in Ulan Bator, we encountered the proof. Virtually everyone we met in this urban metropolis had parents living in a yurt.

<< Twist: Change to personal narrative

Our host was one such person. We were traveling as ambassadors of the Friendship Force, an organization that promotes cultural understanding by connecting travelers with host families. John had welcomed us into his urban apartment. And since our whole aim was to immerse ourselves in this foreign culture, we asked him – could we visit a nomadic family? See their home? Eat a meal with them?

Don’t forget – the most important thing is just to start writing!

Send your stories to jwalters@thefriendshipforce.org.

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