Narratives are often engaging, accessible stories that draw a reader into the tale. Science is a fascinating realm of knowledge and discovery. Could the two not work together, to their mutual benefit? At ScienceOnline2013, an unconference-style session brought together many of today’s great science writers to explore science communication narratives, what they are and how to create them. Great reading won’t be far behind.
Once upon a time, in a land far, far away from Raleigh, North Carolina, a motley band of science folk gathered in Paris to bring the wonder of ScienceOnline2013 to the City of Light. As the Eiffel Tower cast its long, elegant shadow over the headquarters of the International Council for Science, the huddled mass of research administrators, science bloggers and scientists turned its gaze upon a livestream of the event: a discussion of the use of narrative to communicate science.
Guided by David Dobbs and DeLene Beeland, participants in Raleigh exchanged views on what defines a narrative, whether it is adapted to science writing, and how to do it effectively. The discussion revealed several necessary elements for a good narrative and tips from an impressive collection of science writers.
Characters, human or otherwise
Characters seem an obvious ingredient of narrative but they needn’t be researchers, or even people, as David Quammen’s recent piece for National Geographic showed. Sent to cover a research project monitoring and measuring giant sequoia and redwood trees, the writer related the moment at the end of the mission. The photographer documenting the affair set his camera aside and strapped himself in to climb this, the second most massive tree in the world, because he simply wanted to tell it goodbye. Though Quammen initially resisted (“I really don’t need to. This is going to be a scientific explanation...”), he decided to humor the man and do the same. Two hundred feet up, surrounded by the tree’s almost two billion leaves, he remembers thinking, “This is one of the most amazing places I’ve ever seen, but also one of the most amazing creatures I’ve ever met.” And, like that, the tree became a character.
Giant sequoia (Source: Flickr / juliejordanscott)
A series of events or ideas: It’s all narrative, in the end.
For Jennifer Ouellette, science writing is “all narrative, even when it’s explanatory. You take a complicated subject and break it down into logical steps. You ask “How did we get here?”, then walk (readers) through the backstory. It actually is very much a narrative structure,” even when the “events” driving the action are really ideas.
Scott Huler shared that narrative is almost always the default position for his writing—“It pulls me along so much more.”—although he sometimes receives complaints from editors on that point. “They don’t always want (a narrative), but I think they should.”
Among those events pushing a story along must be an attempt to overcome a problem of some kind, Maryn McKenna and Carl Zimmer agreed. “I want the protagonist to be unhappy or obsessed,” Zimmer said. “You can’t have only events or only characters.”
Detail: Keeping the reader interested
Holly Tucker recounted a tale of warning: just because you think the life and times of the guillotine would make a great story does not mean anyone else will want to read it. Maryn McKenna expanded on this point, saying that “What may enchant us when we first come across an idea for a story is a topic – the guillotine – but what’s going to engage the read, and keep them engaged, is the detail.” (Today, Holly Tucker is grateful to her agent for warning her off the project and sparing her “years of spurting blood.”)
McKenna offered the image elaborated by semanticist and U.S. Senator Sam Hayakawa of a “ladder of abstraction”, where we descend from the most abstract ideas to the very concrete. “If ‘war’ is at the top of the ladder,” she explained, “the blood on the doorstep is at the bottom. Where you keep the reader’s attention is at the bottom.”
As with so many things, the power of a successful narrative is in the details. What this means for information gathering, according to David Dobbs, is that “if you don’t have a ton of stuff you don’t use, you’re not going to have the stuff you need.”
Sometimes generating that detail takes a little imagination. For her book examining how humans will survive the next mass extinction, Annalee Newitz recalls her editor asking for “more color”, more descriptions of her visits to scientists, but in reality they were just “people with rocks.” She took a different approach from describing the 21st century data and asked the researchers to tell her what the early Triassic looked like. “Usually, you can get them to do it with a little coaxing,” and, so, it was around the deadly conditions, the raging fires and burning trees, that she was able to construct her narrative.
To close the session, David Dobbs asked participants for the images that, for them, represent narrative writing: a sonata, a sculpture, a spreading fungus growing out from a central emotional peak. Probably the most appreciated metaphor was of a game of narrative Jenga: One writer thinks of his work as building up a tower, then taking away the pieces that don’t need to be there, while still allowing the construction to stand. What better way to describe graceful, solid science writing that draws you in through its front doors and lets you walk its halls awhile.
Find out more:
“Tricks of the Trade: Narrative Writing”, a summary of the ScienceOnline discussion by co-moderator DeLene Beeland
“The crux of the matter – language, context, and narrative”, by Jon Tennant, PhD candidate and science communicator http://blogs.egu.eu/palaeoblog/2012/11/27/the-crux-of-the-matter-language-and-narrative/
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