Storytelling in Science: How do Stories Work?

Written by Joe Ballenger

Throughout my SciComm career, I’ve told a lot of stories about science. I’ve been active in online science outreach for 10 years, and I’ve written hundreds of blog posts across about a dozen different websites.

However, I’ve never considered myself an expert in the topic. In school I had a lot of writing classes, but they always focused on the type of writing that was perceived to be beneficial to a career in science. Things like grant writing, and scientific paper writing were on the top of the list…but I never got any training in creative writing.

I feel like this is really important. I’m going to be writing a post about invasive species soon, and in this post, I’ll be telling the story of how this species spread across the world and what it means to people. These sorts of stories are really important to writing about science, and I’ve always wanted to improve my storytelling. I’ve been doing my own research, but I wanted to ask someone who knows a lot more about this then I do.

This desire to become a better writer convinced me to reach out to a professional filmmaker, Michael Tucker. Tucker runs a YouTube Channel called Lessons From the Screenplay. We had a short conversation about how scientists tell stories, and I wanted to take this as an opportunity to review what I learned.

You can watch the video above, or read my reflection, and I’ll also post some of the videos we mentioned specifically.

Lessons Learned

The Elements Which Make a Good Story

Stories, in general, focus on the journey of a protagonist overcoming some sort of obstacle. When we write about insects, we’re typically writing about some sort of obstacle to their survival…or an obstacle they present us with. The details of the story, how these obstacles are overcome, is where a lot of the biology we talk about comes into play.

Turning Bugs into Characters

One of the things which draws me to bugs is that they’re very different from people, but this also makes them difficult to write about. After all, if they don’t resemble people biologically…how can you create a story that makes people appreciate them?

We can take what they do, and use those traits to make parallels. A good example of a writer doing this is Lou from the movie Nightcrawler. The character is written to be nearly inhuman in motivation, but still displays a number of traits we consider positive. We’re not supposed to like him, but we do have a sort of respect for him which is based more on certain traits than him as a person. I think a good example of this happens when we write about cockroaches. Cockroaches are amazing survivors, and do a lot of neat things. The resilience of cockroaches is something everyone admires, even if we hate them in our kitchens.

Insects are really complex, and this complexity is what makes them so cool.

Flow of Information in Stories

I had the idea for this question after watching this video by Kurt Vonnegut directly after the Ex Machina video:

Tucker also mentions this video from the channel Every Frame a Painting, which I also think gets to the heart of how to structure a story:

Stories are driven by empathy, and events which happen in the story revolve around changes in the character’s situation. In his video for Game of Thrones, Tucker refers to these as value transitions. If we graph out a story, as Vonnegut does above, these value transitions would be the changes in the shape of Vonnegut’s graph.

These value transitions should never feel random. Instead, when we share information in stories, the information should be used to explain why and how the transitions of values are happening.

The Types of Stories we Tell

One book that’s been influential to my writing style is Christopher Booker’s Seven Basic Plots. I personally split them a bit differently than he does, but I’ve always been really taken with the idea that there are a finite number of story types.

A lot of the stories we tell revolve around a central character who has some sort of objective, or some big obstacle. The bigger the stakes, the more interesting the story…so long as the stakes aren’t so great as to remove you from the story. In the video for The Dark Night, Tucker explores this idea further.

There’s a bunch of different ways to complete the goal of It’s important to choose a type of story to which people can relate. The type of story you’re telling doesn’t actually matter so much as the ability of the audience to connect with your characters, and for science writers, your subject matter.

Avoiding Jargon in Your Stories

One of the hidden influences in this post are the observations of Alan Alda, who notes that scientists use jargon when talking to the public. I’ve never been sure if this was a obstacle (as Alda believes) or a benefit akin to the language used to build the cultures in the worlds in the stories of JR Tolkein or George RR Martin.

Tucker’s advice is to pay attention to the language you use, but also to not get caught up in this debate. Your audience can get the meaning of a word, if they can learn it from the context of your work. George RR Martin, JR Tolkein, Gene Roddenbury and George Lucas have also successfully used language to create interest around their respective franchises by using it to create a rich world with lots of trivia.

The fact that scientists speak a different language is hard to work around, but there are several approaches which can be used to do so. The hard language shouldn’t always be the cornerstone of your work, but it’s something which can bring a benefit if used correctly.

The Bottom Line

The idea that scientists can learn from the entertainment industry isn’t new-it’s the thesis of Alan Alda’s work in SciComm that he began more than a decade ago. At conferences, we frequently throw around the word edutainment-a combination of the words ‘education’ and ‘entertainment’.

I hope that the conversation Tucker and I had a few days ago can compliment his work. When Tucker began Lessons From the Screenplay, he wanted to create a good storytelling resource…and his channel has been a great success because it gives great advice that transcends the boundaries of our respective fields.

There’s a number of ways that scientists can connect to the public, and it all begins with the stories we tell. Speaking for myself, I feel my exposure to this area has been limited…and I hope that the advice Tucker gives in the video above will help scientists develop their ability to share their ideas in new and interesting ways.

Videos Referenced/Works Cited:

Ex Machina- The Control of Information


NightCrawler-Empathy for the Antihero

Game of Thrones-How to Evoke Emotion

The Dark Knight-Creating the Ultimate Antagonist

Alan Alda-The Art of Science Communication

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