Despite the conventional wisdom, we believe science isn’t a uniquely hard subject to tell stories about. In fact, experiments often perfectly model a narrative structure: a researcher knows a lot about their field (background), but after reading a paper realizes there’s an unexplored question that needs answering (trigger), so they design, conduct, and analyze an experiment, often with lots of missteps and re-starts (action), until they get a result that either adds new, often transformational understanding to what they already knew, or reveals that their line of inquiry was flawed (change). Still, there are some aspects of science that make it more difficult to tell stories about compared to, say, sports.
Jargon is one common problem. Many scientific communication trainings focus on eliminating jargon, but we think it’s not as big of a deal as most people make it. It’s true that science is full of specialized language, but so are Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and Star Wars. We believe that spending a lot of time eliminating jargon entirely isn’t productive. If a story is good enough, your audience will be willing to learn enough to keep up with the story. Thus, our advice is for you to help people learn as they go. You should use the simplest English possible to explain most concepts the first time they come up, but don’t shy away from defining important scientific words and using them later in context.
Relatable characters, however, are the main challenge in science storytelling. Traditional stories have main characters who move the audience through the stages of a narrative by taking certain actions and undergoing change along the way. This isn’t always the case in science stories. Sometimes, especially if a study is innovative, the main character is the researcher or research team. But that doesn’t always work because the scientific method is designed to eliminate the human error and bias that drives most narratives forward.
As a result, the characters in a science story can be unique. They can be the subjects of a study, particularly in the case of animal studies. They can be large datasets. They can even be concepts like evolution or spacetime. When you choose a main character who isn’t a person, you lose some of the motivation that typically connects events in a story together and imparts meaning. After all, you can’t say that evolution chose to happen in a particular way, or that it learned something and changed as a result because it doesn’t make choices and it doesn’t change, it just happens. Without a central character whose choices take us through context, need, process and lesson, the author is basically back to explaining what happened step-by-step, at which point the narrative loses meaning. This is, quite frankly, what makes many popular science stories boring.
We believe that most science is fascinating in its own right. It just requires expertise to show an audience why it’s fascinating. That’s why instead of searching for relatable hooks, we rely on an expert narrator: you. The key to telling a good science story is understanding that even if the main character isn’t itself capable of change, like spacetime, our shared understanding of the character is. As an expert in the field, your job is to show the audience at every step in the narrative how our understanding is changing and why that change is important, interesting, exciting, and meaningful. Often times, that means letting your own feelings about the work shine through.
In the first part, background, your job is to zoom out and introduce the main character (or idea, concept, etc.) you’ll be talking about and show why it’s interesting. This can be incredibly difficult because, as an expert, you probably take as a given a lot of things that unfamiliar audiences will find fascinating.
In the next section, trigger, your job is to talk about what question, thesis, or discovery within the larger topic you’ll address, how the need to explore this question arose, and why exploring it is important, exciting, and truly needed.
In the action section, you’ll take the audience through how the need was addressed in the study. Popular science writers often shy away from this piece, because it involves diving deep into methodology that can be dense. We find that when done right, the methodology can actually be fascinating, because each step in an experiment is itself a mini-story: “we have this data, but to draw a conclusion we needed to do this, so we tried this, and we found this new info!” At each step along the way, you have a chance to introduce your audience to new interesting contexts, needs, and processes.
Finally, in change, your job is to zoom back out and re-contextualize the results (or failure to find results) and how it changes our understanding of the topic. Once again, the audience is relying on you to tell them why this change in understanding is important or meaningful.
Again, adapting to this way of thinking is going to take some time and repetition. So don’t be discouraged if this feels a bit abstract – let’s get you some practice.
Exercise 1: Narrate Your Science
For this lesson, choose a recent (maximum of six months old) scientific paper you read and found noteworthy. It can be one of your own, something from your field, something you heard about at a lab meeting, or something you found on Twitter. It just has to be recent and noteworthy. Then, using the understanding you now have about science storytelling, fill out each section for that paper. We’ve included guidance specifically tuned to science for each section.
We recommend that you copy and paste this template into a Word/Google/Pages document so that you can fill it in as you go.
Add a link or DOI here. Pre-prints are ok, as long as you disclose that they are not yet peer-reviewed.
Describe the “character” you’ve chosen to focus on. If the character isn’t a human, explain why you’re qualified to narrate the piece. This may not be included in the final piece, but it will help your thinking.
Introduce the bigger picture to your audience. You might think the study is important and exciting, but that’s because you already know the bigger picture – including the scientific, historical, cultural, and regional significance. What should everyone know about this central idea?
What’s the big opportunity, thesis, discovery, or question you’ll be discussing, and why is it important? This is where you hook the audience with a goal to solve that will keep them hooked for the rest of the story.
How did researchers answer the need? What tools and methods did they use? How did one understanding lead to another? What excitement, frustration, etc. might they have experienced along the way?
Zoom back out. What did researchers find, how did it advance our understanding, and why does that matter to you, to science, or to humanity? What does the future hold for this line of inquiry?
Turning this exercise into a publishable Lab Note:
Lab Notes are short stories shared by the scientists in our community. Now that you've completed this exercise, you're ready to submit your own Lab Note.
Now, delete the headings () and read your note from start to finish. You can even read it out loud if that helps you. Does it need transition sentences between the major parts of the story? Is it longer than 350 words? Make the changes you think it needs. Please make sure you remember to add a link to the study you're writing about, as well as links for your other facts included in the story! We'll let you know if we're going to publish it, or why it's not quite right.
Ready? Submit your Lab Note!