Storytelling is a useful tool for science communication and also academic communication. How so?
That’s something I have been trying to figure out and apply over the past four years.
There are three major aspects to classical storytelling: the acts, the suspense arc, and the character arc.
Research articles or presentations do indeed follow the classic “3 Act” story structure.
Classical Story in 3 Acts
Act 1: Setup
Act 2: Actions & Outcomes
Act 3: Resolution
Typical Research Article
2: Experiments & Outcomes
I am pretty sure most researchers agree this structure makes sense. You need to understand the context and the research question, before you can follow the logic of the approach, understand the findings, and finally follow the big conclusion of the study.
It also roughly reflects the process:
We learn about a subject (Act 1), find something missing (inciting incident), develop a research approach, make observations or experiments (Act 2), and ponder what it all means and where to go from there (Act 3).
When communicating this, we strategically leave out details that don’t add to the understanding of the conclusion and how it was reached. Such details would confuse the reader, they might stop reading the article, and you won’t be cited.
Scientists also appreciate a good arc of suspense, although many researchers won’t admit it.
A typical suspense arc:
Often before act 1 even begins, we get a glimpse of what is going to happen. Something that will make you think “this is going to be good”. This increases our baseline suspense.
During the setup in act 1, the suspense is low until something unexpected happens that threatens the harmony. The stakes are rising, plans and decisions need to be made.
In act 2, suspense escalates. The protagonists overcome a series of obstacles. Each obstacle bigger and with higher stakes than the previous, and for each one the protagonists are less prepared. Desperation intensifies, the small victories increasingly seem to only delay the inevitable demise.
Between the obstacles we get to catch some breath, but we won’t be at ease as we were in act 1. At the midpoint we have a major crisis. Suspense climaxes as the hope for a good outcome drops and the risks skyrocket. The protagonists are stuck and need a new strategy. Suspense climaxes as they are about to face the final obstacle – the “boss fight”.
In Act 3 we enjoy the big relief as suspense drops to the original level. The world has changes, but it is not threatening, anymore… for now.
Scientists do this, too. We love to present experiments from easiest to most difficult or from most trivial outcome to most surprising. It makes didactic sense to move from easy to difficult and from simple to complex, or to follow a logical sequence. But raising the difficulty (or stakes) and have each step necessitate the next also makes a story engaging. And having to change your mind and your approach is also part of the most impressive research.
You don’t have developing protagonists in research articles (not explicitly).
This is probably why I – transitioning from research to communication – had the most difficulty seeing how character arcs can play a role in science communication.
This is the typical character development arc:
In act 1, the protagonist lives their long-established everyday life. We get to know them and their desires, their goals in life, their friends, peers and mentors. We connect with them, emotionally. Then something happens. The protagonist is pushed to act.
In act 2A, the protagonist approaches the issue as their usual self, and it seems to work out fine, until they realize: actually no. Not at all. But they are committed or even forced to pursuing their desired goal. (midpoint / crisis / turning point).
In act 2B, the protagonist’s previous self has proven inadequate. They lose the ground under their feet. Struggling to keep their head above the water, they barely overcome the next hurdles. They (almost) fail each challenge before achieving a small victory. But they don’t get the upper hand and the challenges keep escalating (suspense arc). This experience changes them profoundly. They become better equipped for the final conflict. And finally, they succeed in the biggest and final challenge.
In act 3, we reflect on what just happened. How did the protagonist change? How does this impact their surroundings? What lays before them? Often the character figures out that they didn’t get what (they thought) they wanted. Instead they got what they needed.
If you have any degree or finished any original research project, please re-read the character arc while thinking of your time working on the degree. Doesn’t this fit quite well? Every scientist went on a “hero’s journey”!
Protagonists in Science Communication
So, when telling a biographical story for science communication, there is potential for a character arc – if that personal information is available. And it would make your narration more interesting by giving it another layer.
But, there are other ways to introduce protagonists into science communication:
You might tell the story of a fictional character that finds out the things the audience should learn. Another approach is to turn the subject itself into a person. Just think of the talking organs in children’s books. For wildlife documentaries they may cut scenes together to tell a little anecdote as it may happen in the wild, using voice over. Then, the animal is the protagonist.
No Protagonist? No problem.
At its core, the protagonist acts as a stand-in for the audience. The audience is supposed to empathize with the protagonist to experience the story vicariously.
This means that you can also look at the character arc as the change your audience should experience over the course of the story. If there is no protagonist, then you and your audience can be the protagonists!
You introduce an original state of mind that you imagine the audience to have (“You probably think that…”, “Wouldn’t it be great if”, “I wonder …”). Then you walk them through the story: you investigate the subject, it becomes more and more difficult and complicated, you bring up hypotheses and tear them down again. In the end, you changed your mind, got not what you wanted but something more profound, and reflect on what this means.
This process can just as well be informed by the hero’s journey as a story with an actual protagonist.
Is Storytelling Manipulative?
A lot of people think storytelling was only for fiction, and that it is manipulating or even lying to the audience. Well, I like to say “all communication is an attempt at manipulating people”, but that’s maybe not helpful, in this context.
Obviously, science communication should not trick people into believing things that aren’t backed by evidence. Trying to create an engaging piece should not take precedence over communicating the actual state of research and the current scientific consensus.
But we also need to keep the audience tuned in to the story to get our message across. And I think understanding the techniques of fiction writers will help achieve that goal.