All is not as it seems.
This week, I realized something incredible. I realized that until now, I didn’t truly know what a story was. I mean, I could recognize a good story when I read one, and I encouraged my students to tell good stories when writing about science. But if you’d asked me to define story, I would have gotten the definition all wrong.
Myth: A story is plot.
Over the past few weeks I’ve been reading Lisa Cron’s Wired for Story. In the book, Cron dissects the elements that make a story a story, and it’s eye-opening.
The vast majority of writing advice focuses on “writing well” as if it were the same as telling a great story. This is exactly where many aspiring writers fail – they strive for beautiful metaphors, authentic dialogue, and interesting characters, losing sight of of the one thing that every engaging story must do: ignite the brain’s hardwired desire to learn what happens next. – Book synopsis, Wired for Story, Lisa Cron
I used to think that a good story started with a good plot. The film The Sixth Sense was so good because it had such a suspenseful plot with a twist ending, I reasoned. That and the actors were incredible.
But I was wrong. While I innately knew that The Sixth Sense was a good story, I mistook the suspenseful plot and the strong acting for the reasons why it was a good story. In fact, a plot is just the things that happen in a book, film or magazine feature. The kid sees dead people, and it gets worse before it gets better. If I handed you a written synopsis of the plot of The Notebook, I doubt you’d hand it back to me trying to fight back tears. But if you watched the film, you might well have shed one or two. But why? What makes a good story, a good story?
I find that most people know what a story is until they sit down to write one. – Flannery O’Connor
Myth: A story is defined by suspense and conflict.
Ok, so a fantastic plot alone doesn’t make a good story. Maybe what really makes a good story is suspense and conflict, like a mystery that is resolved in the end. Something bad needs to happen to get us invested in the good ending we hope will come. There must be some conflict involving characters we care about to get us invested, and we read, watch or listen to see that conflict resolved. Ok, we might be getting somewhere here.
In 1941, a rose killed a policeman.
Albert Alexander, a 43-year-old policeman in Oxford, England, was pruning his roses one fall day when a thorn scratched him at the corner of his mouth. – Carl Zimmer
Thus starts a famous science story by Carl Zimmer for National Geographic. When You Swallow A Grenade might just have one of the best one-liner ledes of any short online science story. It establishes conflict (something bad apparently will happen) and mystery (how could a rose kill someone?!). Who wouldn’t want to read on? It’s a fantastic start to a story about the discovery and use of penicillin to save lives (although sadly not the policeman’s). But is the mystery embodied in the lede what makes the story?
If we read on, we find out that Albert Alexander’s death by a rose, that mystery, is not even the crux of this story. The real story is about one persistent researcher’s life work, what it meant to him and what it means to us. The real story is Howard Florey’s struggles against the odds to change the world with his discovery of a substance that cured infections… in mice. He faced struggles along the way. For example, he was not able to produce enough penicillin quickly enough with his recipe to save Albert Alexander. But he eventually achieved his goal. He saved human lives.
But not is all as it seems, for Florey’s concerns that bacteria might adapt to his drug would eventually become a terrible reality. And thus we arrive today in the predicament that more basic antibiotic research must be done to prevent people from dying of rose thorn cuts.
And now we want to know what happens next. Will the antibiotics that work for our cuts today save us tomorrow? The story is our story now. This story’s power is the power to pull the reader along and leave them with one very powerful point.
Myth: Story is character.
I used to think that good characters, characters that seemed to jump off the page with their vividly described personalities and authentic dialogue, were what made a good story great. And to some extent, Lisa Cron shows us, this is true. Good story is character-driven. But a good character isn’t just one we can see in our mind’s eye thanks to the author’s beautiful writing. I could sit here describing to you the various attributes of the characters in The Sixth Sense or in The Notebook, and how the actors played these characters so well, and I hardly think you’d be transfixed.
But something needs to happen to these characters, you say. That’s what makes the story! But is that it?
In fact, it isn’t. A rich mixture of engaging plot, real characters, conflict and mystery, and beautiful writing can go a long way toward making a good story. But they will fall flat without the defining element of story.
Story is internal change
A story is how what happens affects someone who is trying to achieve what turns out to be a difficult goal, and how he or she changes as a result. [...] “how he or she changes” is what the story itself is actually about. – Lisa Cron, in Wired for Story
This is the secret to a good story. A good story will have us breathlessly waiting for the author to tell us, even as we foresee it ourselves deep-down, what happens next. And in order for us to want to know what happens next, we need to be able to step into the shoes of the characters, especially the protagonist. So we need a character-driven story. We need to care about the protagonist. We need an engaging plotline with conflict and suspense to keep us hinged on the author’s every word.
But more importantly, we need to feel change coming. We need to see that all is not as it seems, that something big is coming for the protagonist, and that that something will clash with the protagonist’s external goals, forcing her to face her biggest fears in order to realize her deep-seated internal goals (sometimes hidden from her sight by her external goals).
What makes that scientist tick? What motivates her? What external goal was she pursuing when she encountered something new and her whole perspective changed? Did the scientist have to fight back some inner issue – fear of being ridiculed by colleagues for presenting odd results, feelings of doubt, misguided life priorities – in order to overcome the challenges facing her and to fulfill her true goals? Now THAT would be a story – and most readers probably wouldn’t even hesitate to read the hard science-y bits, as long as they mattered directly to the protagonist’s goals.
In Ed Yong's story "How a Jellyfish-Obsessed Engineer Upended Our Understanding of Swimming," John Dabiri was pursuing a career in mechanical engineering when his perspective that biology was "not rocket science" (read: boring) was turned upside down... by a jellyfish. And his goals became to figure out exactly how the jellyfish, in a mechanical sense, swims, and to learn how to swim himself.
What does what happened really MEAN to the human scientists in this story?
We’ve come to the point in this story in which my perspective on storytelling has completely changed. I now know that story is not about beautiful writing, astute metaphors, engaging character descriptions, or even an intriguing plot. It’s fundamentally about inner change that we the readers/watchers/listeners can internalize as our own.
I challenge you with this: Take any science story, and draw out what the “what happened?” meant to the protagonist of your story (who is hopefully a human scientist – if it’s microbe, it better be an anthropomorphized microbe with goals and inner issues to face). How did the “what happened?” change the protagonist, in ways that made her face her inner issues or fears? Then highlight the details of the story, and the science, that were most meaningful to this change in perspective. Do that, and then tell me what kind of reader reaction you get.
You might just tell a science story.
I highly recommend Lisa Cron's Wired for Story!