Science as Story: Learning from the Best

"In 1941, a rose killed a policeman." Close-up of a flower. Photo by Paige Brown,

With a lead like that, how could you not want to find out what happens in the rest of the story? Little would you know that this story would be filled with data about the discovery of Penicillin, antibiotics, C. difficile and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. But you wouldn't mind the technical science parts - you'd just be enjoying the story.

You might know from one of my previous blog posts that I am conducting qualitative research interviews with science communicators to tease apart the ways that these writers and bloggers connect with their audiences. As I've been interviewing science communicators in various disciplines who communicate through various media, one of the themes that has emerged is science as story, or building narrative in order to communicate science. Because, who doesn't love a story, right? Who doesn't love a quirky character, tension between good guys and bad guys, a gut-gripping plot and drama, right?

"The best nonfiction science books and articles demonstrate that accurate science can be presented to the public so that it is understandable, yet as gripping as fine fiction."

Science communicators that I've interviewed have mentioned things like building up a character and humanizing the science as ways to connect with lay audience readers. The reader should feel as if they've met the scientist, for example, one of my interviewees said. How does the scientist talk? What is she wearing? What struggles does he face? What is she thinking?

Good-quality popular science writing tries to do more than just convey information: it tries to find ways to make the information memorable and enjoyable. Such science writing is a form of creative nonfiction. Some creative nonfiction is referred to as literary journalism, a style of creative nonfiction that uses storytelling techniques typical of fiction to present nonfiction stories: a plot with conflict and resolution, in-depth character delineation, extensive scene setting, immersion reporting, and a distinctive narrative voice. - Courses in Science Writing as Literature

Plot. Drama. Character-building. Analogies and metaphors. Dr. Seuss' The Lorax. These can be platforms for translating science from technical findings into something that connects with a reader not necessarily interested in "science."

"You have to show the reader, not tell the reader," another science communicator told me. Creating a vivid human embodiment of a scientific problem, the difficulty of getting a new drug into clinical trials, for example, can be a way of bridging science and public interest. Why do material science and nanotechnology research stories about invisibility cloaks work? Because people are ready to rush to the store to buy one? Maybe. Because people relate the invisibility cloak to the fascinating and capturing story of Harry Potter and his struggles and adventures at Hogwarts? More likely.

Science itself doesn't value anecdotes - you can't base science and scientific evidence on a single example or story from the field. But in science writing, an anecdote about one researcher's struggles to find a more efficient solar cell material, or an example of a patient suffering from a disease while a potential drug is delayed in clinical trials, an anecdote that provides story and characters, conflict, tension, action, and resolution, can help readers to care.

Yet, the effect of literature on a reader is subjective rather than objective; what propels literature is the anecdote rather than statistics, and the power of literature comes from the specific rather than the general. So, to convey science to the general public most effectively, science writing must use a methodology antithetical to that of science while presenting the findings and process of science accurately. - Courses in Science Writing as Literature

So you want to be a good science writer? Then get to reading Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Lewis Thomas’ The Lives of a Cell. Because people love a good story. They love drama, they want a climax, they want conflict and resolution. They want a character, not an inanimate molecule. But if you can give that molecule a deviant character, you might be on the right track.