The following is the third and final installation in a three-part series on practical storytelling, helping to give researchers, scientists and authors some actionable tips and background to begin to craft their own science stories. For more information, please contact us here at Before the Abstract.
Written by Alexander Brown
You probably recall sometime early in life sitting in an elementary-school classroom and learning about how to compose a story. Beginning, middle, and end. Right? For many of us, those lessons in primary and secondary school, and maybe even in undergrad, were a very long time ago and at an earlier stage than advanced science curricula. But as we begin to craft stories of our own, and especially if we are doing so with professional goals in mind, it is helpful to review the basics of effective story structure.
A basic story structure has—you guessed it—a beginning, a middle and an end. However, if we examine the practices of screenwriters, authors and other professional storytellers, there are other equally important elements that help to move a story along, and which help us to construct these narratives in a calculated, structured way.
- Beginning: The natural tendency of almost EVERYONE is to give an elaborate backstory and context before starting on the real meat of a story. This is a mistake. The story should really begin shortly before the action starts to take place, some brief background serving only to set the scene. This is especially true for when we are telling stories in a professional setting, often with limited time and attention spans. If we don’t follow this rule, we run the risk of muddling our message or losing our audience’s focus with too much background. So start when the action kicks off, which brings us to…
- The Inciting Incident: This is a term often used in screenwriting meaning the moment that the events of a story are set into motion. This can be as simple as receiving a phone call, or something as dramatic as a plane crash (though I hope that is not where your story begins). Whatever it might be, this is the moment when the problem our characters have to solve begins to emerge.
- Obstacles: Stories are really about conflict and struggle (and change, but more on that later). If stories weren’t about struggle or obstacles, they would be pretty boring, right? Think of your favorite book or movie. I bet the characters had to overcome some pretty extreme obstacles in the course of that narrative to arrive at where they ended up. The struggle of our characters is what compels us to identify with them, connect with their plight and make meaning for ourselves in our own lives. It is critically important that the characters in our stories do not just encounter a straight road to success.
- Turning Point: Not to be confused with the climax of a story, the turning point is really the moment past which nothing will ever be the same. It usually comes about three quarters of the way through a book or film. Our characters may have already struggled and overcome some incredible odds, but this is the moment when they can never go back.
- Climax: Following our turning point there is usually another set of challenges that we go through which eventually lead us to the place we were inevitably headed—the climax. This is when it all comes to a head. It is the confluence of all the things that have led us to this point. It is when the sun rises over the hill and Gandalf comes riding over the ridge with the Knights of Gondor (excuse me for The Lord of the Rings reference if you are unfamiliar). It is the moment of truth.
- The End: In the same way the beginning should come just before the inciting incident, so should the end come shortly after the climax. Do not leave a lot of time in between the two, but rather, make the end short, snappy and memorable. Use this opportunity to describe the whole new world in which our characters find themselves, and bring our audience to the moral of the story, which is to say, why your work is so important.
- Rising/Falling Actions: These are the areas in between critical junctures where the tension and drama builds, or falls, dependent on where we are in the story. This is the place where we either set the scene for our next obstacle, or describe how the world has changed after we overcome our last challenge.
- Change, Change, Change: I cannot overstate this enough. As I mentioned above, stories are ultimately about change. They are about how our worlds transform, and about how we get to states of understanding or being. If we end up exactly where we began, well then what was the point of our trials and tribulations? Our audience expects the payoff of something waiting on the other side of the narrative arc, so it helps to always think about how each moment of the story leads them to that end.
As an example, allow me to paraphrase a popular story that we likely all know—Cinderella. And for the sake of our global audience, I am using the American Disney version since that is most familiar to me.
- We start out at the beginning with Cinderella as an indentured servant to her wicked stepmother and stepsisters (BEGINNING).
- Until there is a knock at the door (INCITING INCIDENT).
- It appears the Prince is having a ball to select his bride. But of course, Cinderella’s stepmother and sisters will not let her go. Without a means to get to the ball, Cinderella is stuck (OBSTACLE 1).
- Until of course her fairy Godmother whips up a gown and a coach with all the trimmings, and Cinderella flies off to the ball. Once she is there she meets the Prince and they dance. It is at this point that nothing will ever be the same now that the Prince has met Cinderella and fallen in love (TURNING POINT).
- However, the clock strikes 12 and Cinderella must race home, losing that glass slipper on the staircase. The Prince is left alone, and Cinderella’s life goes back to normal. That is until the Prince dispatches his men to find that girl. But when they arrive at Cinderella’s home she is locked away, almost missing her chance (OBSTACLE 2).
- Until some wily mice steal the key and release Cinderella, allowing her to storm the room and slip her food into that glass slipper (CLIMAX).
- Finally, she is reunited with Prince Charming and they live happily ever after, proving that true love conquers all (END).
While it may seem trite, the fairy tale does follow a simple structure that is easy to understand. I suspect your experiences are likely far more complicated. But by transforming your journey and your work into a dramatic, narrative arc, you can connect with audiences more deeply, make meaning for those who might never have had the chance, and turn your research into a true Cinderella story.
Alexander Brown has worked in public relations and communications for more than 15 years, and has coached dozens of storytellers including c-suite executives, graduate students and researchers. During his time at Springer Nature he presented on this and other communications topics for both internal and external audiences, including customers, fellow Springer Nature employees and industry trade organization members. Alex was also a co-founder of Springer Nature Storytellers, and the Before the Abstract platform.