Storytelling is a powerful tool, though it’s often an unfamiliar one for scientists. Since I just wrapped up my series on the Hero’s Journey in Nonfiction last week, I’d like to share another of my storytelling secrets with you this week: Jack Hart’s Storycraft (non-Amazon affiliate link).
The book is billed as a “complete guide to writing narrative nonfiction.” What is narrative nonfiction? It’s essentially the art of telling true, real-life stories in an engaging manner. Think of feature-length magazine articles or history books that make you feel like you’re there as the events unfold. What good is this to scientists? As Hart explains in the first chapter (emphasis mine):
I’m also not surprised by the scientific evidence that most human beings have a better grasp of narrative than other forms, that narrative delivers a clearer message to the majority of readers, and that readers prefer narrative presentations. Research also demonstrates that we remember facts more accurately if we’re exposed to them in a story, rather than a list […]Jack Hart, Storycraft
In other words, audiences prefer narratives, derive a clearer message from them, and remember the facts (i.e., the science) better when delivered as part of a narrative. Thus, narrative nonfiction is an excellent tool for telling stories about science.
Hart’s guide breaks down story elements chapter-by-chapter, considering narrative structure, voice and style, character, point-of-view, and more. He carefully highlights how narrative nonfiction differs from typical (often journalistic) reporting styles, and he thoroughly illustrates each idea with stories drawn from his own editorial experience as well as authors like Tom Wolfe, Mary Roach, and Erik Larson.
It’s an engaging and educational read; I’ve read it twice cover-to-cover and taken extensive notes, but I still expect to revisit it regularly. Every time I come back to it, I find more helpful guidance. Here’s a glimpse of one of my favorite notes:
“When the distance is great, when you step way back from the action, you write in summary narrative. When you shrink the distance, you shift into scenic narrative.”
- Reaches across Space
- Collapses Time
- Employs Direct Quotations
- Organized Topically
- Omniscient Point of View
- Deals with Outcomes
- Conveys Information
- Unfolds in One Place
- Seems to Happen in Real Time
- Employs Dialogue
- Organized Scenically
- Specific Point of View
- Deals with Process
- Reproduces Experience
Critically, emotion comes from being close to the subject and understanding comes from the bird’s eye view.
I use this note as a reminder to myself to vary my distance from the subject as I write, sometimes drawing readers in close to the action so that they connect emotionally with my character, and sometimes zooming back out to give the big picture that helps them understand why all of this action matters.
For scientists focused on telling their own stories, the first five chapters will likely be the most helpful. But for those science communicators branching into interviewing, the chapters on reporting and ethics will also be invaluable.
Though I’ve read many books on writing, Storycraft (Amazon affiliate link) is one of the few to earn a permanent spot on the shelf near my desk. It’s also one of the only ones I’ve read repeatedly. At first glance, it seems to be focused toward journalists, but there is much here to benefit scientists and science communicators. I highly recommend it to both audiences.
(Image credit: The University of Chicago Press)
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