The Hero’s Journey, Part 4: Concept-Driven Nonfiction

Water rising from the treetops.

Last time (minus that pesky interruption), we looked at how a character-driven hero’s journey gets constructed in nonfiction. Today, we’ll take a look at a different common usage in science: the concept-focused hero’s journey. Compared to character-focused examples, this type is a little more subtle, but as you’ll see, it’s very common. For today’s deconstruction, I’m using a video from Be Smart (hosted by fellow scientist and science communicator Joe Hanson), which you should watch before reading onward:

The Concept-Driven Hero’s Journey

The concept at the heart of this video is water transport, especially in the skies over continents. Even though the video is quite short, it still uses a hero’s journey format to explore this topic, beginning with The Ordinary World:

The 4-part Hero's Journey.
Our four-part hero’s journey.

The Ordinary World

As laid out in the video’s introduction (i.e., the segment before the title sequence), we’re used to thinking of the Amazon River as the largest river on Earth. It moves enormous amounts of water on a daily basis — as much as 20% of the world’s daily river discharge. But, as Joe Hanson points out, this isn’t actually the largest river on Earth; that distinction belongs to the skies above Amazonia.

In terms of runtime, this section is incredibly short — only about 30 seconds long — but it fulfills several important functions in the story. It:

  • Introduces the primary topic in the context of our current understanding (the Amazon is the largest river on Earth)
  • Gives big picture context to the issue (the Amazon river basin transports X amount of water)
  • And raises a question to hook viewers into the journey (there’s actually a bigger river than the Amazon, but it’s in the sky)

To draw listeners into your science story, you want to have this same kind of quick, intriguing introduction to the topic. Tell people what’s known, why it’s important, and what the big question is as concisely (and interestingly!) as you can.

The Transformational Journey

As in many Hero’s Journey examples, this segment of the story is the longest. Joe walks viewers through several big scientific topics — how trees transport water from their roots to the sky (transpiration), how raindrops form and grow around particles (nucleation), how fewer particulates in the air actually creates more rain, and how trees release chemicals to help feed this sky river to generate rain. This journey, following water from tree roots up into the sky, culminates in the Revelation, which we’ll discuss shortly.

This section of the video is packed with scientific content, but it’s all discussed in the context of this river in the sky concept. Many of the topics are covered without using a formal scientific name (e.g., transpiration) because that jargon could distract viewers from the story’s focus. This video isn’t a deep-dive on transpiration; the audience doesn’t need every detail of that process to appreciate the story that the video is telling. This lesson is an important one for scientists; we love to live in the details of these processes — that’s our bread and butter — but our audiences don’t always need all of that information. Instead, we have to ask ourselves just how much we need to include for audiences to follow the story. If it’s not strictly necessary, chances are that you should leave it out.

The Revelation

In Be Smart’s video, the scientific story culminates with the idea that trees and forests create 90% of the water vapor found over continents, and they’re capable of creating their own weather, thanks to the atmospheric rivers they feed.

Note that there’s not a super clear delineation between The Revelation and the sections that precede and follow it. That’s okay. The audience doesn’t need you to announce, “This is the big idea,” when the structure of your narrative tells them that intuitively.

The Return

Finally, the video concludes with a subtle Return, in which Joe lays out what this Revelation means in the larger context of the world. Although there’s more to it than this one line, this section is exemplified by Joe’s observation that the Amazon is often called the “lungs of the world” but really it acts more like a heart, pumping water into the sky and priming the weather.

This section pulls the story back out to the big picture. It acknowledges how what we’ve learned is different from the water cycle as it’s normally taught, and it puts the new knowledge into the context of the wider world. It helps the audience immediately slot the information they’ve learned into their understanding of the world. That sense of completion is important on several levels:

  • First, it signals to the audience that the story is complete. This brings a level of psychological satisfaction for viewers.
  • Second, it tells the audience what was important about this story. The conclusion not only reiterates the major idea of the story, it also places that knowledge in the context of the wider world. That can make the conclusion more memorable for the audience, and it lets them know why it was important to listen to the full story. It lets them know that their time and attention were well spent.

Bottom Line

As you can see, there’s a lot of storytelling power packed into this relatively short video. That concision makes for a potent package, whether you’re making a YouTube video or giving a pitch for your work. Fitting all of this information into only a couple minutes is a big challenge, which is why it’s all the more important to understand what the ingredients for this kind of story are.

That said, concept-driven hero’s journeys don’t have to be short and they don’t have to be aimed only at general audiences. Here are a few more examples you can explore:

  • Radiolab’s Color episode
  • Phase Mechanics Video series 1, 2, and 3 – I produced this video series with a client, and we constructed each video, as well as the series as a whole, to follow a hero’s journey format. The intended audience is researchers (and students) who study gels

You’ll also find the concept-driven hero’s journey outside of science, especially in video essays like those from channels like Wisecrack and Pop Culture Detective.

Once you know the signs, you’ll probably see this narrative style everywhere you look. Got any more examples? Let me know in the comments and I’ll collect them for everyone’s benefit.

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(Image credit: rainforest – S. Luk; Hero’s Journey – N. Sharp; video credit: Be Smart)

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