I love taking complex concepts and breaking them down. I think that’s what first drew me to science communication. But I’ve realised I’m not a natural storyteller.
Looking back at my student journalism, it resembles academic writing in a lot of ways – there’s usually a long introduction, then a series of facts, followed by a conclusion. It’s not exactly riveting stuff.
It’s a bad habit I haven’t totally been able to shake off.
For one story during my internship, I was writing about NASA’s Airborne Sensor Facility. The science was pretty complex and I jumped right into ‘explanation mode’.
When I read it back, I felt pretty embarrassed – I’d essentially written a boring list about some really exciting science. There was no surprise or conflict.
And… But… Therefore…
I went back to the drawing board and decided to use a technique I’d first heard about at the ABSW’s UK Conference of Science Journalists (UKCSJ) in 2020.
It’s called ‘and, but and therefore’, or ABT. And it’s the quickest way to tell a story.
Check out this explanation of ABT from scientist-turned-filmmaker, Randy Olson:
It’s become quite popular in science writing and SciComm but the technique was actually popularised by South Park creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone. After writing the first draft of a script, they go back and replace all the ‘ands’ with ‘buts’ or ‘therefores’.
‘But’ introduces a sense of tension, or conflict, which helps drive a story forward.
Creating a narrative
I’m a bit nervous sharing this but you can read my initial draft here. It’s unfinished, but you can see how it’s just a series of facts connected by ‘and then… and then… and then…’. It’s not really a story.
To replace ‘ands’ with ‘buts’, I needed to overhaul the structure.
I remembered learning at UKCSJ that there’s an even simpler way to think about ABT – you should be able to tell the entire story using just three sentences.
Looking back at my draft, this is what I came up with:
California is burning
NASA’s airborne sensors assess the damage to the landscape
They’re flown at 70,000 ft where the atmosphere is very thin
Engineers came up with cool solutions to protect the pilot, sensors and data.
And that’s it! I went back and re-wrote my article to fit this structure. You can read the finished piece on NASA’s website.
If you’re a scientist or science writer and want to learn more about storytelling, you can watch the full UKCSJ session on Vimeo. It’s called ‘lessons from fiction for science writers’: