Assemble demi-gods of the science writing pantheon like Maryn McKenna, Ed Yong, and Helen Pearson to talk about narrative, get the Guardian’s Alok Jha to moderate, and you know it’s going to be a session rich in tradecraft. That’s just what went down at 2 pm on a sweltering Wednesday in June at the World Conference of Science Journalists in Helsinki.
The conversation ranged from Pearson’s description of writers disappearing into the Features Dark Place (the paralyzing overwhelm that hits with too much material) to Yong’s paranoia about missing details during in-person interviews (he doubles up recording devices, using an iPhone and a LiveScribe pen wedged between his 4th and 5th fingers while holding a notebook and taking notes). And three important themes emerged: time, structure and rewards.
McKenna kicked off the session by saying that time is the most important tool for crafting narrative. “Time converts a potential topic into a story,” she said. Give yourself lots of time at every step of the process: conception, research, reporting and writing.
This means taking the time to identify the array of characters—choosing the right ones and drilling down enough to know they will be useful. Go different places with them to experience them experiencing their environment. Give yourself the time to get enough face-to-face, sensory and experiential details. And enough time spent in the company of your characters to ask the same question four or five times. [Doug Fox (bio) offers additional tips on reporting for narrative in chapter six of our book.]
In a recap of the session on Wired Science’s Superbug, McKenna wrote: “You can only capture the scenes, dialogue and descriptions that drive excellent narratives if you’re present for them — and they offer themselves up on their schedule, not yours.”
Writers need to ask how they can use time to better structure a story. “Narrative is just stuff happening over time,” Pearson said.
So, do we tell a tale linearly—over a lifetime, a multi-year research project, a narrow window of hours? Or do we jump back and forth through time to better organize the story, injecting drama and tension, in the same way that we might chose to move up and down the ladder of abstraction?
Yong said that unearthing the right structure for a story has been one of his steepest learning curves in the past two years. But what he has discovered is that really sweating the planning stage tends to pay off with greater ease in the writing phase.
He plans at different levels, thinking about larger motifs—the broader macro events and environments that might be propelling a story’s action—and then moves to the micro details, thinking about acts and scenes. He worries about flow. And considers where to put the most colorful detail and how to best deploy breaks big and small in time, concept and geographical location. (For more tips on structuring, take a look at Michelle Nijhuis‘ chapter in the Handbook.)
Transitions can be “really hard,” Yong said. So he writes, “awesome linking sentence TK” in his draft and comes back to it later. Often, the extra time and perspective helps to clarify what kind of transition, if any, is needed.
For a reader to stay with you is a big commitment, McKenna warned. So, you had better reward them for their effort. This harkens back to Roy Peter Clark’s “Gold Coins” writing tip (#32; which I covered in this post).
McKenna tries to give readers a payoff at the end of each section, offering up a gift roughly every 500 words. But writers need to vary the “charge” of those rewards, she said, and have to work harder to keep interest going at the end of 2,000, 4,000, 10,000 words. The longer the section, the juicier the reward required.
Think back to your reporting, Pearson suggested. What details grabbed you, led you in, surprised you? Those intimate scenes, jaw-dropping quotes, telling vignettes and startling facts are all potential gold-coin moments. Knowing at the outset that you’ll need to serve up these special tidbits to your readers, allows you to keep your eyes and ears open for them during reporting.
Which brings us back to the interconnectedness of time and planning. Be open to serendipity, McKenna counseled. If you give yourself enough time then when something exciting or quirky happens, you’ll recognize it and be relaxed enough to follow where it leads. Time, it turns out, is the magic foo-foo dust of exceptional narrative.
Photos: WCSJ on flickr; Ed Yong.