Every Piece of Writing Tells a Story

1.3 Transcript

We usually associate stories with novels and movies. Those works are specifically written to tell a story; that is, the story is the reason they exist. While they may be communicating many other things along the way, the story is the focus, and every part of the work contributes in some way to that story.

Looking for a Story

Figure 1.4: Lord of the Rings.

Photo by Nikhil Prasad via Unsplash.

So, when we read the first line in the Lord of the Rings1 series of novels, “When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton,”2 we know we’re looking for a story.

And right away, we’ve found one! We’ve got a character with an unusual name, Bilbo Baggins. He’s celebrating his “eleventy-first birthday,” whatever that is, with a “party of special magnificence.” Everyone in Hobbiton is excited, and as readers, we are too. We’re there for the story, and the first sentence serves it up for us. Telling a story about good characters, evil characters, and their choices was Tolkien’s goal in writing those novels. Each part of the book series adds to that goal.

But if stories really are everywhere, then we need to learn to look beyond the familiar homes of stories to places where we might not normally expect them. In this course, we’ll try to make the case that every piece of writing—at least, every compelling piece of writing—tells a story. That’s as true for a fantasy novel as it is for an article in a scientific journal, as we’ll see shortly.

Every Communication Is a Story

Even more broadly, we’ll try to show that every compelling piece of communication, from a book to a movie to a press release to a news report, features elements of a story. Characters, conflicts, hooks, and stakes are parts of stories that feature in many human interactions, whether we mean for those interactions to be about a story or not. We can learn to use those story elements to make our communications compelling.

But how is that possible? How can writing or other communications use storytelling techniques when their authors aren’t really trying to tell a story?

Stories Frame Information

The answer is that stories can be the frame to communicate other pieces of information. The frame for a piece of communication is how it is presented or pitched to the audience. We can think of the frame as the packaging we use to deliver our messages. Aspects of the frame include a message’s tone, how technical it is, whether we use humor as we present it, and so on.

Other aspects of the frame include elements of storytelling. We can present any message, for example, by setting up a conflict that our message is intended to resolve, and this is true regardless of what our message actually says. We can use other parts of stories, like characters or stakes, to do the same thing.

Framing Science with a Story: DNA

Figure 1.5: DNA.

Pop Nukoonrat © 123RF.com

Let’s take a look at an example. In the 1940s and early 1950s, scientists were struggling to understand the structure of important molecules inside cells. Deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA, had been discovered in the nineteenth century, but its exact shape was still unknown. The shape of molecules, like DNA, determines some of their functions and interactions with other cells, so it was important for scientists to know more about DNA’s shape.

Then, in a landmark proposal in 1953, James Watson and Francis Crick suggested that DNA formed a double helix, or two spirals wrapping around themselves. This suggestion gave an elegant, unifying explanation for what was then known about DNA. Watson and Crick published their results in the scientific journal Nature.

Let’s take a look at the opening lines of that paper:

We wish to suggest a structure for the salt of deoxyribose nucleic acid (D.N.A.). This structure has novel features which are of considerable biological interest.

A structure for nucleic acid has already been proposed by Pauling and Corey. They kindly made their manuscript available to us in advance of publication. Their model consists of three intertwined chains, with the phosphates near the fibre axis, and the bases on the outside. In our opinion, this structure is unsatisfactory for two reasons: (1) We believe that the material which gives the X-ray diagrams is the salt, not the free acid. Without the acidic hydrogen atoms it is not clear what forces would hold the structure together, especially as the negatively charged phosphates near the axis will repel each other. (2) Some of the van der Waals distances appear to be too small.3

Now, unless you’ve recently had a course in biochemistry, some of this will be incomprehensible. But you don’t need to know what phosphates or van der Waals distances are to spot the elements of a story. The first sentence tells us the purpose of the authors’ communication, and the second sentence sets up the stakes: they’re high because DNA is so fundamental to life. The second sentence also gives a potential payoff, or reward. If the story Watson and Crick are telling is true, that payoff will be real.

The next sentences introduce two new characters, Pauling and Corey. These two researchers have proposed an alternative model for the structure of DNA. With other characters and different points of view comes conflict, and the conflict escalates as Watson and Crick immediately set forth the reasons why they think the alternative model is wrong.

So just in the first few lines of this milestone scientific paper, we see several elements of a story: characters, stakes, a payoff, and conflict. The stage has been set for Watson and Crick to share the technical details of their proposal and deliver on the promise they offer in the opening line. Those details may be inaccessible to us, but we can easily recognize and understand how storytelling is used to make the article a compelling piece of writing.

Whether we’re communicating scientific discoveries, history, or a short story about aliens, the term “story” helps us remember that we are presenting an account of characters and events to an audience. The idea of a story focuses on the fact that we are sharing messages with particular people, and since those people are disposed to understand things in terms of stories, we can use storytelling techniques to our advantage. Those techniques will benefit us no matter what messages we are sharing or what we ultimately want our audiences to receive.