9 March 2020

Storytelling basics: The meat and ornaments of a story

Posted by Shane Hanlon

This post is part of a mini-series on storytelling in the sciences. Find part one of the basic story arc here. By Shane M Hanlon

Did you ever have a great idea, start that idea, then life hits you and that idea gets sidelined? That’s what happened w/ this series. But, I’m back, and there’s so much more storytelling to talk about!

Last time, I outlined the basic story arc. And this structure is an important backbone to storytelling (and, frankly, can take many forms) but it’s not the whole story (Ha. Get it?!). This time I’m talking about I’m diving into what make a story special.

People: All stories have people, or at least a thing of interest. Some that the reader/viewer/listener/etc. will care about. Someone/thing for them to latch on to. What’s Harry Potter without Harry? Alien without Ripley? Lassie without, well, Lassie?

Suspense, tension, intrigue: I.e. “What happens next?” There’s a reason that folks talk about the book they can’t put down. It’s because a good story keeps us interesting; keeps us searching for that next thing. Will Daenerys conquer Westeros? Will the Avengers be able to undo “The Snap”? How is Palpatine still alive (that last one is a bit controversial…).

Compelling, vivid, sensory details: Think about things we can touch, see, hear, smell, etc. This is especially important in audio and print stories where we can’t actually see things as they’re described. But even in film or television, describing how something smells can be really compelling. Think about Empire Strikes Back when Han cuts open a Tauntaun to put a frozen Luke inside to keep him warm, uttering the phrase, “…and I thought they smelled bad on the outside.” We have no idea what that smell is but we know it’s bad.


Ornaments: These are the things that make a story special. Or maybe even the small parts that make it more accessible. Thinking about the language and words we use when telling stories can go a long way to making a story more engaging. The use of metaphors and social math can engage with a storytelling audience. For example, when gravitational waves were first detected, Sarah Kaplan and Be Guarino of the Washington Post described the process as, “That violent collision shoots jets of radioactive matter into space, as though someone had smashed their palm on a tube of toothpaste with holes at both ends.” I’ve never done this, but I can picture it and it’s a pretty accurate representation of how we visualize gravitational waves.

So, now I talked about the bones, meat, and ornaments of a story. That’s it, right? Nope. Stay tuned for more storytelling tips and tools!

-Shane M Hanlon is the Program Manager of AGU’s Sharing Science Program. Find him @EcologyOfShane