28 September 2020

Storytelling basics: Narrative themes

Posted by Shane Hanlon

This post is part of a mini-series on storytelling in the sciences. Check out parts one and two on the bones and meat of a story, respectively. By Shane M Hanlon

All good stories follow some sort of structure and contain certain elements to make them special. That’s not entirely prescriptive but it does provide a good outline. One of the other major components of any good story, science-related or otherwise, is the adherence to a narrative theme. 

All stories follow some sort of narrative theme, whether we realize it or not. Here are some of the more common ones that stories, science or otherwise, can be told through:

  • Map of Middle Earth from Lord of the Rings. Image by Marco Ianna from Pixabay

    The quest/journey: This is one of the most popular themes in storytelling. Think about classics like Odyesseus, thrillers like Thelma and Louise, or fantasies like Lord of the Rings. In the sciences, the journey theme can be taken literally if you do field work, might pertain to work in the lab, or maybe it’s the journey to discovery that is at the core of science. 

  • The mystery: People love a good mystery. “Who did it?” is a popular theme in across literature and the screen, with Sherlock Holmes being one of the most well-known examples. But science is mysterious too. If we knew the answers to the questions we were asking, we’d all be out of jobs. 
  • A stranger comes to town: This is one I never really thought about before working in scicomm. It’s the premise that a stranger comes to town and nothing is ever the same. This theme is the core of all Westerns, as well as most horror and alien movies. The theme can also be applied to sciences, especially (but not exclusively) when it comes to things like natural hazards, zoonotic diseases, or invasive species. 
  • The coming of age/rite of passage: This is the most popular type of story. It’s about how someone became who they are. And it’s probably the easiest way to blend the sciences/non-sciences. You can talk about how you came to be a scientist, why you study what you study, how your field came to be, and more. 

These are just a handful of the many narrative themes that can be used when telling stories. Think about how your science can fit into a narrative theme to better communicate your science!

Shane M Hanlon is Program Manager of AGU’s Sharing Science program. Find him on Twitter, TikTok, and Instagram.