Narrative writing is as hard to define as porn: you know it when you see it. (Or in this case, read it.) I was lucky enough to co-moderate a session at ScienceOnline2013 with the amazing David Dobbs, a veteran writer and author, and a talented public speaker. The session grew out of last year’s ScienceOnline when I noticed people using the term “narrative” at several different discussions, but they used it in different ways. Some people referred to short news articles as narratives (can narratives really be a few hundred words?), while others used “story” and “narrative” almost interchangeably (what differentiates them?), and others treated the term “narrative” like tofu: letting it soak up whatever flavor of meaning they wanted it to.
David and I offered a working definition of sorts for the session, in which we defined narratives as an account of connected events. I think he got this straight out of the dictionary. But I liked it because it was simple and concise and broad enough to encompass many different things. A while ago, I read Jon Franklin’s Writing for Story, in which he defined narratives using classic story-telling techniques borrowed from fiction: characters, plots, conflicts and resolutions. In this narrow definition, narratives must have a central character who encounters a problem, and the problem is somehow resolved. While I truly enjoyed Franklin’s book, I find the definition a little to narrow and exclusive. Not all of the wonderful things that can be made into science narratives may have all of these elements, but they may still make wonderful and entertaining narrative stories. This is why I liked David’s broader and all-encompassing definition. (Or maybe there are two genres of narrative: the Classic Narrative Story as defined by Franklin, and the Malleable Narrative as defined by David and I.)
When David and I were preparing for the session, he said something along these lines: “If you accept that narratives are a series of connected events, then the next logical question is connected by what?” I found this to be a riveting question. It brought to mind a series of stepping stones leading across a shallow stream or brook. The stones are individual, like the events of a narrative, but they form a path and it’s up to you, the writer, to figure out how to carry the reader across the stones.
David’s definition also struck at the heart of what I struggled with for several years while writing my book on red wolves. When I first began mapping the book out, I had a gut instinct about certain landing spots along the red wolf’s story that I wanted to bring the reader to, but I grappled with how to get the story from one of these landing spots to the other. Sometimes the connections were not always apparent and took a lot of thought. Jennifer Ouellette opined that narratives could be fabricated mostly out of ideas, with the satisfactory explanation of an idea being the “event” that David and I were referring to. While I agree somewhat, I think this type of writing is very difficult to do well. Or at least to do in an engaging enough way as to compel the reader to keep going and be excited about it. This is completely subjective on my part, but adding the people who conceived the ideas or worked with them might help to make the narrative more engaging in this case. David also took time in the session to talk about other modes of writing, namely argumentation, description and exposition. He pointed out that narratives can have these other modes woven into them, but that narratives usually have their main framework constructed around one or more narratives (think: braided narratives, or parallels ones where they may not intersect but once, if at all).
We then posed a question to the audience, in true ScienceOnline un-conferencey format, and asked them to share how they go about identifying that they want to write a narrative versus an explanatory or newsy piece. The room was packed with an amazing set of writers and editors. David Quammen spoke and described how his recent piece in National Geographic on the second largest sequoia tree in the world was originally going to be an explanatory piece. But then in the process of reporting it, he was lured by the photographer Nick Nichols to climb the tree, and in the process of doing so he came to realize that it was the most “fascinating creature” he’d ever met. So he decided to make the tree a character in the story, and the story became a narrative. (If you want to watch David Dobbs interview David Quammen about his most recent book, Spillover, then go here. Quammen talks at length about the writing and reporting process.)
Scott Huler, a poet, writer, and author, had a different idea. He said that he approaches most of his writing projects as if they will be narratives unless the reporting proves otherwise. I thought this was an interesting approach. In my own case, I had chosen to use narrative in my book because at some gut level I recognized that narratives are the types of stories that I, as a reader, am most drawn to. I wanted to create that same kind of experience for readers of my red wolf book.
Next we asked the audience to talk about how they go about reporting a narrative, and how it may differ from other types of writing. Carl Zimmer spoke about doing field visits and “vacuuming up” as much detail as possible. He said he often took pictures of places—a technique Maryn McKenna seconded—because there is no way you will ever remember every detail and it’s impossible to write it all down. I think it was Charles Choi who mentioned that one of his memorably productive interviews was when he simply handed his recording mic to the source who then spoke into while Choi walked around taking pictures. (Efficient use of time and equipment.) Maggie Koerth-Baker said that she recommended renting a car (or driving your own if you own one) when you are in the field because she uses the driving time to compose and ruminate in her head. Brendan Maher mentioned always having a set of questions in his back pocket for when the conversation slows down, such as “What keeps you up at night?” and which help to get at the more human side of a source. Choi also mentioned looking at maps of wherever your story leads you, because you can find intriguing names of local roads and landmarks. (Alligator Alley in Florida comes to mind.) He once discovered a street named Blood Alley, for example. And I once found the name Frying Pan on a map, labeling a hot piece of coastal marsh right next to where I had spent a sweltering day in heavy canvas field clothes searching through brush looking for red wolf dens in early summer.
One of the common themes I picked up on at this point was that so many of the pros in the room mentioned taking down as much detail as they could see, hear, feel, smell and touch. They spoke of the need for gathering as much detail as possible because they never know what may turn out to be useful. I found this validating because when I was shadowing the red wolf biologists, I found myself writing down so much about the landscapes where we were, the flora and fauna, what people were wearing, dialogue, and so forth that I felt horribly inefficient. I would come home from trips with pages and pages and pages of observations and notes, and barely a clue as to what was useful. (After the session, Quammen told me [when I approached him to sign my beloved copy of Monster of God] that “you’re not doing your job unless you throw out 98 percent of what you accumulated.”)
Last, we asked the audience how they go about writing a narrative. Many people spoke about filtering through all the notes they’d made during their reporting, in a process of constant sifting. It seems most people tackle the writing differently. In my case, I began writing parts of the book before all the research was completed but after I’d done enough to see the trajectory of the chapter. People spoke of how finding the structure was key to begining writing. (I was reminded of this excellent piece in The New Yorker by John McPhee which describes how he figures out the structure and then deals with the “slivers” of information that fit into different parts of his stories.) John Timmer asked about length constraints and what the shortest approximate word count might be to take a stab of doing a narrative; Jamie Shreeve replied that 2,000 was about the shortest length considered useful by National Geographic for doing narratives.
With just a few minutes till the close of the session, David asked people to say, in five words or less how they conceive of the structure of their narratives. I conceived of my book as an arc with many different nodes on it (where the nodes were landing points for big events, or ideas, or key people). David conceives of many of his stories as sonatas. People said all sorts of things, but the one that sticks in my mind is a man who said he envisions a Jenga tower. He’s always searching for the blocks, the words and details and sentences, that he can take out yet still have the tower of his story stand. What a powerful visual. Maybe I’ll get a photo of Jenga tower and tape it above my desk—a daily reminder that what we take out of our writing is just as important to the integrity and strength of a piece as what we keep in.