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.) Continue reading