The Science of Writing: Part Three: Telling a Story

So, I’ve blathered on about what a scientist does, but now we can get into the nitty gritty of the science of writing.  And we’re going to start with something that is fundamental to writing, and that is storytelling.  Storytelling is everything in fiction writing. Readers will forgive all manner of writing sins if you tell them a riproaring story.  And if you don’t have a great yarn at the center of your novel?  Well, a reader isn’t likely to stick around, no matter how gifted a stylist you are.

Now here’s a little secret about science: it is also all about storytelling.

But, you say, science is just a dry recitation of facts?  Isn’t it?
Nope.  In science, we use those dry facts to tell a story, but a story is still at the heart of what we do.  Take, for example, the hormone insulin.  I imagine that most of you know it for it’s role in diabetes.  Insulin tells the body to take up sugar from the blood, either to burn for fuel or to store for later and in certain forms of diabetes, the pancreas stops producing insulin.
Pretty dry, right?

But there’s a wealth of stories we could chose to tell about insulin.
One story could be about how insulin signals to individual cells to tell them to take up sugar.  Insulin does this by activating what we call signaling cascades in the cell.  Signaling cascades are at the heart of how cells communicate with each other and how they regulate their own internal processes, so we could use the story of insulin signaling at the cellular level to illustrate a universal principle of how cells work and how they communicate with one another.

We could also move the story from the small scale of individual cells to the larger scale of organ systems.  Insulin is released into the bloodstream, allowing it to signal to nearly every organ in the body.  It tells the liver to store the sugar, it signals to fat cells to store lipids,  it signals to the stomach, it even signals to the brain.  So we could also use the story of insulin signaling at the organismal level to provide examples of how organs can signal to one another across the entire body.  (Which could also be called the story of the endocrine system.)

Finally, we can even use insulin to tell a historical story.  Insulin was the very first protein to ever be fully sequenced, meaning that the sequence of amino acids (protein building blocks) was decoded.  In other words, the amino acid “spelling” of insulin was determined.  Using the story of the sequencing of insulin, you could show how far science has come since then, and the advances that have come out of not only protein sequencing, but also DNA sequencing.

For any of these stories we choose to write about insulin, we need facts in order to tell them.  But what facts we need depends greatly on which story we choose to tell.  For a scientist, that means deciding which story they’d like to tell (or to put it another way, what questions they’d like to answer), deciding which facts are needed to tell that story, and then designing experiements to get those facts.  Telling a story of how insulin talks to the liver is going to require very different facts than the story of how insulin signals to neurons.

But how does all this relate to writing?
A good story requires evidence.  What I mean by that, is for every action you have your characters doing, you need to give evidence for why they might do that.  You need to convince the reader, that based on what you’ve told them about the character, this is what they would do in response to the black moment, this is how they complete their arc, this is how they get their happy ending.
Evidence includes backstory, charaterization, and even historical accuracy.  If a Regency miss has been a wallflower for 200+ pages, then suddenly decides to become a can can dancer because she realized the virtues of female empowerment–well, no one’s buying that.  I realize this example is a little extreme, but one question that I constantly ask myself as I write is “Did I provide the evidence beforehand for what my characters are about to do?”.  Is it accurate historically, does it accord with what my characters have said and done in the previous pages, and most importantly, will the reader believe it?  And depending on what trope is at the heart of your story, you’ll need to tailor the evidence you give to fit that trope.  Or turn it on it’s head, if that’s your style.

Science is all about marshaling facts in order to convince a bunch of skeptics that you’re right.
Writing is all about marshaling words and character actions in order to convince readers they should keep on going.

I think that this is at the heart of reviewer complaints about uneven characterization or characters that act in unbelievable ways.  You have to put in the evidence if you want readers to buy into your characters’ actions.  You need that evidence to tell your story, whether it’s fiction or science.  (Or science fiction.)

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