How to turn science facts into a story embedded into science? A ‘technical’ approach.
In today’s blog post I want to come back to the immune story I’m writing.
So far all I’ve written was pages full of non-fiction science written for a lay adult audience.
However I really wanted to write for kids.
I needed a full-blown science story not a description of what is known about your immune system.
Ironically, at that time, I taught multiple workshops in storytelling to scientists. After my short career in academia as a scientist, I’ve started to focus on science communication.
This is probably because I always enjoyed giving presentations and writing about science more than doing the actual research in the lab.
So here I am, working partly as a freelancer in science communication.
One thing that I enjoy doing is giving workshops to scientists.
In these storytelling workshops I told the participating scientists about the elements of storytelling and how they can use storytelling to tell people about their work. I knew all the theoretical background one needs to know to start writing a science story, but now that I wanted to write my own story, I just couldn’t apply this knowledge myself.
What was wrong?
There was no way I could force myself to write a story. But at one point, after pages of science writing I made the transition to the actual story part by accident.
I namely wondered if the reader actually knows what an immune cell is.
Finally, I really thought about my audience- children.
Do you have children? Do they know about cells? If you have children, at what age do you think they know about cells and organs inside your body? At what age, do they have a basic understanding of this?
And you, as an adult: How much do you know about cells?
As scientists, we often assume people have a lot of basic knowledge on things.
But when you write for children, you constantly have to remind yourself that kids might not have this basic understanding. And to be fair, it also always helps to assume that the same applies for adult readers.
I always take my parents as examples for this. They both have no biology background and I often test their understanding on things I write. But more about this in another blog.
So, in my text I wrote
“Your immune cells, who are they actually? Imagine you are an immune cell. Who would be there with you? What would you do? How would life look like? What would you struggle with, what would you do for fun? How does your life look like? Are you ready to meet the family and get a close look at what their life looks like?”
Hah! And there, pretty much by accident, I created an opening door into their world.
The next step was going back to my own workshops on storytelling.
I asked myself “What made a story a good story again?”.
From an improvisational theater class, I regularly participated in, I dug up several story templates.
I started with the classical ‘Hero’s journey’ template and now ‘simply’ wanted to start filling in my scientific facts into this template.
He, I guess after all I’m a scientist and needed a very structural approach to writing, right?
Now came the hardest part: I needed to fill scientific facts into the story template.
As I have described in an earlier blog I had witnessed several infections my daughter went through and decided I wanted to write about these from an immune cell perspective.
On top of that I needed to figure out what the essence of immunology is.
Nothing easier than that…
What are the core principles of immunology?
That was tough. There was so much to choose from.
If you want to know a handful of things about your immune system, what would this be?
Do you have any ideas about this, off the top of your head?
First, I wanted to write about infections. That gave me a topic to work with. No need to talk about tolerance to your own self (a failure of that leads to autoimmunity and the fact that you generally tolerate your own cells is exploited by cancer calls which manage to escape your own immune cells that way). No need to talk about the birth and development of your cells, where they are born, where they go to school and learn all that great stuff they apply during their life (that’s a part about your organ thymus and the bone marrow). These are definitely all ideas and inspiration for follow-up stories that would come later.
No, this story would simply be about infections. About meeting microorganisms for the first time.
Good ones and bad ones.
In my first story there was a harmless bacterium which wanted to live in the gut and the immune cells would debate if this would be a good idea or not. Should they let it live there and what would they get out of that?
There was a sneaky bacterium which didn’t stay outside but was bold enough to invade, to live inside, in between the immune cells. That clearly was not tolerated.
Then there was a fungus (like the one I described in this blog). This is often candida albicans, causing a common condition called thrush in babies. This fungus grew and grew and at one point needed to be kicked out by the immune cells before it would do more harm.
And then there was a virus. An enterovirus, a virus which attacks the lining of the gut cells and leads to diarrhea and some damage of the cells it infects. Of course, this resulted in a lot of drama: cells would die, and the virus needed to be killed, the gut to be repaired.
And here you go. These events are ordered by the magnitude of challenge for the immune cells.
Now I simply put these events (mini stories) into the ‘Hero’s template’.
This was my rough scientific framework to work with.
But it needed a lot more of course.
A hero to begin with.
Meet Didi, a dendritic cell in your gut. She lives in lots of other places in your body, but for the sake of the story she now lives in the gut.
She’s the hero because she is a crucial immune cell. I’ll tell you more about this in another blog.
Then there is the world Didi and her family of cells live in.
This world is completely different from our world, so it needs to be explained in as much detail as is necessary to understand it, but not too much. Here again I debated for quite some time what to include and what not.
In essence you need to know how cells meet, how they talk to each other, and how the they can work together.
So, the first rough framework looked something like this:
It had everything in there:
introducing the ordinary world (setting the scene)
The call to adventure (disrupting the comfort of the ordinary world)
Refusal of call (realizing the risk involved)
Facing the challenge (what is needed to face the upcoming challenge?)
The departure (the microbial invasion begins)
The ordeal (crisis happens)
Celebration of success
Climax: the biggest crisis so far
Once I began writing I realized that it turned into a massive story. It was too big.
In the end it was almost 14000 words long and took ages to complete. Well about a year or so.
And throughout writing it, it felt often artificial to have such a rigid scientific framework that was fixed- in which this story had to take place. That meant I couldn’t wildly imagine a plot twist of the story if it didn’t fit the science.
That was very frustrating in the beginning.
But it worked. I got used to the constraints of the science frame and gave the characters a bit more room to play.
Now I had a science story that could even be suitable for kids as well.
And the best thing: I never had a shortage of scientific facts and decided to either embed them into the story or add them at the end of each story part (as “scientific snippets”). So, in case you would be really interested in the scientific facts, you could learn about them as well.
This is how the structure of the story looked like
There was so much science packed into this. In hindsight it looked pretty reasonable why I included which scientific facts where into the story.
But it was not that easy to decide on these facts.
Because science is complex and always evolving. Facts can change.
More about this in the next blog.