Science Writing Commentaries are two-part posts. I choose a superb example of published science writing, and identify one technique used by its writer that makes the piece so successful. The first post examines the Method, that is to say the techniques which I will focus on. The second post is the Commentary, and demonstrates how the chosen piece uses these techniques.
The science writing piece I have chosen for this week’s Method & Commentary is Robinson Meyer’s “Why America Doesn’t Really Make Solar Panels Anymore” published June 16, 2021 in The Atlantic.
This post outlines Techniques of Plot. Read my Commentary next week.
The techniques necessary to writing engaging science writing aren’t so different from those needed to hook readers in fiction, especially in science fiction1.
Indeed, the underlining principles are diametrically opposed. Fiction has no requirement to be grounded in reality. Nonfiction—be it an essay, an article, a blog, or investigative journalism—must honestly present its sources.
That doesn’t mean it has to read like The Handbook for the Recently Deceased (i.e. a poorly written technical document).
No, captivating science writing can also tell a story that keeps readers hanging onto the next development. By using the elements of fiction as part of their tool set, techniques of plot can transform your science feature into a nonstop read.
As a reminder, let’s review the stages of plot:
- Rising Action
- Falling Action
You may or may not be familiar with this sort of diagram, though usually they are more mountain-like than this beheaded Godzilla version. The Freytag Triangle has been used for ages to teach literature students and fiction writers about plot. I’m going to outline how you can adapt these steps to your science writing.
The beginning, and frequently the shortest section despite its complexity. Writers must set the stage by clearly answer those 5 Qs: Who-What-When-Where-Why. Precision is key in the introduction, but it’s not the most important part. Effective (and affective) Science writing will utilize one or more of the 5 Qs to create an Opening Hook to leave the reader craving more.
In nonfiction science writing, there are no fictional characters. But there ought to be real people, institutions, or other involved parties to introduce. Readers seek out a human connection, and creating that connection to start with is essential. Provoking an emotional reaction can serve as a solid opening hook.
This should be the source of the Inciting Conflict, describing how the problem began. In simple terms, the inciting conflict would be the issue scientific research aims to solve. Research is the systematic approach to problem-solving, so authors need to clarify what that problem is for their readers, and make it compelling.
The inciting conflict is a frequent source for the opening hook. Readers learn about the problem, and are excited to find out how, or even if, it was solved.
Where & When
Analogous to setting, the degree to which the place or environments are described depends on the affect the writer intends. If place is important to the problem, parties, or tone of the piece, then the author will accord more descriptive language to the setting.
In science writing that takes in a larger scope of time (such as Meyer’s article), clarity in the dates helps readers makes sense of the sequence of cause and effect. The exposition serves as the opportunity to identify the scope for the readers. Such a presentation of events through time can serve as an opening hook by revealing a twist or contradiction of expectations.
Often in popular science articles, writers will name drop the relevant research institution, research publication dates, and move on. This gives more importance to the problem and solutions, which is ideal in shorter pieces.
What are the stakes at hand? What do we have to gain or lose through the success or failure of solving this problem? This step is closely tied to the conflict and resolution, and tends to show readers the pieces of the puzzle before beginning to put them together.
If a writer has an argument to make in their science feature, readers will typically find their thesis statement here, at the end of the funnel. Whether through their argument or by presenting the mystery, writers can use an opening hook here to stoke curiosity through the intrigue of the outcome.
More commonly known in essay writing as the development. The writer present how the involved parties react to the problem, and detail the ups and downs of the process. The writer may introduce secondary parties, and establish the relationship between the parties.
These moments could be considered as Conflict Complications. The writer includes ancillary issues to compound the problem. These challenge to their argument serve to amplify the problem beyond the base assumptions.
Demonstrating the complexity of seeking a solution is an important step in verisimilitude of science writing. Science writers should not give the false impression that the world is easy to understand and solutions simple to deduce. By setting incremental complications, science writers can softly build up the problem to its solution.
Defining the critical moment, or crisis, of the problem is essential to the pay-off of a science writing piece. In this part, the writer addresses whether the parties solved the problem, figured out how to remedy a piece of the problem, or failed to do so.
Whether it’s a scientific discovery, a newly developed technique, or the penultimate argument of the author, the reader ought to be able to follow this final confrontation of ideas. In science writing, it’s not only the storytelling that should be communicated, but the science should be understood as well.
Remember that not every scientific problem has a clean solution. Falling action deals with the consequences of success or failure in solving the problem.
Even when scientific methods are successful, it can be easy to forget that research seeks to address small pieces of much, much larger problems. Successfully solving components of a greater problem should be celebrated, but not blown out of proportion.
Don’t be the science writer that makes researchers loathe journalists!
The end, at last. The resolution should discuss the current end state of the problem. This can be split into two important parts: denouement and realization.
Denouement is the unwinding of the problem. The author may discuss further research the parties intend, or to set forth arguments for the continuing resolution of the problem. Another important point to consider dovetails into the next point: How satisfied are the involved parties with this state of affairs?
Realization is the emotional element. What does the current state of this problem and its solution mean to the parties involved, individual readers, or society at large? How do the changes affect people in their lives, and why should they care?
This is the moment the science writer can resolve the “Why” in their opening hook. Writing about science isn’t only to regurgitate research for readers, but to give them your personal insights. There must be a reason you’ve chosen this field, so take this opportunity to lay out your take.
…I will post a commentary of Robinson Meyer’s “Why America Doesn’t Really Make Solar Panels Anymore” to demonstrate how they use Techniques of Plot.
Thanks for reading. If you’ve found this post useful, subscribe to my blog or follow me on Twitter @chrisairiau to keep up to date on my science writing series, and more.
1 “Hard” science fiction frequently contains what are called info dumps. Hard SF is a subgenre that aims to remain as close to scientific fact as possible. In some cases, this means the author includes nonfiction-like info dumps wherein characters will discuss or contemplate real-life (or speculative) science in a highly technical manner. Naturally, this can be a divisive technique—as evidenced by the pejorative nature of the term dump—but can be pulled off with success.
One thought on “Science Writing Method: Techniques of Plot”