Making a creaturecast episode – writing

posted by Casey Dunn / on February 6th, 2012 / in

The most important part of making your creaturecast is writing the script. You are not trying to explain a scientific concept, you are telling a story that happens to take place in a scientific context. Remember that a story is not a list of facts! “Monkeys are neat – here’s why” is not a story. This is one of the most common pitfalls we see when reviewing early drafts of scripts.

A story can come in many forms. It can have the traditional three act structure, which is familiar and relatable but risks feeling cliche or trite. And there are many interesting things that just don’t fit this structure. More generally, it is helpful to think of a story as a chance for you to relate something that caught your interest by painting a picture of it in someone else’s head and helping them feel the way about it that you do. That feeling can be surprise, awe, admiration, curiosity, serenity, or many other things.

Main characters are not essential, but help create an identifiable center to the story. The main character can be an organism, an enzyme, a scientist, you, or another narrator that is somehow part of what happens. A strong character makes the audience care about what happens. The character makes the story relatable and relevant even if the subject and setting are completely unfamiliar.

There are many different ways to make a story relevant to the audience. The audience has to care about the story to get anything out of it. And to care there usually has to be a seed of something that is familiar that they can relate to their own experience. Good narrative alone can make the story relevant – if you make them care about the fate of your character then they will be interested in the story. You can also use metaphor to help them understand how something that seems at first quite different from any experience in their life is actually very much like something they already know. You can also explain how the story is relevant to human health or well being, including the health of our environment. Also, don’t underestimate beauty – if there is something that is extraordinarily beautiful about the biology, people can care based on that alone.

Some story structures and casts of characters tend to work better than others in this format. Here are a few devices that might work well in a small number of situations, but usually don’t and should be avoided in general:

  • Giving voices to the organisms themselves. It is really hard to do this without it coming across as corny, and takes the piece a bit to close to the land of Saturday morning cartoons.
  • Putting dancing question marks in the animation when you ask a question. This turns the focus from the story itself to telling the story, taking the audience out of the world you are creating for them.

Do NOT try to gross out your audience to stir their emotions. This is a common hook for getting people excited about biology, but we strongly feel that it does more to alienate the audience from the subject than to provide a productive engagement. And many things that might seem gross to us make perfect, beautiful sense to the organisms that do them.

You don’t need to withhold information to build a good story. Think about ways to move your punch-line up, often you’ll find that it sets up a far better story than the one you get if you hold it out until the end.

In the story editing process, it really helps to read aloud the draft of your script. The script should be engaging on it’s own, without any visuals at all. You should remove everything (especially superfluous facts, no matter how interesting you think they are) that doesn’t pertain directly to the story.

To cut down on jargon, don’t define a technical term if the definition alone will suffice. eg, Don’t say “The femur, as the upper bone of the leg is known, is exceptionally long in this species.” Just say “The upper bone in the leg is exceptionally long in this species.” Avoid all the words on Carl Zimmer’s index of banned words. This includes “Scientists” in the sense of “Scientists found that…”, which is usually a way of avoiding the need to say what actually happened by making an appeal to authority.

If the story works in one minute, don’t stretch it out to three minutes just because you can. Also, make sure you are telling one story and not two or three stories. Don’t forget to ask for feedback from friends!

Here are a few other things to keep in mind:

  • Avoid verbiage that is just about moving the story along, eg “And now we turn to our main character”, “Hold this thought”, etc. If you need words to call attention to the structure of your piece, then something about the structure of your piece probably isn’t quite right. And any words about how you are telling your story are words that aren’t spent directly on the topic.
  • Beware the rhetorical question, it can feel cliche and jarring. If you can use a statement, use a statement. If the question is immediately answered, then the question/answer can usually be replaced by a statement. Questions can sometimes be effective when you are setting up the motivation for a few pieces of information that you need to set up to return to an answer later, but even then there are usually better ways to structure the piece. And if you do use a rhetorical question, avoid dancing question marks????? in the animation, it is distracting from the core content.
  • It is really difficult to get one central idea across well, and it needs to be clear to the audience what that central idea is. Make sure you know which idea is the central idea, make sure the audience knows, and then minimize the amount of supporting detail in service of that central idea. It is hard for people to remember a series of things that all have similar importance. But if you have one big idea with supporting information, they will often remember the big idea as well as the supporting detail.

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