How to Cultivate Narrative in Stories of All Lengths

  Léelo en Español

An array of red-orange lilies on a greenhouse table.
Rodrigo Pérez Ortega


If you plant and nurture them with care, narrative seeds can sprout in even the sparsest of stories.

Cultivating narrative in a few words, after all, is not a novel endeavor for writers. Hemingway, apocryphally, did it in six: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Joyce Carol Oates scraped off two more in her four-word reflection on a widow’s first year: “I kept myself alive.” By comparison, the average news reporter has a hundredfold more space to till.

And yet, we’re inclined to reserve narrative’s basic elements—characters, plot, scene, theme, and dialogue—for long-form work, where they have the necessary room (we think) to take root and bloom through intensive research, reporting, and editing. News writing’s high-octane speed and rhythm can feel incompatible with narrative’s transportive qualities, like the hare losing to the tortoise in a race for last.

But it is very possible to propagate storytelling shoots in short-form science journalism. This might involve—in a few precious words or sentences—painting expressive subject portraits, casting and reeling back immersive scenes, injecting action sequences throughout the piece.

Freelance science journalist Carolyn Wilke sows narrative into her stories wherever she can. Take the lede of her 500-word story for The New York Times about a study on arachnids:* “By day, jumping spiders hunt their prey, stalking and pouncing like cats. When the lights go down, these pea-sized predators hang out—and maybe their minds spin dreams,” Wilke writes. In two sentences, she invites the reader to accompany the creature on its daily transformation from a lively-but-diminutive predator to a surrendering slumberer. “My view is there’s always a narrative, that the science always contains a narrative,” Wilke says. “In my reporting I’m trying to excavate that narrative.”


Gathering Seeds While Reporting

In the reporting stages, you’ll need to collect as many potential narrative kernels as possible.

Scientific studies offer a trove of mini-stories to plumb before you even have to pick up the phone for an interview.

A paper’s methodology section will (by definition) describe a sequence of events—even if they’re at first glance occluded by dull jargon. A bit of prodding can reveal truly colorful action. “The mice were exposed to auditory stimuli,” for example, might mean researchers clapped their hands next to rodents in a startle chamber. To CT scan a delicate subject like a toadlet, scientists might have first bundled it in a packing peanut–filled plastic baggie; to prompt an amphibian chorus, they might have dropped a tennis ball in a vernal pond. Botanists doing international field work might have had to finesse border agents to ferry their living samples through airport customs.

Online materials can also provide fodder for characters, scenes, or action. Court documents and recordings of public meetings preserve the back-and-forth between opposing sides that can be rewritten as dialogue. The setting and activity of YouTube and TikTok videos can be recapped as mini-stories. Other social media content can likewise be tapped for narrative. I crafted the opening scene of a Popular Science explainer on frost quakes by combing through the comments left on a local Chicago TV station Facebook post asking viewers whether they’d experienced any unexplained nocturnal booms during a recent cold snap: “One woman said she fretted all night about her pipes, roof and furnace. Another said she searched her whole home for intruders, knife in hand. Others wondered if frigid cold could kill birds mid-flight and send them spiraling downward.”

Sabrina Imbler, a science and nature writer for Defector, says they love to mine study introduction sections. Citations there can lead to tangential papers ripe with unusual details about a scientific subject’s history, the field’s previous misconceptions, and larger-than-life characters or incidents. “It’s like an advent calendar,” Imbler says. “If you open every single door, one of those doors holds what you want.”

Citation jumping led me to a number of vignettes I could repurpose for a short New York Times feature on vagrant, or lost, birds: a wayward peregrine falcon who found respite on a tiny island (and offed 27 highly endangered birds isolated there); a Nicobar pigeon suspected of venturing from Indonesia to Australia (where it was taken into custody for the rest of its life); and an Antarctic juvenile emperor penguin who washed ashore on New Zealand, gorged on wet sand it had mistaken for snow, and landed in animal rehab (“A live-streamed, monthslong stay involving a bed of crushed ice and a hand-fed salmon diet,” I wrote). Each anecdote unspooled over just a line or two, but brought the piece’s central question—What does it mean for a bird to be lost?—to life in a way no human subject could.


It is equally important to determine the why of a science story by asking sources to recount the natural chronology of their curiosity, the stakes of their findings, or particular moments of hope, frustration, or discovery.


Gathering enough material during an interview to write a short scene or character portrayal might mean pushing a source to answer the same question several times. Since academic researchers are often coached in how to work with the media, they will likely become more-relaxed and natural speakers once they’ve hit their preplanned talking points. With that out of the way, you can dig into the kinds of questions that can elicit narrative. “It might be about asking what you think are annoying questions,” says Emily Mullin, a biotechnology writer for Wired. “Just be nosy.”

When getting scientists to explain difficult-to-describe technology, for example, Mullin relies on punchy but simple questions: How big is it? What color? Is it soft? Rigid? Cool to the touch? Light enough to carry? Flexible enough to bend? Fragile enough to break? Prodded by some polite inquisitiveness, a source might hand you a vivid description—a stroopwafel-sized frog, a golf-cart-scale whale heart, a pencil-eraser-shaped electrode.

María Paula Rubiano A., a freelance journalist in Medellín, Colombia, often starts her interviews by asking a scientist to walk her through their typical day, step-by-step, detail-by-detail. (Rubiano is also a member of The Open Notebook’s board of directors.) Their subject matter might be dense or complex, she says, “but when you ask a scientist what they do, it is human things.” They run computer programs and slam fridge doors. They braid each other’s hair. They listen to audiobooks while waiting for results. Rubiano, in writing about a novel study about the size of frog eyes for Popular Science, cast about for a way to breathe life into the sometimes-tedious science of taxonomy. “I want to make it feel more tactile,” she says. During the interviews, Rubiano peppered the lead authors with questions about how they conducted their research—and learned it involved dusting off and cracking open hundreds of jars filled with pickled frogs. (Can’t you see it in your mind’s eye?)

Wilke points out that in the Zoom era, many experts have sharpened their presentation skills. During a video chat, she suggests asking sources to pull up PowerPoints, show off any nearby specimens, or screenshare any pictures or diagrams that they can explain out loud in real time. This can conjure up visual elements that are otherwise invisible or oblique in written work or audio-only conversations.

It is equally important to determine the why of a science story by asking sources to recount the natural chronology of their curiosity, the stakes of their findings, or particular moments of hope, frustration, or discovery—all of which can lend themselves to crafting narrative tension or resolution throughout the piece. When a bioengineer who had developed purple GMO tomatoes recalled waiting with anticipation over the holidays to see how her hybrid would turn out, Mullin led with that memory: “In December 2004, plant scientist Cathie Martin went to the greenhouse to check on her tomatoes. The tiny fruits, about the size of gumdrops, were still green. These miniature tomatoes, a variety widely used in research labs, normally become red upon ripening. But when Martin came back after Christmas, they were starting to turn purple—just as she’d hoped.”

“Her voice changed when she was recounting that, because she was telling a story,” Mullin says. “Get your source to tell a story, then use that story in yours.”


Weed While Writing

While a 5,000-word story provides an ample garden for narrative stalks and tendrils, a 500-word piece might only have enough soil for one fleshed-out character, one vivid scene, one moment of tension. So, after reporting, you’ll have to sort through your collection of would-be seeds and plant only those that serve the story’s essence.

“I don’t think more detail is always better,” Mullin says. “It needs to connect to the point of the story, the heart of the story.”

In particular, portrayals of subjects or scenes can pack a tight punch if you carefully play with unusual imagery. “You only have so much room; you can’t describe everything,” says Imbler, who often writes about the natural world. “You have to be precise—don’t linger.”

Is something “small,” or is it the size of a AAA battery, a chickpea, a comma on this page? You can quickly evoke a vivid image in the reader’s mind with unexpected language—lava the viscosity of peanut butter, a camera shaped like a Ferris wheel, the milk-silk of a GMO goat “as natural as daffodils or baby crows or maggots creeping in a cow pie.”

When it comes to writing about the natural world, Imbler prefers to render a creature’s lifestyle (Will it swallow prey whole? Can it freeze? Does it hide?) rather than depict its physicality (What’s its color or texture?). “It’s about understanding the stakes of its life, and its motives, and its way of moving through the world,” Imbler says. These details can transform an unfamiliar life-form into a protagonist.


Tap into underutilized senses in writing (think: touch, smell, sound, and taste) to transport the reader even further.


For Hakai, as an example, Imbler describes the slender yoke-moss as “a thoroughly forgettable moss … a drab little thing” with no medicinal or cultural value that “eke(s) out a simple, solitary life” and faces extinction where it’s found in British Columbia. “This moss, I can’t make it charming,” Imbler recalls. But by characterizing it as a meek underdog, Imbler effectively unspools its narrative arc. Similarly, in explaining a complex astrophysics discovery for Popular Science, Rubiano spins the tale of two stars as intertwined dancers.

Verbs also catalyze narrative in limited spaces. In a story about underground pitcher plants,* Wilke describes “a cluster of maroon pitchers strung on a white, chlorophyll-lacking shoot”; here, “strung” not only conveys the pitchers’ physical orientation, but also their delicateness and preciousness by invoking jewelry and treasure. To fortify your verbiage, try highlighting every verb in your draft and tailoring each one to be active, specific, and evocative.

Don’t underestimate sentence structure, either, which can calibrate narrative pace. “Short sentences tend to be punchier. They’re more dynamic. You can read them faster,” Mullin says. “You know immediately what’s going on.” On the other hand, winding, detail-bejeweled sentences invite the reader to imagine and wander mentally.

Tap into underutilized senses in writing (think: touch, smell, sound, and taste) to transport the reader even further. In her 289-word summary of research on a new chemical smell neutralizer, Wilke made sure to include how the scientists characterized the skunk spray essence they sourced for their research: the “nasal equivalent of staring at the sun.” “That was a powerful sensory analogy,” Wilke says. “It’s so vivid.” In a piece about a man who makes pizza on the slopes of a super-active Guatemalan volcano, Rubiano quotes his description of its sauna-like heat and its roar, “like a seven-engine plane: deafening.”


Let It Bloom

With four hours to complete an assignment, you might not have the resources to cultivate an entire character, scene, or overarching theme. Sometimes, we just need to relay information as efficiently as possible. But any amount of narrative tending can benefit the writer and reader alike.

For one, writers who are not regularly assigned long-form features can create their own opportunities for creative writing via mini-infusions of narrative. “When it’s a possibility for you, it makes you excited about your work and figuring out the puzzle” of storytelling, Rubiano says. This can train you to develop characters, scenes, or chronology at any story length—as well as get experimental with approaches too unwieldy for longer pieces.

Consider, for example, this Washington Post study story about the oldest known spider, written as an obituary. Or this 1,000-word-or-so Atlantic piece about blue whale cardiograms in which each paragraph reads in roughly the time elapsed between the animal’s heartbeats during a dive. Other writers have explored medical subjects through the structure of a pain scale or expounded upon the human genome in a 23-section format (one for each chromosome). In a 689-word story for Orion magazine about human cadavers and the creatures that scavenge and decompose them, writer Chelsea Biondolillo smartly depicted her personal discomfort during a Texas field reporting trip to relay the research’s intensity. “My eyes stay wide open and my mouth stays mostly shut as we walk through the grass. I try to think of what I’m seeing as former people, but I can’t. The people have left. All that remains are remains: a countable collection of bones. Shin is connected to leg; leg is connected to hip. I stare at teeth, my notebook full of questions forgotten. I am trying to place birds there, in that mouth, or this eye. But the birds, too, have left.”


Character, plot, and dialogue—at any scale—can also encourage readers to appreciate a story’s reality.


We might find opportunities to paint narrative onto a piece’s smallest palettes. Kainaz Amaria, a national visuals editor at The Washington Post, loads image captions with historical context, quotes, and descriptive language, when appropriate. “There’s room where the caption doesn’t have to just reiterate what people are saying but push the story forward,” she says. In a Vox series on supertrees, Amaria edited sensory-filled captions. “The thick mist of early morning makes it impossible to see very far during the climb up the Amazon Tall Tower Observatory (ATTO). The steps are narrower and farther apart than they appear,” reads one. “The fog was still thick more than 1,000 feet up, and the tower noticeably swayed in the wind,” reads a second from the same story. Another focuses on a single direct quote from a source: “Dieumerci Kibinda, a Congolese botanist, calls Afrormosia ‘the most beautiful tree.’”

Character, plot, and dialogue—at any scale—can also encourage readers to appreciate a story’s reality. In reporting about violence against environmental defenders for Grist, Rubiano deployed a short narrative scene so the audience couldn’t mentally gloss over the true meaning of troubling new statistics. “It was 1 a.m. when Oscar Sampayo first saw the death threat against him. He was home alone, like he had been for most of quarantine. Signed by the paramilitary group ‘Aguilas Negras,’ the letter, circulated around town, accused Sampayo and sixteen other environmental and social leaders in Colombia defending water and protecting the labor rights of oil and gas workers, of promoting communism, and ‘stopping the development of our region.’ The group gave the leaders 24 hours to leave the area. ‘May the tears of your families for your deaths help to bring this territory to its senses,’ the letter said.” Altogether, this opening scene accomplishes far more for the reader than a lede simply stating that Sampayo received death threats or that environmental defenders increasingly face threats of violence. “I think it’s important to give it a face,” Rubiano says. “When you individualize that suffering, when you put a name on a person and a situation, it helps a reader understand the depth of the numbers.”

Humans relish storytelling as we do a stroll through a colorful and fragrant garden. With every well-tended narrative detail, you can extend another flower for your reader to enjoy. “You want to think about the reader’s experience, and how every bit of info they’re consuming is adding up to something,” Amaria says. “We have an opportunity to offer a reader interest in the story. Use it wisely.”


* Correction 11/23/22: An earlier version of this story referred to arachnids as “sleeping,” when in fact it’s not known for certain whether or not the spiders are sleeping. The story also erroneously referred to “above-ground” pitcher plants instead of “underground” pitcher plants.


Marion Renault Sio Hornbuckle

Marion Renault is a freelance science and health writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, The New Republic, Slate, STAT, Wired, and more. They’re on Twitter at @MarionRenault.

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