This is one segment in a series of posts about storytelling. These posts will focus on the use of storytelling as an effective means of communication, education, and marketing. Storytelling is a wonderful way to share complex ideas in a memorable manner. This post discusses classical story types and presents scientific examples.

In the last post, we looked at the seven classical types of stories (according to Christopher Booker, the author of Seven Basic Plots), which are the quest, journey and return, destroy the monster, rebirth, rags to riches, tragedy, and comedy. We also showed that scientists are not limited to describing their research in terms of a “quest” for knowledge. Their research can also be explained in terms of destroying the monster or rebirth. In this post, we’ll look at how scientific stories can also use the rags to riches and tragedy archetypes.

Many scientists struggle with funding throughout their careers. Did you ever have a promising research project that didn’t get funded until it much later? Perhaps, after a paper was published in a top-tier journal? Dr. Bonnie Bassler at Princeton worked for many years studying how the murine bacterium, Vibrio harveyi, glows in the dark without any support from the National Institute of Health. Many thought her work was an interesting curiosity, but not relevant to human health and lacking any commercial application. However, her work was fundamental for establishing that bacteria talk to each other (quorum sensing) and that they are able to coordinate behaviors such as toxin production (yes, the bacteria really are plotting against us!). Now inhibitors of quorum sensing are being testing as new antimicrobial agents to prevent disease in humans. Dr. Bassler’s work is an excellent example of a rags-to-riches. Her previously underfunded and underappreciated work is now regarded as highly relevant and worthy of funding.

Tragedy is tricky story archetype. Sharing obstacles and describing how they were overcome allows others to appreciate the work that’s been done. For example, what if your lab was affected by a natural disaster such as Hurricane Katrina or Sandy? Many researchers lost their entire labs and years of samples in these natural disasters. Most people would think that this type of event would halt the research completely. However, this was not the case. Scientists at neighboring institutes offered to share their bench space and supplies until the damaged labs were reopened. Many lay people don’t get glimpses into the tightknit scientific community and don’t have the chance to see how supportive and collaborative researchers are. Although, tragedy can be seen as depressing; it can also reveal the best qualities of people.

By using these types of narratives, you’re not just sharing data; you’re humanizing science and helping lay people to understand how scientific research is done. This opens up opportunities for others to help with the research. For example, the artists and animators at Motionbirth aren’t scientists, but we love helping researchers to craft their stories into stunning videos. These beautiful videos help researchers share their complex data in a way that anyone can understand. Communicating while using a narrative is a great way to educate your audience, because people naturally learn and remember stories.

In this post, we’ve discussed two types of story archetypes and given examples from a scientific perspective. In the next segment, we’ll examine the remaining story archetypes and how scientists can use these types of narratives.