The Doc Fix


Regularly updated articles on story structure and analysis; tips, thoughts and useful bits and pieces.

Hard science - the stories of ideas

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One of the most interesting applications of these techniques is in areas where more conventional story telling theories have very little to say. Subjects include factual TV programmes about abstract concepts such as space, the universe, hard science and so on. Even esoteric art films need a workable structure to hold your audience's attention beyond their aesthetics.

The challenge when making TV programmes that seem to be predominately about ideas is that it can be hard to see how concepts such as intellectual fascination and wonder can fit into dramatic theory that emphasises ideas such conflict, desire, obstacles and goals. You may be able to make aspects of this fit, but there isn't the sense that it can provide an overall structure.

The reason is that many of these storytelling theories were developed by looking at narratives of many kinds, and then trying to extract universal truths. But, because they have mostly emerged from the world of drama, they focus heavily on how character evolves. This means human qualities like the role of emotion and desire have become central to how these approaches work. Even the notion of Acts traditional rests on character transformation, or a change in motivation towards a human-centred goal.

These approaches are based on looking at the surface artefacts of something much deeper, which is the nature of the argument a story is saying. This concept of structure relates to the approach an argument takes, the attitude to the material. It applies to all stories, but because it works at such a fundamental level it's outstanding at helping create a guiding structure for stories of ideas. You don't have to wish your story had more character and emotion, or force these ideas into it in clumsy ways. Rather, when the subject calls to be dealt with as a piece about ideas you can create a story with solid acts, and real sense of progress and energy towards a powerful conclusion.

Caring about a story means it has become involving, which is as much about making your argument clear and complete as inducing empathy through character. If you want your audience empathise, clarity is essential. As the musicologist and teacher Phil Best puts it "if you can understand, then you feel as though you are understood".