Narrative in Science Journalism

Capture, keep, content. This is writing narrative for science documentaries in a nutshell. But what is involved when you delve deeper into this little trio? In one of the last parallel sessions of the day, Narrative in Science Journalism, Paul Olding explained.


With hundreds of channels and hours of catch-up TV at a viewer’s disposal, grabbing an audience is harder than ever before. Key to this is an enticing pre-title, the bane of documentary makers the world over. That short period of time before the title sequence has to be big, bold and beautiful, it has to make the “clickers” - the viewers randomly searching the channels for something to watch - stay.

But at the same time as shouting loudly to grab attention, the pre-title can’t actually say anything at all; it just has to promise brilliance in the rest of the feature.


So the attention of the viewer has been piqued. But how do you keep them sat on their seats for the next 59 minutes? Or ideally, how do you get that audience to grow?

Keeping an audience engaged with a narrative within a television documentary is more difficult than with a narrative within books or magazines. TV can be on in the background; you can eat your dinner, peruse your Twitter feed and do the ironing, all whilst “watching”. In contrast, it’s much more difficult to multitask when reading a book – you have to give it your whole attention.

So how do you encourage people to really engage with your documentary? It’s important to give people what they like, but at the same time wow them with something new.

Then there’s the traditional three act structure, hated by some, loved by others, but arguably successful. The story is built up, and built up to a climax, and then there’s a sudden calm, which leaves the audience begging for more.


Making the content of a science documentary suitable for anyone who may happen to tune in can be difficult. Although journalists from other sectors, such as finance, seem to get away with technical language on a daily basis, one sniff of photosynthesis and commissioners run a mile in the opposite direction.

So information has to be delivered in an accessible way, but without dumbing it down. In addition, the information also has to make it to the viewer in one shot – you can’t flick back the pages and re-read a sentence when you’re watching television. Although difficult, ways to achieve accessibility have been developed. Transmission of complex information is often more successful if you unpack it over time; build it up from the very basics and eventually get to the really complex stuff. By the time you’ve got there, the audience is fine; they know what’s going on because you’ve taken them with you. The narrative has carried them.

Olding was specifically discussing narrative in science documentaries, the session also covered narrative in other formats. Although the point wasn’t specifically raised, I think it can be argued that these three points can be applied to any kind of narrative in science journalism. The blurb of a book, the standfirst of a magazine article have the same function as the pre-title, Capture. A 100,000-word book, a longform report has to be compelling enough to keep the reader turning the pages. And the content has to be accessible, has to be enjoyable. It must take the reader somewhere and allow them to learn, and the story must be being told for a reason. So however you’re reporting science, remember, capture, keep, content.