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The secrets to better narrative writing for conservation

environmental storytelling tips

The secrets to better narrative writing for conservation

Playwrights do it. Screenwriters do it. Novelists do it. You should be doing it.

What is it? It’s a simple thought process that can help you better plan your environmental storytelling.

We’ve been so programmed to write and think like an English grammar instructor that often we’re reluctant to try a new approach when it comes to narrative writing and storytelling for conservation.

Narrative writing for conservationYes, longer narrative writing requires more time and a willingness to invest in characters and scene-building, but the end result is worth it for your readers. Why? Because narrative writing is about taking readers on a journey that has the end-goal of making them feel more emotionally connected to what they just read. When that happens we have a better chance of that story creating an action for conservation in real life.

It’s always interesting how we go to a movie on the weekend (OK, maybe not right now due to Covid19 but we still have Netflix!) and then return to the office on Mondays to rave about the flick to our colleagues. We describe the setup, characters, drama and plot. And, oh yeah, how the movie kept us guessing until the end, or gripped us from start to finish. Think Dances With Wolves!

Fact is, we view amazing storytelling techniques every time we watch movies. We just never think that such approaches can be adapted to our work when it comes to environmental writing. They can.

Next time you set out to try narrative writing, switch your thinking to Movie Mode. It’s an easy technique to stay on track and stay focused with your audience in mind. And if it helps, buy a bag of popcorn. Now please take a seat. The show. . . I mean story. . . is about to begin.

During my years as a journalist and managing multiple national and provincial award-winning national journalism projects, I used these tips every day to inspire fellow journalists to tell engaging stories, including stories about the environment.

Try these 10 tips to better prepare your approach to narrative storytelling for conservation and the environment:

1. What movie are you making?

Am I writing a story for an organization newsletter or magazine? Am I writing a short piece for a direct mail campaign? Is it going to be a 3,000-word epic? Or a 500-word tale? Consider your approach.

2. Think like a screenwriter

Consider your opening, scenes, plot, theme, main characters and supporting characters, dialogue and your climax. Make an outline. All good movies start with a good plan. Ask yourself: What elements are needed for my script? Ask yourself: “If I was to make this story into a movie, how would it evolve? Where would I start the story?” Yes, it’s all about knowing your beginning before you get started.

3. Think popcorn

We’ve all sat through a boring movie. Try to remember what was boring. What would you have done to make it better?  When you’re writing, ask yourself: “If I was in the theatre watching this story, what would make me stay in my seat?” If you don’t continually ask yourself that question while writing, you won’t spin an effective story — and your viewers (or in this case, readers) will grab their popcorn and leave the theatre.

4. Details, details, details

Make notes that capture examples of taste, smell, sound, hearing and sight. Your eyes must become a camera, recording images and senses that can be turned into words. If we’re scene building, we need everything possible in our arsenal of notes to be able to take readers to the scene of the action. No matter how small the detail, jot it down.

5. Get Dialogue

We’re talking dialogue, not quotes. There’s a difference. Investing in characters means getting them to recreate the dialogue between characters. Dialogue from an exact point in time is most critical to building a scene. If two people survived 72 hours floating in the shark-infested waters of the Indian Ocean, what do we want to know? We want to know what was going through their heads at that exact point in time. We want them to retell those thoughts as if they were happening now. It’s this dialogue that we can use to shape the drama of the moment, putting the readers in the water with the helpless people. Or, in your case, perhaps two people solving a problem or discovering something exciting during wildlife field work. Ask your subject: “Take me back to that point in time. . . now tell me what was going through your head. . . tell me what you said to XXXXXXXX.”

6. Think about your ending first

Now that’s a real departure from how we’re programmed to write a story. Never mind the opening first. We’re building a story. If you know how you want to end it, you’ll know how to get there. Remember Titanic? Director James Cameron ended his movie with the sinking. He began it by introducing an old woman and a necklace. Then he weaved a tale of two main characters. The climax — three hours later — was the disaster. The ending was the old woman and the necklace. If the movie Titanic was a 10-inch news story, a journalist might have written: “Two thousand people perished in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic after their luxury liner crashed into an iceberg.” Narrative writing is about rethinking your approach.

7. Get into the field

Spinning an effective narrative means you have to see your subject in action, or interview them in their setting — not your setting. By being in the same setting, you can easily gather details on the five senses, your subject’s mannerisms/expressions, etc. Adding detail when you see your subject in action, is much easier than trying to recreate it. Ask to accompany your subject on his/her next job, adventure, field research excursion, etc. How many times have we seen a Hollywood interview where an actor/actress talks about going into the field to learn about her subjects so that he/she can present a realistic portrayal? Get into the field!

8. Be a critic

After writing a first draft, pretend you’re a movie critic. Critique your work. Evaluate the plot. Evaluate the scenes. Evaluate the strength of characters. Evaluate the ‘script.’ Learning to be your own critic will help separate you from your work and enable you to review it with the eye of a reader.

9. Don’t be afraid to yell ‘Cut!’

When shots or scenes aren’t working, good directors shout “cut!” It should be no different with you. Constantly review what you’re writing as you go. Ask yourself: “Does this work? Is it necessary to developing the story? Does this contribute to the direction of the story? Or will this make my reader fall asleep? Is it awkward?”

10. Don’t think about Oscars (or awards!)

Don’t go into an environmental storytelling project with the goal being to win a major magazine award. Go into a project desiring to create a story that will capture your readers. Writers remember awards, readers don’t. Readers remember an excellent story or marketing campaign with a great story. Same goes for a movie. What’s your favourite movie of all time? What awards did it win? Don’t remember? But you remember it was one heckuva a movie. End of story.

Gregg McLachlan
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