For most of my career I’ve told stories about science and technology. About a year ago, I joined a team at ESPN where I told stories about sports. And while most people like to pit those two things against one another (please don’t, science nerd sports fans exist, hello, I am one of them) comparing the two has helped me really understand storytelling.
It’s a fool’s errand to try and really define what makes a story, but when I’m forced to do it, I say something like: stories have a beginning, middle and end, and when they’re over something has changed. It helps if you also have compelling characters to move the story along. It helps if you have conflict. It helps if the story has real consequences.
Some of these basic pieces can be hard to find in a science story. Very few science stories truly have an end other than “more research is needed.” Most science stories begin a very, very long time ago. Science builds on past science, which was built on past science. The stakes of any individual paper are often, to be perfectly honest, not particularly high. The main characters involved sometimes aren’t even human, and the humans involved sometimes don’t have a strong connection to the work they’re doing.
Science journalists have tricks to get around this, and some of them are bad. They overstate how important the work might be to, say, curing cancer. Because cancer has stakes and true consequences. Or they focus on the quest of the individual scientist, overstating their importance in a field full of people trying to add incremental bits of knowledge. Science journalists are masters of trying to make characters out of non-human entities like particles and planets and flamingos. This is sometimes effective. It is often not. But we try.
So when I started doing sports stories, it felt almost like cheating. Sports have a built in narrative arc. There is conflict inherent in a game or a rivalry. There are literal winners and losers. There are compelling human characters often performing incredible feats of physicality. There are villains and heroes and underdogs. Games have a discrete beginning, middle and end, and when the final whistle blows something has certainly changed. Someone has won, and someone has lost.
I felt like I had found the “unlimited money” cheat code in the Sims. And then I realized that even with unlimited money you can still build a really bad ugly house. In this metaphor, the house is the story… stick with me.
It turns out, the big important questions about what makes a story are still just as hard to answer in sports as they are in science. Why should anybody care about this story? What are the real consequences here? Who are the characters that the audience can actually connect with?
Sure, at the end of a game someone has won, but does that game actually matter? Die-hard fans care, but has it really changed anything about the world? String a lot of losses and poor performances together and you might wind up on the bench, or out of a job. But does one famous athlete’s career really matter more than the career of a mechanic or a doctor or any other human? You can get people in the door with a big name, but without additional work a boring story about a famous athlete is just as bad as a boring story about a genetics study. The stakes seem high in sports, because there’s a lot of money and attention paid, but money and attention does not meaning make.
Plus, I can now confirm that sports fans and science geeks are equally pedantic, so whether you’re telling stories about the Lakers or the Higgs Boson, you had better get your facts exactly right or you will have a lot of people scolding you on Twitter.