Logo for Dr Anna Clemens PhD who teaches scientific writing courses for researchers
Logo for Dr Anna Clemens PhD who teaches scientific writing courses for researchers

The 9 Elements of a Story You Should Include in Your Scientific Paper

The 9 Elements of a Story You Should Include in Your Scientific Paper

You have heard you should tell a story in your scientific paper but you don’t quite know what that means? Let me shed light on the essential parts of a story and how they make up the story structure.

A story structure is not only an essential part of books and films but also crucial when you tell someone about your research. Be that “someone” your neighbour who you are chatting to on the doorstep, or your research peers to whom you communicate in a scientific paper. Whenever we are communicating our science, we need to care about our readers or listeners. Using elements of storytelling is so useful here because we have evolved to hold our attention longer when stories are being told than when facts are simply being reported. We also understand and remember the information communicated as a story better.

In this blog post, I will guide you through all the elements of a story and give you story elements examples using a popular TV show.  

ELEMENTS OF A STORY

So, what are the elements of a story? You’ll probably find somewhat varying definitions of the elements that make a story a story. I think the most important ones are the following:

  • Main theme
  • Characters
  • Setting
  • Tension
  • Climax
  • Resolution
  • Plot
  • Purpose
  • Chronology

The elements main theme, characters, setting, tension, climax and resolution make up what we refer to as the story structure, also called plot. To make the story structure work, we also need purpose and chronology.

STORY ELEMENTS EXAMPLES

The vast majority of plots in TV series, films, novels and even non-fiction writing contains these elements of storytelling. Let’s look at some story elements examples using the TV show “Stranger Things”, which has been really popular. (There will be minor spoilers here but nothing that will ruin the show for you.) If you indeed haven’t seen the show, think back to a film or series you watched recently, and try to identify the story elements in that one as you read the text below.

Promo image inviting researchers to take a free training where they learn how to use the elements of a story in their scientific paper

The story element main theme is the overarching motif that a story is about. Some plots may branch into sub-stories but the main theme will span over the whole length of the TV show you’re watching or the book you’re reading. For speakers of a Germanic language, the expression “red thread” – translated from the German “roter Faden”, the Swedish “röd tråd“ or the Dutch “rode draad”– comes in handy here as a metaphor of the main theme weaving through the narrative. In “Stranger Things”, this corresponds to the mystery around the monster in the Upside Down.

The first episode of every TV show (and every season of a TV show, for that matter) introduces all the characters who will play a role in the story – both familiar and new faces. For example, the second season of “Stranger Things” starts off with showing what all the characters we know from season one are up to, from Hopper and Nancy to Kali and Max. The first episode also shows you where and when the story will take place – in other words, it introduces you to the story element of setting. In “Stranger Things”, we’re in the 1980s in the fictional town of Hawkins in the US state of Indiana.

But it’s not all perms and Dungeons & Dragons. There is an element of tension too. This story element can be a conflict, some sort of problem, or a catastrophe. There doesn’t need to be just one element of tension in a story, it’s more common to have a few different ones, but one will be most important and central to the story structure. In “Stranger Things”, we are introduced to the main element of tension of the second season early on: when Will has a vision of the huge spidery creature outside the arcade. Another element of tension, a conflict, is introduced when Mike and El unsuccessfully try to contact each other and there is – in fact – a conflict in each of the characters’ lives. The tension story elements are what make the story exciting. As soon as they appear, we start to get curious about what’s going to happen next.

In a TV drama, most of the remaining time is now left to the action. This doesn’t mean that things need to become increasingly worse. Instead, the characters usually go through ups and downs throughout the story, resolve smaller problems along the way – and/or create bigger ones. During the action part, the tension builds up until it ends in the climax, which is the element of a story that reflects a turning point. Often this is a bigger event, like a fight or a party. In the climax scenes, answers to previously raised questions are given and the main element of tension is resolved, at least partly. I won’t give you any more “Stranger Things” spoilers at this point – go figure out yourself what the climax element in the second season of the show could be!

Once the main conflict in a story has been solved during the climax, the resolution part follows. In this part of a story, we learn how the characters are doing after having overcome the obstacle. We see the effect that solving the problem has on their lives. 

VISUALISING THE STORY STRUCTURE: THE STORY SPIRAL

The perhaps most common way of visualising the story structure that contains the above mentioned elements of storytelling is as a triangle, often referred to as the Freytag’s pyramid. However, I want to introduce you to a new, more intuitive, way of looking at story structure: as a story spiral.

Sketch showing Anna Clemens' story spiral visualizing the story structure with the essential elements of a story.

In the above sketch of the story spiral you can see how the story structure is divided up into three parts. It starts with the first act, where characters and setting are introduced. The first part of a story typically finishes with the tension story element. The second part of a story is where the action happens and it is complete when we reach the climax. In the third part of a story, the tension is resolved. The typically story ends with the characters going back to their normal lives.

I prefer the story spiral to the more well-known pyramid as a visual representation of the story structure because it shows that the beginning and end of a story are often similar (and hence, meet on the same line) – only differing in that the characters have undergone change through solving one or more problems. This change is visualised in the story spiral by the positioning of the spiral at the end of the third act a little further out on the line from where the first act started.

In books, films and TV shows that are in serial form, the next part, episode or season builds up on where things were left in the end of the previous one. You can imagine another story spiral wrapping around the first one again.

MORE ELEMENTS OF STORYTELLING

We have so far talked about all but two elements of a story. In order for a story structure to work, there are two more story elements that a story needs to include: purpose and chronology.

The story element purpose means that things need happen for a reason, which is also the requirement for having a main theme weaving through your story like a “red thread” (see above). Only in non-typical stories, such as some arthouse films, you’ll encounter random events or characters that are not connected to the plot. To summarise, every action of a character in your story should have a purpose that contributes to the main theme.

In order to make sense to the reader or viewer, our story structure also needs to follow a logical order, in other words, we need the story element of chronology. The most typical story structure, also shown in the story spiral above, follows the chronology of setting tension action climax resolution.  

TRANSLATING THE ELEMENTS OF A STORY INTO A SCIENTIFIC PAPER

To recap, the 9 elements of a story are main theme, characters, setting, tension, climax, resolution, plot, purpose and chronology. I recommend keeping an eye out for these parts of a story as you read books and newspapers and watch films and TV. Once you know what the elements of storytelling are, it seems almost unbelievable that most art and information we consume follows this one simple story structure!

I think this is even the more reason to use the elements of storytelling when writing your scientific paper. While you may have gotten the advice to “tell a story in your paper” before, you may be unsure how to translate these elements of a story into your scientific paper. Don’t worry, that’s exactly what I build the Researchers’ Writing Academy for, our online academic writing course to help researchers get published in their target journals in a time-efficient manner.

If you are curious about the Academy, I recommend watching this free intro session, which will help you determine whether the program is a good fit for you.

Promo image inviting researchers to take the free training on translating the elements of a story into a scientific paper

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The 9 Elements of a Story You Should Include in Your Scientific Paper

You have heard you should tell a story in your scientific paper but you don’t quite know what that means? Let me shed light on the essential parts of a story and how they make up the story structure.

A story structure is not only an essential part of books and films but also crucial when you tell someone about your research. Be that “someone” your neighbour who you are chatting to on the doorstep, or your research peers to whom you communicate in a scientific paper. Whenever we are communicating our science, we need to care about our readers or listeners. Using elements of storytelling is so useful here because we have evolved to hold our attention longer when stories are being told than when facts are simply being reported. We also understand and remember the information communicated as a story better.

In this blog post, I will guide you through all the elements of a story and give you story elements examples using a popular TV show.  

ELEMENTS OF A STORY

So, what are the elements of a story? You’ll probably find somewhat varying definitions of the elements that make a story a story. I think the most important ones are the following:

  • Main theme
  • Characters
  • Setting
  • Tension
  • Climax
  • Resolution
  • Plot
  • Purpose
  • Chronology

The elements main theme, characters, setting, tension, climax and resolution make up what we refer to as the story structure, also called plot. To make the story structure work, we also need purpose and chronology.

STORY ELEMENTS EXAMPLES

The vast majority of plots in TV series, films, novels and even non-fiction writing contains these elements of storytelling. Let’s look at some story elements examples using the TV show “Stranger Things”, which has been really popular. (There will be minor spoilers here but nothing that will ruin the show for you.) If you indeed haven’t seen the show, think back to a film or series you watched recently, and try to identify the story elements in that one as you read the text below.

Promo image inviting researchers to take a free training where they learn how to use the elements of a story in their scientific paper

The story element main theme is the overarching motif that a story is about. Some plots may branch into sub-stories but the main theme will span over the whole length of the TV show you’re watching or the book you’re reading. For speakers of a Germanic language, the expression “red thread” – translated from the German “roter Faden”, the Swedish “röd tråd“ or the Dutch “rode draad”– comes in handy here as a metaphor of the main theme weaving through the narrative. In “Stranger Things”, this corresponds to the mystery around the monster in the Upside Down.

The first episode of every TV show (and every season of a TV show, for that matter) introduces all the characters who will play a role in the story – both familiar and new faces. For example, the second season of “Stranger Things” starts off with showing what all the characters we know from season one are up to, from Hopper and Nancy to Kali and Max. The first episode also shows you where and when the story will take place – in other words, it introduces you to the story element of setting. In “Stranger Things”, we’re in the 1980s in the fictional town of Hawkins in the US state of Indiana.

But it’s not all perms and Dungeons & Dragons. There is an element of tension too. This story element can be a conflict, some sort of problem, or a catastrophe. There doesn’t need to be just one element of tension in a story, it’s more common to have a few different ones, but one will be most important and central to the story structure. In “Stranger Things”, we are introduced to the main element of tension of the second season early on: when Will has a vision of the huge spidery creature outside the arcade. Another element of tension, a conflict, is introduced when Mike and El unsuccessfully try to contact each other and there is – in fact – a conflict in each of the characters’ lives. The tension story elements are what make the story exciting. As soon as they appear, we start to get curious about what’s going to happen next.

In a TV drama, most of the remaining time is now left to the action. This doesn’t mean that things need to become increasingly worse. Instead, the characters usually go through ups and downs throughout the story, resolve smaller problems along the way – and/or create bigger ones. During the action part, the tension builds up until it ends in the climax, which is the element of a story that reflects a turning point. Often this is a bigger event, like a fight or a party. In the climax scenes, answers to previously raised questions are given and the main element of tension is resolved, at least partly. I won’t give you any more “Stranger Things” spoilers at this point – go figure out yourself what the climax element in the second season of the show could be!

Once the main conflict in a story has been solved during the climax, the resolution part follows. In this part of a story, we learn how the characters are doing after having overcome the obstacle. We see the effect that solving the problem has on their lives. 

VISUALISING THE STORY STRUCTURE: THE STORY SPIRAL

The perhaps most common way of visualising the story structure that contains the above mentioned elements of storytelling is as a triangle, often referred to as the Freytag’s pyramid. However, I want to introduce you to a new, more intuitive, way of looking at story structure: as a story spiral.

Sketch showing Anna Clemens' story spiral visualizing the story structure with the essential elements of a story.

In the above sketch of the story spiral you can see how the story structure is divided up into three parts. It starts with the first act, where characters and setting are introduced. The first part of a story typically finishes with the tension story element. The second part of a story is where the action happens and it is complete when we reach the climax. In the third part of a story, the tension is resolved. The typically story ends with the characters going back to their normal lives.

I prefer the story spiral to the more well-known pyramid as a visual representation of the story structure because it shows that the beginning and end of a story are often similar (and hence, meet on the same line) – only differing in that the characters have undergone change through solving one or more problems. This change is visualised in the story spiral by the positioning of the spiral at the end of the third act a little further out on the line from where the first act started.

In books, films and TV shows that are in serial form, the next part, episode or season builds up on where things were left in the end of the previous one. You can imagine another story spiral wrapping around the first one again.

MORE ELEMENTS OF STORYTELLING

We have so far talked about all but two elements of a story. In order for a story structure to work, there are two more story elements that a story needs to include: purpose and chronology.

The story element purpose means that things need happen for a reason, which is also the requirement for having a main theme weaving through your story like a “red thread” (see above). Only in non-typical stories, such as some arthouse films, you’ll encounter random events or characters that are not connected to the plot. To summarise, every action of a character in your story should have a purpose that contributes to the main theme.

In order to make sense to the reader or viewer, our story structure also needs to follow a logical order, in other words, we need the story element of chronology. The most typical story structure, also shown in the story spiral above, follows the chronology of setting tension action climax resolution.  

TRANSLATING THE ELEMENTS OF A STORY INTO A SCIENTIFIC PAPER

To recap, the 9 elements of a story are main theme, characters, setting, tension, climax, resolution, plot, purpose and chronology. I recommend keeping an eye out for these parts of a story as you read books and newspapers and watch films and TV. Once you know what the elements of storytelling are, it seems almost unbelievable that most art and information we consume follows this one simple story structure!

I think this is even the more reason to use the elements of storytelling when writing your scientific paper. While you may have gotten the advice to “tell a story in your paper” before, you may be unsure how to translate these elements of a story into your scientific paper. Don’t worry, that’s exactly what I build the Researchers’ Writing Academy for, our online academic writing course to help researchers get published in their target journals in a time-efficient manner.

If you are curious about the Academy, I recommend watching this free intro session, which will help you determine whether the program is a good fit for you.

Promo image inviting researchers to take the free training on translating the elements of a story into a scientific paper

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Photography by Alice Dix