Don’t Be Tricked by the Nixie: Science Writing Lessons Gleaned from Fairy Tales

Bronze statue in Bremen, Germany by Gerhard Marcks.
Bronze statue in Bremen, Germany by Gerhard Marcks.

If I close my eyes, I can just conjure a hazy vision of the copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales that I had as a child. It was a large, hardcover book, with a pen and watercolor painting of browns and yellow-oranges serving as the cover art. The top right corner of the book was worn, with layers of cardboard poking out from the frayed cover.

My mom’s favorite story of the collection, and the one that has stuck with me as well, was “The Bremen Town Musicians” (The Musicians of Bremen).  In his notes on this story,  (in Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version ) Philip Pullman comments  “When a tale is shaped so well that the line of the narrative seems to have been able to take no other path, and to have touched every important event in making for its end, one can only bow with respect for the teller.”

According to Pullman “The Musicians of Bremen” is a perfectly crafted story.  Actually, with Grimm, we have a collection of amazingly crafted stories. Drawing on my experience from a ScienceOnline 2013  workshop led by David Dobbs and Maryn McKenna describing what science writers can learn from genre writing, I began to wonder:  Can a writer of science stories can learn something from the Brother’s Grimm and their latest curator, Philip Pullman?

The answer is “yes”, and here are a few of the lessons I learned:

Give your story structure. The structure is the scaffolding on which everything else hangs. Structure guides the reader through a fast paced story or a complex one. It provides a framework for elaboration or organizing patterns of information.

The story “Little Brother and Little Sister”,  is constructed in three large parts: the children run away and encounter the enchanted streams; the sister and the brother (now a fawn) are found by the king’s hunting party; the sister is killed by the stepmother and returns as ghost. Within each of those sections are additional items of three: there are three streams, the fawn joins in the hunt three times, the ghost appears three times.

To look at structure in a more familiar tale, consider “Rumpelstiltskin”. It is a two-part tale. In the first part, the miller’s daughter must spin straw into gold (this happens three times), and in the second part, she must guess Rumpelstiltskin’s name (she has three days to do this). Pullman states in his notes at the end of this tale that “Rumpelstiltskin” was revised after the first edition—to make it more elaborate. As Pullman notes, “Stories with a repetitive structure can take a fair amount of elaboration”.

Pullman describes “The Riddle” as a superior “princess who cannot solve the riddle” tale because of its neat and clear three part structure. “Neatness and clarity are great virtues when you’re telling a story,” Pullman writes. Neatness and clarity are also great virtues when you are communicating science, and well-defined structure helps to achieve that clarity.

Keep the story moving and manage time wisely. Pullman devotes a large section of his introduction to “celerity” and describes “swiftness as a great virtue in the fairy tale.” The best tales he says keep exactly what you need and contain nothing that you don’t.

For instance Pullman points out that “The Musicians of Bremen” is a narrative that does not carry a single extra detail. Every paragraph advances the story to its conclusion.

To keep the story advancing, imagery in fairy tales is kept to a minimum. There is just enough imagery to allow the reader to form a mental picture, but not so much that the pace  slows down.

One of my favorite lines is the opening of the first tale in this collection, “The Frog King or Iron Heinrich”: “In the olden days, when wishing still worked…” This line establishes time and a mental picture for the reader immediately, and serves to draw the reader in as she asks, “I wonder what will be wished for.”

The Fisherman and His Wife illustration by Alexander Zick This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1923.
The Fisherman and His Wife illustration by Alexander Zick This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1923.

The opening line from “The Fisherman and His Wife” paints a dramatic picture: “Once upon a time there were a fisherman and his wife who lived together in a shack that was so filthy it might as well have been a pisspot.” Immediately an image of their shack is conjured for the reader, and the anchor point for the story is established.

Writers can get bogged down in details very easily; this is especially true of science writers. Although scientific research is incremental and time consuming, if a writer chooses the wrong details when telling a science story, the reader might also feel bogged down—like time is at a standstill—like she’s never going to get through this piece—or out of graduate school. We probably don’t want to create that kind of trauma in our readers. So it’s important to choose details wisely and allow the details you do choose to help you manage time in your story telling.

The fairy tale “The Juniper Tree” moves the reader through an entire pregnancy in eight short sentences:

“One month went by, and the snow vanished.
Two months went by, and the world turned green.
Three months went by, and flowers bloomed out of the earth.
Four months went by, and all the twigs on all the trees in the forest grew stronger and pressed themselves together…”

Metaphor can also drive a story forward, for instance in “The Fisherman and His Wife” the gathering storm intensifies each time the fisherman returns to the seashore, lending intensity and speed to the events.

There will be times though, especially in complex stories,  when the writer will need to speed up and slow down time. The fairy tale “The Twelve Brothers” provides a great study in time management, slowing down time when the details are critical, such as the day the daughter discovers the truth about her brothers and sets off after them, and speeding up time to move the plot forward when the details are unimportant: “They spent ten years in the little cottage, where they were safe, and the time passed quickly.”

Make the story your own. In his introduction, Pullman paraphrases Calvino, “you have a positive duty to make the story your own. A fairy tale is not a text.”  Perhaps the science writer does not have the freedom to embellish the structure as much as the teller of “Rumplestiltskin”:  “Then he took hold of his left foot with both hands and tore himself in two.” However, the science writer does have a voice, and being true to that voice can lend interest to the story. Being honest about wonder, disgust or confusion in the telling of a story can make it more interesting to the reader.

Rumplestiltskin illustrated by Crane 1886. This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1923.
Rumplestiltskin illustrated by Crane 1886. This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1923.
Pullman adds his voice to these stories in this new English version. He adds context to the name Cinderella in the story of the same name for those readers unfamiliar with cinders and ashes, for instance. And he elaborates on the ending in “The Moon.”  He also adds his voice through his notes about the stories. For instance he explains his choice to use “pisspot” in the English translation of “The Fisherman and His Wife”, and he writes simply entertaining notes, such as his note about the nature of the sausage (and the word sausage) for “The Mouse, the Bird and the Sausage.”

Allowing the voice of the writer to come through gives authenticity to the story and makes it real and relatable. Scientists are people; science is a human endeavor. When a writer takes ownership of a science story, the story seems more authentic. Telling science stories as a real person, rather than an as automaton isn’t a bad thing.

So what have I learned from fairy tales? Nothing dramatic, no magic incantations, just three basic principles to think about the next time I am putting a science story together.

Give your stories structure; Keep the story moving and manage time wisely; Make the story your own.


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Michele Arduengo

Michele Arduengo

Supervisor, Digital Marketing Program Group at Promega Corporation
Michele earned her B.A. in biology at Wesleyan College in Macon, GA, and her PhD through the BCDB Program at Emory University in Atlanta, GA where she studied cell differentiation in the model system C. elegans. She taught on the faculty of Morningside University in Sioux City, IA, and continues to mentor science writers and teachers through volunteer activities. Michele supervises the digital marketing program group at Promega, leads the social media program and manages Promega Connections blog.

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