by Cally Guerin

It seems that everywhere I look, people are becoming more and more focused on narrative in all sorts of academic and research writing. Whether it is an application for a research grant, a report on completed research or when applying for a teaching award, the constant refrain is: ‘Try to tell more of a story about this’. It is particularly common to be encouraged to write literature reviews – and even entire theses – as if they are a ‘story’.

What is this about? I suspect that these demands for storytelling refer to a need to add value to what might otherwise simply be a list of ideas. The writer needs to interpret and join up the bare facts of the case, not just present that information and wait for the reader to infer what it all means. Perhaps narrativising is also a way of engaging the reader with some kind of emotional tug – the story can attract readers’ attention and make them care about the topic.

So, if we want to write research with more of a story, it is useful to consider the various elements of storytelling in order to see how they could be harnessed. (A caveat: I’m thinking about rather conventional storytelling. Those working in experimental literary studies will have much more adventurous notions of what constitutes ‘narrative’ – my apologies to you in advance!)

To start with, stories require a setting, so it is necessary to describe the context for the research. Readers may be familiar with some aspects of the setting, but it is useful to state the explicit details. To some extent, the setting can be a way of putting parameters around the project, pointing to the specifics of the context that are relevant for the rest of the research.

‘Characters’ might refer to the main players as the researchers, or might refer to the study population. The characters involved in a study does not always mean people, of course – it could be a gene or a building material under investigation, or a set of policy documents that are being examined.

Plot is where we start to see structure emerge. The stages of plot can help the research writer draw the reader into wanting to know ‘and then what happened?’, inviting them to turn the page or scroll down the screen to see how this story evolves. Readers need to start with an orientation to the original topic to be explored and a sense of the current state of affairs. Next, the complication can be described – what is it that we need to find out more about? What is the problem/gap to be explored? And eventually (importantly for reader satisfaction), a plot requires resolution – what were the findings or outcome of the research, and how does this change our knowledge of the world?

Storytelling also takes into account content and form. For research writers, this refers to collecting and collating the relevant information and ensuring details (and any resulting conclusions) are accurate. That content must be expressed in a form that meets reader expectations, which will always depend on disciplinary expectations of the particular genre being written.

Once we know who did it, what happens, when and where it occurred, narrative also demands that we can see the relationship between different elements; readers need to understand why this bit comes before that section, and how those parts inform each other. The chronology needs to be clear, even if it is not an exact replica of the order of events in the lived research – artful construction to make sense of the work is sometimes required (DoctoralWriting has written more about this here and here). The why is important here just as it is in other stories – why did this happen and why is it important or interesting?

The storyboarding approach can be helpful for choosing what order things should go in. One way of doing this is to use PowerPoint to plan the writing. One slide for each idea or paragraph provides a graphic split between the chunks of content, and they are easily moved around using the ‘slide sorter’ view. The thesis story may then be seen with different plot scenarios, helping the writer to choose the right story line according to where the significant parts of the content are, and what order will make them most accessible to the reader.

I spent a goodly portion of my summer holiday reading page-turning thrillers – now I look forward to reading some doctoral theses that have similarly satisfying narratives! How about you? What does ‘tell more of a story’ mean in your research world and how can doctoral writers use this to their advantage?