Lights, Camera, Action

How screenwriting principles can enhance environmental communication.

by Josh Ettinger

Consider the following situation, told in two different ways: (1) millions of people face rising sea levels that could destroy their homes, communities and livelihoods; and (2) a family living in an impoverished coastal village has finally rebuilt their home after a devastating storm surge but, like millions of others, faces continued threats from rising sea levels. Which narrative is more likely to stick with you? Which evokes more emotion? In an era of planetary boundaries, along with a growing need to galvanise public support for sustainability, we must be strategic in how we communicate environmental challenges. Environmental messages should move hearts and minds, and to this end there is much ongoing research around science communication and public perceptions. Yet there remains a significant resource left largely untapped that could help us communicate about the environment even more powerfully, artfully and efficiently.


Generally, the prevailing conversation among the scientific community about the entertainment industry concerns how accurately our fields of study are depicted in particular films and television programmes. However, the entertainment industry could provide much more than just relief or hand wringing to the scientific community when they get the science right or wrong. For more than a century, screenwriters have honed the art of captivating audiences around the world. There exist valuable, albeit not widely known, principles of screenwriting that could greatly enhance the stories we tell about the environment. In order to illustrate this point, the following presents several time-proven screenwriting tricks of the trade and discusses how they might benefit the formulation of environmental messages.


Once upon a time…

Once upon a time there was ____. One day _____. Because of this _____. Because of this ____. Until finally_____.


Narrative is the basis of storytelling. Good stories are not a bare recitation of the facts; they evoke an emotional response through a journey of ups and downs, twists and turns and a logical – but often surprising – causal chain of events. Something disturbs a status quo, setting characters on a transformational adventure in pursuit of a goal, classically unfolding over the course of three distinct acts. Most writers meticulously plot the ‘beats’ or chain of events in a story. There is even compelling scientific evidence that narrative structures can help stimulate stronger comprehension and learning. This basic principle reminds us to construct a logical and engaging narrative flow to environmental stories. I applied this technique to open this piece, constructing a short narrative to illustrate the impacts of sea-level rise, rather than providing the facts alone.


Cut, cut, cut

When it comes to storytelling, efficiency is the name of the game, and once writers lose the attention of an audience it can prove almost impossible to win them back. Screenwriters constantly ask themselves what can be eliminated. But how do they know what to cut? According to the creators of South Park and the Book of Mormon musical, there are two words that spell disaster: “and then.” Everything that happens in a story should be connected to what came before – “therefore” or “but” – and either provide new information or move characters further along in their journey. There is a certain level of intuition employed in this capacity, which storytellers develop over many years, but can be lacking from science communication.


Comic relief

Environmental stories should, then, provide compelling information while striving to hold interest in an age of short attention spans. Humour is another effective way of keeping an audience engaged. For example, instead of plainly stating that 97 percent of climate scientists agree that humans are driving climate change, Last Week Tonight host John Oliver brought out three climate skeptics and 97 lab-coat clad scientists for a debate. Amusing visualisations like this are powerful ways to engage audiences. The Netflix documentary Chasing Corals opens with an interview of a conservationist who explains that prior to working on coral conservation, he was a toilet paper advertising expert seeking a more meaningful life. When it comes to topics as unsettling as climate change, finding clever ways to prompt a bit of laughter can help strengthen communication overall.


Raise the stakes

As much as a dose of levity can help capture audience attention, a good story should also quickly demonstrate what is at stake. This is why numerous scripts frequently start with a suspenseful event, often when the action is already in full swing – in medias res. Taking advantage of this storytelling trope, numerous films and television programmes are filled with end of the world disaster narratives. There are numerous studies and professional opinions that express trepidation about movies featuring environmental catastrophes, as although they might spark interest and concern over climate change, they can simultaneously promote scientific inaccuracies.


Adept screenwriters, however, can tap the same level of emotional response without relying on world-ending scenarios by putting ‘the world of the character’ at risk. Stories about the lives of one or a few characters are often more powerful than depictions of the same events at a population or planetary scale. Environmental stories can explore the impacts of a particular climate scenario through either a local and/or a global perspective, though the balance between the two should be carefully considered.


Building character

The ‘Hero’s Journey’ theory, articulated by mythologist Joseph Campbell, strongly inspired George Lucas in writing Star Wars and has been screenwriting gospel ever since. The theory attempts to outline the typical transformational stages of a character’s journey. The Hero’s Journey is a potent example of the storytelling power in demonstrating how particular environmental changes can impact one’s sense of personal identity.


Pixar films like the environmental cautionary tale WALL-E often embody this idea, exploiting the tendency of audiences to admire characters, not for their successes, but for their courageous and valiant efforts to achieve a goal – regardless of mistakes or setbacks. It is easy to see a parallel in the scientific process, which is a gradually correcting process of trial and error. Perhaps then, candidly portraying the struggles and lingering questions of environmental scientists might help engender public trust. That said, this could just as readily provide ammunition for climate change skeptics to undermine scientific research. Finally, just as Hollywood is now reckoning with gender and diversity issues, one other important reminder about character development is the need to be respectful and inclusive when depicting people in environmental communications.


The end

Of course, effective communication is more nuanced than a set of rules; certain situations call for different approaches. These are just principles and represent only the tip of the iceberg in terms of screenwriting craft. This analysis also excludes other writing mediums, such as theatre, literature and creative nonfiction – though there is significant overlap across disciplines. While many scientists and communicators already employ a range of excellent storytelling techniques, facilitating greater dialogue and collaboration with writing communities would complement existing efforts to improve science and environmental communication. The U.S. National Academy of Sciences runs an innovative program called the Science and Entertainment Exchange offering scientific guidance to writers; perhaps there should also be a network of writers offering storytelling expertise to the scientific community. At this critical time for the planet, it is vital that we utilise all available tools from a wide range of disciplines in order to build public understanding and inspire environmental action.


Illustration by Rory Maclean


Josh Ettinger reads an MSc in Environmental Change and Management at St. Cross. His research explores narrative structures in science communication.


This article appears in the print edition of Anthroposphere Issue I. Get it here.

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