The challenges of telling stories about the future

Post by Jenny Seifert*

Humans are a storytelling species. For Yahara 2070, we used stories to connect people with science, to take their thought processes outside of the box, and to stir their imaginations about what is desirable for the future.

Technically, I am the writer of the Yahara 2070 scenarios. But I saw my role more as the translator. While I constructed the syntax of the stories, their design was really a collaborative process. The four scenarios reflect ideas and perspectives from local stakeholders, global trends, the academic literature, and other researchers on the project team. I merely translated their ideas into the story form.

And the role of translator came with several challenges.

How do I incorporate everyone’s voice?

I dealt with a choir of voices. And, similar to a choir, I needed to blend those voices into something cohesive. This meant listening, to everyone. In fact, I think listening is one of the most important storytelling skills–it is the writer’s way of observing the world.

I also needed to “conduct” the choir, deciding whose voice should be louder and whose should be softer. To this end, I worked to not leave out key voices, which could inadvertently exclude certain readers. Conducting also required determining when to be explicit and when to leave things up to the reader’s imagination. Getting the amount of detail just right leads to my next challenge.

How do we make the Yahara 2070 stories believable?

The scenarios are essentially works of plausible science fiction. To borrow a term from science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson, I would call the scenarios a set of “unrealities.” They are about a future that could be real, even if it will never exist. Thus, we had to make the scenarios believable, otherwise people won’t accept them, and we risk losing credibility.

Making our unrealities seem realistic involved spending a lot of time in the weeds of each story. We talked through countless details to make sure certain storylines added up both narratively and scientifically. For example, in Abandonment and Renewal, our collapse scenario, the Yahara Watershed experiences massive floods in the years after the disaster. To make sure we were correct about what areas could actually be under water, fellow WSC team member Eric Booth, who is trained in hydrology, made a map to show us how the area would likely flood.

We also had a long discussion about elephants. In this same scenario, elephants escape from the zoo after the disaster and survive amid the renewing ecosystems. Now, the existence of elephants in the Yahara Watershed is plausible. Mammoths and mastodons used to live in the area thousands of years ago, and the scarcity of humans following the disaster would make it easier for elephants to settle in. However, there was some concern that their presence in the story was a little too off-the-wall. Ultimately, we decided this reaction is ok. The scenarios are supposed to make us feel uncomfortable. This discomfort is necessary for expanding our thought boundaries. So, we kept the elephants.

Illustration by John Miller

A scene from Abandonment and Renewal. Illustration by John Miller

How do I make the stories resonate with people?

The scenarios are intended to make an impact and to motivate people to think differently. Using the story form worked to our advantage. Stories, in and of themselves, are teaching devices. Studies have shown that stories can help people understand and remember information better. As such, I used some creative liberty and wrote two of the scenarios as short stories and two as magazine articles, all complete with characters and some semblance of a plot.

But to help the scenarios resonate with people, they had to be framed appropriately. Framing is an intentional way of telling a story: how to start it, what to highlight, what to leave out, what to make people remember. Frames trigger certain values and concepts within us, they help us process new information, and they can determine how we respond to stories.

One framing device I used was the scenarios’ characters. I designed protagonists to represent specific stakeholder groups from the watershed. For example, in Nested Watersheds, government reform leads to major changes in agriculture to improve water quality. However, in the Yahara Watershed today, there is tension surrounding agriculture and water quality regulation. To avoid possible rejection of this scenario, one of the main characters, Lou, works for the local watershed government and is a farmer. Hopefully, he thus speaks to both farmers and regulators.

Framing also entails being mindful of the social context within which the stories exist. In the United States, the environment has become a political issue. So stories about the environment need to take this into account, especially if you want the message to resonate with more people than just those who already support environmental protection.

The scenario Connected Communities posed a particular challenge in this regard. I was afraid some people might perceive it as a hippie utopia. So I tried to anticipate this in my framing. For example, I tried to make sure its characters didn’t fit liberal, environmentalist stereotypes. However, despite such efforts, when we launched the scenarios in May 2014, we were hit with a curve ball. Connected Communities fell victim to misinterpretation by a couple of political bloggers, who perceived it as pushing a certain agenda they did not like.

A scene from Connected Communities. Illustration by John Miller

A scene from Connected Communities. Illustration by John Miller

Of course, none of the scenarios are pushing any sort of agenda, nor is the project team advocating for any of the scenarios. But even though we were taken aback by the bloggers’ misinterpretation, in a way, their reaction is still meaningful (and it gave us some lessons learned). We want the scenarios to strike emotional chords with readers. Since they are intended to shift the way people think—that is, to think in longer time scales—they have to elicit an emotional response. Facts alone don’t motivate people to change or act. Emotions move us, because an emotional response indicates something matters. Moving forward, we will just need to work even harder to avoid emotional responses that could work against our goals.

Finally, our illustrations also served as a framing device. They are essentially continuations of the narrative and helped us fill in details that the words couldn’t. Our illustrator, John Miller, will provide more insight into the illustration process in a forthcoming blog post.

Now that they are written, how do we share the stories?

We see the scenarios as useful tools with outreach possibilities, but we can’t just throw the information out there and expect people to pick it up. We need to go to people and learn with them. This is the path we are embarking on now through workshops, our website, social media, and other outreach. In fact, 2015 will be a big outreach year for us. Appropriately, it is still hard for us to predict where this will lead us, but at the very least, we hope to make a mark on the future of the Yahara Watershed.

*This post is a modified version of a talk given at the conference Imagining Resilience: Art-Science Collaborations for Sustainability, organized by SARAS in December 2014.


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