How to tell a good story about a positive future

Post by Jenny Seifert

Picturing a detailed and desirable future two or more generations from now is a difficult task—especially since most of us can barely see past next week.

But it is a valuable exercise, nonetheless. As French author Antione de Saint-Exupery wrote in Citadelle, “If you want to build a ship, don’t start with collecting wood, cutting the plank and assigning work, but awake in people the longing for the wide and open sea.”

In other words, without that longing or vision for that wide and open future, it’s difficult to begin the journey of actually getting there.

Bye-bye_(2)_(Dec.8,_2007)_-_panoramio

Desirable scenarios can help awaken a longing for that future. Photo by Vadim Manuylov.

Our scenarios work, called Yahara 2070, is an attempt to picture different possible futures for the Yahara watershed. Sure, it amounts to science fiction, but writing stories about the future challenges our brains to explore often-uncharted regions of our imaginations.

And those stories can become road maps for the future. They help us train our minds to think about the long-term impacts of our decision and create a sort-of mental blueprint for how we want to move forward through time.

But given the future’s vast, uncertain waters, where does one even start in writing a story about it? Whether you’re considering writing a story for our writing contest (the deadline is February 1!) or interested in planning possible futures for your work or community, here are some tips to guide your storytelling.

STEEP one

First, what is your pet issue? Is it cleaning up the lakes? Is it preparing local farms for climate change? Is it improving trout habitat so your grandchildren can fish in your favorite stream? Is it growing our cities in a way that minimizes their impacts on water resources? Whatever it is, start with what you care about.

Then think about what trends or forces could impact your pet issue in the next couple of generations. In doing so, an acronym called STEEP can help.

STEEP translates as the Social, Technological, Environmental, Economic, and Political trends or forces that could affect what happens to the things you care about.

For example, say my pet issue is urban growth. Many STEEP factors could influence how cities grow into the future and their subsequent impacts on water, such as society’s transportation preferences, fuel technologies and costs, zoning policies and, of course, climate change.

Scanning the news or relevant resources can help you identify what STEEP factors might matter for your issue.

Ask what if?

Next, you’ll need a way to frame your story. Focusing on a handful of the STEEP factors you identified (you won’t be able to cover them all!), ask yourself a simple question: what if?

Since we’re talking about desirable futures, your what-if frame should be solutions-oriented. In other words, what if society did something transformational to get us to your vision of a desirable future?

In my example, let’s pretend that the trend toward walkability, an important factor in where Millennials choose to live, explodes. Cities, suburbs and towns transform rapidly into a patchwork of highly dense and walkable neighborhoods, reducing our need for fuel, freeing up more space for natural areas, and helping us preserve farmland.

Temper with tradeoffs

But before you get carried away in dreaming up your perfect future, remember, a utopia is still a mythical place. There is no perfect solution to get us to a perfect future—and isn’t perfect a little boring anyway?

What tradeoffs does your solution have? Who might be the winners and losers in your future? What are we giving up in order to achieve this future? Could this future lead to things we didn’t intend?

Returning to my example, rivers, lakes and groundwater might benefit from the walkability revolution. The preserved acres of forest, prairie and wetlands can help protect water quality and replenish groundwater supplies. And I personally think it would be great for every urban dweller to have the convenience of walking to a grocery store. But how much would it cost and what political battles would need to be fought to renovate all of our urban neighborhoods for walkability?

Tell a story

Scenario is just a fancy word for a type of story. So don’t forget the elements that make for a good one. Your scenario needs a setting, a protagonist, and a plot that includes some sort of conflict or challenge, key events that lead to a turning point, and then a resolution or transformation.

And it’s ok if it’s heavy on the transformation end of the plot—the point is to paint that vision of where you want the world to go. Figuring out all of the steps it would take to get us there is another story.

Also, be strategic about your protagonist. How do they represent your future? What is their life like? What do they care about? Let them tell the story.

Keep it real

A scenario is no good if it’s not realistic. While scenarios should push the boundaries of our imaginations, they should still follow the laws of nature.

And you don’t have to be a scientist to make sure it’s scientifically plausible. Knowing all of the scientific details is not really necessary to articulate your vision. Those can come later. Mythology preceded ecology, after all.

Finally, try not to get stuck in the likelihood trap. There is a difference between what seems likely and what is plausible.

Plausibility has to do with what is possible based on the scientific understanding of how the world works. Likelihood is often based in what we are experiencing in our lives today and influenced by our worldviews or current social conditions. A lot can be plausible in the natural world, even if it doesn’t seem likely given today’s culture or politics.

Getting stuck in what seems likely can only stifle our imagination. Challenge those assumptions if they arise, or consider how those “unlikelies” could be overcome to make your desirable future a reality.

Happy writing and good luck!

Jenny Seifert is the science writer/outreach coordinator for the Water Sustainability and Climate Project at UW-Madison.

 

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