Book Review: Houston, We Have a Narrative by Randy Olson

Houston, we have a problem.” This line from Ron Howard’s fiction film about the Apollo 13 space accident needs no introduction. In reality, however, astronaut Jim Lovell made a slightly different report to NASA Mission Control on April 13, 1970: “Houston, we’ve had a problem.”

So did Hollywood get it wrong? The line in the film is not a verbatim copy of the historical record, but the film version is punchier and more immediate. It’s also the version everyone seems to remember. From the communication perspective, Hollywood got it very right.

Hollywood’s insight into science communication is the subject of Randy Olson’s latest book, Houston, We Have a Narrative: Why Science Needs Story. We’ve all been encouraged to tell better stories, but it can be hard to know where to start. Olson might just be the storytelling guide that you’ve been looking for.

Narrative structure is at the core of Olson’s approach to science communication. Many narratives conform to a structure where there is an initial state and things are proceeding as normal, but then there is a problem. Therefore, the protagonist must find a solution. In other words, Houston, only when you have a problem do you have a narrative.

Olson distils this familiar narrative structure into an indispensable three word template: And, But, and Therefore (ABT). The strategy of increasing narrativity by replacing “ands” with “buts” and “therefores” is not Olson’s invention—Olson traces the principle from South Park co-creator Trey Parker back to screenwriting instructor Frank Daniel—but Olson gives the idea new life by reformulating it as an elegant communication tool.

Houston is filled with examples of how the ABT structure and other forms of screenwriting wisdom can be used to enhance your science communication. What’s more, Olson isn’t just talking about communication with the public. Professional communication between scientists is the focus of this book. Not even journal abstracts escape the scrutiny of Olson’s storytelling microscope.

Houston re-treads much of the same territory as Olson’s previous books, Don’t be Such a Scientist and Connection. Indeed, many of the strengths and limitations of Olson’s previous work are also on display here. What distinguishes Houston from Olson’s earlier writing is its explicit focus on science communication. Olson takes care to anticipate and rebut the criticisms that some scientists raise about his approach. In case you’re wondering, using narrative structure doesn’t mean “dumbing down” or misrepresenting your science.

Olson has never been one to pull his punches. Consistent with his previous work, Olson writes in a conversational and irreverent style. The problem is that some of his remarks about academia are so scathing that Olson risks alienating a large part of his target audience.

Olson’s enthusiasm for narrative may also go too far for some readers. Despite stating that narrative is not a panacea, Olson argues that achieving an intuitive understanding of narrative is “the only long term hope for combatting the problems facing scientific research and science communication.” At times, Olson seems to conflate good communication and good narrative structure. Other aspects of communication, such as an awareness of audience, receive limited attention in this book.

Fortunately you don’t need to share Olson’s singular focus on narrative structure to enjoy Houston or benefit from Olson’s storytelling insights. Narrative might not be a panacea, but Olson’s storytelling templates deserve a place in every science communicator’s toolkit.