Writing for a cause

Research from Professor Denise Baden at the University of Southampton provides important insights into how to use fiction most effectively to inspire greener behaviour.

Some of the research is available on http://theconversation.com/environmental-storytelling-can-help-spread-big-ideas-for-saving-the-planet-107621

See also the paper: Baden, D. (2019). Solution focused stories are more effective than catastrophic stories in motivating pro-environmental intentions. Ecopsychology11(4).

and a book recently published: Baden, D.: 2020, ‘Which work best? Cautionary tales or positive role models?’ In Molthan-hill, P., H. Luna and D. Baden (Eds.), Storytelling for Sustainability in Higher Education: An Educator’s Handbook (Routledge, Abingdon).

Denise is happy to talk at writing and/or sustainability themed events or as a guest lecturer on creative writing courses about her research, and her new novel Habitat Man. Payment beyond expenses not always required, depending on nature of the event.

Denise also provides one to one consultancy for established authors working on new material on how to smuggle in green solutions. Again, payment not always required. She works across several genres, for example, her most recent consultancy was on the comic The Renegades Flames of Amazonia published by DK children. Denise was also on the expert panel for the Global Action Plan Flickers of the Future project (patron Richard Curtis CBE) providing advice on green content for finalists.

Upcoming events:

Talk on ‘writing to change the world’ at the Writers Weekend 26th June 2021

There are four wonderful days of events and talks for writers 24-27 June including a talk by Denise Baden on writing to change the world – see https://writersweekend.uk/2021-programme/

Tips on how to write for a cause

Findings by Professor Denise Baden indicate that solution-focused stories with a positive tone are more likely to inspire greener behaviours and a proactive mindset to address sustainability issues than stories with a catastrophic focus. This seems to be because negatively framed stories can either make people avoid the subject and switch off, or leave them feeling helpless to make a difference. Example quotes relating to the various stories illustrate:

The positive stories were inspiring and made me realise everyone can make a difference.

I think the ones with solutions have more impact than the over the top scare mongering.

The second story felt inspirational. It gave me a simple option that I could take to do something positive for the environment. 

This was very frightening and negative. It made me angry and I switched off

Scaring people only leads to switching off.

Psychology of behaviour

The theory of planned behaviour proposes that behaviour results from awareness, social norms and perceived behavioural control i.e. we know about an issue, see that other people approve of a behaviour and feel able to do it ourselves. Behavioural control also includes the belief that what we do makes a difference. Research indicates that social norms and feelings of behavioural control are the most important influencers of behaviour. That is, awareness of the benefits of a behaviour are not enough to lead to action – it is important that we feel the behaviour is approved of by people who matter to us and also that we are capable of carrying it out and it will have an effect. So knowing that recycling is a good thing is not enough. What really matters are social norms (i.e. those around us recycle and would disapprove of those who don’t) and ability to carry out the behaviour (i.e. recycling facilities are available, and it will make a difference to amount of waste).

You can use this insight to find ways not just to raise awareness, but to promote pro-environmental social norms and show readers how actions make a difference. So it is enough often just to show social approval of green behaviours or disapproval of harmful behaviours, or simply a positive role model. For example, here is an extract from a TV series being developed Fidel Castro: My New Boyfriend which in a tiny conversational extract addresses the issue of our throwaway culture.

Common mistakes

Focusing on problems not solutions

Many writers still focus on problems not solutions. For example we had numerous entries on rain forest destruction for our writing competitions which is an issue everyone must surely be aware of, so raising awareness won’t necessarily help. What might help would be showing the link between rain forest destruction and meat, especially beef, or talking about where to source wood. If you want to change behaviour, it is not enough to show the consequences, you must also show solutions that the reader is likely to be able to engage with – few readers will be able to become eco-warriors and tie themselves to trees in Indonesia!

Preaching to the converted

It’s important to engage everyone in the fight to tackle climate change, and some people will switch off the moment environmental issues are raised. But most green solutions have numerous other benefits so the good news is that you can promote them subtly without mentioning their sustainability credentials at all. For example, seasonal food is much cheaper and healthy; washing clothes less often saves water, energy, money, time and extends the lifespan of fabric etc. Low resource products such as dry shampoo save money, time, energy, water, make hair easier to style, can be used anywhere – you don’t even need to mention the environmental credentials (93% of the carbon footprint of washing hair is in the hot water used).

Below extracts from the novel Habitat Man  are used to illustrate some of the dos and don’ts of writing to promote a cause. These extracts are copyrighted to Denise Baden and are not to be reproduced without permission.

‘Habitat Man’ is a fictional account of Tim, who finding himself fifty, single and in a job he hates, begins a quest to find love and meaning. As a result of a life-coaching session, Tim finds new purpose when he starts the Green Garden Project, which gives free advice on how to turn gardens into habitats for wildlife. His first client is the beautiful Lori and her teenage son Ethan, who loves wildlife just to kill it (along with all potential suitors). When digging for a pond for another client, Tim is shocked to find he’s inadvertently dug up the bones of the famed guerrilla knitter who mysteriously disappeared thirty years ago after achieving notoriety for covering a statue of a colonial imperialist with a knitted shroud. The conspiracy theories that surrounded her disappearance lead to this becoming news. Tim finds himself a key witness in an inquest to determine what really happened – was it really a natural death?

The book celebrates real local projects/organisations such as the Front Garden project, Transition group, guerrilla gardeners, Green Garden Consultancy, Natural Death Centre and others. Through Tim’s journey to confront the secrets from his past and his interaction with a wealth of characters, readers learn about seasonal/low carbon food, how to create habitats for wildlife, home composting, composting toilets, green funerals, roof gardens, green fashion, how to effectively campaign for green policies, the sharing economy, the merits of costing for nature (triple bottom line) accounting and others.

Here is a 1 minute long reading from Habitat Man which shows importance of avoiding pesticide through characters emotional reaction, and importantly also shows solutions.

Tip 1: Using humour to make boring subjects more fun.

Green solution: Costing for Nature (triple bottom line) accounting

Context: This is an early scene where Tim pitches the costing for nature accounting software to his firm. This sets up Tim’s decision to leave his job as a financial accountant.

https://www.greenstories.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/sites/256/2021/03/Use-humour-extract-1.pdf

Note: Make sure that you know what you’re talking about – no point promoting green solutions if you don’t know what works, so this scene was followed up later, (see extract about zero carbon budget later) when the costing for nature software was critiqued and a more effective solution proposed.

Tip 2: Don’t preach.

Green solution: avoid pesticide

Context: Tim is visiting his first garden as green garden consultant: https://www.greenstories.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/sites/256/2021/03/avoid-preaching-extract-2.pdf

Note: see how advice is portrayed directly through Tim’s emotional response, not preached to the reader, and the focus is on solutions that anyone can do in their garden.

Tip 3: Focus on solutions readers can do.

Green Solution: hawthorn for wildlife

Context: this is Tim’s second visit to Lori’s garden to plant a hawthorn hedge that will screen off the back area where all the vegetation is dumped to create a habitat: https://www.greenstories.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/sites/256/2021/03/solution-focus-extract-3.pdf 

Note: It’s important if promoting green solutions that you get them right. I added this extract as one beautifully written entry to the green stories writing competition assumed that pulling up weeds and planting pretty flowers is green – it isn’t!

Tip 4: Sex and wizardry to leaven the mix.

Green solution: composting and how to rat proof a compost bin

Context: This client has had a problem with rats. She misunderstands what Tim does and calls him over to advise on a compassionate way to remove rats. He tells her he is there to attract animals into her garden (not rats though). This scene occurs after he gives advice on how to attract hedgehogs: https://www.greenstories.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/sites/256/2021/03/sex-and-wizardry-extract-4.pdf 

Note: see how humour is used to smuggle in information in a non-preachy way – below was the first draft that was far too preachy– an example of what NOT to do: https://www.greenstories.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/sites/256/2021/03/what-not-to-do-extract-5.pdf

Tip 5: Wrapping the green message using metaphors and romance

Green solution: what to plant to increase biodiversity in your garden

Context: Tim has returned to work (reluctantly) and is now trying to fit being Habitat Man in his spare time. Here he visits the lovely Lori. They like each other but her 15 year old son isn’t having it. This scene is the bamboo woo! https://www.greenstories.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/sites/256/2021/03/metaphor-and-romance-extract-6.pdf 

Note: see how a strong plot that the reader is engaged in e.g. a romance or mystery enables information on green solutions to arise naturally.

Tip 6: Know your stuff – don’t promote a policy without knowing all the pros and cons

Green solution: zero carbon budget

Context: Tim has gone back to work after his firm changed their minds about the costing for nature software – he feels obliged to return but hates it and misses being habitat man. He is doing a quick garden for a Buddhist monk called Samudrapati (means Lord of all Wisdom), who confesses his love for numbers. https://www.greenstories.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/sites/256/2021/03/know-your-stuff-extract-7.pdf 

Note: this debate on best ways for organisations to account for environmental costs emerges naturally from the plot.

Tip 7: Have a variety of characters introduce the ideas you want to promote

Green solution: insects as alternative source of protein to meat

Context: Tim’s mate Jo has devised a random recipe generator that randomly selects ingredients, it’s become a cookery challenge that has gone viral. Earlier it’s been used as a device to point out merits of seasonal food. Here, Lori’s son Ethan (who likes wildlife just to kill it) comes up with the idea of adding insects to the joker column. https://www.greenstories.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/sites/256/2021/03/using-other-characters-extract-8.pdf

Tip 8: Realistic opportunities to impart information

Tip: Find a realistic scene where people would naturally be debating the cause you want to promote so conversations emerge from the plot and are not inserted in.

Green Solution: eco fashion and lots of other stuff

Context: Tim is distraught to find out he’s become famous for digging up the body of the famed guerrilla knitter. Conspiracy theories have gone mad and so the inquest is attracting public attention and the extinction rebellion protestors want to use the opportunity to make a statement. This is a full chapter.

https://www.greenstories.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/sites/256/2021/03/realistic-scene-XR-chapter-extract-9.pdf 

Notes normally there is no way you could get this many green solutions into a chapter without overcrowding it, but because it emerges from the plot, and the characters would all be expected to know about these subjects it doesn’t seem forced. If you really want to go into detail on a green solution, try to find situations where knowledgeable characters would naturally come together and talk – if it seems contrived it won’t work.

Tip 9: Where do speeches/education occur naturally?

Tip: A court case, or educational establishment provide great opportunities for speeches to occur naturally.

Green solution: shallow burial and wicker coffins

We enter the chapter when Tim is standing on Itchen Bridge late at night, slightly drunk, worried about the inquest the next day where he is called as a witness to the digging up of the guerrilla knitter’s body. This section highlights benefits of green funerals. https://www.greenstories.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/sites/256/2021/03/speech-extract-10.pdf

Note: This information arises naturally in the plot, but is still facts and figures, we get away with it as it works with the context, but the next section shows the emotional impact of how a burial is conducted.

Tip 10: Show how a solution feel to those involved?

Tip: The emotional engagement and character elements must take priority. Show how a solution feels to those involved.

Green solution: home burial

This extract occurs at the inquest where Fern the guerrilla knitter’s daughter has been on the stand trying to explain why they buried her mother in the garden themselves. Tim’s old neighbour is there and is reacting to what she’s seen in the context of the recent funeral of her husband.  But we are still telling rather than showing so even better would be the next extract where Tim and Lori are invited to a funeral, following the inquest. Here, there is no preaching, instead we inspire the reader by showing a natural funeral.

https://www.greenstories.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/sites/256/2021/03/show-how-it-feels-extract-11.pdf

Note: This scene also attempts to show that it doesn’t matter where you live, you can create an oasis of tranquillity and biodiversity even in a small city garden. But centre stage is the raw emotion of life and loss. The emotional reality must come first as if people aren’t excited by the plot or engaged by the characters they won’t read on