Here’s a nice circular exercise in seeing who has true “narrative intuition” (the goal I identify in my book). Guess what the Narrative Index was for Michael Crichton, the only creative artist ever to have his work rank #1 in television, film and books, when it came time to give a speech to AAAS. He scored a 35 — nearly the highest I’ve found so far — eclipsed only by Texas congresswoman Barbara Jordan with her legendary 1976 DNC speech which scored a 36. He knew narrative. Of course. And when you look at the text of what he said, guess what you see over and over again — yep, the ABT. He who lives by the ABT speaks with the ABT.
ARGUING ABT TO AAAS
In the late 1990’s, in the afterglow of the cultural tsunami of his novel “Jurassic Park,” Dr. Michael Crichton gave a keynote address to the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. They had asked his advice on how to improve the public perception of scientists in the media. Science magazine published the transcript of his talk in 1999.
In recent weeks I’ve presented what I have termed The Narrative Index which is a derivation of the ABT structure. It’s simply the ratio of the total number of “buts” to the total number of “ands” in a given text. As I’ve shown for politicians, it produces stunningly clear patterns reflecting who is delivering strong narrative content (a Narrative Index over 20) versus weak (under 10).
Not surprisingly, Crichton’s speech rings the narrative bell with a value of 35. The only higher value I’ve found for a speech so far was Barbara Jordan’s legendary address to the Democratic National Convention in 1976 which is in many lists of the Top Ten most important speeches in American history. She, of course, opened with a powerful ABT and overall scored a 36.
BOTH QUANTITATIVE AND QUALITATIVE
So the Narrative Index gives you a single number reflecting narrative structure, but once you’ve found a text with a high Narrative Index, the next question is can you see the structure in the text qualitatively? With Crichton it’s clear as ABT.
Look how he opens his speech — not with some ambling “and, and, and” discourse. No, he gets right down to business with “but” in his second sentence.
CRICHTON: Scientists often complain to me that the media misunderstands their work. But, in fact, the reality is just the opposite: It is science that misunderstands media.
As you read through the text you can feel the strength of his arguments, all built around the word “but,” over and over again. Jump to any random section and you’ll see the ABT structure at work. Like this bit where I’ve added the A and T in parentheses:
CRICHTON: Point three. Why are the stories about science always so negative? Why can’t we have positive stories? One answer is that people like scary movies. (AND) They enjoy being frightened. But the more important answer is that we live in a culture of relentless, round-the-clock boosterism for science and technology. (THEREFORE) With each new discovery and invention, the virtues…
It’s a very clearly argued presentation. The only sad thing about it is that 17 years later I don’t see any evidence in the world of science that anyone listened to or acted on any of his well thought out advice. Oh, well, what a surprise — science organizations not listening.
Was the AAAS talk a fluke score? Nope. In November, 2005 he gave a lengthy address to The Independent Institute of nearly 7,000 words (that’s a lot). He scored 31. The guy breathed narrative.
BTW, A FOOTNOTE
The Narrative Index scores for three speeches I’ve found by Neil Degrasse Tyson are 9, 11 and 14. Great guy, but no narrative monster.
And a final note. In the making of my movie “Sizzle” in 2007 I traded a string of emails with Crichton about climate change for which he forced me to read his novel “State of Fear” in order to continue our discussion. Yuck. That’s all I can say about it.