How HBO’s Chernobyl shows how to thread together an effective story


In honour of Barthelemy Thimonnier’s invention, National Sewing Machine Day is now observed on 13 June. This day represents more than just the sewing machine. It encapsulates something much larger, that when fragmented items are threaded together, they create something more than just the sum of their parts.

Nowhere is this more evident than when you’re trying to write a story based on current events. Journalists have to do this all the time. They get presented with a series of events which may not have a clear narrative, and they have to give it a cohesive story structure. Writers thread these events together using the common themes that can be found within them, exposing the narrative which lies beneath. This creates an effective story which makes the information more captivating, and in the case of a tragedy, can uncover the underlying problems that led to the incident. A topical example of this is HBO’s recent five-part series Chernobyl. Here are three ways to thread together an effective story, using Chernobyl as an example.

Don’t automatically start at the beginning

As children, all our stories began with the cliched phrase: “Once upon a time”. However, some of the greatest stories in history don’t begin at the beginning. Homer’s Odyssey began in the middle, a technique which the Ancient Greeks called “in medias res”. Similarly, Chernobyl starts at the very end, with protagonist Valery Legasov recording audio tapes describing the incident, including a grim foreshadowing of the cover-up attempts of the Soviet government. This is a brilliant way to let your audience know what the main themes of your story will be, in this case, the cost of lies and deceit. It threads the “isolated” incidents together because your audience will know that each one of them led to the consequences which they have already witnessed. While it may suit many stories to begin at the conventional beginning, not considering the alternative could mean your story is missing out on an incredible narrative device.

Focus on the ordinary and the extraordinary

Especially in journalism, it can be tempting to merely focus on the grand spectacle of a story, be it a prime minister’s resignation, a billionaire’s affair or the explosion of a nuclear power plant. While describing these extraordinary events is key to an effective story, writers often miss out on the chance to tell the stories of how these events affect the everyday person. Some of Chernobyl’s plotlines follow characters like the pregnant wife of one of the firefighters, or a young recruit in the animal control squad established after the explosion. An audience will often be able to empathise more with those characters, and witness how they themselves could be potentially affected by these issues. While it can be tempting to focus wholly on those with power, a good story will give its audience characters onto whom they can project themselves.

Show and tell

English teachers often come out with the expression: “Show, don’t tell”. They say to students that it is much better to say things such as “Lucy was smiling” as opposed to “Lucy was happy”, and to allow the audience to infer Lucy’s emotions themselves. But sometimes, while keeping in all the evocative imagery and descriptions which make stories so interesting, it can be beneficial to plainly tell your audience your exact point. At the end of Chernobyl, Legasov all but breaks the fourth wall when describing his disgust at the actions of the Soviet government. This allows even the most passive of viewers to understand the message of this five-part visual feast. Similarly, in journalism, writers want as many people as possible to be exposed to their views on a certain event. A combination of showing and telling makes the perfect article. Give the audience plenty of exciting imagery to keep them interested, but be blunt about your overall point. This combination will ensure that your story has the strongest of threads.
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