Tips and Tricks for Using Science in Fiction

When writing fiction, an author will often wish to include science, scientific concepts, or other facts and ideas drawn from the real world. Sometimes this works to the author’s advantage, sometimes it falls flat. In this article I will discuss several ways in which science is used in writing, what makes it work and what doesn’t.

Why include science?

Drawing information from the real world and applying it to fantastical or futuristic setting can add authenticity to the situation and make it more tangible and believable for the reader. Completely ignoring the laws of physics, group psychology, economics, or other concepts which a large portion of the readership intuitively understand can make the story unbelievable and hamper the audience’s suspension of disbelief.

How to incorporate science well:

1. Clarity

Presenting a complicated and nuanced concept in a clear and easy to understand manner can be difficult, but is often required for the reader to appreciate the effort. A muddled or confusing definition may hurt a piece of writing more than it helps. If you don’t understand what you wrote, the reader likely won’t understand it either. You might get by with faking it once or twice, but generally only include concepts with which you are familiar and can speak about convincingly. (If you must include a concept you are not familiar with and are unable to write about well, get familiar with them through research.)

2. Consistence

Ideas based on the real world will obey the rules of the real world. For a particularly complicated subject, knowing every detail might be impossible and explaining every detail will likely be unreasonable. Instead, consider creating a short list of rules which the concept always follows. For example, when writing about the first outbreak of the zombie virus, make a list of rules for the zombie virus based on how real viruses are transmitted and dealt with. This list could include things like: early onset of the zombie virus is asymptomatic and it takes about a week for the infected person to start developing symptoms, the symptoms of zombie virus are X, Y, Z, when zombie virus was first identified, the CDC attempt to control the spread via method X, etc. Once you have made a list of rules, stay true to the rules and apply them consistently.

My car, the internet, gravity, and flu transmission are all real world concepts. They all have rules and at some level we are all familiar with the rules. Personally, I have a vague mental concept of how the internet actually functions, but I do know things like how I use the internet in my daily life and what it can and cannot do. If the scientific concept you are working with in a story is based in the real world, you need to be aware of the rules and follow them. Inconsistently applying a scientific concept can confuse a reader or create plot holes.

3. Subtlety

Often the most successful applications of science and scientific concepts are elements the reader hardly even notices. Authors who incorporate science well will demonstrate an understanding of the concept, explain clearly, establish rules (or follow existing rules everybody knows,) and move on. Ideally this can be handled in a few sentences or never be explicitly written in the text. Trying to impress the reader with how smart you are or how much research you did to complete the piece will likely annoy them more than anything else.

What falls flat:

1. Totally ignoring or being unaware of a scientific concept

Sometimes an author can get away with this, and sometimes it can completely ruin a story. Recently, I read a book written in the 1970’s which took place in the distant future. In this distant future, one of the main characters used a phone booth. When I encountered this I thought, “Ha, ha, phone booth. I haven’t seen one of those in like 5 years.” It took me out of the story for a second as I considered how the plot of the story would be changed by the widespread use of cellphones. Now this doesn’t count as ignoring because people in the 1970’s didn’t know that cellphones would one day be a thing, but it is kind of funny and vexing to encounter. Ignoring or being ignorant of a real world concept that is relatively well known or broadly accepted can elicit a similar reaction from the reader. Being aware of and including scientific concepts which would impact your story is important and not doing so can interrupt the readers experience as they contemplate the implications some outside information would have on the story.

2. Plot holes

Let’s return to the previous zombie virus example for this. Early in a novel the author established that a person infected with zombie virus is asymptomatic for the first week of infection. This explains how the zombie virus spread from country to country so fast as asymptomatic carriers might infect hundreds of other people without knowing they were even sick. Later in the novel, a main character is infected with zombie virus and develops symptoms almost immediately after the event. There’s no exposition to explain how the disease changed to allow this and none of the characters even comment on the change. As a reader, would you be okay with that? I wouldn’t be. I would be like “Woah! You changed the rules when I wasn’t looking. Why did you do that?”

If you decide to incorporate a scientific concept, you also agree to obey its rules. If the rules become inconvenient or, for the purpose of the plot, you’d like to change the rules then this must be set up in advance and/or have a realistic impact on the remainder of the story. Otherwise, you’ve introduced a plot hole, and nobody likes those.

3. Over explaining or dwelling on the material

The opposite of subtlety, discussed above, an author walking into a scene and slamming the reader over the head with all the stuff they know, can be jarring. An author might do a whole bunch of research. If one spent so much time learning about a topic, one might wish to include every tiny little snippet of information gleaned from the hours of work put into the research. Often, this is a mistake. Informing the audience about an aspect of human knowledge they might otherwise not be aware of is one thing; lecturing readers into submission on a dry, boring topic only tangentially related to the plot is quite another. Writers avoid this problem by being judicious in determining how much time to devote to an idea in the story. Remember, if you wouldn’t want to read, would skim, skip, or consider lemming a book after encountering a prolonged section of exposition, expect your readers to do the same.

Concluding thoughts:

Incorporating scientific concepts can help make a story interesting, enticing, and realistic, but it can also cause things to go awry. Remember, you, as the author, are including this information to help the story move along and keep the reader happy, not to satisfy your own ego or fulfill an outside agenda. Always ask yourself: is including this important? Does it move the story along? Have I presented the material effectively? Writing with real world ideas is like using a magic system everybody knows the rules of (or thinks they know the rules of,) and ignoring reader expectations can hurt an otherwise well-crafted story.

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About

Microbiology graduate student, book blogger, science blogger, and sometimes fiction writer.

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Posted in Non-Fiction, Writing Advice
13 comments on “Tips and Tricks for Using Science in Fiction
  1. misskzebra says:

    I think this is something that still needs to be carefully considered by Fantasy writers, especially if you’re planning on setting it on modern day Earth. Something that always annoyed me with the Harry Potter novels was the line that magic made technology go haywire. It’s perfectly plausible, but I felt like JK Rowling almost cheated.

    I really felt like it would be interesting to explore how technology and magic would interact. In the end I decided to make that idea one of the themes in my novel.

    • NicoleP says:

      I totally agree. I always secretly wanted JK Rowling’s magic-technology interface problem to be important for the plot at some point, but it never was. I’d love to see some of your novel once it’s ready, you’ve made it sound interesting!

      • misskzebra says:

        It seems to be in perpetual edit mode, but I’m hoping to send it off to literary agents/publishers soon.

        Once they’ve rejected it, I’ll have the closure I need to be able to feel good about self-publishing.

  2. NicoleP says:

    Reblogged this on Nicole Land.

  3. Is this about the thing with the bus? (Just kidding)
    Often writers miss the obvious tack of actually asking scientists about complicated science questions. They get these kind of calls from journalists all the time (or they used to when there was such a thing as checking facts). Many scientists are more than happy to answer your questions if they are specific and related to their field of study, probably because they are so tired of everyone getting it wrong. Check with your local university or college. There are professors, TA’s, and grad students who will be happy to tell you why your universe is going to fall apart. Who knows, you may develop a good relationship and they will beta read your work. The worst they can do is say no.

    You’re a grad student, Nicole. Am I completely wrong about this? If you got a call from an aspiring writer about his zombie virus, wouldn’t you take a few minutes to set him straight?

    Also, this piece is about journalism but some of the fundamentals still apply especially “What do you need to know to write well about science?” and “How do you get the best out of an interviewee?”:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2013/mar/06/wellcome-trust-science-writing-prize-2013

    • NicoleP says:

      Yep, I’m a microbiology grad student, and scientists are just people too. Most of us are friendly and willing to answer questions. Personally, I’ve been asked questions about my field in relation to someones screenplay or book twice now, and I try to be helpful.I like the linked article as well.

  4. jhedrick82 says:

    Nicole,
    So glad it’s not just social scientists who feel this way about people misunderstanding social concepts and behavior. I still believe most readers will overlook a lot of things because they’re no better informed than some authors (futuristic phone booths notwithstanding), but authors have something of a responsibility to understand and correctly incorporate concepts they’re using, be they in the social or physical sciences. Also, correct (& subtle, loved the comments on subtlety) shows a deeper understanding of the interaction between concepts in the ‘natural’ world. You don’t get classic stories with lazy research.

  5. eranamage says:

    Reblogged this on Library of Erana and commented:
    Good advice

  6. eranamage says:

    Thanks, great post. On a similar note one thing which annoys me is the instapoison you see in murder mystery. There are very few poisons which kill instantly, at least not in the quantities given to the victim. Such substances need to be ingested for example and that will take a while. Certainly death is often not instantaneous.

    Ditto fight scenes, how many times have there been fight scenes and someone dies, or even survives really implausibly.

    A bit of research or even sticking to what “we” know to be the case is always wise. Of course in fantasy magic can explain away a lot but even so, some description of how the magic works, what is needed to cast it etc. is useful.

    I don’t necessarily get thrown out by say a phone box (because I can remember them) but I do tend to get thrown out by someone saying “he walked 2 blocks” in a medieval setting. Maybe because I am a Brit and we simply don’t use that measure of distance but it just seems wrong in a setting like that, sprawling crowded medieval streets and such.

  7. […] Tips and Tricks for Using Science in Fiction | Foil & Phaser I tend to agree with the advice here. Willing suspension of disbelief only goes so far and using established guidelines can save a lot of problems for both reader and author. It is hard to draw a line between giving knowledgeable info about a topic and boring the pants of a reader. ALB2012. The Light Beyond the Storm. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Light-Beyond…/dp/B0088DQO9C Reply With Quote […]

  8. I like this thread. Huzzah to you all. Your advice applies to murder mysteries and any good writing as well. I had tons of research about cheese-making to sprinkle throughout Sonoma Knight: The Goat-Ripper Case. I made cheese at home every weekend for a year. But my editor kept saying: cut the cheese stuff and get on with the thriller parts. Painful, but I did.

    So it comes down to plausable storytelling. It’s important to have enough science that the reader suspends disbelieve and says OK I buy this premise now let’s see what happens.

    I had to make a poison. I did tons of research, wrote it up and had a doctor and a hospital sanitation expert read it. They both approved. It had to be an instant killer poison. Believe me, I had fun making that creditable.

    Readers know so much more these days. They can research anything in 15 minutes. So tell enough truth to ground a compelling story, but never more than a few paragraphs at a time. I’m also one of those readers that wants to come away from a good yarn knowing something more about life or science or food. So I like to tell enough science to enrich the reader as well.

    I guess I’ll know it worked when people read GOAT-RIPPER and email me for the poison formula. Then I get to reply: It’s a work of fiction. Thanks for caring to be the best writers you can be. On’ya!

  9. bull4499 says:

    Pretty much summing up what everybody said, even though it is specific to science this post works as a general guide line for all writers, even within their made up areas of the story. for example if an author created a futuristic world with flying cars and all of a sudden they find an old car with no good explanation for it.

  10. NicoleP says:

    Thanks to everyone for commenting! The idea is for the tips and tricks here to be pretty broadly applicable. Things like poisons and cheese making were not ideas I had thought of when I wrote the article, but it’s wonderful to see people taking my ideas and running with them.

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