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:
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.)
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.
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.
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.