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Saturday, June 12, 2010

Reader Question: What is the best way to explain foreign technology in science fiction?

This question was sent to me anonymously via my Formspring profile. After thinking about it for a while, I've come to the realization that it's not exactly an easy one to answer. There are no hard-set rules for how to deal with description and explanation in fiction, particularly in science fiction. People try to say that there are, but any time someone comes up with a writing rule that is rigid and absolute, rather than usually right, but reasonably flexible, you should know you're dealing with a bad piece of advice. "Show, don't tell," for example, is not absolute, yet it is told as if it is. This question is very much related to that, and I'm going to try to answer it based on my experience as a writer and as a reader, since what works and doesn't work is, for me, tied up in both.

Explaining technology, specifically technology that is foreign to the reader, is not an easy task primarily because how you can or should explain will depend very much on the situation. For example, typically one explains something in one of the following three ways:

--Telling It
Literally writing "it does this," but, preferably, in more eloquent prose.

--Showing It
Describing the thing in action. For example, instead of saying how a toaster works, the author would simply show it doing what it was designed to do. A simple example, but the point easily applies to anything else.

--By Comparison
You can apply comparison to "telling" or "showing." By using a comparison you are essentially saying that your new-fangled thing is similar to this old thing, but different because of X, Y, and Z, perhaps implicitly or explicitly.

All three of these types have their place in science fiction (and fiction in general), and any writer can make all of them work. While the universal rule has always been "show, don't tell," trying to show too much can be just as annoying as trying to tell too much. It's a balance issue.

If you have a new technology present in a scene, but have no reason to show that thing in action (perhaps because it isn't integral to the plot), then you should avoid telling or showing it at all. But if you need the main character to know what something does before s/he uses it, then you can't avoid telling the audience what's what. The rule about telling really should be: use it sparingly. If you can show it, then do so. If you can't without bogging down the story, then don't. "Show, don't tell" really only applies in its most rigid sense when you are talking about action. You always want to avoid telling in action. You can bring in emotions and brief snippets of things, but the reason why writers say to avoid telling is because it typically bogs down action, which is not a good thing when you want your reader to be engrossed in what is going on.

The last from the list above is one that gets used from time to time, but never really discussed. Depending on the situation, using a comparison is very much a form of telling, but it can be done in a way that a) doesn't bog down the story, and b) keeps things brief and to the point. For example, instead of describing how a futuristic printing press works, you can simply make a comparison between the presses of today and note, briefly, the differences (similes and metaphors are a must). Simpler versions use old terms with a modifier (laser toaster; you know what it does and how just by the title--a ridiculous example, sure, but it gets the point across). This method isn't used often and really doesn't apply to very complicated processes or systems, particularly if your audience doesn't know those systems, but it can be very effective.

Ultimately, if you don't have to tell how something works, or even describe it, then don't. If there's no reason for it, then that's really the only response you should have. If you do have to describe something, however, then consider how it would be best to do so; the more complicated of a system/process it is, the less likely you can reduce it to an info-dump without pulling your readers out of the story. This applies to all forms of fiction.

In the end, the best way to deal with this is to come to terms with whether you have to describe it. Don't waste space doing something you don't need to do.

What about you? If you've found ways to deal with this, let me know in the comments!


If you'd like to ask me a question about science fiction, fantasy, books, writing, or whatever (anonymously, even), feel free to ask on my Formspring page.

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  1. Anonymous5:14 PM

    Wewt. xD This question was from me!

    Thank you for the extended reply. You make a good point of, does it really need to be explained? And in some cases I really don't know. For example, my novel has a different style of weaponry, but how much do I need to say about it?

    Also, I love the comparison suggestion, although I'm not sure just how it would work in my novel. With the gun example, I could pull it off, because "old style" guns (guns we currently use) are still in circulation in the novel, they're just not primary weapons, considered more barbaric antiques if anything, but the characters are familiar with old style guns.

    =/ It's probably not a big deal thing I need to worry about just yet, but it makes me uncomfortable because I've never written scifi before! X_X Your reply does help though!! Thank you so much.


  2. Another couple of questions to ask yourself are:
    "How important is this bit of technology to my story?" (Really - how much time can I justify on talking about it)
    "Do I have characters who could be "ignorant" of the technology?"
    If the answer to 2) is yes, you have more of an excuse to "tell" the technology.
    If the answer to 1) is "pretty important", you can spend a scene or two familiarizing the reader. If "not very", then try to show the basics as quickly as possible.

    Larry Niven's "Ringworld" and David Brin's "Sundiver" both do a good job of taking a few scenes to explain a technology that is very important to the story to a character who stands in for the reader's ignorance. (Question 3 is probably "How "hard" is your sci-fi"?)

  3. This post really struck a chord. In my backstory the characters' ancestors land on their planet and settle down. But the world they live in now is kind of early nineteenth century, perhaps even older in terms of its technology. I wondered about explaining how the people got there in the first place, to make it more believable, but perhaps its something that would bog down the story.

    It makes me think of the moon landings. Looking at those grainy black and white images and the analogue equipment in Houston it's almost impossible to believe they could put a man on the moon, but they did (apparently, but let's not go there!)

    When I get editing I'm going to go back to that chapter with this post in hand. Thank you.

  4. Even if you don't explain the detail to the reader, and let's face it good writing has a lot to do with what you leave out as well as what you put in, the author has to know the details.

    After I'd worked out how my 'Holoscope' worked in 'Lethal Inheritance', I then had to decide just how much the reader needed to know and cut it down to the simple basics.

    You can read ch 1 of this YA fantasy novel at

  5. Sorry, I'm late to replying to you all. Been really busy with an essay and other things...

    Moribundy: You're welcome! The one thing you should really ask yourself is whether you need to tell me what the weapon does, or if you can just show it doing its deal. I mean, if it's a gun, you can basically say it's a gun-like thing, and then later show it doing its deal. You can even give it a fancy name. Just show it happening. Unless it's the most complicated gun in the universe, and you're writing about the complicated things for a joke, there just seems to be no reason to tell the audience what it does.

    Jonah: Good questions. I disagree that having characters ignorant of the technology offers a good opportunity to tell the audience about it. That's just convenient. It seems very much like an "as you know, Bob" instance, except it's now an "as you don't know, Bob" one. I would caution modern writers from taking too much from the pages of older writers like Niven as well. That's potentially dangerous for your writing style.

    Dungeonmum: No problem. I'm glad it helped. There are certainly ways you could talk about the past with your characters without info-dumping too much or doing an "as you know, Bob" deal. It'll take fine tuning whether you want that information to be present or not, so, yeah.

    Tahlia: Oh, absolutely. If you don't know how it works as the author, then that will eventually show in the writing.