Jun 25 2009

Don’t Bury Your Story in Science and Realism

I’d only delve as deeply into science as much as the story and audience warrant. For example, if a villain shrinks the hero, 99% of readers don’t care that a shrunken human body couldn’t function because human cells are designed to function at a particular size. Unless you’re deliberately targeting a technically savvy audience (such as in hard sci-fi), your readers probably don’t care much about surface-to-volume ratios and the like.  Similarly, most readers don’t need elaborate explanations for superpowers. You don’t need to explain where Spiderman keeps all that webbing.

However, if you’d like go off on a tangent to satisfy the few readers that do care about these elements, I’d recommend trying to make it interest readers that don’t care so much. For example, one recurring implausibility with the Hulk is that the character’s pants stay on even though his size fluctuates so much. Real pants would burst off if you got twice as big, right? The latest Hulk movie addressed that rather hilariously by showing the character buying elastic maternity pants in Guatemala. (“¿Tienes más stretchy?”) That’s intuitive, simple and clever. In contrast, if the movie had made up scientific mumbo-jumbo like Pym particles or whatever, it probably would have confused or annoyed many viewers.

Finally, I would recommend taking with a grain of salt any reviewer concern that you expect would be limited to a tiny, tiny fraction of the potential readership.  In particular, my rule of thumb is that if you need college-level coursework to know that something is implausible, it won’t probably won’t create a major problem for most readers (unless you’re writing something like hard sci-fi). You can still address the concern if you’d like to–maybe you feel that addressing a scientific implausibility will make the story feel more believable–but don’t feel like you have to. Fiction doesn’t have to be realistic.

Professional communication tip: When you have a philosophical difference with a review (for example, if the reviewer cares a lot more about scientific plausibility than you do), I think it really helps to be polite. Coldly dismissing someone’s writing style is not a great way to make friends or win new reviewers. One possible approach would be something like “Thanks for your advice. I know this story may not be 100% scientifically plausible, but I think that most of my readers will be okay with that.” For one example of dealing with different artistic styles, I think I responded pretty courteously to a Marvel artist that was concerned the coloring on a mutant alligator protagonist wasn’t realistic enough.

12 responses so far

12 Responses to “Don’t Bury Your Story in Science and Realism”

  1. Marissaon 25 Jun 2009 at 11:07 pm

    Hahah, that quote might maybe convince me to see that movie. I hate the Hulk nearly as much as I hate the Flash and Superman.

  2. Joel Wyatton 26 Jun 2009 at 5:46 am

    In my story, the “science” is integral to the plot, but in most cases I’d agree.

    Also, account for your medium. Mechanical web shooters worked fine in a comic book circa the 1960s, but would have been ridiculously clumsy in a 21st century movie.

    (about my story – it’s online, if you hit my name. Hope that doesn’t sound like spam – it relates to this entry, and that last one about “jobs”)

    Marissa – that line, and the Avengers / Iron Man tie-in stuff at the end, were the best things about the whole movie!

  3. B. Macon 26 Jun 2009 at 6:03 am

    It’s important to tailor it to your audience. For example, if you’re doing hard science fiction, your readers will want a lot of scientific explanation. Mainstream superhero readers, not so much. Something like “genetic engineering did it” or “cybernetics did it” is often sufficient, like “radioactivity did it” was sufficient in the 1960s.

    It’s particularly important to cut back on scientific background when you have a lot of characters. For example, in the scene where our main character is introduced to a team of superheroes, we condensed the origin stories into single sentences.

  4. Joel Wyatton 26 Jun 2009 at 6:42 am


    – I like that; playing with the fact that probably ALL of your readers are going to come to your story with an understanding of what a superhero origin is, and just tossing the explaination out there. (I can imagine a golden / silver-age “fabulous first ish” for each of those characters, myself!)

    I do a lot of that, too. In my story, there are arbitrary “classic” type origins for the various heroes, mentioned in off-hand remarks (radiation, magic, cybernetics, etc.) but there’s an over-arching, completely deus ex machina explaination as to why those things “work” at all. (i.e. why exposure to radiation doesn’t just give some people cancer). I’m playing with the criticism about how the physics in superhero universes are so unrealistic…

  5. David 2on 26 Jun 2009 at 6:49 am

    If cells can only function at full size, how are midgets and dwarves still alive? Yeah, explain that.

  6. B. Macon 26 Jun 2009 at 6:52 am

    Hmm. I once collaborated on a superhero project that deliberately made the world’s science a bit wacky. Back when the US was conducting the Manhattan Project, one of my scientifically-minded colleagues mentioned that there was some concern that the first nuclear test would ruin the ozone layer. So we did a world where solar radiation was much more likely to cause mutations because the ozone layer had been badly compromised by the atomic test at Los Alamos.

  7. B. Macon 26 Jun 2009 at 6:53 am

    “If cells can only function at full size, how are midgets and dwarves still alive? yeah, explain that.”

    Umm, maybe they have fewer cells?

  8. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 26 Jun 2009 at 7:21 am

    “If cells can only function at full size, how are midgets and dwarves still alive….yeah, explain that”.

    The size of the person doesn’t really affect the cells. If someone was conceived by two regular sized humans, they have the same sized cells as their parents. Even if they had really short parents, they themselves would have gained their cells from their parents and so would have normal sized cells, which they would then pass to their offspring. However, with a dwarf or regular sized human, putting them in a shrinking machine would reduce their overall size by a tenth or whatever, also reducing the size of their cells and effectively destroying their body.

    …If I thought like that all the time, maybe I wouldn’t fail biology. Haha.

  9. Joel Wyatton 26 Jun 2009 at 7:32 am

    B. – mine’s sort of like that, but it involves an expirement that threw the entire UNIVERSE off it’s cosmic axis, making the very laws of physics maleable, kicking off the “golden age”.

    Or something.

    And – uh – “spoiler alert!”, I guess, for anyone who happens to find their way there…

  10. B. Macon 26 Jun 2009 at 9:09 am

    Perfect after I edited it! Haha.

  11. Marissaon 26 Jun 2009 at 3:20 pm

    Well, in a fantasy world, if you have a certain kind of magic and have to go about explaining every little fact about that magic, that would be like the ‘science of realism’ of that world. The same applies with telling all the mythology about that world’s gods, for example.

  12. Tomon 26 Jun 2009 at 4:29 pm

    Due to having a very keen interest in science, I fall prey to this a lot. It’s a real struggle telling myself to follow the MST3K Mantra ( http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/MST3KMantra ), even when I’m writing MY OWN SHOW. I’m really tempted a lot of the time to put a justification in as to why xyz odd phenomenon is happening, when really about 70% of what’s said should really say ‘just try not to think about it too much’, hence the MST3K Mantra link.

    Though having said that, as much as possible there should be an adequate explanation for what’s going on, even if the explanating is ‘a wizard did it’. It doesn’t matter if the reason is never explained in the work, just make sure you store the information in the back of your mind. This will be especially useful if you gather a cult following and need to answer the pedantic questions of irritating fans.

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