Category Archives: Suspension of Disbelief

Science Fact and Science Fiction (Part 1)

Many of the people with whom I’ve shared both aspects of my life are surprised by the dichotomy. I aspire to being a best-selling writer, and yet work as a professional scientist. I take writing courses and attend cons, and yet got my degree in engineering. Friends on both sides of my life have told me that it’s weird that I can do both. After all, everyone knows that scientists are analytical, left brained, and writers are creative, right brained. You simply can’t do both. Well no, clearly you can. But I can see where they are coming from given how often scientists are miss represented in fiction.

Sometimes it’s as simple as factual inaccuracies. Those I can forgive. After all, who is to say that the fictional world works with exactly the same rules we contend with? However, I have a much harder time when it is clear to me that the author didn’t bother to take the time to understand how scientists think and view the world. For me, a character not feeling “real” places huge amounts of strain on my suspension of disbelief. So, in the interest of better writing all around, let me share with you four of the things that I’ve noticed “right brainers” often get wrong.

1. Science is BOTH a Body of Knowledge and a Way of Thinking…

The extent of scientific knowledge that humanity has managed to accumulate is mind boggling. Though people tend to think of science as one big thing, it’s not. Botany, chemistry, anatomy, rocket science, robotics, medicine, programming, all the flavors of engineering, and dozens of other specialties — it’s all science. I’ve seen plenty of fictional scientists who seem to know everything. That’s bogus. Sure, a scientific education is designed to instill a baseline of knowledge across a broad spectrum of topics. However, at some point (usually in college if not sooner) scientists tend to hone in on a very narrow slice of the spectrum and specialize. It’s not uncommon for a pure scientist to devote their entire lives to researching weight loss, looking for exoplanets, or working on ways to improve human-computer interactions. Though those may seem to be broad topics, and they are, they are each only one “book” in the library of scientific inquiry.

However, “science” is also a lens through which scientists and engineers are trained to view the world. That training gives its students the discipline and tools needed for problem solving and discovery. It also instills certain core beliefs. Fundamental to any of the sciences is the idea that the world works by following a set of rules. We may not understand those rules right now, but we can and should discover them through methodical observation and experimentation. Second is the belief in the need for ideas to be challenged and reviewed by peers. A single experiment or study doesn’t mean a thing until it is reproduced and verified independently. This goes hand in hand with the idea of intellectual integrity, which is sacred within the scientific community. Finally, the training of a scientist is designed to instill a certain degree of precision and attention to detail. Many scientific discoveries throughout history were made because something unexpected happened and the researchers were observant enough to notice the trend.

As writers, we need to ensure we cover science in all its aspects — both as a body of knowledge and a point of view. The first requires that we research our character’s specialties thoroughly enough that we don’t make major mistakes and break the illusion. I’ve found it helpful to consult with experts as necessary. Luckily, there are many scientists and engineers who are also fans of fiction, so it’s easy enough to find volunteers. Secondly, we must take care to ensure that we capture how a scientist is trained to think and view the world. We also need to know our character’s specialties, and whether they view themselves as a pure scientist (the sort who loves knowledge and discovery for its own sake) or an applied scientist (those who find value in doing something with their knowledge). Finally, we need to decide if we want them to be a generalist or a master of a single specialty. I’ve seen every combination work well, but it’s a significant decision that must be considered carefully.

2. Stereotypical Scientists are Rarer than You’d Think…

The sorts of walking stereotypes you see on shows like The Big Bang Theory do exist. Trust me, I’ve personally met more than a few. However, most scientists would blend in seamlessly with a crowd. Sure, there are some scientists who are uncoordinated and poorly dressed, but there are also scientists who are body builders, fashionistas, and martial artists. Some are socially inept and massively introverted. On the other hand, I had an engineering professor in college who performed standup comedy on the side. Furthermore, we don’t all stick with science as a life-long profession. Some of the people with whom I graduated have gone on to be actors and professional chefs. And while there is some truth to the stereotype that scientists are all either white guys or Asian, there has been a HUGE push recently to attract women and other races into scientific education and careers.

Admittedly, we still have a long way to go, but I always get frustrated when “futuristic” science fiction is filled with a group of monogender, monochromatic, hapless, and hopeless nerds. Science is, should be, and must be a diverse community. We need the varied points of view granted by many different backgrounds in order to truly explore the universe. Uniformity of demographic or thought quickly leads to stagnation.

As writers, we need to be pioneers of what’s possible while also honoring what is. We inspire our readers to follow their dreams and passions, especially when they don’t believe that it’s possible for someone like them to do something amazing. I am a scientist because of fiction. I know that I’m not the only one. We writers owe it to our readers to ensure that we represent all sorts of characters in our works, not just relying on tropes, stereotypes, and plot devices.

Be sure to return tomorrow for the Part 2 of Science Fact and Science Fiction!

The “Coconut Effect” and Reader Immersion

“An eagle-eyed viewer might be able to see the wires. A pedant might be able to see the wires. But I think if you’re looking at the wires you’re ignoring the story. If you go to a puppet show you can see the wires. But it’s about the puppets, it’s not about the string. If you go to a Punch and Judy show and you’re only watching the wires, you’re a freak.”

— Dean Learner, Garth Marenghis Darkplace

…but I mean, there are times when research and accuracy aren’t the most important thing for reader immersion. The “Coconut Effect”, named after the horse-hooves sound the characters make in Monty Python and the Holy Grail by banging two coconut halves together, describes a phenomenon where readers have come to expect something so much, however unrealistic it may be, that not having it would break immersion.

Because there’s reality, and then there’s what the reader knows and understands of reality. Readers look for familiarity in common, repeated tropes that make up their repertoire from media they have consumed in the past, as opposed to actual science or facts. They come to expect these repeated in future media as its own language for the purpose of telling a story, all the while understanding that they are suspending disbelief in accuracy for the purpose of Plot or Rule of Cool. (Godspeed if you follow that link to TV Tropes.)  

So maybe cars don’t actually explode into pyrotechnics when you shoot the gas tank (but it looks cool). Maybe radiation isn’t always glowing a sickly green (but it’s an easy way to show invisible radiation on a visual medium). Maybe it’s not so easy to get past security measures (thankfully so).

But readers come to expect these. We don’t actually ever anticipate a reader needing to blow up a gas tank with a well-placed rifle round or break past security. And that’s not touching the legal or ethical ramifications of essentially teaching someone how to carry out these acts.

It is important for you, the writer, to know the truth though, and insert it into your story as necessary. If your plot is based on something being true when it is not, the reader immersion may be so broken that the rest of the plot doesn’t make sense.

…There are exceptions for ad hoc cultural understandings based on the scientific data available at the time.


“…spouting fish with a horizontal tail…”

There are many ways to subvert this trope, and whether or not it’s appropriate to do so might depend on your story. Did your character learn some false information from watching too many movies or TV shows? For example, you might have a character who thinks they can blow up a gas tank with a rifle round, and when that doesn’t work out, what is their Plan B? Plot twist!

Are the characters arguing over whether or not they can actually “suck the venom out” of a snakebite? (The record, no, you can’t. Also it’s gross and unhygienic and you just introduced a lot of bacteria to a wound.)

Does your characters inaccurate knowledge lead them into trouble when everyone else calls them out on it?

batsarentbugsOne place where it might be important to subvert or lamp-shade the trope the reader expects (regardless of how common it may be), is when perpetuating the myth might actively harm people and the cultural understanding of the people affected by the trope.

For example, writing stereotypical characters may perpetuate some of the prejudice and stigma real, live people face.

The “Crazed Lunatic” may be a recognizable trope, but without a nuanced exploration that subverts it, it can lead to further cultural misunderstandings of mental illness and discourage people from seeking help they may desperately need.

Writing any stereotype about a sex, gender identity, religion, race, or sexual/romantic orientation may reinforce negative opinions the culture may have in regards to those people. It can deny them humanity and the ability for their character to be perceived as a fully nuanced, complicated person.

So sometimes it’s not so important to have perfectly researched, detailed accuracy. But it is important to consider how sharing this information might affect the people reading it, their enjoyment of your story, and how making this common knowledge might help or hinder the population reading it.


Welcome to June! (Misconceptions in Fiction)

Hey Folks!

This June I’d like to showcase some great posts about misconceptions often seen in stories. Research can be hard, so we’ve done the grunt work for you!

Good research in writing is absolutely essential to me because even though I write about immortals and dead elder gods and paranormal entities, I like realism in my stories, dammit.

These are abnormal things happening in a normal world and the little, but accurate, details accentuate that contrast between what is real and what isn’t. If the world doesn’t seem real because the demographics, geography, tools, or physics are off, it can take a reader out of the story. Immersion can be important to pacing, so anything that takes your reader out of the story will ruin the “…Just one more chapter” effect you’re going for.

People, even mistakenly, take information from books. It’s how we learn about the world when we can’t or haven’t yet experienced it ourselves. Even in fantasies, even in anything fiction, if the reader can find something similar to their world, they’ll apply it subconsciously as learned information.

They trust you did your research as the author. Misinformation from the media we consume is spread and impacts people’s’ lives because we don’t remember where we learn information, just what was said. Even if it’s wrong.

If you write about a character being chased by a black bear and they escape by climbing a tree, you think that person isn’t going to try to climb a tree to escape a black bear? What other information did they have? They trusted you.

But if you have the character learn, “Oh wait! Black bears will totally climb the tree after you!”, then very likely that person will NOT climb the tree. And hopefully survive anyway.

…Why yes I did get chased by a black bear once, why do you ask?

So please enjoy this month’s collection of misinformation to avoid as necessary in your writing, and perhaps some suggestions on how to do it better.

Jackie Brown: Quentin Tarantino’s Masterpiece


Quentin Tarantino’s Subtle Masterpiece

We’ve all seen Quentin Tarantino’s movies and the episodes of television he has guest-directed (I’m partial to his epic episode of ER), and there are so many things we love or maybe hate about them. I have my favorites and my not-so favorites like everyone else. Yet, his almost unique approach to storytelling makes him one of the examples I use when I discuss movies that are even better than their screenplays read. Does he tend to have too-long periods of conversation? Sure. Is there a lot of gratuitous violence? Yes. But it hasn’t always been that way.  Along the way, he mastered subtle story-telling.

My favorite of Tarantino’s movies is Jackie Brown. The movie is based on crime fiction master Elmore Leonard’s novel Rum Punch. With a stellar cast including Pam Grier, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Keaton, Robert Forster, Chris Tucker, Bridget Fonda, and Robert De Niro, this film is not a hyper-violent revenge saga (Kill Bill) or a riff on alternate history (Inglorious Basterds), this is a very subtle character study and as such it is a masterpiece.

Jackie Brown (Grier) is a middle-aged flight attendant who smuggles money from Mexico into the United States for arms dealer Ordell Robbie (Jackson). When she’s caught by Federal agents, they propose a deal for her to help them arrest Ordell in exchange for her freedom. Ordell bails out Jackie with the intention of eliminating her, but Jackie is thinking ahead and plots a way to steal $500,000 from Ordell with the help of her bail bondsman Max Cherry (Forster). Things seldom are so simple.

From the beginning of the movie, the characters are so subtly handled that it almost makes you wonder if you’re watching a Tarantino film. We immediately like and empathize with Jackie in a dead-end job because we see her hurrying through the airport and putting on a smile all the while. When she’s caught, we can see she was stuck in the middle of a bad situation because it helped financially. Ordell (a masterful performance by Jackson) is creepy, distrustful, and loathsome from the moment we meet him – and he gets worse throughout the film. But these audience reactions are genuine and not ham-fisted by any means. Just by watching the movie and letting the character’s depth play out visually, you pick these things up. Tarantino mastered “show, don’t tell” and he doesn’t need product placement, direct conversation, or tedious imagery to get the point across.

The heart of the movie is the relationship between Jackie and Max. We see two middle-aged people in dead-end jobs that they do not enjoy being drawn together. How Tarantino handles their relationship is simply beautiful. The gradual development of their unspoken feelings for each other reaches a crescendo when Max puts his life on the line for her. I won’t spoil the ending, but the first time I watched it I remember wishing like hell it had been different only to realize that it was perfectly crafted for the characters because of who they were and what we as the audience had learned about them throughout the film.

And one more example. Robert De Niro’s character is such a departure for the actor that you’re almost dumbfounded he’s playing that role. To me, this is brilliant casting because you’re waiting for De Niro to be De Niro, you know? And when it happens, it’s brutal and perfect. I’ll leave it at that and not spoil much more. Brilliant casting.

One final thought. I always write with music playing and I pay very close attention to movie soundtracks for what works and what does not. Music is important to mood and when done well it’s a subtle attention grabber. The soundtrack for this movie is simply amazing.  Every song fits its scene perfectly.

Tarantino’s strength in bringing memorable characters to life with the subtle aspects of their personalities, likes, dislikes, and they way there simply “are” is something all of us should strive for in our writing.  Beating the reader over the head with what you want them to know takes away from the level of care they should develop for your characters.  Be subtle.  Be brilliant.