By that, I mean on purpose.
Before we get started, I need to preface with a couple of points.
- These are tips for writers. If you’re a reader, this shit might give you a glimpse behind the curtain. Good or bad? I don’t know. We’ll discover that. Together.
- This is not a post about alternative facts or some other political bullshit.
- There is no excuse for not knowing your shit. This post is not about how to fudge things so you can get away without doing research.
Let’s turn that handle, yo.
Let me set a scene for you. You’re watching a cop procedural on Netflix. In the scene are the good guys on one side of a table, bad guys on the other (you decide if the cops are good or bad in this scenario – it doesn’t matter). There’s a one-way mirror on the wall, behind which some other cops are watching what’s going on.
Doesn’t happen as often as you might think. I’ve been to a number of police facilities (which we shall talk no further about), and I’ve yet to see an interview room configured this way. Technology often replaces one-way mirrors — things like cameras or interview units take their place. I mean, a pinhole camera is non-obvious, and some jurisdictions still have a concept of privacy, meaning you can’t surveil someone without their consent. However, the mirror is such an established trope in police-based television procedural shows, if they’re not there you get cognitive dissonance. You, as the viewer, are expecting a one-way mirror.
I promise you that the writers, stage hands, producers, and everyone else involved in these shows is aware of how one-way mirrors are used (or not). They’ve made this mistake on purpose, because it would be worse to not make the mistake. The shows I’ve seen where one-way mirrors aren’t used as often seem to be from Europe, where they have an alternative set of tropes in play. I recently saw one where police were interviewing someone using a tape recorder, which was … quaint. I don’t know much about European justice facilities, but I’d bet they’ve moved on to better tech by now.
See where this is going? You, as the viewer, are expecting a thing. Let’s see how this impacts writing.
A benefit of using established tropes is saving space. You don’t need to explain shit to people, right? It’s one of the reasons genres exist. If I worldbuild an urban fantasy show like Penny Dreadful (side note: some of Eva Green’s finest work), I don’t have to tell you much about Dr. Frankenstein. I only need to tell you why my Dr. Frankenstein is different. Whole different order of problem.
Another benefit is narrative flow. Let’s get back to one-way mirrors for a moment. Let’s say you want to be accurate, and drop out that trope. If you’ve got a super advanced tamper-proof interview unit, complete with some kind of chain-of-evidence monster tech inside it, HD cameras, LIDAR, net connectivity, Skype integration to get your friends and family on the call, hell, rectal scanners for all I know, you as the writer need to break narrative flow to introduce that technology and its relevance. For something like 0.00001% of your audience, this will be way cool (the people who specifically like technothrillers), but for the rest of people, they will say something like this:
“What the fuck did I just read? What the fuck does that thing do? Do I fucking care?”
They might get bored and switch off. You don’t want that.
I wrestled with this in Night’s Favor. There’s a scene where Val is at a police station, being interviewed. I decided the trope worked better, so there’s a one-way mirror there. You know what? No one cared. No one even noticed. That’s how good the trope is. I got it wrong on purpose. I did my research, and discovered that reality was less useful than fiction. Readers want a good time, and a good time they shall have.
Careful. You’re probably thinking, “Fuck me, this is awesome. I’m gonna bust out every trope in the universe.”
Let’s get into science fiction and why this can be risky. Some audiences like their genre because of accuracy. No audience is more critical than the hard science fiction group. Well, okay. One might be: the military science fiction audience. Both of those audiences like to think they know their shit. Pro tip: they probably do. You may think, “Well, hell, if I don’t tag my book/tv/movie with ‘hard sci-fi’ I’ll be okay,” and you’d be dead wrong.
The reasons are multiple, but I think we can focus on a couple core principles.
- Attraction. Science fiction attracts scientists. Military fiction attracts previous and active service personnel.
- Life isn’t fair. If Star Trek can’t win, neither can you.
The first is self-explanatory, but I think we should dip into the second a little.
Star Trek techs the tech. They get all kinds of things wrong. My favorite is how space ships approach within walking distance before firing, so as to give us a nice cinematic feel to our space battles, when this probably wouldn’t be true. But all kinds of things about the show are outright bonkers, which leads to a kind of rage from science nerds, who feel they have to put their brain in a jar before they watch the show. But you’d think, hang on, this is a work of fiction, we all know it’s a fabrication! Why is this a thing?
Reviews, friends, reviews. That’s why it’s a thing. If enough people get righteous rage about your mutilation of whatever science hill they’ve decided to die on, you’ll feel it. It’ll be on Metacritic, Amazon, and wherever your fine works are sold. Whether that hurts your sales? Hard to say, but if you do not have Tony Stark’s marketing department (remember: they made it look cool to sell weapons of mass destruction) then you’re going to struggle a bit.
I’ve had some experience with this. When I wrote Upgrade, I tried to make that hard science fiction. I spent a lot of time researching science, and the direction of travel I thought it would take in the next hundred and fifty years or so. The science in that book is pretty legit. No one’s called out the science in it for being sub-par (don’t be an asshole and be the first … let me dream). The market for hard science fiction is smaller than the overall market for ‘science fiction,’ and writing to that market did me no favors.
Enter: Tyche’s Flight. I did my research, just like with Upgrade, but decided it might be okay to sail close to the wind on a trope or two. Most of the science (like the tech I’ve used for FTL) is pretty legit, despite being hidden from the reader (I don’t tell you how an Endless Drive works because you don’t need to care, but I need to know how it works for narrative consistency). So, where did I break the rules, and why?
A set of tropes exist around what happens to people in outer space when they’re not wearing a space suit. I did the research on the science, and it turns out you can survive a surprising amount of time in hard vacuum, so long as you’re not facing other material dangers (pro tip: wear sunscreen if you’re close to a star and not in convenient shade). One of the tropes I thought might be cool to lean on for narrative effect is what happens from a freezing perspective. Hell, we’ve all seen it. In Gravity’s opening scene, a dude gets his space suit cored by a piece of debris, and turns into a floating meat rock in about ten seconds. I figured this trope was well enough established that I could have Grace refer to someone she’d seen outside an airlock as being flash-frozen*. It’s a cool term! It’s also mentioned from a non-scientist character’s PoV. I figured I had a B-pass here, worst case. You’ll pass over those two words having got the narrative gist of what’s going on, so we can all get back to the blasters and insect-like aliens doing evil things. I reckoned: if someone can freeze before they suffocate in a recent Expanse episode, based on a series of books that tries to get the science right, then Grace can make a passing comment about it.
Turns out, no. That particular scene was called out in a review’s first line (which still gave me three stars: I’ll take it). Remember rule 2? Life isn’t fair. People can suspend disbelief on the existence of telekinetic powers, insect-like aliens, and FTL, but if you hit the hill they want to die on, they will call you on it.
* If you care, the process of flash freezing (or blast chilling) involves taking foods from cooked (~70C) to chilled (~3C) in a short period of time.
What have we learned from this? And how can you make your writing better, so your readers want to keep turning those pages?
- First up, you need to know your shit. If you’ve done the work, use it. If you haven’t done the work, you should.
- Second, if you can find a way of getting the correct information in there, do so.
- Narrative flow > science accuracy, as long as most of your science is legit.
Why? There are many, many more people who care about characters and story than care (or know!) about the science of freezing in space, but, if all my science was questionable, you’d see nothing but 1-star reviews on Tyche, dismal sales, and me living under a bridge. The reader who didn’t like my science still liked enough of the science to finish the story, and enjoyed the story enough to give it three stars. I know in this world of five-stars-or-death three seems miserly, but to me three says, “Hey, this was good.”
I hope this has given you some pointers on how to make your books more readable, and given you some encouragement to do your homework ?