1. twopounder
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    twopounder Member

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    Technical Details

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by twopounder, Jan 14, 2011.

    So, I'm writing a science fiction novel that is extremely in depth (to the point of explaining how their assault rifles and radar works). I understand that most people can find this very boring. I've stared at technical documents long enough to know that turning white pages into a novel is a bad idea.

    However, understanding this technology is intrinsic to understanding what is transpiring in the story. The characters are detached from it, but what they are doing and why is governed by how they are interacting with this advanced technology.

    I'm already planning on writing an encyclopedia to offer for free as a digital companion. However, I'm struggling with how much I should actually write into the book (for those who don't want to bother with additional literature to understand what is going on). I do know some people who would only read the encyclopedia and disregard the story, but they certainly aren't the norm.

    Does anyone else have thoughts on what is an appropriate amount of detail?

    For reference, my first chapter is more than 10k words, and I'm not happy with the amount of character development or technology explanation. This could add another 5k words to what is my second smallest chapter. Given I have 10 total chapters planned, that's 150k words in a single novel. I'm also writing a 6mm game that coincides with the story, which is one of the reasons for the intense detail.
     
  2. Naiyn
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    Naiyn Contributing Member

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    You said it yourself in your openening paragraph; "bad idea"

    How much of this detail should you include? Only what is necessary to tell the story. No more. If it's not relevant to the characters in the story, there's absolutely no reason to put it in. If it is relevant to the characters, you can use this technology as a plot point-- such as the characters need to understand how to use and/or build the particular device, then show them in action working with/experimenting with it.

    But for gosh sakes, don't bore your readers with details just for the sake of having them in there.
     
  3. Crabapple
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    Crabapple Member

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    I think it will depend on the audience you are writting for. Science fiction is all about the depth and immersion I believe. Knowing how the plasma rifle works is something I find really interesting in the context it relates to in other parts of the story. I think with science fiction, there is the "hard-core" sci-fi which is aimed at people after all the little details along with the story, and then there is the "soft-core" sci-fi more about a story in a futuristic world (if that makes sense).
     
  4. Mallory
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    Mallory Mallegory. Contributor

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    With most of this stuff -- technical description, setting description, MC physical appearance description, necessary backstory, etc -- I have the same advice on it.

    Weave it in naturally by peppering a line here and a line there with a tidbit of information. Don't state it, but mention it in passing in a way that readers are able to get it from the context.

    If you've got one brief mention on each page, after 10 pages, the readers will get a lot. A little bit goes a long way.
     
  5. FrankABlissett
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    FrankABlissett Active Member

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    Save the details and the explanations for your encyclopedia.

    If the economy of Xander Crystals will be important to your plot, then by all means note that they are an important component of ray-beam guns. If not, save it for the reference material.

    -Frank
     
  6. TokyoVigilante
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    TokyoVigilante Member

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    I looove over done technical details. I think you should work on a balance of making it both practical and a style all your own. You'll never please everybody and if pointing ou the little things is how you enjoy writing that embrace it and go forward with it.
     
  7. HeinleinFan
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    HeinleinFan Banned

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    Look, if you're telling a story, tell the damn story.

    If the story and character and conflict involves the chemical formula of the primer in a bullet and a detailed explanation of how firing pins work, fine. I wouldn't read it -- I prefer that my characters be, you know, animate -- but you could do it.

    But if you're putting it in to be "thorough," you may also find yourself "unpublished." The two will go together, if you ignore the main elements of your story in order to write a technical manual.

    I would not have any interest in a paragraph like this:

    A story is generally about characters solving a problem. If the characters are human, you'd better believe they'll skip the technical stuff. Most humans will classify objects by their purpose rather than by their internal parts.

    If you are dealing with really advanced technology, some -- and I do mean "some," not "lots" -- technical explanation may be necessary. But radar? Assault rifles? We know what they are, what they do. If the radar is going to be disrupted by something serious, or just deflected (like modern "stealth" aircraft), then the radar doesn't do its job. You probably don't need to go into the history of radar development to get the point across.

    Now, this is all based on how I write. And it's true that the first priority should be getting the story down on paper or into a computer program, so if you can't change your style mid-story, just finish the novel and you can edit it later. But it sounds like your story is getting a lot more technical description than you need.
     
  8. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    As you probably know, the subgenre of science fiction called "hard" science fiction generally features precisely the sort of thing you are talking about. Personally, I like hard science fiction and I'm happy to read the technical details as part of the story. It is up to you to do it in a way that is not boring, which generally means spreading the information out and letting it flow naturally with the story.

    Of course, not everyone likes this sort of science fiction, so you are going to get divergent opinions, but if you're writing 'hard' science fiction, your readers will expect to see some of the technical aspects of the science.
     
  9. HeinleinFan
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    HeinleinFan Banned

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    @Steerpike: That's true as far as it goes, but I am aware of no novel where 5,000 words of the first chapter goes to describing mechanical innards.

    I am familiar with hard science fiction such as The Atrocity Archives to Lucifer's Hammer to On Basilisk Station. The first describes, in detail, security systems, how higher mathematics pertains to magic, and how certain weapons and equipment including space suits function. The second has to explain about comets, extinction events, shockwaves, space probes and spacecraft, and certain types of infrastructure. The third has to describe spacecraft, weaponry, advancements in technology which allow ships to warp from one point to another, local narcotics and the rank structure of several space naval craft.

    All of these are heavier on the technical explanation than most books. They are also excellent. But from the original poster's description of his first chapter, it sounds like he has far more technical content per chapter than any of the authors I've ever read.

    It could be that he's doing something like The Andromeda Strain, where the biology was absolutely vital to the story, or FlashForward, where in order to make the premise plausible, CERN's significance had to be explained in the first chapter. It's just that this is not clear from the information given -- and frankly, without a writing sample, it makes sense to give advice addressing the worst-case scenario.

    If twopounder looks at my post and says, "That's way more technical detail than I'm using," then he's safe and can just ignore me. No harm done. If he looks at my paragraph and says, "Oops. That sounds just like this page I've written on the ammunition feeding mechanism used in assault rifles," then he knows that he should cut back.
     
  10. Jonalexher
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    Jonalexher Contributing Member

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    It depends.
    Sometimes, Chuck Palahniuk starts talking about some stuff that is totally unrelated to the main plot, but why is it still good?
    Because it's interesting.
    If you're going to explain something and get technical and teach your readers something, it better be something interesting.
    Just like Dan Brown did in The Da Vinci Code. All those details about the Mona Lisa, etc. (I found them quite interesting. I find Leonardo himself interesting, actually)

    So it all depends on what you choose to "teach," and how you decide to do it.
     
  11. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    My problem is mythology being fantasy - what I do have is something I put together with three drafts of my first few chapters. I had a massive, massive infodump in my first two drafts, it has proved useful to me but I had to take it out - getting the story to work without it was a challenge, if you like you can have a look at it, it might spark ideas looking at the changing process in another's work. It is something no amount of reading can give us because we don't get to see that in our favourite works.

    Personally I would just write it. My first drafts characters tend to be flatter than I like and full of infodumps. It takes time to know and understand a character and infodumps with fantasy I think are useful they help you understand the world in context of the story. Should imagine Sci Fi has similar elements. Once you understand properly how things work and what they are you can probably explain them better.
     
  12. HorusEye
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    HorusEye Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think the crowd of readers who favour hearing about assault rifle mechanics over taking plunges into the depths of the human condition is rather small and rather dry. But hey, nothing intrinsically wrong with addressing a small audience.
     
  13. Allegro Van Kiddo
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    Allegro Van Kiddo Contributing Member

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    Dirk grabbed the Jenson's Accelerator and rammed the molten salt battery pack into its housing and aimed the rifle at the mech walking toward his allies. He knew that wind resistance wasn't a factor for the rail gun and he casually squeezed off a few shots at the thing's knees. The nearly silent whine of the magnets pulsing was practically undetectable, and his position was secure.

    That probably wasn't a factor since the wildly accelerated metal slugs turned the mech's legs to molten metal and it was already lying on its back. The pilots would have a lot more to worry about than his location in a few minutes. His friends now had the upper hand.

    Dirk laid a big wet one on his weapon and decided to call it Mommy.

    Other than that last sentence there, that's the way I'm like to see technologies handled unless some expert character is describing the thing to someone. The way did it is discuss the use of the device, the sounds, etc as a way to describe what it is and how it works.
     
  14. KrisG
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    I love technical details, but I know not many people like to read pages explaining how things work.
    Try and detail what you want, but not going overboard with it, keep most for the encyclopaedia.
    What you could do tho, with certain things is try to integrate it with the story, as in, the characters NEED to know how some things work for whatever reason?

    Like the post above, teach at the same time. When reading the lost symbol, I completely enjoyed researching the sciences, paintings etc. which were involved.
     
  15. D.T.Roberts
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    D.T.Roberts Senior Member

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    Michael Crichton was the master of integrating over the top technical details into a story, but he did it in a way that it became an integral part of the plot. DNA splicing in 'Jurasic Park', How black holes work in 'Sphere'.
    But he has a wide appeal.
    If you can make them part of the story without intrerupting the flow, I say go for it.
     
  16. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    Have you ever read The Dragon's Egg, by Dr. Robert Forward? He was a physicist and engineer. Very good book, but much heavier on technical details than the ones you mentioned. Forward was known for this aspect of his novels. The Dragon's Egg was described by Dr. Forward himself as a text book on neutron star physics disguised as a novel. That may sound off-putting, but in fact it worked quite well. The book is a seminal work in 'hard' science fiction.

    That level of detail is not something I would recommend starting authors try unless they are really confident in their ability to pull it off in the context of a story. If done right, I do think there is a market for it. I liked the Dragon's Egg both for its story and because I thought the physics was cool.
     
  17. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    That sounds really cool Steerpike wish I had time to sit down with it.
     
  18. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    Yeah, it's a cool book. And not all that long. If you ever see it, it is worth picking up (says the guy with a to-read stack of over 100 books, including the two I bought today).
     
  19. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    lol thanks to another thread currently doing Tom Sawyer again. I have a stack to take back to the library but I love physics would have liked to have more in my books.

    Best I managed was using physics to improve energy flow in fighting techniques, my dead king was an astronmer and had bought his son an astronomically correct duvet. Oh and all my cats in my books are named after famous astronomers.
     
  20. twopounder
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    twopounder Member

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    I draw almost all my inspiration from Michael Crichton. He's the reason I got into writing in the first place. You are right, he was an absolute master at taking the highly technical, and making it not only easy to grasp, but entertaining to read.

    However, he works within the confines of the modern world. While the subjects of his writing stretch into science fiction, he has no need to explain how a simple device like a calculator works. Given 200 years of advancement, even the most mundane devices could require substantial explanation.

    Consider how you would explain texting on a Droid or iPhone to someone from the 19th century. For this reason, most sci-fi is tempered. Everything is done in conventional terms (cars, guns, houses, etc). 200 years ago, nobody could have even conceived of an automobile, or space flight, or computers. Whatever we imagine the world to look like in 200 years is wrong.

    I don't want to go the route of fringe sci-fi, but still think descriptions are important (my assault rifles are capable of firing in zero-g... if I don't explain that, who is going to buy it?). The good news is that I think I've found a happy medium. I'll be letting my friends (and their wives) review it for input.

    Thanks to everyone for their feedback though. It's greatly appreciated :)
     

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