Monthly Archives: May 2014

Putting Science in Story Telling



On May 14th, 2014 I had the opportunity to talk at the Wasatch Institute of Technology “Hour of Code” held at the Adobe Systems campus in Lehi, UT. I talked about “Putting Science in Storytelling” to students of all ages interested in STEM subjects.

What this is about

This presentation is about how to put science into your stories. It is about how to make your stories more interesting by thinking about the neat ramifications of good science. The alternative is to tell very familiar stories with familiar but terrible science in them. Clearly many people don’t mind this kind of story, but I do.

We will start by looking at some of these terrible science examples. Then I will talk about how to think about neat science stuff in ways that let you come up with good story ideas that have good science in them.

Then we will do some exercises to let you put these tips into action. So, while I’m talking, I want you to be thinking about a neat invention or science idea that you want to put in a story. And… I want you to think of a neat monster you want to put into a story. Think about those, and when I get finished explaining how to think about them, you’ll get to try these tips I’m giving you out on your inventions and monsters.

OK, let’s talk about getting it wrong.

Getting the science wrong

o Case A: Your character is flying in a space ship going between Earth and Mars. The space ship engine stops. The captain looks scared and says, “The engine stopped. We are going to fall into the Sun!”

What’s wrong with this? The space ship is acting like an airplane, not a space ship. A space ship without power will orbit forever, or close to it, not slow down and crash into the sun.

o Case B: Your character is a contestant playing Jeopardy, but he’s playing from the Moon over a video link.

What’s wrong with this? The distance and the speed of light. The player on the Moon will have a four second handicap compared to players in the studio on Earth.

o Case C: Your character is on the Enterprise. Sulu announces, “We can go Warp 8 now.”

What’s wrong with this? Warp Speed is faster-than-light travel. This is something totally imaginary at this point. But it is being treated like airplane travel — push the accelerator harder and you go faster.

And in the monster category.

o “I’ve been in this cave for ten thousand years.”

What’s wrong with this? “…Really? …Why?” “Get a life!”

These are examples of doing the science wrong. Now let’s talk about how to do it right.

How to think about neat inventions: expected use and surprise uses

Science is neat, but what is really neat is what can be made from understanding science well. It is how science changes how we live that’s really important. So when you’re putting good science in a story, you are talking about how it changes how the characters of the story live. Keep that in mind, deeply in mind. The characters and their lives are there to show off the changes science makes.

With this goal in mind, let’s take a moment to think about what kind of people in real life have to deal directly with this same issue? What kind of people have to say, “That’s neat… now… what can you do with it?”

Right! Inventors! When something is invented, the first use of it — the one that will get money behind it so it gets made — is to replace an existing product, in a way that does what the old product does faster, better and cheaper.

Then, some time after the invention is being made, someone will say, “Hey! You know what else you can do with that…” This is what I call the surprise use of an invention. This is usually the really neat one, this is the one that gets the invention into the history books… and will make your science describing really neat.

These surprise uses are much trickier to think of before the invention happens. But it’s a skill you can learn and master, and when you do your science fiction writing will get… Wow!

Here are some simple examples of surprise uses.

o disposing of bubble gum under tables

o drive-in movies when cars replace horses and carriages

To give you an idea of how widely this concept can be applied, let’s think of human’s strong language skill as an invention. (See my book Evolution and Thought)

How to prepare to do this kind of thinking

The way to prepare to do this kind of thinking is to know lots of stuff about lots of stuff. Learn science. Learn about how we can best explain what is happening in the real world. Learn history. Learn well-taught history and read good history books that are about science and technology being applied. Read about how people’s lives were changed by the changing technology they embraced. Beware of history that’s mostly about promoting a particular political idea or a writer’s editorial opinion about something. These are propaganda in one of its various forms. They will teach you very little about important things that happened in the real world… other than what the producer of this show thinks is important.

Giving your monsters motivations

Very much related to understanding your inventions is understanding your monsters. Think about why they are doing what they are doing? Think about how else they could be spending their time, energy and attention. When you understand those about your monster, then the monster will be acting sensibly, and it will be both more interesting and more dangerous.

Keep in mind point of view: What is this monster thinking about? What is important to this monster? As an example of what I’m talking about think of how a cow living on a dairy farm sees a human? What is the human doing? Who is the master in that situation? Put this kind of change of viewpoint in your story and it will come out quite differently!

Exersize: Evil Emperor of the Galaxy — what does it take to have one? (in essence, impossible, the galaxy is too big)



o Describe a neat invention for your story. Tell us the expected use and a surprise use. Most important: How is it going to change how the characters in the story live?

o Tell us about a monster for your story. Tell us why it is there, what it wants to do, and a surprise outcome from those.



The heart of putting good science into a story is thinking about, “What difference is this going to make to how the characters live?” Coming up with answers to that will shape the story. It will move it into places that are surprising when compared to familiar story telling techniques.

This is the exciting part of putting good science into stories. And, if you like what I have presented here, look into my Tales of Technofiction books.






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Getting the context wrong

Why_We_See_Beauty_2012_03.04.12One of the most common sources of “blind spot thinking” (my term) is not understanding the context — the circumstances — within which an action is taking place.

Here is a comical example: A man is walking from his cell on death row to face a firing squad. He lights up a cigarette. Someone watching says, “Hey! You shouldn’t do that. You’ll get cancer.”

Will he get cancer? No, his circumstance will not permit it. Did the person making the comment think of that? No. That person was engaged in blind spot thinking — he or she was applying their own circumstance to the condemned man’s circumstance.

Here are some other examples:

o US church volunteers travel to a remote area in Africa to build a medical clinic. They spend a month there doing construction work, and assemble a fine looking building. The locals are oh-so grateful and blow kisses to the volunteers as they head home. But… there are no health care people in the area who can man the clinic, so it is abandoned.

o An anti-smoking group supports an anti-smoking campaign because smoking causes cancer. They do this in Angola, a place with an average life expectancy of 40 years.

o A wet-behind-the-ears soldier salutes an officer in a front-line sniper zone, or the converse: doesn’t salute an officer in a rear area. Either way he’s being wrong for his context and he will get called up on it quickly.

A cultural summation of this is a 1970’s folk song. Here is the chorus:

Walk a mile in my shoes, walk a mile in my shoes
Hey, before you abuse, criticize and accuse
Walk a mile in my shoes

Joe South’s song “Walk a mile in my shoes“, 1970

One concept Joe misses in this song — beyond abusing, criticizing and accusing — is aiding. Offering help needs to be just as context-sensitive as all these other activities. If not, the good intention will produce results as harmful as the ignorant intentions — it will be, in fact, just another ignorant intention.

Circumstance-insenstive blind spot thinking is quite common, and it powers a lot of what I call “goat sacrificing” — spending a lot of money, time and attention on a cause, but getting no good results… other than the giver sleeping better at night.



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