Friday, July 31, 2015

As You Know, Bob: Conveying Information in Science Fiction Stories

One of the fun things about venturing into a completely new field is learning all of the jargon. Physics, of course, has lots of it, but so does science fiction writing. And one of the first phrases that a neophyte writer discovers is "As You Know, Bob."  What's that all about?

Conveying information in a science article is easy: just say it.  But when it comes to a science fiction story, it's not so simple.  Consider this beginning for a story:

          Joe Waltham burst into the ship’s control room.  Klaxons wailed, and the neutrino gauges flickered wildly.  “Bill,” he shouted, “the solar neutrino detectors have gone crazy.”
          The sun produces neutrinos in the course of its fusion reactions.  Two protons bind to form deuterium, producing a positron and an electron neutrino.  The electron neutrino can escape from the sun’s core.
          Bill rushed over to check the detector feeds.  “I don’t see anything wrong at this end.”

See anything odd?  The author wants to explain why the sun produces neutrinos, but he places a large indigestible lump of explanation right in the middle of the story.  This would be perfectly acceptable in a science article – in fact, it's the primary content of nonfiction.  But in a work of fiction, it completely interrupts the plot and pulls the reader out of the story. In the argot of the science fiction community, this is known as an “infodump.” Having been advised on the dangers of the infodump, our intrepid author cleans up his story:

Joe Waltham burst into the ship’s control room.  Klaxons wailed, and the neutrino gauges flickered wildly.  “Bill,” he shouted, “the solar neutrino detectors have gone crazy.”
             Bill rushed over to check the detector feeds.  “I don’t see anything wrong at this end.”  He turned to Joe.  “As you know Joe, the sun produces neutrinos in the course of its fusion reactions.”
              “Yes,” said Joe, “I know that.”
             “And you also know that two protons bind to form deuterium, producing a positron and an electron neutrino.”
             Joe nodded.  “Yes, I know that too.  But why are you telling me all of these things that I already know?”

This seems barely better than the infodump, and in fact it’s just as bad.  The practice of having characters explain to each other things that they already know is called an “As you know, Bob,” and it clearly renders the story less credible.

So how is an author supposed to introduce information into the story?  Exposition in science fiction is much trickier than in nonfiction.  The author needs to introduce new information without interrupting the flow of the story.  This is usually done in bits and pieces, with an occasional expository chunk.  The trick is to get the readers sufficiently interested that they are craving more information and practically begging for an infodump before you give it to them.

And it's especially important in science fiction to establish the setting and characters at the very beginning of the story, because the choices are so large:  are we on Earth, or the moon, or some other planet?  Is it the present day, the near future, or the far future?  Is our protagonist human, or a slimy multi-tentacled creature?  And all of this has to be done without interrupting the flow of the story.

Let’s take a look at the beginning of this story that I posted earlier:

            Jimmy Dyson pushed his bicycle through the sun-baked field behind Benny Krauss’s house, spraying clouds of dandelion seeds into the air and jostling the precious cargo in the basket mounted on the handlebars.  Withered thistles caught on the scratchy wool socks his mom always made him wear, even in the St. Louis summer.
            “Benny, it came yesterday!” Jimmy shouted, lifting a brick-red box from the basket and waving it in the air.  “It has Bob Gibson on the cover!”
What do we learn at the very beginning of the story?  Given the title, the story is likely to concern baseball in some way, and this is reinforced by the reference to Bob Gibson.  The setting is St. Louis, in the summer, although this information is introduced in passing, without drawing particular attention to it.  And what about the characters?  We know they are youngish boys – old enough to be riding bicycles to each other’s houses, but young enough that Jimmy is still forced to wear socks that his mother chooses.  Also, the names are juvenile:  Jimmy and Benny.  Later, we learn that this is the summer before they go off to high school.

Now look at this section, later in the story:

             Jim Dyson dragged himself up the hospital steps, wheezing and stopping every three steps to catch his breath.  Each time he put weight on his left leg, his knee burned like someone had driven a hot knife under the knee-cap.  At least the knee pain took his mind off of his constant backache.  What was the point of living to 94 if you felt like death warmed over?  But damned if he was going to discarnate until Laura did.

Jimm is now Jim – obviously an adult, and in fact 94 years old and in poor health.  But what’s going on in the last sentence?  Jim isn’t planning to “discarnate?”  What’s that all about?

In science fiction, it's not necessary to explain everything immediately, and it’s often better not to.  The reference to “discarnating” piques your curiosity (I hope!) and makes you want to read further to find out what it’s all about.  There is an implicit contract between the reader and author of a science fiction story.  The author is allowed to introduce new ideas or words without immediate explanation, with the understanding that all will be made clear by the end.  The author must strike a balance between giving too much information up front (boring) and too little (incomprehensible).

So while fiction and nonfiction are both types of "writing", they involve some very different strategies to keep the reader interested.  A lot of people think it's easier to write fiction than nonfiction.  It certainly is.  But it's a lot harder to write good fiction than good nonfiction.


Priya Palande said...

Very informative and illustrative entry! As a novice SF writer, I must admit, I, too, have fallen into the 'As you know, Bob' trap at times. As a writer you have this urge to impart information - especially if average reader (that is another thing - who is this 'average reader?') is unlikely to be privy to information that is basis for your science fiction! Times likes this, it is so easy to resort to 'As you know, Bob'...

If you are writing a fiction, say about cosmology, how do you avoid it? Chances are your reader might not know about nuances that are crucial to your story...

As you have rightly pointed out, first you have to create an interest in your reader, starting with the world they would be familiar with and then slowly drag them into the story to such a point where they feel the need for some infodump in order to proceed with the story

Very enlightening, indeed! Love your blog...

Robert Scherrer said...

I haven't achieved a level where any of this comes naturally -- I still have to work hard at it. Come to think of it, maybe it never does come naturally....

Bobby Bodenheimer said...

Hi - two comments here: (1) A recent story that a good job of explaining a lot in a readable, exciting manner is Andy Weir's The Martian. One of my favorite parts is manufacturing water, well, because it's crazy on the one hand, but perfectly reasonable on the other.

(2) I think that one of the tropes of SF, even very good SF, is not explaining things. We need to get between stars, so we will employ our inertia-less dampening field, or skip to the next star system. We don't want to deal with computers, so we will have a Butlerian jihad. And then we will move the story along. Part of the genre of SF is that we accept certain things without explanation because we realize they are plot devices that an author is using to get to more interesting ideas.

Kathy said...

One trick I like to use is to have scientists in different discipline provide each other with explanations. Thus the biologist can explain biology to the physicist.

Honestly in a story in progress, I'm finding it harder to lay down the exposition that a character recently lost her husband, and harder still to get out the fact she's transgender so that won't come as a surprise later on.

Robert Scherrer said...

Which brings up another interesting point -- a first-person story doesn't automatically reveal the gender of the narrator, while a third-person story does. One of the peculiarities of our language. In Russian, all past-tense verbs get a gendered ending, so you can always tell the sex of the speaker. (But only if they are speaking in past tense, not present-tense!) And of course other languages like Chinese have no grammatical gender at all...

Kathy said...

In Spanish this happens on first person with some adjectives. The phrase "I was alone," for example, translates as "Estaba solO" for a man and "Estaba solA" for a woman.

If a story for some reason hides the gender of the first-person narrator, this would require some fancy linguistic footwork. One might, for example, use the phrase "No habĂ­a nadie conmigo," as an equivalent to "I was alone." The literal translation is "There was no one with me."

From here we could go on a long, digressing thread on the intricacies and inadequacies of translations. For instance, how does one make word play work in another language? This can be an important plot point, as in Asimov's means of hiding the Second Foundation's location.

Priya Palande said...

Kathy's idea is interesting but it may not work in all scenarios... I had written a story about black dwarfs (which, correct me if I am wrong, are still considered only theoretically possible because the time it would require to cool a black dwarf down to 2.7 Kelvin is bigger than currently known age of the universe) so all characters - there were only three, BTW - were cosmologists working in a research institute. Now black or white dwarfs are not something that are not likely known to a reader unless they happen to be interested in cosmology in whatever capacity. So I need to give some basic information about them but why would two cosmologists talk about them or why would someone from another faculty work in their institute? Situations like this are easy traps for "As you know, Bob" - IMHO.

I agree with Bobby to some extent that author can assume reader will understand they are plot devices and move on with his/ her story-telling. This will work for a dedicated SF reader because writer can assume (safely, dare I say) that if the reader comes across something they don't know, they will try to find out about it. But I think there is a fine line between fiction and fantasy - fiction, as I understand it, will extrapolate on existing scientific knowledge. Fantasy can make its own rules.

Kathy said...

Priya, have you tried having one of the characters read a textbook or maybe a science magazine at some point? Naturally you'd quote it on your story and deliver the exposition that way. It's not perfect, but it's also not an "As you know, Bob" moment.