I want my story to be science-based. I want there to be technical jargon that goes over most people's heads (the average Joe shouldn't question it). But I keep running into a problem...

I'll come up with an idea that I think is great for my story. I'll even do some basic research and then say "this is why it works" and come up with an explanation that I deem plausible.

Unfortunately, then I'll later learn that my idea is literally scientifically impossible for one or more reasons, like in this this this this this this this this this and this question. (and that's not counting the many questions I haven't asked here yet)

This leads to the following conundrum: I have already become attached to my idea, or incorporated it into my world in some way. And yet I still want it to sound scientifically plausible to most people reading my story.

What kind of steps should I take to resolve all of these issues? More specifically:

How can I break down the task of resolving science-based issues into manageable chunks?

Here's how I'm making this not too broad or primarily opinion-based:

  • I want a list of steps from people that have faced this problem before, breaking down the task of "fixing my world" in a manageable way
  • I don't want any opinions. Use examples, tell me how you have actually resolved these issues before. I don't want "maybe you could do this" answers, I want "Having run into this problem before, here are some steps that might help you and many others with this" answers.
  • Be detailed. Describe your approach to the problem so that not just I understand it, but other people who find this question can understand it too.
  • Please don't use "scrap your idea completely" in an answer.

The best answer will:

  • Have the most detail
  • Be intuitively or easily understood (should not require follow-up comments asking for clarification)
  • Be considered helpful (has upvotes)
  • Bonus points for explaining how to avoid the issue altogether in addition to how to fix issues that already exist

I believe that this question and its answers will be very relevant and helpful to a vast number of people on this site.

Please use this helpful answer to the very well-received and helpful question How can I break down the task of creating a world into manageable chunks? as an example of what I am looking for.

Note: If there are any issues with this question, please let me know how I can make it more answerable.

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    $\begingroup$ I think you may need to change your thinking. You have an idea, you like it, you want to incorporate it in your world or even have. Instead of asking "Is it possible" or "Can this happen though X and Y means" (which is how this could work according to your understanding), invert this and ask "I want this detail in my world (optionally: with these aspects), in what way can it be incorporated?". So, if you like the ideas of, say, a cybernetic nose, go for "I want a cybernetic nose in my world. I'd like people with one to grow red hair after prolonged usage. What changes are needed to happen?" $\endgroup$
    – VLAZ
    Nov 6, 2019 at 18:49
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    $\begingroup$ Right, I don't mean to imply it's just that easy - just reformulate the query. You would likely need to include some details for the world to make it answerable. A "cybernetic nose" would need quite different explanation in, say, medieval Egypt than in the world we have plus 5 to 10 years or in the year 5000 on planet X579. If you have done some research, point it out, e.g. "I know having the nose stay on is a big problem" or whatever. But by changing the core of the question from "this X seems to work by Y, does it?" to "I want to make X work", you are in a better position. $\endgroup$
    – VLAZ
    Nov 6, 2019 at 18:59
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    $\begingroup$ To complement VLAZ, I think you try to have too much detail. If you go deep enough just about everything science fiction we think off will be impossible, if only because we would need to talk about Droney the Drone instead of humans in space dealing with problems that we in our time can relate to. I think you should go the way of the Force. As long as you dont explain it too much and keep it mystical it'll work. The moment you try to explain it with midichlorians it all becomes a nonsensical mess without that mystique or "it might be possible" that non-force stories can have. $\endgroup$
    – Demigan
    Nov 6, 2019 at 19:09
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    $\begingroup$ One thing to look out for is that being "halfway right" is in many ways much, much worse and more jarring than just being wrong. Brandon Sanderson is terrible at this, his books have wizards who can make themselves lighter or heavier. This would be fine with no explanation. He then adds "if they make themselves lighter while moving they speed up, because momentum is conserved". He just saved momentum conservation, but introduced a universally preferred reference frame glued to the planet our characters are on, essentially he swerved his car to avoid hitting a bird and ran over 50 children. $\endgroup$
    – Dast
    Nov 7, 2019 at 16:23
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    $\begingroup$ The physics of your world do not have to work the same way as the physics of the real world. They have to be superficially close enough that readers can relate, unless you want to do something very unusual (which I absolutely encourage if you want to!) but you can make little tweaks to the laws of physics to enable the story to work. $\endgroup$
    – Hearth
    Nov 7, 2019 at 18:40

8 Answers 8


Step 1: Decide how scientific you want to be

There are three general levels of science fiction. 'Soft', 'medium', and 'hard'.

Soft science fiction is science fictiong that doesn't even want to try and justifies everything with either new materials that aren't explained or new fields of science that aren't explained. A great example of something which is purely soft sci-fi is Star Wars - there's no part of it which makes sense, and lot of what is done (like the 'etheric rudder' that fighters use to maneuver against the vacuum of space) gets handwaved or a brief explanation at best. This is the type of science fictions that invokes Clarke's Third Law ('Sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic') the most. (cough The Force cough)

'Medium' is when the author uses justifications and real science, but will occasionally violate something in takes a degree to notice. Take Asimov's robots, for instance. They have positronic brains - positrons being antimatter. How? Well, when Asimov first started writing them, he just said that they would figure out effective magnetic methods to keep them contained and effective ways of generating them. That's fine, but we've got no way to do that now - so it's medium. Something which sounds plausible, but can't be done with current tech. Alternatively, consider Asimov's odd element thiotimoline - it's a fictional compound, but Asimov's written entire papers on it's use and properties, so the readers with sufficient knowledge can easily figure out the rules without the writer constantly pulling things out from thing air.

'Hard' science fiction violates no known rules of science. This is something like 'The Martian'. In a hard science fiction story, everything is considered and applied by the author. The 'science fiction' in the title is just two separate components, really - it's a story about real science, but the science happens to be fiction.

Now, it should be noted that these, in general, are guidelines. More than that, no story really focuses itself on any one aspect. A story which has a mostly hard approach which encounters a brief jolt of medium sci-fi makes for a great story setting. Rather, these are approaches to solving a problem. When you encounter something that you need to do i.e. 'Humanity-killing virus', 'Space travel', 'beam weapons', 'giant robots'. Decide what works best for your story - if you're writing a mostly soft sci-fi, using a hard sci-fi approach to a problem is very problematic - it'll leave your readers wondering why the rules were only applied there. Same with the reverse. Middle sci-fi can be applied to both, but take note of the tones involved as well - it can be just as jarring if not worth if implemented incorrectly.

Step 2: Decide whether you'll sacrifice story elements to the mechanic

Science is reality, not fiction. When you're writing a story, it's important to note that sometimes what you want and what's possible can't coincide. At that point, you're going to be forced to make a choice - do I keep story element X in, or do I obey science law Y? And remember, you're story is fiction. It's not reality, no one expects in to be. Shaving a little off the rules is fine. But violating them does cross a line - not necessarily a bad line! Star Trek wouldn't be exciting without the ability to warp, would it? But it does cross a line, so you need to say to yourself, whenever you have a problem 'Can I still have a good story without it, or is it so important that I'd be willing to handwave things for it?' Because, by deciding that, it helps your mindset in solving the problem.

This is after you set the baseline for the level of sci-fi, because it's important to first establish the rules you'll be using, then break them. This is allowed - rules exist to be broken in literature. And even in sci-fi, it's allowed. There's very good sci-fi that introduces a plot point which ducks the genre. Sticking to the rules will just create something that everyone expects, so you're allowed to subvert them occasionally, it's not something good writers can do, it's something good writers must do. But on the flip side, if all you do is violate the rules, then you wind up with a hot mess that doesn't make sense.

Step 3: See how other people solve the problem

This is also to set a baseline. We know how hard FTL is, and we know all the problems with wormholes, and hyperspace, and colony ships, etc. etc. But it's a convention with science fiction these days - so it's OK. Same thing with time travel. Since the early days of sci-fi (literally, HG Wells) time travel plots have existed. And people are fine with it, so long as the rules are set up. (Or not! Dr. Who rules for time travel are all over the place, but the Dr. Who universe runs on soft sci-fi, so it's OK.) Seeing how other people solve the problem will give you a good idea of how to do it yourself.

Step 4: Research. Research. Research. Then solve it.

Now that you have your approach, you've decided what rules you're going to allow yourself to break, and you know how other people might do it, it's time. Run the numbers. Read the books. Look up the articles. Talk to an expert. Figure out what you can and can't do with the problem, and then once you've done that, solve it. It shouldn't be too hard, after all that. You'll know all the components, and simply fit them together. Part of the research process can also be asking other people how they would do it - that's why this site exists. (And also why we've got tags, like 'magic', 'science-fiction', 'hard science', 'reality-check', etc.)

Step 5: Present it to someone who isn't versed in the stuff

(Skip this step if you're writing hard sci-fi.)

Most important part. Remember, you're telling a story here, not writing a paper. Take a friend / relative / acquaintance / internet writing group (I use the latter). Then write up the story with your solution - it doesn't need to be the whole story, just demonstrate how you solved it and give it to them. (Or just explain it verbally.) Take note of their reaction - were you too technical in your approach? That can happen - you know how to do something so you go overboard in explaining. In that case, just dial it down. It might sound weird, but occasionally I write something, do a few hours research to check if it's plausible, and then just keep it in. Sometimes it's enough to know that the problem simply can be solved and doesn't need you to go into specifics.

Other times, you might get a reverse problem - you check something, figure it out, and then have your characters solve a problem. The reader says 'Hold on. That's not how X works." And that's when you realize something - you explained it from the perspective of someone who's spent a week researching things, and you skipped a few steps, starting from 'We insert DNA into frogs' and end with 'And then all the world's lilypads turn to gold'. Sure, it makes sense to you. But does it make sense to everyone?

And then sometimes they'll say 'Well, why didn't you solve it like this?' And then you realize that you know you can't because of principle Y, but they don't know principle Y. And not only that, your different solution won't work anyway because of little known principle Z, but you decided that it wasn't worth rewriting a quarter of the plot because of it. Then you simply say 'That's right. It should be solved like that'. Because, after all, part of solving a problem in a sci-fi story is the story element.

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    $\begingroup$ I can see that this answer will be the core content of the book with title: "A Sci-Fi writers guide for a plausible world building". $\endgroup$ Nov 13, 2019 at 6:43

Just as with your previous questions, I'm going to provide an answer that is unlike what you wanted or expected, but which I think is what you need to hear.

Take, for example, this question:

Interstellar war tactics with no FTL capabilities?

The author wishes to use quantum entanglement to allow for FTL communication. Quantum entanglement cannot be used for FTL communication, for reasons better left for a post in physics.SE. Nevertheless, it doesn't take a PhD in quantum mechanics to understand why, and this is something which a regular person can parse with 10 minutes of googling.

A lot of sci-fi works do require FTL communication, though. So they use another technology, the ansible. It was invented by Ursula K. Le Guin in Rocannon's World, use again successfully in The Left Hand of Darkness, and then copied by so many other authors.

So how does the ansible work? In the wise words of the late Sir Pratchett, Sodomy non sapiens ("buggered if I know"). Its usage in sci-fi is a real life application of another technology, one coined by Douglas Adams and called the SEP field, a.k.a. clarkean magic: it is a technology so advanced, that for us 21st century people the technology is for all practical purposes actual magic.

If you are going to be scientific in a novel, explain the science that you understand, and handwave the one that you don't. Joe Haldeman wrote The Forever War, a seminal work in sci-fi, in which he nailed everything involving relativity. There is a part about societies operating on hive minds which he completely pulled from thin air though, but which nevertheless was awesome.

Let's take this approach to non-sci-fi literature and see how it works. This is from Stan Lee's autobiography:

Stan Lee describing how he created the Hulk.

If you are hit in the face with a gamma bomb, you are more likely to become a cloud of plasma than to become a superstrong green monster. Does it make you enjoy the Hulk less because of that?

So don't aim to be pedantic. Fiction is not about being correct, it is about creating an emotional connection with the audience (this is repeated more than 100 times in Writing Fiction For Dummies).

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    $\begingroup$ Actually, synchronization of natural phenomenon is quite common. Fireflies do it. The body is full of synchronous processes. Put a bunch of metronomes on a table that moves a bit with their motion, and start them at random times. After while, all the metronomes will move in sync. This type of thing is extremely common in nature. You just need to add some feedback mechanism between them that causes them to synchronize. $\endgroup$
    – Dan Hanson
    Nov 6, 2019 at 20:31
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    $\begingroup$ I would enjoy the Hulk more, and that's coming off an extremely low base, if there was a half-way plausible rationalization for how a normal human being could transform into a superstrong green monster, and back again, on a regular basis. OK, it is a comic book, but its pseudoscience blatantly ignores the ordinary science making it impossible. Writing an article about the absurdities of the Hulk, that would be really enjoyable. Why doesn't lose his trousers? $\endgroup$
    – a4android
    Nov 6, 2019 at 23:58
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    $\begingroup$ @a4android well, for years Stan Lee received letters asking how the Silver Surfer pees. $\endgroup$ Nov 7, 2019 at 1:08
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    $\begingroup$ Selective handwaving like this really is the core of my favourite scifi. Break the laws of physics in a hand-waved but well-defined way, and explore the consequences. "Why do these point-to-point portals work" is so much less interesting than "What would they do to technology and society" most of the time. Careful handwaving lets the writer get on with telling a story that wouldn't exist otherwise. $\endgroup$ Nov 7, 2019 at 10:54
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    $\begingroup$ @overlord-ReinstateMonica It's also quite reasonable to leave questions unanswered in the story. The natural world is full of weird, seemingly implausible phenomena that don't seem to make sense until they are studied in depth. There's a planet with synchronized geysers, and nobody knows why, and the question is never answered in-story, because it doesn't need to be. It's weird, but not that much weirder than phenomena that exist in real life. $\endgroup$ Nov 10, 2019 at 8:14

Don't sweat it. You don't need to be rigorous, you just need to be plausible.

Some things on your list, yes I would eliminate as they are written. (I skimmed...)

E.g. Plate tectonics -- look at plate boundaries, ring of fire, subduction zones, mid oceanic ridges and mountain ranges now on earth, file off the serial numbers.

E.g. A moon at the L1 point won't work naturally. So either you have an un-natural way of doing it, or you put the moon in a long period orbit around it's primary, or you put it in the L2 stable point, which may make it way too far away.

Another technique is to leave it as a mystery. Visitors comment, "That shouldn't be stable. Why is it stable? Not solved until volume 4....

Larry Niven ran into this with Ring World. Someone at MIT figured out that the ring world was unstable. The repercussions of that gave us 3 more Ringworld books.

Really large people is one I would just discard -- or you have to work out the modifications to make it work.

There are certain problems that even Robinson Crusoe faced: * Food * Clothing * Shelter

Once you have more than a few dozen people, you have some degree of specialization. An old geezer, crippled while mastodon hunting is really good at knapping flint spear points. A crone knows all the herb lore.

As the numbers increase you need some form of economy. Can still be barter and trade, but it has an established place, and often established values.

You have social problems to solve:

  • How to treat rule breakers?
  • how to get a mate?
  • how to provide for children?
  • how to deal with the old?

A world builder should read some survey books on anthropology.

If there is any form of trade, you need to understand some degree of economics. Both macro and micro.

Let's look at an example: Anne McCaffrey's Pern books: Even with high strength boron skeletons it stretches plausibility to have a flying creature big enough to carry a person.

Pern has other problems to trap the world builder: Over and over you get numeric issues: E.g.:

How large is a hold? How much land is farmed? Is this enough people to support a craft?

What is the ratio of dragon riders to other people? How much do dragons eat? Is this a reasonable surplus for holds to tithe?

You have Gathers -- Fairs. There seems to be some degree of money, 'Marks'. But it's not clear how an ordinary person gets them.

These things -- mostly "TheyDidTheMath" problems on Reddit -- contribute more to the failure of worlds to be convincing to me.

Threadfall is episodic falling in bands 4 hours long with separations of 22 hours at peak. But a given fall is normally handled by on Weyr -- 300 dragons. If a dragon can fly at 5,000 feet, the horizon is 86 miles away. Can humans see a stream of thread that far away?
This is more important than the dynamics of a planet that is spinning fast enough to spin off thread spores, but not spin off it's atmosphere. We're asked to accept that an eccentric orbit can bring two planets close enough to scatter spores from one to the other for a 50 year period of time, and that the source planet doesn't run out of matter. And what do threads eat when they are at home?

We know a burst of dragon fire can destroy a clump of thread. If a dragon flies at 30 mph, that's about 50 feet per second. So a 2 second flame would do a 100 foot clump.

How far away can we see a 100 foot something and be sure it's there. The moon is 1/2 degree across. It's bright against dark. No problem. Suppose we go down to 1/10 of that. 1/20 of a degree. About 1/1200 of a radian. So you can see something about 1000 times it's size away. So 100 feet * 1000 = 100,000 feet -- about 20 miles. This 'feels' about right in line with sailors calling out the visibility of land, or ships.

This puts a 40 mile diameter circle in view. Consider a weather patrol, where you jump 20 miles forward and scan, 20 forward and scan...

How long does it take to patrol the entire planet? Ok, you're a wingmaster of the U.S. You have 1000 x 3000 mile rectangle to patrol It's 150 hops wide by 50 hops tall. To cover it once at 20 mile visibility takes 7500 hops. Probably want to do it right, so you do it 3 times, with staggered positions. 22,500 hops. 12 dragons. 1900 hops per dragon. Between costs 6 seconds. A good careful look 24 seconds. 2 jumps a minute. 950 minutes. 16 hours. Double that for Canada. Double again for Russia.

This sort of exercise doesn't even make into the book, but it shows why some land would be ignored.

A world builder can make good use of a spreadsheet to make his models of how his world works.

General Rule: Don't invent your world from whole cloth. Seek out parallels and learn how they work. File off the serial numbers and claim as your own.

If you are going to have wars, you need to understand warfare. If it's a medieval tech world, read up on ancient warfare. There's actually a journal for it and a podcast. While called ancient warfare, it covers up to the common use of firearms. If you're stuck try the history subreddit on reddit.com or the history stackexchange.

But read up on medieval culture, and the feudal system. Ken Follet does a nice job of capturing the complex of rights and duties in his novel "Pillars of the Earth"

One example of someone who got it wrong is David Weber's Honorverse. While they have the spatial equivalent of naval warfare, he never really uses the notion of commerce raiding. Naval warfare from 1800 on had a huge component of interdicting trade. Destroyers were originally made to be fast commerce raiders and were only later adapted to anti-submarine warfare.

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    $\begingroup$ The bottom line with the Pern example is that the vast majority of sci-fi and fantasy authors don't really care that much about scientific rigor, and most of their readers don't either. Authors who do aspire to scientific rigor are usually scientists themselves already, or if not have a vast education in the areas they're building their worlds around. $\endgroup$ Nov 6, 2019 at 19:43
  • $\begingroup$ I can easily explain the really large people by the fact the person with this power is a superhuman with supernatural abilities that let me handwave the negative repercussions. However I do plan to make it hard to breath when they become large, making it more realistic $\endgroup$
    – overlord
    Nov 6, 2019 at 20:24
  • $\begingroup$ Actually, Weber did have commerce raiding in the Honorverse books... It was just not of sufficient interest to him to show all that often. $\endgroup$
    – Monty Wild
    Nov 11, 2019 at 22:42

It doesn't have to be rigorous, it just needs to be plausible and consistent.

First you have to decide how hard your sci-fi is going to be, the harder it is the more rigorous it has to be and the more research you are going to have to do, at a certain point you reach diminishing returns because you can't know enough (literally, no one human can keep up with everything in even a single field of science) and at a certain point you are inventing and engineering technology not writing.

The most successful sci-fi writers don't say how it works they just make the technology plausible and consistent.

What do I mean by consistent,

that just means you have to have rules for your technology and stick to it. Best way is to start vague than get more specific as the stories continue. but have the basic rules in your head from day one. A good example would be Larry Niven in his writing FTL technology exists it has a few rules (only sapient creatures can steer them because FTL steering relies on psychic technology, if you use a hyperdrive in a gravity well you disappear from the universe, permanently, etc. characters know these rules and have to work within in them. The physics of how they work is never explained and most character would not be expected to know how they work anyway. His stories are full of such technology and it always has known rules, X can do A but not B. He doesn't tell you how his technology works not in any detail his FTL tech is only ever described as it moves the ship into hyperspace and out that's the entire explanation, but he does tell you the rules for it. These rules also help shape your stories, drone ships and FTL missiles don't exist because FTL need a brain to steer. This starts to mirror how a hard magic system has to be written.

Asimov is another example, he doesn't tell you how his robots work just the rules they have. His stories often explore the full implications of those rules. Your story takes a nose dive when you violate your rules, the latest Star Wars is an example, for a long time light-sabers were fantastical weapons, we don't know how they work but we do know they cut solid steel and lop off limbs and heads easily and are incredibly dangerous, getting cut without is debilitating to deadly. we are not told the rules we are shown the rules (they don't have to be explicitly stated). Then all of a sudden, because it is a main character, getting cut from neck to crotch with one is something you can walk off, and it drags the audience out of the story because the rules they know get tossed out the window. the suspension of disbelief is shattered not because we know light-sabers can't exist (they can't) but because the rules are not consistent.

It also helps that there technology is very advanced, if someone in a WW2 story was pulling out light-sabers it would be a bigger disconnect, I will get to this in "plausible".

What does it mean to be plausible.

This is a more grey are, here is were your scientific knowledge comes in, you do need some rigor in your work, you technology has to be believable. The first step in this is often don't try to use existing terms make up new ones, Asimov had positronic brains, a nonsense term, if he has called them vacuum tube brains many people would hit cognitive dissonance because vacuum tubes are known technology with known limitations, so often making up new technology is easier than meshing existing technology. Godzilla is popular despite being completely impossible, how do they handle rigor, they don't for this one thing, the closest they come is saying the monsters are nuclear powered.

Of course you are still going to need laymen levels of rigor, your average person knows you can't have hollow planets or flying people without technology or at least wings. but even this can be violated if you do it once and and obviously Godzilla being the example, Godzillas violation of the normal rules is what makes the story, and people in the universe acknowledge science as they know it is being violated. What gets writers in trouble is when they start violating these laymen levels of understanding for no good reason, when it neither serves the plot nor adds anything to the story. Violate laymen rigor too hard and it pulls you out of the story. And the more often you do this the more often you risk this effect, do it enough and a bad response is guaranteed.

Lets try two examples, "signs" and "gremlins" alien life harmed/transformed by water. We will ignore the problem with life being made of water, because people didn't hate gremlins but did signs, why. two problems choice and intelligence. Earth is mostly covered in water and water frequently falls from the sky, so aliens adversely effected by water don't want to be here. In gremlins Gizmo don't have a choice about being here (we aren't even given an origin), Gizmo and the gremlins are also shown to not be that bright, inventive but primitive. Meanwhile the signs aliens are intelligent enough to build spaceships yet would choose to come to Earth, naked no less. Even for a laymen there is no good reason for what they are shown to be an intelligent creature to come to earth just based on our everyday experience with earth and thinking creatures. Worse while the water thing is central to the plot to gremlins in signs it is presented as a twist, which means the story expressly did not need it to stand.

Another example is Jurassic Park, getting dinosaur DNA from mosquitoes is probably impossible, but it is sufficiently plausible if you are not a paleontologist. At the time it was written it would have even been plausible (plausible enough with a lot of luck and money) to paleontologists. Even a reasonably scientifically literate laymen could not really pull apart the story yet it is still wrong, but it was believable enough to not interfere with reading/watching the story.

As an aside I can't recommend enough extra credits review of the the history of sci-fi writing, the series alone may help you a lot by seeing what other authors did or did not do and how they hold up, especially after episode 26 when you get to modern sci-fi writers where the public starts being scientifically literate and hard sci fi starts becoming popular.

Lastly use this site, but don't ask how can I make this work scientifically, ask how can I make this plausible with the least amount of handwavium.

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    $\begingroup$ Someone pulling out a light-saber in WW2 would be a nifty concept. The story would to expalin it though. Either it's an alternative world with light-sabers invented in 1907 or the some with a light-saber comes from somewhere with highly advanced technology & is on Earth during WW2. But that's a different level of plausibility. What needs to be explained instead of what doesn't. $\endgroup$
    – a4android
    Nov 6, 2019 at 23:45

Start from the mechanism

I'm a devout adherent to Sanderson's Laws of Magic, named after fantasy author Brandon Sanderson. All three of these principles are much easier to achieve if you start by defining the thing you want to change about the physics, geography, geology or whatever, of our universe to get your fantasy universe, and then work forward from that to determine what the consequences would be. That way you get 'for free' a pseudo-logically (and pseudo-scientifically) consistent universe that readers can 'explore' in their own minds at the same time as exploring your story.

Of course your determination of what you're going to change will be influenced by the sort of world you want to create, the cart before the horse to an extent. It may take some experimentation to find a change that produces a set of consequences that you're happy with, adding the fantasy elements you want to introduce without adding too many elements that you don't. In far too many cases, the unwanted elements include things like "everybody is dead", or "life could no longer exist", or "that person would immediately be imprisoned/enslaved/killed", and you have to go back and tweak things again. But that, to my mind, is a fun part of the worldbuilding process.

Some examples

1) If you wanted to write a story about building-sized mecha battling giant monsters, you might start (as those screenwriters did) with the change "there is an underwater portal to another dimension where the physics is compatible with the creation of building-sized alien animals, inhabited by a race of aliens with locust-like destructive tendencies and the mega-(bio-)engineering capabilities to create such animals and set them on earth". If you followed this process, however, you would develop the consequence "we would nuke them", followed by "we would nuke them again", followed by "we would nuke the rock formations around the breach to bury it in kilometers of rubble" and you would realise that your worldbuilding needed a lot more work.

2) The wonderful madness of Terry Pratchett's Diskworld series (everything from the flat-earth-held-up-by-four-elephants-standing-on-the-back-of-a-tortoise geography to the speed-of-dark and the entire magic system, and everything in between) is based on one fundamental premise: "the laws of physics are as a typical human would expect them to be", ie they match common sense. The craziness comes from the fact that Pratchett embraced all of the insane consequences of such a change and either played them for laughs or used them to parody the more 'boring' real-world equivalents.

3) To take your world-domination-in-Sel question, you basically proposed the change "take Medieval Europe with a few standard geopolitical twists, there is an extremely savvy national leader" and asked if the consequences would play out to the world that you were looking to create. All I did in my answer there was to work it through, conclude that it probably wouldn't, but go back and tweak the mechanism slightly into one that I thought would play out closer to your desired outcome.

How to implement this approach

There are two questioning steps you need to work through with this approach, assuming that you start with a vague sense of the world you want to end up with. The first is to ask "what mechanism might cause this effect", and then having specified the mechanism, you have to ask "what consequences does this mechanism have" and check that you get back to the place you want to be.

You're right that questions of the first form are often closed for being too broad or opinion-based, because the answers are often "you need to change too many things and everyone dies" or "there are 1001 ways, choose one". If you can hit the sweet spot in the middle you can get some good questions - the whole "Anatomically Correct" series is a good example. The second part again can be too broad, but if you focus the question on a particular 'area' of consequences - "how does change X affect people's ability to Y" or "does the existence of X mean Y is (im)possible", you can again get some interesting questions.

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the link to Sanderson... $\endgroup$ Nov 9, 2019 at 2:07

There is no royal road

"How can I break down the task of resolving science-based issues into manageable chunks?"

There is really only one way to do it: learn how the world works, so that you know more about how the world works than your readers do. ("Readers" can be watchers, listeners, players and so on. The people to whom you are telling the story.) Note that the goal is not to accumulate more knowledge than most people, but simply to accumulate more knowledge than your target audience; and to use that knowledge to create a world that your audience believes.

It is said that once upon a time the king of Egypt, Ptolemy something or other, asked Euclid how to approach learning geometry faster, so that he could balance his desire for knowledge with the performance of his kingly duties; Euclid answered back that there was no royal road to geometry.

This means that the general approach involves the following steps:

  1. Have an idea for a story.

    This is the hardest part, and most people cannot do it. Your questions show that you are imaginative and able to come up with plenty of story ideas, so you are already way ahead.

  2. Identify your audience.

    It is one thing to tell a story to a small child (Disney), another to tell a story to a pre-teen (Star Wars), yet another to tell it to a teen-ager (Star Trek) and yet another to tell it to an adult. In a story for small children the only requirement is plot consistency (i.e., don't forget who killed the dragon); in a story for pre-teens the world must make sense on the individual scale, but large scale consistency is irrelevant; in a story for teen-agers the world should make sense on human scale, because teen-agers have already figured out what makes people tick; but in a story for adults the world should be fully self-consistent, period.

    This is all about levels of consistency, of which more below.

  3. Explain what you must in order to get the desired level of world consistency, but not more.

    This is important. Nobody is ever interested in more detail than it's needed for the story to work. When you read a story where there seems to be more detail that what is strictly needed, and yet you find yourself enjoying the story, you will soon realize that the apparently spurious details had actually a very good reason to be there; maybe they set up a larger story arc; maybe their purpose is ornamental; maybe they are actually comments on some aspect of the plot, or of the characters, which you have missed on first pass; but, if they do not detract from the enjoyment of the story it always means that they have a reason which you can find. Sometimes it is even the case that when you actually examine the apparently useless details you will realize that you have completely missed the real story, and that you need to go back and re-evaluate everything.

To summarize, assuming that you have already created or acquired a basic story idea, the next step is to identify the required level of consistency:

  • Is this a story for small children? Then only simple plot consistency is needed.

    Think Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty and so on. Everything goes, as long as you keep track of who said what and who did what.

  • Is this a story for pre-teens? Then plot consistency is needed, and in addition the world must make sense on an individual's level. Physics can be twisted in any shape, as long as on an individual's scale things work as they really do.

    Star ships the size of a family car can go faster than light? Sure! A pre-teen knows that car-sized objects can travel fast from place to place, so this does not violate their assumptions. A tiny device hidden in a robot projects the three-dimensional moving talking picture of a pricess? Sure, but you need to explain that this is advanced technology. Pre-teens know that there is technology to have moving talking images, so this is a simple extension from their point of view.

  • Is this a story for teen-agers? Then plot consistency is needed, the world must make sense on an individual's level, and in addition the world must make sense on human scales.

    No car-sized star ships. No light sabers. But big star ships? Sure! We have seen our rockets go to Mars and Jupiter and Saturn, and the story is in the future! Teen-agers expect that the crew of the Enterprise has to eat, so you need to explain where the food comes from; but they don't yet fully appreciate macro-economy, so you do not need to explain why the Federation exists and why it is expending a lot of effort and resources in maintaining a manned Star Fleet.

  • Is this a story for adults? Then plot consistency is needed, the world must make sense on an individual's level, the world must make sense on human scales, and in addition the world must be fully self-consistent.

    The key part here is self-consistent. The world of the story does not have to be consistent with the real world; it must be consistent with itself. This is why science-fiction and fantasy stories are possible: readers are perfectly willing to accept any self-consistent world; but they rebel and leave bad reviews if they feel that they were cheated and the world of the story breaks self-consistency.

And here we come to the gist of your question: how to resolve science-based issues. What you need to do is to establish what science-based issues are there in the first place, and then learn enough about them so that you know how to address them. The point being that you do not need and you do not want to place all the aspects of your world in the science-based bucket. Remember that all you need is a self-consistent world. Some aspects of the fictional world are how they are because they are how they are, and that's it. Only the remaining aspects of the fictional world can go into the science-based bucket.


  • Taylor Anderson's Destroyermen, an entertaining parallel-world adventure series of novels, following the crew of an American Wickes-class destroyer which is displaced to a parallel timeline during the Second Battle of the Java Sea (March 1942); in that parallel timeline Earth is inhabited by two native sentient species, the warlike reptilian Grik and the relatively peaceful Lemurians, plus the humans brought there by several timeline-displacement events. Besides the expected military fantasy, it includes at least two rather cute and well-thought cross-species romances.

    The time displacement and sentient reptiles are not science-based issues. They just are. But the rest of the world presents plenty of science-based issues, and they are quite deftly solved. How does the crew of the the (real historical) USS Walker (DD-163) acquire fuel for their ship? How would a reptile which lacks lips pronounce English words? How to our WW2-era American crewmen adapt to life in a society of shapely Lemurians? How does an r-selected species which has a juvenile non-sentient life stage develop a functional society? Those are issues which need to be resolved consistently.

  • David Drake and Eric Flint's Belisarius, an alternate history military SF adventure, featuring an evil AI sent back from the future to organize an Indian Empire and take over the world, and a good (but much less powerful) AI sent to the Roman Empire of Justinian and Theodora to help the real historical general Flavius Belisarius to fight against the forces of evil.

    The two AIs are not science-based issues. They just are. Moreover, to make for an interesting plot, the good AI is weak, small, and the only superpower it has is to be able to speak telepathically to Belisarius himself. (Actually, to speak telepathically to one person, selected by a process similar to imprinting; it was lucky that the person who found it did not keep it for himself but gave it to Belisarius.) No long-distance vision, no weapons, no teleportation.

    This sets up an entertaining conflict, in which Aide (the good AI) and Belisarius must co-operate closely if they are to be successful against the existential threat. Plenty of science-based questions remain to be solved, because the rest of the world must still work as the real world does. How to set in motion an arms race in the 6th century Eastern Roman empire? How to resolve the real historical rift between the mainline orthodoxy and the monophysite heresy which risked splitting the Empire? How to acquire a naval power in the Indian ocean? How to fight a successful war in Mesopotamia against a large invasion force, complete with reasonably good logistics and crude gunpowder artillery?

  • David Weber's Honorverse, a sprawling and very tightly plotted space opera / military SF series, set in a world where two kinds of FTL travel and one kind of FTL communications are available.

    Again, the FTL travel (by means of wormholes and / or Warshawski sails) and FTL communications (by means of grav pulses) just are. They are, they are not explained in any serious way, and nobody cares. But the rest of the world has to be consistent; battles must make sense (the series has been called "missile porn" for the loving detail in which battle tactics are presented), the economic base must make sense (albeit with a massive right-wing "neoconservative" bent, but hey, it's consistent), people must act like people actually act, and so on.

    This is a good example of following through with the not-real-world aspects of the fictional world. Medical science is very advanced, so that most people can have any injury repaired by regeneration; but what happens to those few on whom this doesn't work? How does society treat them? How do they perceive themselves? Humans are friends with a race of sentient telepathic cats. How does a society of telepaths view non-telepathic humans? What happens when a member of a telepathic race loses this ability? In a world where technology by and large has solved all basic necessities of life, can there be dictatorship and perceived poverty? (Yes, and yes.) How can human society thrive on a poisonous planet? (With difficulty and compromise.) And so on. (Ah, and did I mention that it is tightly plotted?)

  • John Scalzi's Old Man's War series is a very good example of how well can a good, thoroughly verisimilar story be set in a most fantastic world. Since the first book of this series was published in the 21st century I will avoid any spoilers, but know that it features bionic enhancements, resurrection, AI implants and so on -- and yet it remains self-consistent, and keeps the characters profoundly realistic.

Now we shouldn't assume that this approach of building a self-consistent world by merging the real world with one or two or three unexplainable fantastic elements is new; it is not new, it is three thousand years old. Think of Homer's Iliad, which can be seen as the sort of military SF a genius would write in the 9th (or 8th, or 7th, we don't know) century before the common era. There are gods who intervene directly and personally in human affairs; the notoriously quarrelsome Greeks are united under a common leadership against an external foe; some of the characters have superpowers: this is just how it is, Homer does not explain where the gods come from, or how come that Greece has a paramount king. But the rest of the world is thoroughly self-consistent and realistic: in the end, the Iliad is an exemplary story about the power of love and friendship and the dire consequences of a serious managerial mistake.

  • $\begingroup$ Kill your darlings. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Nov 7, 2019 at 0:24

I want my story to be science-based. I want there to be technical jargon that goes over most people's heads (the average Joe shouldn't question it).


I ask this not to discourage you or to be pedantic, but rather because I think your answer to that question will guide you in your next steps. I don't think there's a single right answer to the conundrum you're describing—how to make an idea you're attached to scientifically plausible—but rather a variety of solutions that get you to different places. After all, having a story be strongly grounded in known science doesn't make it good or bad, it just puts some constraints on the story that make some things harder and other things easier. You'll want to do different things depending on why you want those constraints in place, if you really do want them at all.

If you just think it would be cool to take existing scientific information and synthesize new, plausible ideas from it, just for the sake of doing that, you might consider becoming a scientist, rather than a science fiction writer. After all, that's a significant part of the work of a scientist. But scientists spend years and years in school before they're even capable of doing original research, and even then they specialize in a very particular region of science as opposed to science in general. If it's that hard for a professional scientist, it's going to be all but impossible for a fiction writer, as it sounds like you've gotten a feel for via your other questions.

So, as a fiction writer, I think being rigorously attached to grounding your writing in known science basically means you can't propose any new scientific ideas—you can only work with what we already have. This closes some doors (like most far-future stories) and opens others (like thought-provoking commentary on current technology).

I don't think the ideas you've been proposing really fit into this approach, so maybe you're not interested in doing things this way. If you want an example to follow, though, Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon is a good point of reference. There is some fictionalized technology, but it's abstract things like operating systems, cryptographic schemes, etc. that largely stick to what was known to be possible at the time. Of course, that means the furthest the book's timeline goes is the late 1990s, but the book is able to explore themes around the flow of information in a precise, complex manner that's found it an enthusiastic audience among computer geeks and the like.

Of course, in order to do things this way, you have to have pretty strong knowledge of what the existing state-of-the-art is in your field of interest. It doesn't really work to come up with an idea and then try to work backwards from it to a justification; you need to pick a subject and get a good comprehensive grounding in it, then come up with ideas based on what you've learned. Science and technology subjects are too complex and interconnected to approach ad-hoc if you really want to base your writing in them.

You can look at recent issues of journals, conference presentations, etc. if you want to get an idea of what the state-of-the-art looks like in a given field. If what you find goes over your head, take classes, read textbooks, make friends with people in the field, practice, etc. until you have a good enough grounding to kind of grok what's going on at the field's cutting edge. You don't need to know as much as a professional, but you need to have a decent idea of what the professionals think about and are concerned with. Otherwise, people are going to think your writing is silly, poke holes in it, etc. if you present it as totally based in fact. Many of the renowned hard sci-fi authors have formal scientific training—Asimov had a PhD in chemistry, Clarke had a B.S. in physics and math, Stephenson himself has a B.A. in geography with a physics minor that he picked to get as much time on the university mainframe as possible, etc.

Now, as I said before, I'm not really sure you want to do things this way. The ideas you've been proposing in your other questions read as pretty fantastic to me and also not really based in a strong technical grounding in the subjects they touch on. There's nothing wrong with that from the perspective of writing fiction in general, but I think it does conflict with your stated desire to strongly base your ideas in known science. If you want to come up with cool ideas first and then figure out a scientific basis for them afterwards without knowing the relevant science very well, you're going to get frustrated if you don't do some hand-waving at some point.

If all you want is some fancy-sounding technobabble to justify elements of your setting, the sort of stuff an "average Joe wouldn't question", you don't need to know any science for that at all. If you want to give your technobabble a kind of "scientific sheen", look over some recent papers in whatever field is relevant and lift some cool-sounding jargon from them to use. You don't even need to know what the jargon actually means in the field in question; it's purely aesthetic at this point. Of course, I'm not really sure why you even need to give this sort of justification for your sci-fi tech—it runs the risk of putting your readers to sleep if you spend more than a few words on it. On the upside, you don't have to worry about checking your ideas for scientific plausibility.

The kind of stories that work that way aren't really interested in a deep exploration of a scientific topic anyway, of course. They're usually more interested in the stuff "regular" literature is—social relationships, people's thoughts and feelings, culture, etc. If that's what you really want to write about, and your sci-fi setting is just a means to give that stuff an interesting structure, I wouldn't worry too much about the scientific grounding for your world. It won't matter anyway—no one's going to read your writing for its scientific content, and any paragraphs dedicated to it are just going to feel like a distraction from your characters and plot.

It's worth remembering that many of the science fiction writers most beloved by intellectuals, including of the scientific variety, hardly concern themselves with the nitty-gritty technical details of science and technology at all. One of my closest friends is a professional physicist; when it comes to sci-fi, they like writers like Stanislaw Lem and Ursula Le Guin. Those writers give really interesting food for thought, and they pick the elements of their settings not for their scientific bona-fides but rather to be maximally interesting.

For instance, my friend once lent me a copy of Lem's The Cyberiad, which is wildly fantastic but chock-full of funny paradoxes and mind games that are great fun for anyone with a philosophical bent. I don't want to spoil any of the stories, so suffice to say that they play all sorts of entertaining ditties on ideas like simulation, identity, worth, entropy, computation, and the like. In service of this, plot elements are introduced like square-shaped stars and medieval kingdoms in tiny boxes that would never pass as scientifically plausible, and yet managed to delight my scientist friend (and myself).

In turn, I once lent them Le Guin's The Dispossesed, which has a rather poetic take on the process of developing a physical theory; consider this quote:

He looked at the book the older man held out: a thin book, bound in green, the Circle of Life on the cover. He took it and looked at the title page: “A Critique of Atro’s Infinite Sequency Hypothesis.” It was his essay, Atro’s acknowledgement and defense, and his reply. It had all been translated or retranslated into Pravic, and printed by the PDC presses in Abbenay. There were two authors’ names: Sabul, Shevek.

Sabul craned his neck over the copy Shevek held, and gloated. His growl became throaty and chuckling. “We’ve finished Atro. Finished him, the damned profiteer! Now let them try to talk about ‘puerile imprecision’!” Sabul had nursed ten years’ resentment against the Physics Review of leu Eun University, which had referred to his theoretical work as “crippled by provincialism and the puerile imprecision with which Odonian dogma infects every area of thought.” ‘They’ll see who’s provincial now!” he said, grinning. In nearly a year’s acquaintance Shevek could not recall having seen him smile.

There's no "real physics" in this at all in terms of the scientific content, but it has an interesting take on academic politics that both fits the themes of its setting and might have some familiar elements for any scientist who's ever worked in academia. This kind of sci-fi writing is perhaps more likely to appeal to practicing physicists than hard sci-fi—after all, they spend plenty of time reading actual physics, but whitepapers and textbooks are unlikely to touch very deeply on the social experience of being a scientist, which a novel is better positioned to take on. Of course, the core question of The Dispossessed is, maybe, "What sort of cultural difficulties might bedevil an anarchist planet?", which contemporary science has hardly anything to say to us about at all, but is an intriguing and ambitious question for a science fiction author to tackle.


For the bonus points: "I want there to be technical jargon that goes over most people's heads." To avoid the problems this causes, just don't do it. There is always someones head you just can't reach over, and almost all your readers will know a bit more then about something then you do, at which point your jargon risks becoming BS that will date and grate. Does the jargon actually help progress your plot or is it there for decoration or word count reasons?

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ By "go over most people's heads" I simply meant that people won't think about it too hard and it won't be so obviously identified as technobabble as to arouse suspicion from most ordinary folk. $\endgroup$
    – overlord
    Nov 8, 2019 at 17:15

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