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Author Topic: Explaining things to an idiot
sakubun
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What's the best (non-cliche) way of explaining things in a story. I'm trying hard to avoid the idiot assistant/reporter/etc conversations where one person is explaining something to the idiot.

Obviously you can't have two scientists talking about things they both completely understand because it would be like:

"Did you finish the--"

"Yea, just before it cut off."

"Bet that was close."

Obviously two people who are close as such know what they are talking about and don't need complete explanations with proper grammar, but readers do.

There must be other techniques than the standard smarty/idiot, though I do see that a lot.


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debhoag
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What if a third guy (using your two scientist example) had to give a talk to some visiting dignitaries and the first two had to sit on the panel and answer stupid questions? Or a press conference? Or a memo to their idiot funding source?
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sakubun
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I plan to use the press conference thing, I just wasn't sure if was too cliched since it really is just someone "telling" the reporters things.
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Marzo
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Have the main character recall how he learned that technical bit of info as a student, or have him think through the scientific process if it's a challenge he's facing now?
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sakubun
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Good idea.

One could also have an error in the data and to find the error the scientist (or whomever) systematically steps through the process/sequence/etc.


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EP Kaplan
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In the case of an experiment, show the event taking place while the scientist observes. That way you "see" the concept and also how it relates to the scientist, giving it context.
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arriki
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I've always heard the best way to explain something is to show it broken, then it makes sense to explain away about it as the characters try to fix or figure out why/how it broke.
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JeffBarton
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Explaining to idiots -

How about a congressional hearing?

Court testimony directed at a jury?


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Lynda
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If they're scientists, they're being funded by somebody, usually the government or a big corporation. Have the general/congressman/corporate bigwig or whoever come to see what they're up to, or to observe that experiment. Then they can explain everything involved and the oversight guy can argue, fuss, or praise them, whatever you want. That's very realistic - that's how science is done most of the time in this country.

Lynda


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Robert Nowall
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I suppose the classic way of handling an info dump is to have someone who knows everything explain things to someone who knows nothing. (More or less.) That way, you get the info dump, you get to explore the character of two characters and their relationship to and with each other as well.

But if that won't do, sometimes just a straightforward comment from the narrator (or his point-of-view) is all you can do. "He worked five years on the Franish project, trying to discombobulate the the splenomagalic confabudor could diskim the doshes." (And if you use a new term, you'll have to define it somewhere.)


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Matt Lust
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Yeah I agree with Robert Nowall but I think this style might fit Sakuban's definition of talking to idiot.


But I think that explaining something new to someone isn't necessarily talking to an idiot. For me this holds true especially if the subject being discussed is totally out of both the character's and (perhaps most especially) the reader's field of experience.


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Snorri Sturluson
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If you are merely looking for a variation, then I would propose that the "idiot" does not always need to be an idiot. In my experiences, two scientists working side by side in the same lab will usually have very different ("multidisciplinary") abilities. Even two geneticists could have very different areas of specialty that would need to be explained to the other. For your info bump, they might just be sharing information (and, as a result, they would each have to explain some concept to the other).

Or it might be an exchange between a husband and wife. I am a historian, my wife is a scientist; she doesn't intuitively understand what I talk about, nor I her.

You could also switch things around. The one doing the discovery and interpreting the data is almost certainly NOT the person who will get credit for the discovery (Principal Investigators are usually too busy writing grants to work the bench). You could have the grad student or Post-Doc report to the PI what has been discovered. The PI will be quite intelligent but will also need to be filled in on details that, chances are, he/she is not familiar with.

There is also the weekly lab meeting that many scientists have to participate in. During that meeting people discuss their different projects with people who don't know a Southern Blot from a Western Blot (maybe).

Of course, you should always ask yourself if this information is even important. It can be quite tempting to give more info than the reader truly needs. At the end of the day, we know that the MD Device makes things go 'splodey and not much else.

[This message has been edited by Snorri Sturluson (edited July 24, 2007).]


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franc li
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Why would I work in a lab with an exact copy of myself? That seems a bit redundant. You could also have one of the scientists die and the other one has to go through their notes and make sure they know what's going on. The thing about scientists is they often have the trait of being very single-minded, so I think the idea that someone would have had their work fairly compartmentalized is not too farfetched.
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TaleSpinner
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I thought Star Trek did it well.

Often, they would have to explain technical things to the Captain who, being a military type, wasn't expected to understand science, medicine etc. So he could often say "Why can't we do <something sensible sounding>?" and they would reply "Because <conversational-sounding info dump>."

Or the officers would get into trouble and in dealing with it they would have to explain the intricacies of their various disciplines to each other.

"What's that funny thing on his face, Bones?" said Scottie.

"It's a Zantazian bug which will eat him alive -- and the rest of us -- unless we do something dramatic just after the next advertizing break."

Bones and Spock were clever. In the middle of a crisis Bones would insult Spock about being unfeeling, and in response Spock would tell Bones - and us - some technical stuff.

"What, you'd leave the Alkazoids do die? You unfeeling machine-like Vulcan. You disgust me." Bones glared at Spock.

"Bones, our transporters need battery power. Our batteries are almost down to zero and we need them to fire our Phazers and repell the Klingons. So we could beam the Alkazoids up but then the Klingons would kill them as well as us. If you'll excuse me I'm on my way to get Scottie to give us more power -- for both the Phazers _and_ the transporters."

Just a thought,
Pat

[This message has been edited by TaleSpinner (edited July 24, 2007).]


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Rick Norwood
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There is also the option of just explaining things. This, from Heinlein's "Common Sense", often mentioned as a classic (and I like it a lot):

"Luck, sound engineering design, and a little knowledge. Good design, ten times that much luck, and a precious little kowledge. It was luck that had placed the Ship near a star with a planetary system..."

And so on, for a couple of pages of pure exposition, stuff no character in the story knows.

When you know the rules, sometimes you can break the rules.


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rstegman
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The real question is whether this is something new to the people involved.
The way it was discribed to me, is that you don't explain how a gun works in a battle, or you don't explain how a car operates just to drive it.
Instead, you show it in use. "He pulled the trigger back, The hammer leaned way back, the next bullet slid into the chamber. The hammer reached critical distance, and slapped back onto the back of the bullet. There was a loud report, the muzzel of the revolver leaped up. The bad guy fell to the ground, a small bleeding hole in the middle of his forehead."
Even that is too much discription. "The detective drew his piece, aimed and fired. With a sharp report, the recoil of the blaster threw the muzzle up. The bad guy barely had his piece out of the holster as his head snapped back, a small black hole squirted a grey matter down his forhead as his body slumped to the ground.

Basically, discribe the item, then show it in use. If it is something unusual, you might have the person checking it over to make sure all the settings are right and everything tightened. You then mix in the info dump with his activities.

If the above does not work, simply mix the info dump with a bit of activity or action, The main thing I was told was not to slow down the action. Feed in what the people need as they need it.


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sakubun
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All these are great, I was just wondering if they are seen as cliche.

My issue was from a hard SF point of view. I suppose I should read some HSF and see from examples, but sometimes the classics break rules that a newbie can't.

Things like why a certain planet flew out of orbit. I would have to explain that since not all readers would know, especially if it was some plot-critical event.


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sakubun
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I never realized how Spock was explaining things to us like that.

Clever indeed.


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Spaceman
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Hard SF a lot more forgiving of infodump than most fiction. That said, it still has to be done gracefully. Yes, read some hard SF and see how it's done.
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Ivy
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Provide two options, then let the characters debate the merits of both. Or both can be evangelists for opposing technologies. Look at any two techs arguing computers as an example.

Now layer it. Does either have something at stake other than the surface argument? The new kid wants to prove himself? The older character wants to show he's still keeping up? The Skittlinbert from Omega 9 advocates technology native to his struggling world?

Layer it more. How much do the characters respect each other and their opinions? Maybe the Skittlingbert is right, but his people are so often looked down on that he's not taken seriously. Maybe there is underlying hostilities between two characters that come out in the otherwise technical discussion.


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Antinomy
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This is what I like best about Hatrack. Writers willing to share and contribute knowledge that is helpful to others.
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sakubun
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I found an interesting article about "Finessing the Info Dump":

http://www.writing-world.com/sf/infodump.shtml


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sholar
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The characters could mock the idiot one had to explain things to earlier. "Can you believe how stupid Bob is? He didn't even know that a Western blot is for protein and a Northern for RNA. What an idiot."
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Pyre Dynasty
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I like the explaining things to a video camera trick. This usually only works for scientists. (and it's something that actual scientists do) I'm sure you've seen in some movie or TV show, the scientist is preserving their experiment/discovery for posterity, and of course they have to spell it out.
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Rick Norwood
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Last night I read the most delightful infodump I have ever read, in "The Other Wind" by Ursula K. LeGuin, page 89-90, two short paragraphs followed by one very long paragraph. I omit part.

"I will come to conduct you to the king's presence when the fifth hour is told." ...

Alder...wondered what the man meant.

He learned, presently, that here in Havnor four trumpeters went out on the high balcony from which rose the highest tower of the palace, the one that was topped with the slender steel blade of the hero's sword, and at the fourth and fifth hours before noon, and at noon, and at the first, second, and third hours after noon they blew their trumpets one to the west, one to the north, one to the east, one to the south. ... A boy he met walking in the gardens explained all this, a small, thin boy in a tunic that was too long for him. ... The boy was called Rody and he had come with his father...and he went to school in the palace, and he was nine, and he missed his mother and his sister."


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