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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » In a Sci-Fi story what can the writer expect the reader to know?

   
Author Topic: In a Sci-Fi story what can the writer expect the reader to know?
KillerDonut
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In SF we constantly come across concepts, terms, and jargon that may or may not be commonly known. For example: EMP (Electromagnetic pulse). So my question is, in a Sci-Fi story what can the writer expect the reader to know, not to know, and how should something be explained if it is not commonly known or a complicated never before thought of concept?
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Matt Lust
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I honestly expect the reader to know nothing.


But I also expect them to be a fast learner.

ie I will say electro magnetic pulse once then from then on say EMP


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Inkwell
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Ditto.

An example from my own writing: I once used the acronym 'HUD' in casual exposition...never suspecting that some would not know it stands for Heads-Up-Display (or Head-Up-Display; I've seen both versions used). In any case, I was describing a tactical display projected before a character's face by using established military tech jargon. Even after I wrote out the acronym's meaning, it was still unfamiliar to some readers.

I think you just can't win sometimes, and it's useless to worry too much over what you do and do not use.

I have to admit, I've needed to grab a dictionary from time to time while reading stories, just to be sure I knew what the heck an author was referring to. Perhaps that's a good thing to do every once in a while? Make 'em dig out the dusty ol' Merriam-Webster for a spelling bee.


Inkwell
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"The difference between a writer and someone who says they want to write is merely the width of a postage stamp."
-Anonymous

[This message has been edited by Inkwell (edited February 06, 2006).]


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Survivor
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Do what you would like another writer to do when you're the reader.
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wbriggs
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There's a lot of variation. I can't explain forever or I'd get no story. I do try to repeatedly introduce minor characters, in case the reader forgot.

I wouldn't explain DVD, but I would explain EMP.


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Matt Lust
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Thats a good point Dubya....(no insult intended)

If it can be found on a Wal-mart shelf you don't need to explain it.


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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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If you can show the characters using something, you may not have to explain what it is.

You might have to ask yourself what are the things about the unknown idea/device that you need the reader to know.

In the case of the HUD, it might be the fact that the only one who can see what is on the HUD is the person wearing the helmet with HUD capabilities. In that case, you might want to have someone else ask the helmet wearer what his HUD tells him.

If it's something else about the HUD, and if you can come up with some other way to "show" what you want the reader to know, that is probably the best way to get the information across.


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pjp
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Another thing to be careful of is multiple definitions for the same acronym. Using the HUD (heads up display) example earlier, my first thought would've been Housing and Urban Development (as in, The Department of).

Within context, I would've figured out heads up display (eventually). However, other readers might not. Plus, there is the issue of not being able to get the first thing you thought of out of your head.


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Robert Nowall
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Ya gotta be careful, how ya explain things or how ya don't.

Often as not, a [good] science fiction writer will layer on any number of details, technological or otherwise, to emphasize that the story is set and the characters are living in a place much different from the place the readers live in.

I'd beware of using too many unfamiliar terms. Even in real life, people can be baffled by them. In my job, I have to work with OCRs, MLOCRs, GPCs, UTSs, DBCSs, and CIOSSs. (Some of these, written out in full, have never actually been layed out to me. I don't expect any of you to know what they mean, unless you also do what I do.)

If I was working with someone who didn't know these terms, it would be okay for me to stop and specify what they meant. But mostly I'm working with people who should know (or who are supposed to know but don't, training being what it is where I work), and any explanation would be a waste of my time.

If you're writing something, you can introduce someone who doesn't know what's what, and someone who does know can explain (hopefully briefly, because it could really bring things in the story crashing to a halt). But it would be redundant (and also bring the story to a stop) for those who know to explain things to those who also know.

If I were doing it, well...well, I usually do, but that's besides the point...anyway, I'd use some unfamiliar terms and concepts and technologies, not necessarily bringing up an explanation right away, but maybe later in the story. (In a novel, one has a lot of room to slip in a few words.) Some things, though, would have to continue to remain a mystery to the reader, both for lack of opportunity to introduce a good explanation, and to keep a certain air of mystery in the story.

(I remember running across the term "emp" in Vernor Vinge's "Marooned in Real Time" (excellent book, I recommend it), in dialog, along the lines of a character saying someone was "trying to emp me out" in the middle of a battle. If I hadn't already been familiar with the term, I wouldn't have known what it meant. As is, when I hit it, it stopped the story as I pondered just that fact. You can see it's a potential minefield.)


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Monolith
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The reader will know as much as you let them.

-Monolith-


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KillerDonut
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Thanks for the info. This issue came up in a story I got some critiques on and one person pointed out that I used EMP without explaining what it was. I thought this would make an interesting discussion so I posted it. Now I just have to figure out the best way to get the information in my story.
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Survivor
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If you use "EMP" without any reference to its effects or source, then that would be a legitimate point. "EMP" could mean "elemental mass projectile" or "emergency medical procedure" or "elevated mountainous promentory" or any number of other things.

But if you say that the fleet's sensitive electronics were knocked off-line by an EMP generated by a high altitude nuclear blast, then you don't need to explain that "EMP" stands for "electo-magnetic pulse". It is common knowledge that nukes produce EMP, so much so that we are treated to portrayals of them doing so in situations where they would do nothing of the kind.


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