My story features two software developers who discuss computer-based things in the first chapter. It's not a significant part of the story, but it helps to establish who the characters are and what they know.

Being a software developer as my day job, I know how they should talk about things and interact with each other over these issues. I have tried to remove as much technical jargon as possible, whilst still making it realistic dialogue.

I've had someone who is not particularly technological read the chapter, and they understood all of the terms I used.

However, I realized today that someone (for example someone of an older generation) may not even know what terms like 'hacking' or 'alpha test' mean (they're about as technical as it gets).

Most of the stuff can be inferred from context what they mean, but for someone who doesn't know all the terms it might be quite boring to read the first chapter and not understand a lot of what is being discussed right away.

How can I find a balance between realistic conversation that technical people would use, without losing the pace of the story by adding long-winded explanations about every technical term?

All of the characters present are knowledgeable about these things, so I can't have them explain the terms to someone who isn't technical, and it wouldn't make sense to the story to change one of the characters or add another into the situation.


Whilst most people who are within my target audience would know what it is I am talking about, I don't want to alienate anyone who would also possibly be interested in the book.

To clarify: I want to minimize the amount of technical terms that might deter readers, without compromising the experience of readers who would understand the terms used by sacrificing the authenticity of the dialogue. What would be a good balance between the two?

  • Is the entire story about the technical stuff, or is this just scene-setting to establish who the characters are? That is, if the reader never figures out what the technical terms mean, will that impede understanding of the larger plot? Apr 1 '15 at 10:23
  • It is about characters using a virtual reality device to enter a fantasy world, so it is important insofar as it gets them into where the story takes place, but it is also important that the reader knows it is virtual reality rather than just a fantasy world. So the terms are not needed to be understood for the plot, but they need to be in the story. Apr 1 '15 at 10:32

Side note: This problem isn't limited to computer jargon. There are many stories where the characters discuss things that all the characters would know or understand but a reader would not necessarily, like science, historical events, or things about their friends. For example, yes, if a character says, "We should use an Ajax call to the cloud server here and on the backend have it construct a parameterized query to Postgres and then export the results in CSV", we might well expect the other characters in the scene to understand exactly what he means, but a non-computer person reading the story could be totally lost. But likewise if a character says, "We'll have to take this to Lansing", the other characters in the scene might be expected to know that this is the capitol of Michigan, so that it would be incongruous for the character to say, "That's our state capitol." But a reader who does not live in Michigan might not know that and would find the statement puzzling. Or even, "Oh no, if Sally does that, it could turn out just like what happened with Granger", the other characters might be expected to know exactly who or what "Granger" is and what happened, but the reader does not. Etc.

A really lame solution to this problem that you often see is for the characters to tell each other things that they already know, and that the reader surely realizes they already know. Sometimes the writer will even have the character begin the speech with "As you know ..."

Better solutions include:

One: Leave the dialog unexplained. If the exact meaning is not critical to the plot, if the point is just to create a certain mood or feel, than the exact meaning doesn't matter. I've seen lots of cop shows lately where they have a character throw out some computer jargon to explain how they tracked down the criminal's cell phone or whatever. Often this jargon makes no sense so they couldn't explain it if they wanted to: the writers apparently just took all the "computer words" they ever heard and threw them together into one sentence. The point isn't to really explain how something technical works, but rather to create the impression that some highly technical means were used to solve the problem. So the viewer says, oh, okay, I don't understand exactly how they did that, but apparently some really smart people found a technical solution to this problem. (I sometimes wonder whether chemists or automotive engineers or whatever find the way their fields are presented in TV shows as far from reality as what I find with computer stuff. But I digress.)

Two: "As you know dialog" can be okay if it's done well. It might not be implausible for a character to say, "Do you know that a temporal synchronicity distortion can cause a time traveler to be stuck in the past?" Then the other character says, "Yes, of course" and they move on. Or a character may say something that everyone knows as a brief exclamation or aside. Like, "Wow, this will be Bob's fourth divorce!" Even if everyone in the room knows that Bob has been divorced three times before, it wouldn't be absurd for someone to point it out like that.

Three: Include a character who WOULDN'T know these things in the scene. I recall a movie I saw years ago about a computer crime -- sorry, can't remember the name -- where the main characters were mostly a bunch of computer experts, but one of the guys brings his girlfriend along so the writer had an excuse to periodically have the characters stop and explain things to the girlfriend. BTW, a variation on this idea that I've never seen pulled off in a way I found effective, but which has potential, is to have a scene where someone is teaching a class. Like, you have the professor explain a lot of background material to a class, then someone rushes into the classroom and says, "Professor, we need your help", and he rushes off to the main action.

Four: Break up the action and/or dialog with explanatory narration. "'It's looks like we've created a temporal synchronicity disruption', George said. Loss of temporal synchronicity is a constant threat to time travelers: it can result in ..." Of course you don't want to have the character say one sentence, then go off on a 20-page explanation of what that means, then the other characters replies, and you go off on a 20-page explanation of what the reply means, etc. But a couple of sentences here and there can tell the reader what's happening without creating unrealistic dialog and without seriously breaking the flow of the story.

Five: Try to word things in a way that makes them self-explanatory, or so the reader can figure out the meaning from context. Like: "Do you raise morphogs on your farm?" "Yes, but mostly we raise cows and goats." The reader will get the idea that a "morphog" is some sort of farm animal, without the farmers having to tell each other, "As you know, a morphog is a kind of domestic animal that you have on your farm."

Probably other ways, but that's a sampling.

  • Thanks for putting the time into this answer. I like numbers 1 & 5, I think I might use a combination of the two. I suppose 'alpha test' is enough for the reader to know that it's a test, and to add a sixth option one could use synonyms, for example intermingle the words 'infiltrate' and 'break in' with 'hack' to give readers an idea what it means. Apr 1 '15 at 16:50
  • The OP specifically noted he did not want to use your option 3, the cabbagehead. It's a perfectly valid choice to use one, and I've suggested it elsewhere on the site, but the scene doesn't have room for one, according to the author. Apr 1 '15 at 16:52
  • @LaurenIpsum Well, he said there wasn't such a character. It may be that he could put one in just for this purpose. Or it may be that if we read the story we would see that the presence of such a character would be implausible.
    – Jay
    Apr 2 '15 at 12:51
  • Re #2: My favorite way of pulling that off is to have two characters get into a vehement argument. Then they will be telling each other lots of things they already know, and it sounds completely natural ("You can't connect the doohicky to the whatsit! They're out of phase and we don't have time to calibrate them."). It's also handy for character development (How angry do they get? Can they keep their cool, or do they explode at one another? Maybe it gets so vicious that they have to make up later. etc.).
    – Kevin
    Sep 30 '19 at 21:55

If the technical terms are important for the rest of the plot, you might be able to explain them in the narration as the acts unfold. (A said to B, "I'm hacking the mainframe." A entered a command into her laptop, and the specialized software disabled the security system and allowed her to access the protected database. etc.)

If the book is fantasy rather than tech, then your readers don't really need to know those few terms. Those terms can be blipped over or grokked from context or just ignored once the main plot gets underway. Grandma can either look up "alpha test," ask her granddaughter to explain what it means, or not worry about it.

  • 5
    Most readers of fantasy and science fiction are well used to seeing unfamiliar terms used in ways that are often wholly invented (and occasionally incoherent). Apr 1 '15 at 13:12
  • 1
    @ChrisSunami And viewers of television in general are used to seeing technical jargon thrown out to explain how the scientist knew there would be an earthquake or how the detective found the criminal, etc. Often wholly invented and incoherent to anyone knowledgeable in the field.
    – Jay
    Apr 1 '15 at 16:34
  • 2
    It's worth noting that The Big Bang Theory became the top American sitcom despite often featuring science-related dialogue that the average viewer is unlikely to understand. The secret, probably, is that the science is typically used as a backdrop --it's important that the characters understand it, not the viewers. Apr 14 '15 at 15:38

I recently had this problem, and I accidentally found a way around it. Have one character use the layman's version of the word, or perhaps an incorrect word, and then have another character correct them. My example:

"In a town that small -"

“Municipality.” interrupted Andrew.

Municipality that small, it would be impossible to..."

For 'alpha test' you could do something similar to the following:

"We've begun the first stage of testing." said A

"The alpha testing," replied B, nodding. "and once that's complete..."

  • 2
    a cabbage head variation
    – hildred
    Apr 14 '15 at 7:37

I am a qualified Computer Scientist with a specialism in Artificial Intelligence, and I know precisely what you mean when attempting to discuss technology for the (potentially) non-technological, whilst still making it coherent for the reader.

Having read many books myself, there is one (fiction novel) which stands out in particular that discusses technology (artificial intelligence, specifically) but does it in such a way so as to not make the reader feel like they are being patronised from the onset.

That novel is Host by Peter James. Even though it was published over twenty years ago (1993), it still handles the task of technological discussion between characters for the layman, if you like, in a very nice way indeed, and I feel that this may be precisely what you are looking for.

  • You're welcome; I think that it is 588 pages long (at least I think that the copy I read was that long) so you may want to just read the first couple of chapters to get a feel for the language James uses.
    – M.Y. David
    Apr 1 '15 at 14:19
  • For another example, check out Silicon Valley (HBO). They throw jargon around so fast, I have trouble just parsing it (although most of it sounds plausible) and it doesn't stop the show from being hilarious. Although their target audience must be pretty tech savvy to start with, It's the personalities of the characters and their interactions that make it work.
    – Joe
    Apr 8 '15 at 1:28

I would use "soft core" tech terms that most people know. In one of my works, one character describes his friend to a third character: "He's a real computer man. Thinks in terms of links and flow charts."

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