I'm thinking about inserting some deep engineering concepts in my sci-fi story, but I'm not sure how to do this without excluding the general public from it.

An example: I want to describe the creation of a radio transmitter by a character. If I write something like the following,

"he makes a primitive antenna with the wire he'd gathered and with another wire as an inductor connected in series with a capacitor removed from the ship's remains, voilá. Despite the high noise it worked. Barely, but enough."

is it easy to understand?

What I want to know is this: Which is the better way to make the reader understand it without demanding any previous specific knowledge?

  • This may be a better fit for Writers.SE than WorldBuilding.SE. The concepts themselves can fit into any world, but the process of exploring them is where you can lose an audience. Writers.SE is all about the writing process and how to do things like this. That being said, it's totally possible to do what you want. Neil Stephenson did so in Diamond Age, literally teaching a young girl how to think in binary and program a computer over the course of a few chapters.
    – Cort Ammon
    Dec 8, 2016 at 17:10
  • Although it does belong to writers.SE: It would be an interesting idea, if they are part of a concept / solution to a problem. Take a look at the early Tempe Brennan books, where in every book she goes deeper into a scientific field and explains it to the reader, without going too deep and scare of readers. Dec 8, 2016 at 17:18
  • the general rule is you can insert any jargon you want as long as you explain it. That is why so many stories insert an everyman to there is a reason for the characters to explain it.
    – John
    Dec 8, 2016 at 18:02
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    This is close to working on Writers. Asking whether it's reasonable to use concepts from any particular domain won't be a good fit (that requires some expertise in, e.g. operational amplifiers to answer), but a question asking how to use deeper technical info in general-audience fiction would fit well. You could include some examples, of course. The question would be about the technique, not the particular technologies. Make sense? If so, please edit along those lines and I can migrate it for you. (Or you can ask there and delete this copy if you prefer.) Dec 8, 2016 at 19:10
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    Here are a few more emotional frustrations for your character to work through... Without a multi-meter or other electrical engineering tools, he won't be able to differentiate between functional and burned out components. Without a receiver, he wont be able to tell if his transmitter is functioning. Adding led's into the circuit so that he can tell if the batteries have power, comes at the cost of increasing the load and thus shortening that battery life once the transmitter is functional. These aren't only technical problems, they are emotional burdens which he and the reader must carry. Dec 10, 2016 at 22:56

1 Answer 1


I think your description is fine at that level of detail. As it happens, I do pretty much understand it. But it would not stop me appreciating the story if I scarcely understood the technical aspects at all, so long as I understand what his success or failure in building a radio means for the character.

In this case it is clear that the character is marooned. He is cannibalizing the remains of the ship to send a message so that he can be rescued. We understand that he is in peril but rescue is possible. We understand that he has some technical knowledge and is a resourceful person who does not give in to despair, making us inclined to admire him. These are the things that 100% of the readers must understand to make them care what happens next. So long as you achieve that, it doesn't matter that a much smaller percentage of your readers will be able to remember from college what a capacitor is, and a smaller percentage still would be able to check whether your description is correct.

Let me give an example from a field of knowledge I scarcely understand at all. I have read all of C.S. Forester's stories featuring Horatio Hornblower, an officer in the British navy during the Napoleonic Wars, several times over. I still have only a hazy idea what a mizzen mast is or the difference between a sloop and a frigate. But I have confidence that Forester did know. It does matter that the author gets it right: an author writing about a subject that they have researched well writes with confidence, and that confidence is picked up by the reader and makes them believe in the story. But it matters much less whether the author has fully transferred their technical knowledge to to the reader. The important thing is that the practical and emotional consequences of technical facts are conveyed. I could be gripped by every stage of a lengthy description of the manoeuvres of a sailing ship in a storm or in battle because the survival of characters I cared about depended on their doing these difficult manoeuvres successfully. It doesn't have to be life or death; I have often been fascinated by stories about the process of scientific discovery, but to fully awaken my sense of wonder I needed a human being in the story to be feeling that wonder too.

You could, if you wanted, write a lot more about your character building that radio. How exactly did he "gather wire" and find those components? Don't make it easy for him! Maybe he suffered agonizing frustration when he realized that the tools that would have made the job easy were out of his reach under tons of wreckage. Perhaps he had to improvise a lever from scrap metal to open a panel, cutting his hands, only to find that the component he had thought he could use was smashed and he would have to do it all again. Maybe he had to crawl past the dead bodies of his crewmates to get into the ship at all. If you want to add more technical details (What diameter wire? What was that capacitor originally being used for?), feel free, that's what readers come to science fiction for, but make sure that you intersperse every technical fact with an emotional fact ("If this doesn't work I'm done for") about characters the reader cares about.

Aim for something like this scene from the 1965 film The Flight of the Phoenix. Few people know exactly how a Coffman engine starter cartridge works, they just know that they are crucial and the castaways have a limited supply of them. Everybody understands what a tense moment it is when

Dorfmann panics when four cartridges fail to start the engine and Towns wants to use one of the remaining three cartridges just to clear the engine's cylinders. Dorfmann objects, but Towns ignores him and fires one cartridge with the ignition off. The next cartridge succeeds.

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    I'm more confident now with your feedback. About the lack of details in my description, it is because I tried to make it as succinct as possible, but your suggestions gave me a kind of a brainstorm, I'll consider it all. As you said, my first intention is to transmit the idea that the character knows what he is doing, but I didn't knew for sure if I was expressing it satisfactorily well. Thanks for your answer! :D Dec 10, 2016 at 19:48

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