I am a former Molecular Biologist and also worked for years as an ICU nurse. I personally liked Crichton's style of writing about science/medical mishaps but found his presentation of science/medical facts was appallingly minimal. Most of his scenarios were simply fiction on the same level with Stephen King; scary but not realistic. I am working on the second draft of my novel about the accidental release of a virus during a clinical trial and want to use actual facts but fear being too pedantic. Do most agents/editors/publishers prefer a simple gloss over or even exaggeration of science? Is it acceptable to engage my readers and educate them on science concepts using a character who actually presents details in the manner of a real scientist?

3 Answers 3


To a certain extent it will depend on your audience, but I think the answer is not "worry about too much detail" but "worry about making it comprehensible to the lay person."

If your story is dependent on real, critical medical details, then you have to include them and make them realistic. But if the story is also dependent on high-level medical jargon which people who aren't trained won't understand, then the first thing you have to do is explain it to the rest of us.

Right now I'm reading The Imitation Game, the Alan Turing bio by Andrew Hodges. What Turing and Bletchey's boffins did to break the Nazis' coded messages by beating the Engima machines took some of the most brilliant mathematical minds of the 20th century. Hodges stops the biography to spend 10 pages or so slowly, carefuly explaining, with lots of diagrams, how the Enigma machine worked and how the English codebreakers thought about it and unravelled it with their Bombes (derived from the Polish analysts who gave it to them). I'm not very mathematically inclined so I'm only getting about 85% of it, but that's 75% more than I would have grasped on my own.

And in any case, once Hodges lays out how the machines worked and how they were cracked, he moves on to summarizing. "The Nazis added a fourth rotor, meaning what was previously cracked in two hours now took a week." He doesn't have to go through all the jargon again; he just explains the problem.

This is what you should aim for in your medical book. If you have to invent a cabbagehead character for your initial explanation, that's fine. Once you've taught your lay audience what the jargon means, then you can have your scientists speaking pretty much in jargon.

If it's very advanced terminology, a glossary at the end wouldn't hurt either.

  • Too bad you can’t have sidebars like in a magazine, or links like in SE answers. Some SF novels have appencices though.
    – JDługosz
    Dec 28, 2016 at 3:14
  • actually, I am now using Pinterest and embedding my references with the images. I store my research there much the same way as I do using Scribner cork board. I highly recommend Pinterest as a storage location for images used in writing because it can also be shared with the public once the book is published. Here is the account I am using for my novel: pinterest.com/richardstanzak/viral-chapter-1 Jan 7, 2017 at 17:09

It's not that it's not acceptable, it's that it is orthogonal. What editors care about is compelling stories in the current taste. There is nothing to say that cannot include scientific detail. That is certainly something that there is a modern taste for. As Emily Gilmore once said, "I don't watch television. I'm not interested in forensics."

But in a story, everything exists in story world and exists to support story. Story world in both neater and more chaotic than our world. Wounds heal faster. Psychological trauma that would reduce people in our world to gibbering madness, is brushed off with kiss or a beer in story world. Problems that in our world would be solved by a phone call can bring story world to the brink of chaos. There is truly no such thing as realistic fiction.

That does not mean that story world science can never correspond to our science. Story world needs anchor points in our world so that people can find their bearings and learn the rules. Those touch points can be scientific just as well as anything else. But whatever story world copies from our world still has to obey the overall rules of story world.

Crichton is a good example of anchoring story world science in real world science, as he did in Jurassic Park. There are insects from that era, and even bits of dinosaur, complete with feathers, preserved in amber. But that is just the anchor. From there, story science takes over: neater, simpler, and at the same time more chaotic. Because this is story world, and in story world, story rules apply. Break story rules and you break story world. Break story world and you break story.

Can you write a story world in which story science corresponds 100% to actual science? Maybe. But your story will still have to obey story rules or it will read not like a story but like a painfully awkward textbook.

One of the most important rules of story is that you must not introduce any more background than the reader needs to follow the story, and you must not introduce it any sooner than the reader feels they need it. This means no more science than the story requires, no sooner than it is required -- whether that be real science or story science.

Like most other story rules, though, this is overridden by the highest rule of story world, which is that anything truly compelling works. The question then becomes, who is it truly compelling for, and how do I find them?

Story is the one thing that is truly compelling for everyone, but careers have been made on being compelling about other things to the right audience at the right time. Though when it comes to science, I think the question becomes, if you can be truly compelling about science, why do you need fiction as a vehicle?

If your aim is to hide the bitter pill of knowledge in a spoonful of fictiony jam, you should know that that pretty much never works. The kid eats the jam and spits out the pill.

  • I use Crichton as an example because my story is like a fusion of Jurassic Park and Andromeda Strain except I use REAL science. Not many realize most of your genome consists of pieces of ancient viruses and scientists are actually able to resurrect these ancient viral particles to study them today. Add this bit of arcane knowledge to the medical side that drug companies have turned to outsourcing most research to companies that bid it out to the cheapest lab and you can see the problem. How can you expect 'experts' to solve the very problem they have created? Dec 26, 2016 at 14:40
  • Okay, so, what you have there are the basic ingredients of a science corrupted by corporate greed creates monstrous threat to humanity story. That's great. But you have to realize that that story is not about the science, it is about the courage of the emotionally scarred scientist and the plucky research assistant/potential love interest.The science is just the catalyst and you only need enough catalyst to start the reaction. Too much catalyst will stop the reaction, not make it stronger.
    – user16226
    Dec 26, 2016 at 14:47
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    Let me put this another way. What was Jurassic Park about? Two things, principally. 1. Cool! Dinosaurs! 2. Sam Neil gets comfortable with the idea of having kids with Laura Dern by saving two kids from being eaten by dinosaurs. You have the snarky think man and the stumbling fat man for comic relief, you have the sniveling bureaucrat being eaten because who doesn't like to see that, but in the end the emotional core of the movie is Sam Neil learns to be a daddy. If you want to tell the public what happens when a real pandemic occurs, you should write an expose for The Atlantic.
    – user16226
    Dec 26, 2016 at 14:57
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    @RichardStanzak If the answer to "what happens when a real pandemic occurs" is "a whole lot of people are going to die painfully before the disease burns itself out and/or is cured by smart people getting lucky," well, the public knows that. It's depressing. Not a lot of people want to be reminded that a real pandemic would wipe out half the planet, particularly since there's not much we can do to stop it. So if you don't have an exciting, uplifting, beat-the-odds plot, no one will read your novel either. Give us hope or stick to nonfiction. Dec 26, 2016 at 15:07
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    @LaurenIpsum the point is, lots of people find Steinbeck and Dickens compelling. Lots of people find Harry Potter tedious and derivative. You don't have to please everyone. Capture 5% of the reading public and you will be a millionair. You can do that with hope. You can do that with pathos. You just can't do it without story.
    – user16226
    Dec 26, 2016 at 15:27

I think a better example of "what the people want" would be Tom Clancy. His research, whether it be military, medical, or engineering is meticulous, and its presentation is thorough. He's not afraid to spend thousands of words on intro explanation. But he's Tom Clancy.

My suggestion is to start with too much detail and use beta readers to help edit out the superfluous or simply too technical.

Check out a season of ER or House. They use a lot of jargon. The audience is either medical professionals who get it or lay fans who do their best to keep up. These writers won Emmys year after year.

And what about Melville's Moby Dick? At least a 100 pages of sailing, ship building, and whaling industry jargon included in what is still considered a classic. Technical can work; it just has to be done well.

Minimize the use of drug names. Unless you're saying something bad about the drug, use brand names—with certain exceptions: lithium, digoxin, maybe a few others.

Good writing!

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    thanks, I have to admit Big Bang Theory does a great job with their presentation of scientists. We argue over trivia that no one else knows or cares about and more than one scientist wears a Green Lantern or Flash Tee-shirt Dec 26, 2016 at 17:51
  • I've nevr read any Tom Clancy and for whatever reason I never saw any movies based on his works. I read a bit of Hunt for Red October and have to admit I agree with this satirical post about his style: uncyclopedia.wikia.com/wiki/HowTo:Write_Like_Tom_Clancy Dec 27, 2016 at 19:53
  • Clancy may be action packed and full of details but are they realistic? But, forget any book you've ever read on an outbreak, they are all wrong, even Crichton. The problem isn't 'slate wiper' it is SYSTEMS OVERLOAD. Medical facilities have no surge capacity. That's the real drama. Even a bad wreck or fire is hard to handle with current staffing, Imagine how bad it will be on a national level. You don't have to imagine hard: the government did it for you already:reddit.com/r/thedivision/comments/45l2ol/…, i'll give Clancy his due Dec 27, 2016 at 20:05
  • @RichardStanzak _ I haven't watched it, but that's what the ads for Code Black said the whole show was about.
    – Joe
    Dec 28, 2016 at 2:36
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    To be fair, I thought Moby Dick was stultifyingly boring, not the least because of all the sailing/whaling/etc. jargon. But I loved House. Jargon isn't a dealbreaker. Lack of story is. Dec 28, 2016 at 12:57

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