I have previously mentioned in other posts that I was a molecular biologist and ICU nurse. Sadly, that means I am bedeviled with a double dose of bad writing habits: academese and medicalese. Just write simply may be the response of many to this post. But, this is a real and possibly incurable condition: http://stevenpinker.com/files/pinker/files/why_academics_stink_at_writing.pdf

Yet others suggest scientists are naturals at storytelling since we make a living translating raw data into a narrative designed to convince others: http://venpopov.com/2017/01/09/all-scientists-should-be-storytellers/

Surely, this isn't a universal issue, Crichton was after all both an academic and a medical doctor. I must admit I was surprised to discover why I was never impressed by his presentation of science; it seemed way to simplified or even wrong to be written by a Harvard trained medical doctor.The reason it isn't good science is because Crichton actually didn't initially write the Andromeda Strain in its final version. His editor, Robert Gottlieb, rejected the story and made Crichton rewrite the story several times until it suited Gottlieb's taste. Here is what Crichton stated about the editing:

When I sent Bob a draft of The Andromeda Strain—the first book I did for him—in 1968 he said he would publish it if I would agree to completely rewrite it. I gulped and said OK. He gave me his feelings about what had to happen on the phone, in about twenty minutes. He was very quick. Anyway, I rewrote it completely. He called me up and said, Well, this is good, now you only have to rewrite half of it. Again, he told me what needed to happen—for the book to begin in what was then the middle, and fill in the material from the beginning sometime later on. Finally we had the manuscript in some kind of shape. I was just completely exhausted. He said to me, Dear boy, you’ve got this ending backwards. (He’s married to an actress, and he has a very theatrical manner. He calls me “dear boy,” like an English actor might do.) I don’t remember exactly the way it was, but I had it so that one of the characters was supposed to turn on a nuclear device, and there was suspense about whether or not that would happen. Bob said, No, no, the switch has to turn itself on automatically, and the character has to turn it off. He was absolutely right. That was the first time I understood that when there is something wrong in writing, the chances are that there is either too much of it, too little of it, or that it is in some way backwards. https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/1760/robert-gottlieb-the-art-of-editing-no-1-robert-gottlieb

My novel is a fictional piece but I am presenting real science. The first few chapters teach actual science principles that will be used throughout the book, hopefully in a clear, concise format. But, writers HATE to delete their hard-crafted passages. Most of us cannot afford a New York City editor. How are we to know what sections most readers skip and therefore are best deleted to maintain the rapid pace needed in a thriller?

  • If your first concern is what hoi polloi will reject, then find a hoi polloi workshop or writers' circle and ask them. Find beta readers. Negotiate with an editor for a lower price if you need a general reaction and not a blow-by-blow content edit. There are ways around the financial problem. Commented Jan 13, 2017 at 22:01
  • I'm sorry, but what exactly is your question? How does the last sentence relate to anything else in your post? As a scientist myself (PhD & post-doc biomedical physics) I feel like I would be well suited to help you if I understood the problem. Commented Jan 16, 2017 at 14:46

4 Answers 4


I think you can intersperse non-fictional material in a book, but it would be helpful if you could start with something that engages your reader with your characters first. I think your book will be more satisfying to you if you can implement your vision for it -- with perhaps some revision -- rather than just scrapping it in order to appeal to a wider audience.

Examples: Barbara Kingsolver, A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson, and narrative non-fiction.

You might also want to offer an optional short summary of each chapter of scientific explanation for those who are already familiar with your branch of science, or for those who don't mind having a hazy idea of the science involved. (They might come back and read the details a little later!)

And Lauren is right, you will need to try it out on some beta readers.

  • if anyone can suggest a beta group I am open, I had one but our styles couldn't be more different. He went on for pages about the food he was eating and constipation even though it added nothing to the story. His expertise in art is great, but unless it progresses the story, why bother. I prefer action, but first I have to set the stage. Epidemics are not like what most think. However, if you want to see a horror movie based on a real life quarantine of smallpox watch variola vera about the real containment of smallpox outbreak in Belgrade Commented Jan 14, 2017 at 13:07
  • @RichardStanzak For ideas about how to find beta readers, start with writers.stackexchange.com/q/21182/13494 Commented Jan 14, 2017 at 17:20
  • Here is how Michael Crichton dealt with technical issues in his pseudo-Foreword of Andromeda Strain: "This is a rather technical narrative, centering on complex issues of science. Wherever possible, I have explained the scientific questions, problems, and techniques. I have avoided the temptation to simplify both the issues and the answers, and if the reader must occasionally struggle through a passage of technical detail, I apologize." He realized many won't understand some of the complex, technical points but he also knew they were pertinent to the story, so kept them anyway. Commented Jan 15, 2017 at 13:10

You are either presenting real science principles or you are writing a novel. You can't do both. You might as well say that you are presenting a symphony concert but first you are starting off with a monster truck rally. It's not the same audience. Even if there is a crossover between the two audiences, people who like both symphonies and monster trucks, they don't want them in the same venue.

This is what Creighton is saying in the piece you quote. People do not read the Andromeda strain because they are interested in the science, but because they have an instinctive fear of contagion. It isn't the presentation of the science that matters in such a story, it is the manipulation of fear and hope. If you use technical details it is either to evoke fear or to evoke hope. You use whatever details do that best, regardless of whether they are correct science or not. Correct science is usually full of caveats and complexities that leave people feeling confused rather than afraid or hopeful.

The whole anti-vaccination brigade demonstrate this basic psychology. They need a clearly delineated enemy in which to repose the fear that every parent has for their children's health, and they need one that they can clearly and definitively do something about. Doing something, like refusing vaccinations, gives them a sense of being the hero of the story of their children's lives. Real science muddies that clear and simple heroic storyline.

And that is the problem with real science in novel. Real science is hard to reconcile with clear storylines. That is what Creighton had to learn to deal with and that is what you will have to learn to deal with.

Here's how you cut: If it does not create a clear and well defined threat that corresponds to people's native fears for themselves and their families, or solve such a threat in a clear and well defined way, cut it.

You are writing a novel. A novel is a piece of artifice that corresponds to a particular emotional need in the human heart. Politics, history, mythology, science, etc all provide elements you can borrow and bend to lend verisimilitude to a story, to provide McGuffins when you need them, and to create obstacles to the hero's journey. And that is all they do. A novel is not a textbook. Cut anything is is not contributing to the story.

Or write a text book.

  • Did the text book already: amazon.com/Bottom-Line-Laymans-Guide-Medicine/dp/0875864554 I had hoped to teach real principles of quarantine and epidemiology to inform the public 'slate wipers' may be scary but they are only fiction. The real problem with outbreaks is they overwhelm medical resources. There is very little Surge Capacity, this is evident in even 'small' disasters like train wrecks or hurricanes. I had hoped if readers would memorize incantations or gobbledygook names of fictitious things, why not learn real principles like Pulse Quarantine? Commented Jan 13, 2017 at 21:32
  • Because textbooks are for understanding and novels are for hope and fear. Sorry, but that is the nature of the audience. You can make people eat baked beans and you can make people eat ice cream, but you cannot make people eat baked beans on ice cream.
    – user16226
    Commented Jan 13, 2017 at 21:36
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    @RichardStanzak Your comments show your problem: you are not part of the audience you (seem to) want to target and you are unable to accept that they are different from you. The majority of the public (who are your target audience if you want to write a bestseller) are not interested in reality. They are interested in their emotions. If you want to sell to them, you must address their emotions. They are not afraid of climate change, but of being laughed at by their neighbors.
    – user5645
    Commented Jan 13, 2017 at 21:49
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    That is an attempt to write a textbook using novel techniques. Readers still know they're getting a textbook. They are not expecting it to give them the things they expect from a novel. Most of these suck as textbooks. But that is beside the point. No one is expecting them to be a novel.
    – user16226
    Commented Jan 13, 2017 at 22:18
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    There is far more value in Mark's answer than the selected answer in my opinion. Unless you're attempting a personal project for a novelty, then you should definitely heed Mark's advice. Commented Jan 16, 2017 at 14:58

My general heuristic (which I learned from Dean Wesley Smith): Nothing gets to the reader except through a POV character. Especially through a POV character's opinions and attitudes.

If I want to get some detail or idea to the reader, I give a POV character a reason to notice it. Even better: Pay attention to it. Even better: Have an opinion about it or an attitude toward it.

If no character would attend to a given detail, then it probably doesn't affect the story. If it doesn't affect the story, I strongly question whether to put it into the manuscript.

Of course, a detail may affect characters, even if the characters don't know it. And a detail may affect the reader's experience of the story, even if no character ever notices it. See my note about omniscient POV below.

These days, I don't often have to cut things that don't fit my heuristic, because I focus on the POV character while I write.

If I write something the character doesn't notice, or doesn't linger on, or doesn't care about one way or another, I either cut it or give the character a reason to notice it, attend to it, react to it.

If you're writing an omniscient POV, you could think of the omniscient narrator as the POV character, so the reader experiences the story and its world through the narrator's observations, attention, and attitudes.


If you want to write a book that will be turned into a blockbuster movie, your book must be readable by the middle two thirds of the normal distribution of intelligence.

I am sure that as a scientist you understand that if you want to reach the major part of a population, that part will include readers that are unable to follow complicated science. That is simple statistics. Those with an academic education make up about a quarter of the population. The largest market share lies between an IQ of 85 and 115. Those of "average intelligence". That's two standard deviations around the mean, or 68% of the population.

For these people, who, in school, have proven their limited text comprehension, your writing must be extremely simple and incomplicated.

Even "hard SF" usually doesn't go very far with the science. Narrative fiction that presents more than some superficial scientific concepts is extremely rare. I know of only two authors who manage to narrate stories that show interesting characters who are motivated by science that is presented in (some) detail. One is Stanislaw Lem, for example in his novel The Investigation. The other is Kim Stanley Robinson, for example in his Science in the Capital trilogy.

  • here is a sample of my novel based on real science: Murphy fondled the small plastic vial. Scientists had a most curious tradition of naming resurrected gene sequences after fairy tales. Sleeping Beauty came first and then of course next was the Frog Prince. He searched old childhood memories for a fitting name. A gentle tap on the vial sent glistening dewdrops sparkling like fairies in flight. van Winkle. he thought, an appropriate name for such a long sleep. Those names sound silly until you Google them, very real science. Most of YOU is actually remnants of ancient viruses. Commented Jan 13, 2017 at 21:48
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    @RichardStanzak That's a lovely passage, but there's pretty much no science in it. That's storytelling. Commented Jan 13, 2017 at 21:59
  • would it surprise you to find out you are more ancient viral dna than human dna and scientists are in fact resurrecting these ancient viruses and using them to mutate modern dna. My story involves an accident that uses this technique and it results in the mutation of a type of influenza that is very harmful to children. It can cause kidney failure or even death. I just want to do for gene therapy what Upton Sinclair did for meat packing. Commented Jan 13, 2017 at 23:52
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    @RichardStanzak You're missing my point. It's not that you can't write a novel based on hard science; it's done all the time. My point is that if your goal is to write a novel which teaches the public something, it still has to be an entertaining novel first. It doesn't matter how accurate the science is if your novel is boring. Your little passage above is interesting, and it's based on science. Great! Please note that your passage doesn't go into mind-numbing detail about viruses and gene therapy. It provides a story. Commented Jan 14, 2017 at 11:42

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