This is a problem I usually come across with my stories. I often worry about whether the plotlines I introduce are realistic or not, and it's usually something that can't be solved with a simple Google search.


One of the characters in my story, a young boy, is locked up in a cell and is on the verge of starvation before he's rescued. However, the rescuers are unable to get him to a hospital, but they are able to supply him with food. Unfortunately, the boy is at a point where he would need intense medical attention to recover. Giving him food only delays his death, hopefully until they can find help before he dies.

How can I know how long the boy could survive under such circumstances? How can I find out what would be realistic in such a situation?

This is a pretty simple example, but I've got a lot more, where I just can't simply look up the answer. I could just make something up, even if it doesn't make sense later, but I'd like for it to be in the realm of possibility.

5 Answers 5



The information you seek is in the Wikipedia article on starvation. There it is explained how starvation leads to death (because important organs are "digested"), how long it takes (though the exact number of days will differ from individual to individual), and you can infer that after a certain point (when organs are damaged irredeemably) eating won't "heal" the person again.


You will find most of this kind of information on the web. Usually Wikipedia is sufficient, though you may have to combine the information in several articles to get what you need. Wikipedia, as @TripeHound has mentioned in a comment below, will also give you the technical terms and alternative keywords for your search.

If resources like Wikipedia and other encyclopedias cannot help you, there are many Q&A sites that either allow questions regarding certain topics (e.g. Stack Exchange) or all questions (e.g. Quora). Just ask there.

You can also use Google Scholar to do your own research. Some scientific journals are open access, many books can be read (at least in the relevant parts) on Google Books (or their Amazon previews), and often the abstract will suffice. If you need to read something behind a paywall, you can go to a university library, register as a guest, and access most journals from there.

If you still cannot find an answer, simply use common sense. Most readers won't know either and will not notice any mistakes.

  • 1
    "Usually Wikipedia is sufficient" Agreed. But for those situations where you do need to be more certain, in most cases Wikipedia should at least give you better search terms to help you find independent corroboration.
    – TripeHound
    May 1, 2018 at 9:15
  • Great point, @TripeHound. I have added your suggestion to my answer. Please don't delete your comment.
    – user29032
    May 1, 2018 at 9:22

I agree with Cloudchaser on this, but I think your questions stems from the broader problem: how do I know I'm doing something wrong, or that my plot is leaving loopholes.

Well, there is no easy answer. If there was, there would be no plotholes in any story ever published (or written, for that matter). So, all you can do is do what we all try to:

Consider everything you put into your story. Take every plausible precaution, and talk things out with co-plotters (b.k.a. beta readers). Try to take everything into account that you possibly can. And pray that those who see what you overlooked are kind (because frankly, there's always going to be someone out there that thinks of something you didn't)

Do your research (just as with your specific instance with starvation). More you cannot do.


Little Details is a livejournal fact-checking community for writers. They are not currently as active as I'd like, but you can find there huge amounts of tiny details for writers, sorted by topic. I have found them to be very useful. When they are active, they are happy to answer exactly the sort of questions you're asking about.

Some Stack Exchanges (SEs) do not like hypothetical questions, but others are very happy to give you the information you're looking for. Worldbuilding in particular deals with all kinds of theoretical situations, (though your specific question isn't really world-building related, so this one wouldn't fit there,) but here, for example, is me asking on Mi Yodeya about building synagogues on other planets. It's just a question of finding the right SE for your question.

TV Tropes can be a useful resource. Look, in particular, at analysis pages of tropes, and at Real Life examples. However, be warned - TV Tropes sucks you in, and then you emerge several hours later, reading something interesting but totally unrelated, while whatever you've left in the oven has long turned into charcoal.

There is, of course, the Right Honourable Lord Google, and his daughter, Lady Wikipedia.

And if you feel comfortable introducing yourself as a writer (even if in fact you are an aspiring writer), you can go and ask experts in the field. (Students count as experts, and they're less intimidating.) I've seen an epidemiologist squee in delight when I've asked her to help me find ugly diseases with potentially lethal sequelae.

  • 1
    "It's just a question of finding the right SE for your question." ...and formulating your question to fit the SE you're posting it to. As another example, Server Fault has a blanket prohibition on home-user-related questions. Of course, that hasn't really stopped me from posting questions relating to my home system, when they involve things you'd typically find in a corporate IT environment; it just takes minding the way you phrase the question so that it remains applicable and within the site's scope. In the case of Server Fault, that includes avoiding the use of the words "at home" at all costs.
    – user
    Apr 30, 2018 at 16:11
  • 1
    @MichaelKjörling: I love (seriously, this is not sarcastic) that a moderator is recommending gaming the rules on other SE sites. So refreshing given that I usually see moderators and normal users pedantically enforcing RAW (and often even their own more-restrictive imaginary versions thereof) to drive people away for no good reason. Apr 30, 2018 at 18:57
  • 1
    @R.. If a question can be either off topic or on topic on a site with a slight change to what's included or not, or to how the question is phrased, and the site on which this applies is the one where you're most likely to get good answers, and none of this qualitatively changes the question you're asking, then I don't have any problem with people tailoring their question to the point that it's on topic where you're most likely to get good answers. In my opinion, it's fine to do so as long as it's a legitimate question and you're neither making stuff up nor leaving out relevant details.
    – user
    Apr 30, 2018 at 20:31
  • @MichaelKjörling: Indeed. I just wish people reviewing questions to close them would stop to think "could this same question be asked in a context relevant to this SE site, and if so, could we make minor edits so that it's clearly on-topic?" rather than looking for whatever excuse to close. May 1, 2018 at 2:27
  • @R.. In the particular case of Server Fault, it's worth noting that there are technical and practical reasons for treating "home user" questions differently, and just editing to remove such mentions may be doing the OP a disservice. Other sites have similar issues in their respective scopes. But broadly speaking, I agree; if one has the time (not everyone does all the time), it's much nicer to the OP to change their question slightly to make it on topic while preserving intent, than to simply hammer it shut. A middle ground when that option exists is to migrate to where it is on topic as-is.
    – user
    May 1, 2018 at 8:28

Ditto to Cloudchaser. But let me add a few thoughts.

Do what research you reasonably can. There's no excuse for being lazy. Especially in this Internet age. If I was writing a story set in France and I couldn't remember what the capital of France was, I'd look it up.

If it's hard to find answers because the subject is complex and/or no one really knows, then your readers probably don't know either. While there are some people who delight in pouncing on errors in tiny details, most people don't care. Like, I'm a computer guy. If I read a story in which a character said that COBOL was the first computer language invented, well that's wrong, but unless that statement was central to the whole story I'd surely brush it off and move on.

When in doubt, be vague if possible. If you just can't find out what George Washington's wife's name was, avoid bringing it up, just call her "George Washington's wife" or "Mrs Washington". If you aren't sure whether something would take 5 days or 10 days but common sense says it must be in that ball park, don't say "5 days", just say "many days". Etc.

Readers will routinely accept that you play loose with the truth for the sake of a story. Let them wonder whether you got facts wrong because you really don't know or because you deliberately tinkered with the facts to make your story work. :-) These days I don't think twice about a story where the star ship travels faster than light or where the aliens look exactly like humans but are able to fly and have x-ray vision. Or where Perry Mason only gets big murder cases with innocent clients.

  • 1
    Well, in the Perry Mason case, I'd just assume that he gets a ton of other cases, too, but those are not interesting enough to write a book about.
    – celtschk
    Apr 30, 2018 at 18:50
  • Actually, aliens always looking like humans with at most very slight, superficial changes always irks me. And the concept of humans always being the ones holding the moral high ground.
    – user
    Apr 30, 2018 at 20:45
  • @MichaelKjörling Suppose someone who had never seen any creatures other than humans was shown pictures of a human being, an ostrich, an octopus, and a Star Trek Vulcan, and asked which one came from a different planet. How many think he would instantly and obviously pick (d)? Yeah, that gets me too.
    – Jay
    May 1, 2018 at 2:54
  • @Jay So you're claiming ostriches, and octopi are alien invaders! What about okapi and orangutans? Maybe all creatures beginning with "O" are alien invaders!?!
    – TripeHound
    May 1, 2018 at 9:22
  • @TripeHound And platypuses.
    – Jay
    May 1, 2018 at 19:20

If the Internet doesn't suffice (and when really trying to craft characters, it may very well not), there are other types of research. A significant type of research is interviews.

Finding someone to interview related to a topic and scheduling and interview with them can be very difficult, but the understand, granularity of detail, and story and character ideas that you can get from a face-to-face interview are invaluable. For technical information, you may find that looking to university faculty is easier than industry professionals. Professionals are really "in it", so their perspective and attitude is what you'd really like to experience, but many professionals do not have the time and/or inclination to talk about their work. All professors do is talk about their field, so if you can't find a pro, a prof might be the next best thing.

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