Do I have to make everything apply to logic, physics, science, etc?

The Harry Potter series has been a major hit, and it is nowhere near to being scientifically possible. But I've noticed that I can't seem to just "let things be" in my writing, as J.K. Rowling has. She knew her readers would accept what was presented to them as they were, because it was fiction. But I keep feeling the need to explain everything in hyper detail, and that means I have to research some crazy things.

It takes so much effort, and half the stuff even I don't understand. How am I supposed to explain the way my world works, without losing myself and my readers? Is there a simpler way to explain complicated things without having to spend hours looking it up?

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    I think you would find Sanderson's First Law useful.
    – Wildcard
    Commented Jun 17, 2018 at 15:40
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    Scientifically accurate - no. Internally Consistent - yes!
    – user18397
    Commented Jun 18, 2018 at 2:29
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    I remember seeing an interview on YouTube between J.K. Rowling and Daniel Radcliffe (actor of the Harry Potter character) where Rowling mentioned about how she made sure "there was always a logic in the magic however strange it became". This relates to Henry Taylor's answer (and possibly others; I haven't read them yet) in that the important part is to be consistent and that the story must make sense in relationship to itself.
    – JoL
    Commented Jun 18, 2018 at 4:19
  • If you truly can't "let things be," maybe you could write magic-less stories? Commented Jun 18, 2018 at 19:30
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    @Anoplexian That is very true. Of course, she can use 50 pound notes for tissue to wipe away the tears from such inconsistencies, can't she?
    – corsiKa
    Commented Jun 18, 2018 at 21:54

10 Answers 10


Generally, @MichaelKjörling and @HenryTaylor are right. Let me, however, look at the issue from a slightly different perspective.

If you explain something, it has to make sense. If you don't explain, it can be accepted as a black box.

Consider, for example, Asimov's Robot series. The robots have a "positronic brain", and obey the Three Laws of Robotics. The Three Laws are logical - there's plenty of stories to be had through playing with them. What on earth is a "positronic brain"? A black box, a catchword. If Asimov had attempted to explain how this brain actually, technologically, works, scientists and engineers would have been all over him, explaining the impossibility of it. But he doesn't explain, so he can get on with the story.

Similarly, Ursula Le Guin in The Left Hand of Darkness doesn't explain in detail why Gethen is cold: no mention of axial tilts, distance from the sun, whatever. Gethen is cold, let's get on with the story, and explore the effects of it being cold along the way.

Now contrast with Larry Niven's Ringworld; Niven went to great lengths to explain how the Ringworld is stable. In come the nitpickers to prove that no, it's not.

If I spot a mistake in something I'm reading, it breaks my immersion, shatters my suspension of disbelief. "Mistake" can be an internal inconsistency, or something that is overtly wrong. But if you don't give me enough information to find that something is wrong, everything's alright. I mean, I don't know exactly how things I use in RL work either, do I? The common USB flash drive, for example, is, to me, a black box: I store data on it, but I have no idea how, physically, the data is written, read, stored. Nor do I care.

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    @MichaelKjörling well yeah. Like I said - I completely agree with your answer. I just stressed a different why. Commented Jun 17, 2018 at 14:22
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    @MichaelKjörling I beg to differ. From reading both answers, Galastel's answer is "here are the pitfalls of worldbuilding" which I find more compelling than saying "worldbuilding is for the author not the reader and you should use Chekhov's gun". Whether a reader enjoys the worldbuilding or not is entirely down to the reader in question, but neither side can deny the pitfalls of worldbuilding. Personally I'm pro worldbuilding and anti Chekhov's gun, but I agree with Galastel's arguments and think they serve as a good guide as to why worldbuilding might be a bad idea in some cases.
    – Pharap
    Commented Jun 17, 2018 at 22:15
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    If I spot a mistake in something I'm reading, it breaks my immersion, shatters my suspension of disbelief. Just to distinguish, because it might help for OP's obstacles: If the incorrect or vague statement is made by a character, one who is not particularly all-knowing (as opposed to the statement being made by the plot/narrator); then it doesn't really break the immersion. If you're trying to avoid a detailed description (to avoid naysayers), you can attribute the oversimplification to a character's flawed understanding as opposed to a mistake made by the writer.
    – Flater
    Commented Jun 18, 2018 at 11:09
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    I read an article by Asimov once in which he made exactly that point about "positronic brains". He wrote an imagined interview where someone asks him to explain how positronic brains work, I forget the details, but the gist of it was, Interviewer: "Why use positrons? Why not ordinary electrons?" Asimov: "I don't know." Interviewer: "What prevents these positrons from reacting with ordinary matter around them and melting your robot into slag?" Asimov: "I haven't the vaguest idea." Etc. Is answer to every question about how positronic brains work is some variation of "I don't know".
    – Jay
    Commented Jun 18, 2018 at 18:25
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    Also, don't forget that all you really need to do is be internally consistent. If your story has Time Travel--for example--pick a style of time travel (past is immutable, forking timelines, whatever) and maintain those rules. You don't need to explain the machine but you do need to maintain a consistent set of rules by which time travel operates. Of course, you don't need to tell the reader what the rules are so long as they aren't broken! Commented Jun 19, 2018 at 1:54

You appear to be a nonfiction or science fiction writer, attempting to create a work of fantasy. In either of the former disciplines, critics will come out of the woodwork to spotlight every inaccuracy. In the later, the call of logic is a little more complex and the criticism more subtle.

In fantasy literature, consistency trumps factual truth. Your magic doesn't need to make sense in relation to our known physical laws, but it must make sense in relationship to itself. If simple spell casting is difficult and leaves a caster debilitated and prematurely old, you cannot later have the same wizard hurling fireballs like candy with no apparent negative effect. Whatever rules which you establish in the early pages of your story need to still hold sway on the last page.

You can make your rules out of nothing but dreams, but once they have been dreamed into being, they cannot be casually destroyed.

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    I agree that consistency is the most important thing here. I can accept a gang of sparkling rainbow unicorns flying around in outer space. But if they later kill the main villain (who is also a sparlky rainbow unicorn) by flushing him out of a spacecraft airlock, that's not good. You can try to shoehorn it in by saying they cut him off from his magic, but it still smells.
    – Arthur
    Commented Jun 18, 2018 at 9:06

I kept coming back to this passage in your question

I keep feeling the need to explain everything in hyper detail

Please, consider just not to.

There's a saying along the lines of that the author's ability to use magic is inversely proportional to the level of detail to which that magic is defined or explained. To a first order approximation, we can just as well say "technology" as we do "magic".

There's also Chekhov's gun.

Basically, the more detailed the explanation, the more you box yourself in. Unless you actually want to do that (say, because you're working within a universe defined by others and used by multiple storytellers where the stories need to be consistent with one another), it's usually better to limit yourself to what's actually needed. Especially do not explain things in the text of your work that don't need to be explained for the reader to understand and enjoy the story!

The worldbuilding is for you, not for your reader. (Except insofar as that a self-consistent story tends to be more enjoyable to read, because it makes the reader go "wait, what?" less often.)

Anything that goes into the text the reader sees should be there to serve a purpose. Most often, that purpose should be to advance the story. Does the reader need to know how the molecular frobulicator works, or do they simply need to know that when it goes boom, which it's going to in short order unless the engineers work their magic properly, it will blow a large hole along the entire length of the hull of the pressure vessel of the space station?

What you write down but which doesn't go into the text that the reader sees doesn't need to be very polished. Imagine all the notebooks kept by famous authors in order to keep the details of their stories straight; I doubt those would have made good bedside reading! I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if, especially before the widespread use of computers for writing, those were full of barely intelligible scribbles, cross-overs, different colors of ink, margin notes, and whatnot.

If you put a detail into a story, readers will expect that detail to serve a purpose, either now or later. That's Chekhov's gun; if there's a gun hanging above the mantlepiece by chapter one, it must go off by chapter four (or thereabouts). This, by the way, goes for every prop introduced into the story, not just firearms.

Use that expectation to your advantage, instead of being limited by it, or worse yet, limiting yourself by it.


I think we need to expand somewhat on @Galastel's answer. Specifically two concepts: Immersion and Suspension of Disbelief. Because that is what it boils down to, in my opinion.

So. Immersion. This is about drawing people in, and keeping them drawn in. This can apply to games, stories, music, what have you. And what it essentially boils down to, is the ability to feel like this world crafted feels real to the audience.

Let's take a weirdly specific example. The Roman Empire in the first century. If viewed wholly from a historical lens, what do we know about it? Damn near everything. From the quality of the roads, to the locations, to trade routes, to the price of a bushel of wheat, to the lives and treatment of women, to the lives and treatment of slaves.

We know a lot about their battle tactics (though there is still oodles of debate on this subject). We know which battles they won, and which they lost. In the end, what this means is that if a historian wants, they can get utterly absorbed into the world that is first century Rome.

So apply this to, say, The Lord of the Rings. There is enough detail to the world, allowing for the reader to be immersed. But there is even more details to the Tolkien buffs to gush about and debate about and discuss for days on end. There's languages to learn and customs to observe and places to go and people to meet

Alright, now onto Suspension of Disbelief. We, the readers (consumers) (generally) know it's a work of fantasy. We agree going in that this can well be a departure from reality as we know it. That's the point, we want to get away from gritty reality.

So we sign on, knowing this is going to be out there on some level. As long as it is internally consistent (and therefore doesn't break our immersion) we're usually fine with it.

We want to believe that Harry is 'the chosen one' (TM). We want to believe that Khaleesi is the mother of dragons (TM). We want to believe that Mario really can dive into pipes and kill Bowser's minions by jumping on their head.

As long as the tale is internally consistent, we are willing to handwave the specifics ('the black box' as was mentioned in @Galastel's answer). And this can be done well. (see Brandon Sanderson's lectures on Hard vs Soft magic systems).

But the second you introduce a power just for the sake of Deus Ex Machina, only to never use that again? Like Timer-turners in Harry Potter (that could have sent someone back in time to kill Tom Riddle in his youth and saved countless lives, and isn't that convenient that all the Time-turners were mysteriously destroyed), or those incredible spells Gandalf uses only once, and then never again, or how about how Aeris died and you couldn't use a Phoenix Down on her in Final Fantasy VII, or how Gwen Stacy broke her spine from physics that were soundly ignored up until that point...

The list goes on, and on, and on. Sometimes little things, if not thought through or poorly executed, can break immersion by not upholding the non-verbal contract of our suspension of disbelief.

  • Did a few typos slip into your penultimate paragraph? Timerturners and "uses on once"?
    – user
    Commented Jun 17, 2018 at 13:57
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    The time-turner issue depends on whether you consider 'Cursed Child' canon or not. Prior to that, time-turners were consistent enough that there were established reasons why nobody could have killed Tom Riddle. Additionally all incidents of time travel in fact ended up causing events that had already been established (like a self-fulfilling prophecy) rather than changing time and causing a paradox. All the other points are seemingly valid though.
    – Pharap
    Commented Jun 17, 2018 at 22:26

You are coming up against the intrinsic difference between Alternative History/Hard Science Fiction and Science Fantasy/Space Opera. In Alternative History and Hard Science Fiction everything has to be right, except maybe for a couple of details that you change to tell the story. When it comes to Science Fantasy and Space Opera there's a lot more latitude to do what you like and explain only what you feel the need to. If we compare an alternate history like S.M. Stirling's Nantucket Series with the likes of Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers as a space opera; we see very clearly that in the first the details are all explained and itemised, very little is brushed over, while in the latter scientific explanation is ignored in favour of telling a compelling character driven story. The real question is what is more important, the characters' story(s) or the scientific accuracy of the setting in which they take place.


Adding to the other great answers, for the perspective characters everything they can use (magic / technology / abilities / objects / friends / pieces of information) need to be established before they can be used to solve problems. For example, Harry Potter doesn't do anything significant that the story didn't show him learning in class, the same way detectives never use clues that the story didn't show them getting.

For non-perspective characters there is some more room for these to be used before they are introduced, For example Dumbledore does lots of things with no prior introduction but little impact on the plot, Voldemort is seemingly using a different set of rules all together.


I understand the various different questions as:

Q: Do I have to explain how the fictional part of my story works? "It takes so much effort."

I share the general opinion that you should not describe things that are not relevant to the story. However I am going to try and find arguments why you should, since most answers are arguing against it.

Immersion and world-building

If your world is fascinating and you have stories to tell that are not directly connected to your main plot, telling them at relevant times can be enjoyable to the reader. These stories can expand the readers knowledge about and fascination for the world, making it easier for them to immerse themselves into the story.

Indirect character building

Telling stories the character might know but not currently think about enhances the readers knowledge of the character, allowing them the understand it better. This works best if your narrator is tied closely to the character you are following. So if your character is a scientist, explaining how... timetravel works will establish that the character knows how this works, and set them apart from others.

Influencing the reader

By telling additional facts you can set the mood the reader percieves when reading your text. This generally does not work with scientific details, the only thing I can think of right now would be an impeding threat that the character doesnt know about, giving the reader an anvantage in knowledge. However in the way you describe these things, you can also convey a mood, although this might be hard and more of an exercise in word choice.

Pacing, or playing with the reader and their patience

By going into detail you can slow down the pacing of your story. You could build up tension by leaving a cliffhanger and moving to another storyline where you slowly describe some details the reader might need to understand a later development. This is a way to build tension, but I am not a big fan of writers doing this.


As others have said, the simple answer is "no".

The only reason to explain something in a story is if the reader will care. If I am reading an action story and the hero and villain engage in a car chase, I don't expect the narrative to stop while the writer relates the history of the internal combustion engine. I don't even expect a discussion on the performance characteristics of the automobiles involved. Maybe you need to tell me that the villain got away because his car is faster. That's about as much as the reader is likely to want to know.

In any story, there must be a myriad of background details that you never mention. What did the hero have for breakfast this morning? What was his great-grandmother's blood type? Etc. Any story that literally told us everything there is to know about all the characters would take several lifetimes to read ... and would be immensely boring.

You are writing fiction. By definition, many things you say are not true. There isn't REALLY anyone named Harry Potter who did the things described in these books, nor a magic university named Hogwarts, etc. Even in stories more grounded in reality, British intelligence doesn't really have "double-oh" agents who have a "license to kill" -- authorizing assassinations in more complex than that. Real lawyers don't get only baffling murder cases with innocent clients. Etc. In any fiction story, you will depict many things that are blatantly false, or at least extremely unlikely. In a romance novel, the unreality may be that a man as rich and handsome and generally desirable as the hero would even notice this plain, poor girl. In a science fiction novel, the unreality may be that the invention you describe violates several dozen known laws of physics.

When that happens, you have two choices: (a) Bluff and hope the reader just accepts it for the sake of the story. Or (b) Give some explanation to make it sound plausible. Either way has its dangers. With (a), you are, of course, relying on the reader just accepting it. With (b), you may be able to introduce some story elements that make it sound more plausible, but then you create the danger that the reader will find your explanation unbelievable. The more detail you give, the more possible holes.

The trick is knowing what details to bring in and what to explain, and what to leave alone.

In general, explain what it is necessary for the reader to understand to make sense of the story.

I'd make one quibble about Michael Kjorling's comments about "Checkov's gun": A gun hanging on the wall could have many possible uses in a story other than someone firing it. The gun may turn out to be a valuable heirloom. You could say that there is a gun hanging on the wall to establish something about the personality of the person who owns this house. If this is a mystery story, it could be a red herring: the reader is supposed to think this gun was fired when really it never was. Etc.

I rather like stories where things are introduced without a complete explanation. If done well, it gives the impression that this is a real universe that existed before page 1 of the story.

On the other hand, I find "origin stories" that try to explain EVERYTHING often get tedious. Like, "and that's where Indiana Jones got his hat", okay, cute. If they had gone on to explain where he got his shoes and his belt and his jacket, that would likely have been very tedious.


One bit of your posting stuck out to me

"... and that means I have to research some crazy things."

What are you researching and where are you going to find the information? Are you for example feeling that you need to research aviation in order to talk about flying cars? Is it important to your story that they work in the same way as the real world?
You can just "black box" how the cars fly if that fits your story (as given in other answers), but if they correlate to real world objects then you can just make that connection without going into detail either.
"First came the Wright Brothers proving heavier than air flight was possible, then came passenger airliners and finally George Wrighter and his "personal flying vehicle". Within 10 years the skies were full and everyone was showing off their latest flying car."
That way your items have a bedrock of something everyone knows, and yet you can still quickly move on with the story.


The question I read from your post is "How do I know when I need to explain the rules of the world and when I can let them be?"

A short answer: if the reader wants an explanation, then provide an explanation.

A theoretical answer: it depends on the reader's expectations.

Reader expectations, firstly, depend on the book the reader decided to read. Looking at the cover of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, you see a boy flying broomstick and a unicorn galloping in the background. That's the book the reader chose to read. They already expect and accept magic. A mystery novel will have different expectations than a romance which will have different expectations from a nonfiction book and so on.

Reader expectations, secondly, depend from page to page, based on what questions are being raised. In Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling gives us the first hint of magic, on page 3: "It was on the corner of the street that he noticed the first sign of something peculiar -- a cat reading a map." We don't wonder why or how is a cat reading a map, but rather who is the cat. And that's the question she forces us to think about over the next 5 pages as she describes this strange cat interacting with Mr. Dursley. On page 8, we learn who it is, and even after the cat transforms into a human, never did J.K. Rowling explain how she did that —- because that wasn't the question on our mind.

If J.K Rowling wanted us to wonder about how will the cat morph into a human, she could have changed how she introduced the cat: It was on the corner of the street that he noticed the first sign of something peculiar -- a cat reading a scroll, titled: a potion to turn into a human. Now, as the reader, we want to explore how will the cat do that, and now we expect explanations on how that will happen.

So, read your writing and ask, does the reader want me to go into hyper-detail? Do they expect it? Are they reading my novel, in part, for the next interesting detail about my world?

And the best part is, whether or not, they are -- you can change the question on their minds. If you don't want to go into these detailed tangents about the physics of your world, then don't make that promise to them early on. If you do want to, then do that; raise an interesting question for them to wonder about, then give them a satisfying answer.

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