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I'm writing a story wherein a teenager X gets suddenly and involuntarily enlisted in an sci-fi army. I need to explain certain technology to the reader, and the army needs to explain certain information to X, like how their FTL communication device works, why they don't have AI combatants and the like.

How can I do it so that the reader does not have to vicariously sit through a lecture, and if that's unavoidable, how can I make it less boring?

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    Why does the reader need this information? Aug 24 '20 at 14:45
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    Consider if it actually might enhance the experience to not explain things too clearly.. It can help the reader to better identify with the protagonist in his emotional situation of being thrown into an unfamiliar environment.
    – Philipp
    Aug 24 '20 at 14:45
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    Specifically, don't explain things that the character would "obviously" know. FTL communication would probably be something everybody knows, and why they don't have AI soldiers is also something he learned in high school. Readers can detect an info-dump!
    – NomadMaker
    Aug 24 '20 at 19:36
  • Also, too much specific information will quickly date your story. There is only Asimov robot story that I cannot finish again (I did read it when I was much younger). The reason is that he explained about the miniature vacuum tubes inside the robot. Note: I have no problem with the "positronic brain" mainly because he didn't try to describe how it works.
    – NomadMaker
    Aug 24 '20 at 19:38
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    @TannerSwett I think a more pertinent question is why the character needs to know how it works. All he needs to know is "speak into here".
    – F1Krazy
    Aug 25 '20 at 14:26
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There are a few things you can do:

  1. Consider if it is absolutely necessary - if not omit it.
  2. Spread the information out, intersperse it amongst the narrative as much as possible.
  3. Use action - instead of a lecture, have your character figure it out for themselves or through discussion with other characters.
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    Interspersing the information can be as easy as not telling certain pieces of info until they become relevant. EG. I remembered the briefing on day 1 that said "INFO X" but it didn't make sense until now.
    – IT Alex
    Aug 24 '20 at 18:43
  • I should point out that OP has an easy in for option 3. Military basic training, even for conscripts, covers in great detail the operation of an actually fairly complex device: an automatic rifle. For obvious reasons, instruction on this subject must be straightforward enough that even the densest recruit can learn to field-strip and clean their weapon. I'm sure the same principle could be extended to any sort of device the writer feels is necessary. Aug 25 '20 at 17:02
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In reality, a new apprentice is not given a big infodump either, because they would be unable to retain most of it.

Since this is an army, they will have regulations on which information to present, in what order, and how to verify it has been understood before letting the new enlist even near anything that is more complicated to operate than a light switch.

If an army ever needs to improvise or rely on any skills they have not previously taught, things have gone sideways quite a bit already and there will be an inquiry as soon as possible.

So, the character will be given information only piecewise, and according to the same plan that their instructor was taught under:

  1. "do not go near device X"
  2. "here are the necessary safety precautions you need to understand so you can go near the device"
  3. "here are the necessary checklists you need to know by heart to bring the device into a safe state if you are ever not 100% sure that device X is operating as intended"
  4. step-by-step instructions of common tasks, with error paths ("if this gauge goes into the red, run that checklist")

Details on how it works come a lot later than that. If the instructor deviates from that "safety first" order, that is already a moment of tension, and will be recognized as such by any character who understands that this is not how things are done.

Since your character is new to this environment, they can still break that mold and simply ask questions, but the answers will be short and try to move the conversation back to the task at hand.

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  • "Details on how it works come a lot later than that." Apparently this isn't always the case - I've heard that US Navy maintenance procedure books have one page with what you're supposed to do, and the facing page explaining why you're supposed to do it that way, so that people won't blindly do things in situations where the reasons for doing them don't apply.
    – nick012000
    Aug 25 '20 at 6:19
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Just to add to Jos and Simon's excellent answers.

Good knowledge of all the rules and systems is essential for you, the author, but it's often NOT necessary for either the character or the reader. The experience of a confusing and unfamiliar world can be very compelling in fiction --if the reader trusts that there are real answers to all the questions, and that the details aren't just being randomly generated.

To avoid that info-dump, only tell the reader what the character absolutely needs to know, and only at the point he needs it. If he's about to be tossed into battle, and it's vital he know his opponents aren't AI, then have someone tell him just before he gets pushed out of a plane, or whatever. The reader will be pulled in by the character's relatable experience of being forced to move forward without full info or understanding.

My favorite example of a book that conveys a tremendous amount of complex, rule-based exposition, without it feeling clumsy or dumpy, is Hardy's Master of the 5 Magics. The main character needs to master five complex and very different magic systems in a short period of time, in the face of intense opposition, in order to win a consequential war. The plot itself demands that the main character master a lot of the backstory, but nothing that isn't absolutely essential to his goals and his progress is shoehorned in.

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    Differentiating between what the author needs to know and what the character needs to know is vital - good point. Master of the 5 Magics is an excellent series I use as an example for many aspects of world building.
    – Jos
    Aug 24 '20 at 21:24
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Show, don't tell:

These are all good answers, so this is really just my take on the same theme.

If you are writing a sci fi story, I'm often surprised how many stock details outsiders don't get. Someone in the field will understand the difference between a light year and a parsec, and has a basic understanding of what a stunner or plasma gun does. So consider your target audience. If you're trying to get a sci fi audience, they know sci fi. cross-genre stuff may be harder.

Integrate anything you do feel the need to explain. DON'T INFODUMP. As long as a fact is covered before the critical point in the story, it's good. Sci fi/fantasy is more tolerant of separate sections explaining minute details than other genres i've seen, so if the technical stuff adds a lot to the story, split it out into a guide at the beginning or end (avoid it unless it really does add quality).

The character is frustrated at getting the comm working, so you can have someone angrily explain it to them while berating them. Or you can have the helpful person on the other end who will be a major character quietly explain to calm the panicked main character. Facets of the device that will affect the story need to be explained somewhere, but anything else can be ignored once the character has the obligatory moviesque training montage - they just know how to flip the knobs.

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