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I have written a fiction novel about an adolescent who commits suicide. The story explores the childhood abuse from her father that pushed her to suicide, what she and her mother have done to try to overcome her trauma, and why those attempts failed.

In the story, I explained why psychotherapy repeatedly failed and made her feel worse. Instead of only having flashbacks to her psychotherapy sessions, I also had her and a friend of hers debate a panel of psychologists who came to her school.

Because one of my degrees is in Psychology and because I often debated my professors, including a section on debating psychologists was instrumental towards explaining why psychotherapy failed.

My difficulty, however, lies in the fact that because I studied far beyond what the degree required, and because I have a vast wealth of knowledge about academic psychology, the debate against the psychologists became technical.

I had also studied Philosophy and the thinking skills I learned from it helped shape my arguments against Psychology. Unfortunately, that made the debate in my story even more technical. The protagonist’s friend is an intellectual, and that’s how I provided an explanation for someone on her side in the debate having that sort of knowledge. Unfortunately, as much as I tried to simplify the discussion and add tension, it still ended up very technical in some parts. I’ve seen how philosophers like Sartre and Camus were able to simplify their ideas into fiction; but those were very broad, general ideas.

How do I include specific technical ideas in my fiction when those ideas are helpful to explain the story? Are there any tips on that? Do I have to remove them? Even presented in the middle of an emotionally charged dialogue, exposition – especially technical exposition, weighs down the story flow.

I remember Melville including technical aspects in Moby Dick. However, modern writing culture frowns on that. I hope to be able to keep those aspects so that readers who are uninterested may skim or skip over it to sections that are non-technical.

Your advice is appreciated.

Thanks

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The obvious problem you will run into here, and a big pitfall with including technical details in a general fiction novel, is infodumping.

To quote TV Tropes's entry on the subject as it pertains to video games:

...infodumps are normally in the form of a long, boring lecture from one of the characters babbling on and on, giving you pages and pages of trivial information that may or may not be useful to the player.

Replace "player" with "reader" and you can see the potential problem you will have here.

If you have a part in your novel where you stop the narrative to heavily infodump about the technical details of psychology and psychotherapy, and you don't put an effort into making it engaging for a reader who may not be well-versed or interested in the subject, it will come across as intrusive and boring, and your reader's eyes will glaze over by the second sentence. Unless you are writing specifically for an audience of psychologists, you are going to have to really stretch to keep your reader's interest.

However, there is a way to integrate technical details into your story without boring the reader, and many great examples exist of lawyers, journalists and doctors injecting technical details of their field into their novels while still keeping it interesting.

Some guidelines to follow to make that happen:

  • Only include the technical details that are absolutely necessary to what's happening right now. Leave out the rest. You want to only explain the things that are directly and immediately relevant for the reader to understand in this scene, and nothing else. If I'm writing a novel about a plane crash, for example, and one of the plane crash investigators is looking at how a part of the plane failed, I'm going to only briefly explain how that specific part works, and not bring the narrative to a screeching halt to explain the entire history of plane crashes.

  • Make it interesting and engaging in its own right, and integrate it into the narrative or dialogue. Terry Pratchett often does his worldbuilding expository dumps in humorous, funny monologues from one of the characters, and makes it part of the dialogue and the scene. Brandon Sanderson and J.R.R. Tolkien also do a great job with this - they have very complex fantasy worlds that need a lot of explanation, and so they have their characters converse about their world in natural ways and subtly clue the reader into parts of the world they aren't familiar with yet.

  • Have a "Watson" character who asks questions on behalf of the reader. This is a famous example of how to infodump naturally in the narrative, represented by John Watson constantly asking Sherlock Holmes to explain things to him and walk him through his line of thinking. If you have a protagonist who doesn't know anything about what you want to explain, and you have them ask questions about it in character, it will be much more engaging than dropping a paragraph in without a framing device.

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  • Thank you, Sciborg. I have used something of the "Watson" technique. The protagonist and her friend face a panel of psychologists, each representing a different type of psychology, e.g. a RET therapist, a CBT therapist, a Rogerian therapist, a Gestalt therapist, etc. They debate and the protagonist explains it to the auditorium. I cement it into the story with the narrator explaining how that strengthens their friendship, and I have the protagonist's inner monologue describing how she feels about it. However, I got to over 70 pages, and still had much more to say. – Beebok Sep 27 at 19:45
  • So, trying to make the technical debate engaging and entertaining while keeping it short is a huge challenge. I have a few pages addressing one type of therapy represented by one psychologist on the panel, then a few more pages for another, and so on. The more I add to make it entertaining, the longer it gets. I think I will have to focus on your first point, trying to focus specifically on those types of therapy she encountered. Keeping it short, accurate, and engaging - a steep challenge indeed. Thank you again. – Beebok Sep 27 at 19:51
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A few things to consider:

  1. Why did the psychotherapy fail? What mechanisms caused it to fail? Did the therapists' theoretical orientation cause it to fail (i.e., was the therapist psychoanalytic/psychodynamic or more CBT oriented)? Did the patient fail to uphold their part of the therapeutic relationship (e.g., fail to complete or engage in the therapy (this, as I'm sure you're aware of, is more along the lines of CBT, DBT, and ACT))? What psychopathology did the patient have (e.g., MDD, BDI or BDII, ASPD, BPD, NPD, ARFID, Pica, Schizophrenia, or Schizotypal Personality Disorder) and how did that impact their success, or lack thereof, in therapy? Did the psychologist act unethically (think maybe some of the prominent watershed cases of breaking ethics in psychology)?
  2. Be very careful with how you present the failure as well as the technicalities. Not to say that you can't write this specific narrative, I think it's an interesting concept and one that might be in need of writing about, however, one thing jumps out at me. You seem to build yourself up in your question without giving us evidence as to your vast wealth of knowledge (i.e., you don't give us any reason to believe that you know what you know aside from saying that you do), and in my experience, that signifies that you are biased and not objective in your opinions, and that's fine. However, the world needs a lot less of the opinions of people who can't validate the veracity of their claims aside from saying that they know and puffing out their chest and supposed credentials. If you are as skilled in psychology as you say you are, then, by all means critique it, but do so in a veracious way (hence the questions in the above point). What I am trying to say is this: yes, psychology can fail and it is fine to depict that failure, but do so in a realistic way that is true to life and empirical evidence, not your biases.
  3. Remember, psychology is an empirical discipline. As I am sure you are aware of from your philosophical training, only empirical evidence can corroborate or fail to corroborate a scientific hypothesis, not a logical or purely philosophical one per se (think back to Hume and Locke as well as why Logical Positivism failed). What empirically tested or reality driven possibility does the failure of the therapy in your narrative reflect? Just because you're philosophically opposed to psychology doesn't necessarily mean that psychology is broken; however, your philosophical opposition might expose a theoretical gap in psychology's theories, what might this be?
  4. As far as how to explain technicalities in your narrative, there are a few ways to do so.

-Use the psychologists to explain the psychological technicalities. In real life, this is called psychoeducation--a prominent part of most therapies today. If your psychologists are CBT oriented, have them talk about cognitive distortions, their mechanisms, and effects. If your psychologists are psychodynamic or psychoanalytic, then have them wax philosophic about free association, complexes, and neuroses. (all during their time with their client of course). This would be in the form of dialogue.

-Assuming you are validly and veraciously critiquing psychology, then show, through a comparison between what the clinicians say and how the narrative plays out, what the underlying problem is. If your MC has BPD, then maybe show that the clinician was not prepared and failed to properly engage in DBT or had an ill equipped team. Maybe perhaps the clinician had underlying biases and failed to properly diagnose your MC because of them.

-As far as the philosophical aspect is concerned, your audience is not going to be Hume, Berkley, Descartes, or even Mandik. Don't write for them or like them. Use philosophy to structure the narrative. Use possible worlds as potential different POVs. Most of your audience is not going to want to wallow in third or lower order logic, so instead of logical arguments, structure the plot of your narrative in logical implications and off of philosophical objections--e.g., if character X does this, then that happens as an implication of this. If you are a Mind/Brain Identity Theorist, then use the theory to guide the narrative (e.g., you see Mind/Brain Identity Theory as the case, thus, the psychologist spouting off about cognitive distortions can't be correct in their predictions of behavior, hence the ultimate outcome for the MC). There is no need to have philosophical discussions explicitly in the narrative.

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