In fantasy and science fiction, there's often either magic or advanced technology. Often, these are integral parts of the story and also would seem trivial for someone in the universe. However, for readers who don't live in that universe, such as you or me, would have no way of understanding it without an explanation.

If a modern story where someone uses a cell phone was sent through time-travel to the 1800s, they likely wouldn't understand it. We just accept that they work, and wouldn't take second thought using one. The writer wouldn't explain someone tapping imaginary buttons on a glowing screen powered by subatomic particles moving at nearly the speed of light. Shoot, the writer might not even explain that he used a cell phone! They might just say, 'Bob calls Alice.' And if they did explain it all out, it would sound ridiculous to someone nowadays who reads it.

This produces a major problem in a first person story. Both explaining it and not explaining it will remove immersion, the former through the fourth wall rule and the latter through simple confusion. In order to stay in character, you need to confuse the reader.

So what's the compromise? What is a good way to get readers to understand something, but without using explanations that don't match the rest of the story and ruin the flow and immersion?


3 Answers 3


Nobody does that. You never explain a device in deep detail, especially if it is something in daily use.

In your example, you may need to differentiate between "A calls B" and "A calls B on a cellphone" because "call" applies to phone calls and just plain hollering at somebody. Your characters will naturally differentiate between the two uses.

If "B" is on the other side of the planet, and everyone knows that, then "call" would be a (cell)phone call and your characters would only mention calling "B" (though one of them might consider the cost of an international call and whether "B" may be up at that time of day or night.)

If "B" is in the same building, then some one might simply call out for "B" to come over - or it might be better to pull out the phone because "B" is two flights up and at the other end of a long building.

Science fiction and fantasy are usually light on details.

If you use real world technology for your science fiction, then you must get it right.

The alternative is to get real things wrong and look like a fool.

For example, the novel Backblast by Lee McKeone has as part of the narrative that a particular region of space was dangerous to travel through because there were especially few particles in space for the rockets to push against. That wasn't a mistaken idea held by a single character, or group of characters. It was used as a fact by all characters - and it is pure BS. "Nothing to push against" was one of the old arguments against rockets in space used by people who knew nothing of physics - and in this novel it shows up as a "fact." It is thoroughly embarrassing in a science fiction novel written long after space travel became a reality. Not that Backblast was any great shakes in other ways. I got it in a box of stuff, and read it one evening for lack of something better to do or read. Your description of how a cellphone works falls into this area - it gets some buzzwords right, but is wrong in so many ways.

Likewise, in fantasy, the more details you provide the more details you have to keep straight.

In The Misenchanted Sword by Lawrence Watt-Evans, you learn just enough about how the enchantment is applied to make the story work - but certainly not a step by step description.

Valder (the main character in the story) learns about the sword (at first) by simple observation. He learns what it does by trying to use it, along the way discovering what it can (and cannot) do.

Later, it is analyzed by experts to determine the full depth of its abilities - and the misenchantment. The experts are assumed to understand how it works in great detail, but they only explain it to Valder and his commanding officers in simple terms - non-experts can't be assumed to understand the arcana of complicated magic. The upshot is that Valder knows what he can expect of the sword (as do the readers) even though he (as a normal soldier) has no idea how it works - about how you know how to use a cellphone despite having no clear idea of how it really works.

The story is the thing, not the details of the technology or the magic.

Even in science fiction, where the technology itself is the driving force behind the story, you keep the details short. The people in the story are merely using the technology - or living with its good (or bad) side effects. The average person in a story has no more idea how a subflexive fasarta works than you have how a cellphone works - but those characters are as well aware of its practical limits and how it affects their lives as you are of the limits of your cellphone and what it does for you.


I think you insult people who read books in the 1800s. They followed science fiction just fine, in fact it was everywhere. Folksy Mark Twain even wrote a story about time travel.

But let's go back to the OG:

Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley (1818).

She does not explain how the creature is made. In the 1831 edition she removed some of the science that had already started to sound dated. In the book she only says that Victor has an epiphany, then studies anatomy (human corpses and living animals), and then creates life from lifeless matter. Victor very specifically calls his nameless creature 'a new species' and imagines how it will praise him as its creator. At the height of his hubris he imagines that someday, but not yet, he might be able to reverse death.

The extremely obvious theme of the novel is that Victor has god-like creative ability, but is an immature human being and a crappy 'father' (tip 'o the hat to every man she was hanging out with that summer in Geneva). Victor literally runs away from his responsibility, too horrified to nurture his creation.

Shelley at age 19, writes a book that is a lot of things at once – it is compassionate to the creature (who is a super-genius that debates philosophy with it's creator), she is on-the-nose critical of the men in her circle (Lord Byron impregnated her sister and refused to legitimize the child), and she shakes an angry teenage fist at god, asking: "What if God is just another immature fornicating cad who abandoned his offspring...?" There is also implied class criticism that Victor is a brilliant but amoral aristocrat, meanwhile the creature learns about family and love (and how to speak French) by spying on low-class peasants.

Hence, the subtitle about 'Modern Prometheus' – except in Shelley's novel Victor isn't punished by Zeus, it's the Creature that wants Victor to suffer. After denying it a mate, the creature kills Victor's fiance and chases him to the ends of the Earth (the North Pole). The creature is stronger, just as intelligent, and far more ruthless. Victor's only option is to head to a remote place and hope it dies there with him.

Most people won't read the book

By the time Mary Shelley returned to England, her angry-teenager-shakes-fist-at-god novel had been dramatized into (multiple) sensational plays where her creature becomes increasingly unrecognizable, no doubt playing up to the tastes of the audience who paid for a monster on a rampage.

Simultaneously, 'body snatching' was fueling media hysteria. Cadavers were needed to educate doctors creating a lucrative black market in fresh corpses. London papers routinely described barrels filled with cut-up bodies tumbling out of wagons. People started buying iron cages to protect graves. The trial of Burke and Hare changed modern horror from ghosts in castles to psychopath murderers who live next door.

In a very short time, the (unauthorized) plays morphed Victor Frankenstein into Burke and Hare. He's no longer a brilliant cad, he's a grave robber. The creature no longer debates philosophy, he is a imbecile bag of stitched up corpses that says "Grrr, Fire!". This is clearly not the same story, and runs contrary to the original theme. In the original story god is absent, personified by Victor being a negligent creator of a sympathetic angry new life. In the new story God's most sacred creation (man) is re-animated into a shambling monster – Victor isn't a god/creator, he is a pretender who just re-assembles God's creation, badly.... That whole subtitle doesn't even make sense now.

Shelley's original text supports both versions, sort of.

Ok, here's the weird part. Shelley's original text is worded vaguely enough to support the new version of the story – if you ignore the novel's subtitle and theme and every description of the creature.

The actual chapter where Victor makes the creature is about Victor's mental state, his mania of creation and eagerness to be praised for it. Her prose is densely purple, dropping mentions of human bones and visits to crypts to study anatomy – the sentences are mixed up like a feverdream, probably going for a dichotomy effect of macabre imagery interspersed with Victor's hubris, A.K.A. foreshadowing. Shelley paints skulls all over Victor's "I am gonna be so great" speech.

But when you read it, if you don't read too closely (which isn't hard to misread with the purple prose), and you already have this image of stitched-up corpses after a couple of centuries of the creature being presented that way, it's possible to interpret the text as exactly that. Shelley's 'bones and graves' symbology can be literally interpreted as: "Went to grave and got some body parts..., yadda yadda..., made a monster." It's not wrong..., but that's not what the creature is in the context of the rest of the novel.

The original creature is something from science fiction, he is an abstract: new life from nothing. Victor does become a god, just a very poor one, and is unprepared for the consequences of his own science-gone-amok – a classic sci-fi moral.

The new creature is a horror tour-de-force. What is scarier than human corpses coming to life, except a bunch of human corpses sewn together that come back to life with a murderer's brain – that is not science, it's the slam-dunk touchdown of all monsters. You could just keep going with strangler's hands, and peeping tom's eyeballs, lawyer's tongue, etc. Everything bad in one patchwork monster.

The new version is not a bad story – arguably more commercial in that more people know it, and it's the version that has survived in pop culture for 200 years. It's not the intended story, the novel that Mary Shelley wrote. It's 'dumbed down' and more sensational, like every Star Trek movie. There's a letter Shelley wrote after seeing one of the plays where she seems amused at how her character has drifted but also become a crowd-pleaser (she's not specific, and I haven't been able to find scripts of these early unauthorized productions, they seem to have been written by the companies that performed them).

To explain or not to explain?

Mary Shelley decided to not explain the science, which did not pretend to be speculative. She had seen demonstrations of 'spontaneous life' and electrical muscle stimulation, but she removed most of the science in her later edition. This was a choice.

Instead she wrote a hell of a story that swaps the Awesome Guy™ protagonist into unwilling villain, and the monster into all of us who are angry at the failures of society... and religion... and our parents.... It will forever be an outsider, teen-shakes-fist-at-god, get revenge on the Man, macabre-punk novel. That's timeless.

But..., the story that everyone knows is not what she wrote – and I don't think it's because she left out the specifics that everyone gets it wrong – the media portrayals just erase the author. It doesn't matter if she wrote the creature was made from clocks and pudding, if the movie shows stitched-up corpses that's what people know.

The problem is that her theme has changed. A defiantly atheist/socialist take that god does not deserve our praise/Everyone has rights at birth, becomes only God can create true life (that isn't a shambling abomination made from leftover scraps that says "Grrr" and fears fire... which also works against the Prometheus subtitle). These thematic differences are not at all compatible, they change the entire meaning of the story.

If she had been more specific about the 'science', I think the story would not have become something else entirely in the popular culture (my speculation, obviously I can't prove it). It is interesting to read Chapter 3 out-of-context and see how too much macabre symbolism and not enough science explanation is easily mis-interpretted as to what is even going on in the scene. I'm convinced the 'new' monster was also created by Shelley, but unintentionally (like Victor). If that's the only chapter you read, it's easy to get the impression the monster was directly assembled from human corpses. Later chapters do not describe a creature made from dead bodies, it is something new and unnatural, beautiful and revolting.


Write what you want and get the emotions right. Any science you are too specific about will be out-dated in a decade. When the movie comes out, Hollywood will destroy your intent anyway.


Hence the "Stranger in a strange land" trope, of most fantasy.

Meaning, somebody unfamiliar with the magic enters a magical world, and needs explanations. We see this with Harry Potter, he knows nothing about magic and how it works, so other characters explaining magic to Harry makes a lot of sense, without ruining the immersion. They don't explain in detail, but enough to suffice. The wand focuses your magical intent (but I'm not explaining how it focuses it or what your magical intent actually is; from the sentence we assume magical intent is some sort of actual force).

If you don't want to deal with a novice, you can just not do it at all. I suggest you devise a magical system, so you have some hard rules on what is possible and what is not.

But let readers figure that out by inference, if they care at all.

Allen looked across the chasm, hopeless. "I can't fly that far, even on my own, much less carrying you. I don't have that kind of power."

Bill, looking at the same chasm, said "Okay. Do you know the rope casting spell?"

Allen said, "Duh. Can you conjure a rope?"

Bill shook his head. "Not in one shot, but by tomorrow, maybe. Four or five pieces."

Allen pondered. "Huh. Alright. What do you need?"

"Weeds, sticks, grass. Whatever grows straight."

Okay: I've invented a problem, and told you that magic takes personal energy, not everybody can cast every spell. Allen can fly a limited distance, and Bill cannot (Allen would have to carry him), and his range is limited by his load. Bill is going to do some sympathetic transformational magic, turning "lengthy things" into rope, but is also limited by energy, he would have to rest and recharge between conjuring rope segments.

In one scene, you (the reader) can infer some of these rules of magic.

As the author, it is your job to creatively invent the scenes and obstacles that force characters to reveal the powers and limitations of your magic system.

EDIT to answer OP question: How long can I go in the metaphorical "wizard world" before bringing in "Harry"? Would it be possible to start there, and wait a good amount of time before "Harry" comes into the story?

No, you can't spend long there. In fact, most agents would reject you in the first 5 pages. That is in fact what happened to JK Rowling; she submitted to over 20 publishers, and they all rejected her, because her book starts with Chapter 1 being a covert prologue for 21 pages (in my paperback version) so 5.5% of the story. The story is 77,000 words long, with 384 pages, so an average of 200 words per page, so her prologue is about 4200 words.

Most agents and publishers want to see your hero introduced in the first few pages, and interacting with another character in the first 5 pages. Seriously.

Rowling got published by sheer luck, by a publisher that had already rejected her. But the publisher had his young daughter in the office one day, and his daughter picked up Rowlings manuscript from the reject pile based on Rowlings title, and read the book. And then told her father that he had to publish it.

So after talking to his daughter, he gave Rowling a second chance; Rowling was willing to address some of his concerns, and the rest is history.

Unless you think lightning might strike and you'll luck out, Follow the formula.

In the first 1/4 of the story, you need to introduce your hero (Harry), show their "Normal World", and create an incident that takes them out of their Normal World.

In my paperback version of her first novel, there are 384 pp. 1/4 is 96 pages. On pg 57 (15%) Harry meets Hagrid that will take Harry away from his normal world.

On pg 110 (29%) Harry is ready to leave for Hogwarts.

The first 21 pp (5.5%) are JKR's "backstory", with Harry an infant, mentioned but not met, but many instances of magic are shown (not explained). You don't have much room at all before you focus on the hero.

If JKR's backstory was eliminated (21 pp), then the book would be 363 pp, and Harry's introduction to his normal world is only (57-21=) 36 pp, about 10%. Close enough to 12.5%.

And the end of Act I would be (110-21=) 89 pp, about 24.5%. Almost exactly where it should be, 25% of the way through the story. I don't know, but I imagine this is what the publisher was asking JKR, and she complied to get published.

So my advice (for a beginning writer that wants a chance to get published) stands; no prologue. Introduce your hero, as a stranger in a strange land if necessary: Hagrid matter-of-factly answers a ton of Harry's questions about the world of magic and Hogwarts, and of course as a raw novice we, through Harry's POV, learn tons more of stuff about Hogwart's once we get there, often by students much more knowledgeable than Harry because they were raised with magic. In fact that is how JKR builds his "crew"; Harry is famous for reasons he doesn't understand.

You'll be able to get your history and backstory in, but if you try to do that before you introduce your hero and start the story you'll most likely never get published.

  • 1
    In fact, in Harry Potter, most classes depicted are the "lab" portion of the class, not the theory. You never see Snape lecture about what is going on with the potions ingredients that makes them work... but you always see the kids brewing potions every time (compare with chemistry where you might have a lecture about the concept of a mol, but then have a lab where you mix up stuff in test tubes). The only time this comes up is during Magical History... which like all history, is almost always lectures.
    – hszmv
    Commented Sep 15, 2022 at 15:31
  • How long can I go in the metaphorical "wizard world" before bringing in "Harry"? Would it be possible to start there, and wait a good amount of time before "Harry" comes into the story?
    – Murphy L.
    Commented Sep 16, 2022 at 17:49
  • @MurphyL. No, you can't start there, and spend any time there. A full explanation was too long for a comment, so I added it to the bottom of my answer.
    – Amadeus
    Commented Sep 17, 2022 at 11:59

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