The one Rule of Writing you should never break (IMO)

posted in: On writing | 42

Those who know me would realise that I raise an eyebrow at the mere mention of the Rules of Writing. You know the ones; thou shalt not use passive voice, thou shalt avoid ‘that’, ‘as’, ‘just’ and ‘there was’, thou shalt not use adjectives and yay, verily, thou shalt not use adverbs. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again. They are sensible guidelines to consider, NOT “rules” Somebody was supposed to have said, “There are three rules to writing. Unfortunately nobody knows what they are.”

BUT… the title says it all, doesn’t it? There is one rule you break at your peril, and that is

Do Your Research

I was involved in an interesting discussion with writers of science fiction, based on a blog post about whether the ‘science’ was important in science fiction. Specifically, the author discussed a scenario in a novel where a spaceship in deep space begins to slow down when the engines fail. There was some to-ing and fro-ing over how important it was that this would not happen. Without any drag in the almost complete vacuum of space, inertia would keep the ship travelling at a constant speed unless something else intervened. It transpired that the writer of the novel had based her ‘research’ on a few science fiction movies. This is not a great move when you consider films like Star Wars, where basic physics is either misunderstood (this ship did the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs) or ignored. Think fighters zooming around in space as they would in atmosphere, and making a quick trip to Bespin without a hyperdrive, just to mention a couple.

People who read science fiction tend to be interested in science. Authors should at least do their readers the courtesy of trying to get it right. I grew up on Asimov and Clarke, who made sure their science was plausible, and basic facts of physics were either adhered to, or if not then explained. Jack McDevitt does the same. Somebody is going to say, but what about faster than light travel (FTL)? That’s impossible. Sure. But that’s a recognised trope in SF, commonly used in space opera to move the story forward. And as I explained here, planet hopping might not be as silly as it sounds.

A similar thing can be said of historical fiction, which I have also written. Before I wrote about a lad beheaded with a sword – just for fun – I found out how this could be done and what would happen. If you’re interested, here’s the answer – murder by decapitation. When I needed to write a scene where muskets were used, I researched muskets. Here’s the post about that. Writers of crime novels face the same situation. You’re going to kill somebody. Is the mode of death feasible? How long does it take? What evidence is left behind etc etc.

I suppose not everybody will agree with me. After all, the story is the thing, is it not? And since I’m a Star Wars fan, I can hardly disagree. But I still think Lucas et al could have done their homework and come up with something more accurate and still just as exciting. Even a few nose thrusters in the fighters would have helped. And maybe the hyperdrive could have been damaged, in need of repair, but still barely operational. Sure, there’s a little more room in speculative fiction for invention. After all, it is ‘fiction’. But I think there’s a limit. Even when I wrote Black Tiger, which is about a were-tiger, I took care to find out about real tigers, the legend of were-tigers in India, and the role of tigers in Hindu theology.

So what do you think? Am I being self-righteous? Do you expect to find real science in science fiction? Real history in historical novels? Or doesn’t it matter to you?

42 Responses

  1. Ericka Michael

    * Also, Apollo 13, the best movie about space flight ever, would have made the top 10, but it’s not science fiction because it’s not fiction at all, it’s a true story.

  2. Allan Douglas (@AllanDouglasDgn)

    I agree wholeheartedly. Unless you’re writing pure fantasy – in which case you are making up the rules of your world as you go along – researching your subject will make the novel all the more enjoyable for the reader. I cut my teeth on the same authors you did and was drawn to them for the same reasons. That said I also enjoyed Star Wars for the adventure factor and did not begrudge (much) them shouldering aside the currently irrefutable laws of physics for the sake of visual thrills. However, a ship that coasts to a stop in empty space for no other reason than the engine broke? Nuh-uh, can’t swallow that.

    • Greta van der Rol

      Oh, I was the same with Star Wars. Just roll your eyes and enjoy the story (which is in many respects fantasy, anyway). I’ve not read the book with the slowing down spaceship. I , also, would expect an external force to be in play for that to happen.

  3. JD Revene

    I agree the research has to be spot on, no matter what the genre. But then the important thing is that the research doesn’t ‘show’: you need to get it right; you don’t need to show your readers how clever you are.

  4. Diane Nelson

    It’s a huge deal for me. I stumbled across a paranormal (romance) where the author engaged viticulture, the weather, horses, magical elements and a host of other plot devices/plot points. Fine, except she hadn’t a clue about any of it. And there’s no excuse, not with the internet and even (gasp) your good, old-fashioned library to help you get the facts, ma’am.

    • Greta van der Rol

      That would be a ‘throw book at wall’ deal, I’m afraid. I once read the opening chapters of a book about the Batavia which had the two men who were marooned throw out of a boat onto a beach with palm trees. Uh – no. They were made to row themselves ashore and there ain’t no palm trees in that part of the world. DNF.

  5. Kay Kauffman

    I think research is essential when writing. Readers are notoriously picky; screw up once and you’re likely to be roasted over an open fire. In school, I was the kid who hated being wrong, and it’s carried over into my adult life – if I write something that’s blatantly wrong and get called out on it, I feel like an idiot. So for me, research is essential.

      • Kay Kauffman

        Thanks! 🙂 I write fantasy, but even there, where you really can just make everything up, it still has to be believable, which means doing your research. Like Mark Twain said, “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities. Truth isn’t.”

  6. Richard Leonard

    “… less than 3 parsecs” Yeah, a unit of distance. Right. That’s nearly as bad as hearing light-years used as a unit of time.
    Totally agree. Science needs to be reasonably accurate or explained/justified. Having said that, I’m probably the first to be slack and lazy and not doing the proper research!

  7. Laurel C Kriegler

    I found this out inadvertently while writing my first novel (which is still very much in draft form). I just could not write science fantasy. I needed a solid grounding for the tech I used; to do anything else just didn’t sit well with my psyche. Thank goodness, I guess!

  8. pcawdron

    Great post, Greta. Yes, science fiction should adhere to science, even if there are speculative extensions.


  9. sueannbowlingauthor

    Well, I haven’t exactly researched the physics in my science fiction, but I was a physics professor until I retired and started writing science fiction. So I put in some things (telepathy, teleportation, FTL travel) that definitely would NOT be in the physics I used to teach, but aren’t solidly proven impossible either. And my paranormal abilities ARE subject to the known laws of physics such as conservation of momentum and energy!

    • Greta van der Rol

      And that’s fair enough. It’s science FICTION after all. As long as you don’t wave a magic wand I’ll go along for the ride. But I do think it’s important to follow basic such as conservation of momentum and energy.

  10. Eugenia Parrish

    Oh, definitely a peeve of mine. I recently read an “historical” romance supposedly set in 1876, concerning a young woman who wears jeans and walks into the bar and sits down on a bar stool. Not only were bar stools not used until the early 1900’s but apparently none of the hardened cowboys thought anything about this girl joining them in a saloon where the only women would be the upstairs girls, and wearing pants. When I stopped laughing I threw the book away, which is a shame since if the author had simply set the story in modern day American west, it wouldn’t have been a half-bad book.

    I give more leeway to Speculative and of course a lot to Fantasy, but only if the author makes rules for their world and sticks to them. Otherwise I consider them too sloppy to spend my time on. As for Science Fiction — hello, the first word is SCIENCE. Let’s take care not to have our intelligent readers rolling their eyes, much less rolling on the floor!

  11. jccassels

    I’ve always maintained that if you’re going to break the laws of physics, at least have the technobabble handy to explain how and why. You don’t have to go into detail. Odds are your characters already have an understanding of what the issue is and the possible solutions. This is why my favorite piece of Star Trek fictional gear is the “Heisenberg Compensator.” I think that is probably the most brilliant piece of technobabble in the Trek realm.

    You know the discussion boards lit up with fans endlessly debating the impossibility of teleportation when some clever writer for the show saw it and thought “Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle? Hmmm. We need to install the Heisenberg Compensator into the transport system and have it break down or need to be checked. THAT ought to shut them up!”

    There is no excuse for a lack of research. Getting the facts wrong shows a basic lack of respect for one’s readers and the genre.

    • Misa Buckley

      There is no excuse for a lack of research – I’m with you on that. Respect yourself, your writing and your readers and do your research!

  12. Bill

    I once read a mystery short where the killer obviously triggered the Halon fire suppression system in the sealed library to kill the victim. The puzzle was how? The solution turned out to be that the killer used a magnifying glass to focus the sunlight on the heat sensor about 40 feet from the nearest window. They also used it to reheat a cup of tea. The problem is that lenses have a set focal length. For a 40 foot length, the “lens” would need to the primary objective on a telescope that was at least a foot in diameter, probably more like 16 inches. No one has these just lying around.

    Yes, for the love of fiction, research that stuff. Write what you know, and if you don’t know it, learn about it. I always assume that there will be at least one reader with more knowledge than I have on every part of a story. My goal isn’t so much to be an expert, but to write it in such a way that an expert won’t call me on it.

    For this reason, I’m also a proponent of not over-reaching. I know little about cars, so I describe them by make and color. There’s no need to go into the specifics of how many barrels on the carburetor, or what size the jets are just to identify the thing. if that actually mattered, I’d go to a hot rod forum and ask specific questions.

    This actually led to a jewelry store manager following me out to my car to take down my license plate once, so use caution if doing this in person.

    Shameless (but relevant) plug. My blog is mostly about getting the basics right when it comes to firearms. It’s a primer (sorry) aimed (so to speak) at writers who may have never handled so much as a toy gun before. I started it to have something for the NaNoWriMo forums, rather than typing the same things over and over.

    • Greta van der Rol

      Dear oh dear. I can’t believe anybody would think a magnifying glass would work at that distance. Have they never used one to start a fire? Or maybe there’s not enough sun in Scotland. I shall shoot on over to your blog to find out more about firearms.

  13. Paul Trembling

    I fully agree with you in this, Greta – both on ‘rules’ in general and on the importance of research. I’ve read some good books that were spoilt by including something impossible – and not just in SF, either! One fantasy novel, for example, included the heroine steering a drifting boat through rapids. As an ex-seaman, that really annoyed me! And some crime writing is really sloppy on what evidence crime scene examination can or cannot provide!

    Mind you, I may have pushed the boundaries of credibility in my dragon stories, when I introduced flying dragons. In truth, it probably be impossible to a very large reptilian creature airborne, without some sort of supernatural or technological assistance, which I didn’t have available in that particular universe. However, I tried to give it at least a semblance of plausibility by describing a huge wingspan, a skinny body and the possibility of hollow bones. So far, no one’s challenged me on it!

  14. Veronica Sicoe

    Great points, Greta. Hot topic for sci-fi writers. 🙂

    I believe it’s important that we respect known laws of physics in science-fiction, but treat theories with flexibility. I’ve blogged about that a while back, and what I basically mean is that most laws of physics we know have been proven to be true (such as the laws of motion, thermodynamics, etc.) and can’t be broken in fiction without a plausible explanation, whereas theories of physics are still only speculative constructs (such as black holes, dark matter, etc.) and can be toyed with in fiction at the author’s leisure. Of course, story physics needs to be consistent before anything else, but whether it’s scientifically accurate, is less relevant in my opinion. At least for all other sci-fi subgenres except hard sci-fi.

    As to the question of the ship slowing down in space — I believe that falls in between. If space is truly a void, then it wouldn’t slow down. But we don’t really know that interstellar space is truly void, since we’ve never been out there. Much of the radiation we measure can just as well be caused by the interstellar medium being permeated by dark matter, neutral plasma, energy fields, etc. We simply don’t know, all we have are speculations extrapolated from measurements taken within the safe bubble of our solar system. However, the ship slowing down will need explanation within the story’s laws of physics — and since I haven’t read the book, I have no clue whether its slowing down makes sense in the story or not. Does it?

    • Greta van der Rol

      I agree with your overall remarks. However, while WE haven’t been out there, many, many ships have. eg Voyagers one and two. We have a lot of information about their behaviour and I’ve not seen any mention of either of them slowing down.

      I haven’t read the cited book so I don’t know if an explanation is given. Going on the remarks from the website I referred to, I’d assume not.

  15. juliabarrett

    Self-righteous? No! Correct, especially when it comes to science fiction. I will suspend disbelief about many things – say tiger shifters – but the tiger shifter must make sense in the world created. If a fantasy or science fiction writer creates a world, that world must have rules no matter how far-fetched and the writer must follow her own rules. Even if the rule is that there are no rules.

  16. storiesbywilliams

    Oh hell yes! I once thought science fiction was exempt from this rule, that the only strictures were those of the imagination. I have since learned that it’s almost entirely the opposite. Good article!

  17. Pete

    Hiya Grets.

    Great post.

    No matter what the genre, the trick to achieve is suspension of disbelief.

    Since scientists and lawyers are trained to be cynical, this makes your and my job more challenging, no?

    You need to sweat the small stuff.

  18. r3v

    Great article. I’ve been attempting to limit my use of adjectives with a lot of my own writing. I find it really allows you to engage in a story.

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