Questionable Physics, Plot Armor, and the Searchable File #amwriting

No matter their failings, our protagonist is always endowed with a special power not granted to ordinary mortals: plot armor. They alone are allowed to survive all manner of dangerous situations because they are needed for the plot to continue. 

And if the author has done their job, we believe it, and ask for more.

researchI just finished reading a sci-fi book set ten years from now, in 2032. It was a free Kindle book, but I felt overcharged.

One glaring issue, a blunder that outshone the obscenely poor editing, was this: The heroine’s amazing survivability was made possible by the author’s indulgence in Questionable Physics.

Via Wikipedia: Physics is the natural science that studies matter, its fundamental constituents, its motion and behavior through space and time, and the related entities of energy and force. [1]

The science seemed more like squishy magic. Once I realized that, the book veered into fantasy, which wasn’t what I was in the mood for.

Readers of hard science fiction are quite particular. They want ideas that inspire thought about large issues, such as the far-reaching impacts of scientific, social, and technological innovations.

Science, technology, and their possible consequences are the core of hard sci-fi, and this book had nothing to say to society other than many mentions of how brilliant the heroine was.

The author had marketed their novel in the wrong subgenre—it belonged in Narcissistic Self-gratification, not hard science fiction.

Alarm clock quote ray bradburyNever once did the super-heroic and uber-capable protagonist fear for her life no matter what ridiculously dangerous situation popped up.

Above all, a protagonist must deserve their plot armor.

But enough about that book—let’s talk about research.

Authors who write science fiction should learn what modern physicists are currently doing in the lab and what they’re theorizing on paper.

We must use that knowledge to extrapolate how societies will look in the future. Authors must do the research and take what we know is possible today and flavor it with a dash of what we wish for.

Therefore, research is needed. But if we aren’t physicists, how do we go about it?

First, we identify what we need to know, and keep a list as new questions crop up. Then, we hunt for information. We use the internet, ask an expert, and create a searchable file or database of material that backs up our assertions.

A searchable file is a document containing links to every website, book, or published paper where you have found information about your project.

Every book I write has a stylesheet, usually in the form of an Excel workbook. For instance, this is how some of the tabs on one of my stylesheets looks:

tabs of a stylesheet

That workbook has several pages: a glossary, a calendar, a sheet with the maps, the outline of the projected plot, and personnel files for each character. Also, it has a page with the technology that might be available in an agrarian society. It also has a page with all the links to the websites where I’ve found information, and what I found useful on that page.

But I love science and spend some of my non-writing time randomly watching science shows.

One of my regular bits of brain food is a daily science news report by Anton Petrov, What da Math? His YouTube channel focuses on up-to-the-minute advances in astronomy and physics.

For example, Anton’s report which aired on September 11, 2022, discussed the known dangers of space travel as we are currently capable of it and possible solutions based on our current capabilities.

And Anton’s is not the only hard science show out there.

If the book I am currently bashing had been researched at all, the author would have understood more about the hazards facing humans in the colonization of Mars.

What if you are writing something involving a common, well-understood physics problem—that of braking and docking with another vessel in space? That maneuver is complicated, and there are many reasons why. What you learn about velocity and inertia won’t make it into your story, but you will know what you are writing about. That confidence will emerge in the rest of the story.

But science fiction is not the only genre where magic bullets and impossible solutions ruin a story for me.

For example, I am also a history buff. I love historical fiction, but stories set in that genre must also be meticulously researched. History details events that occurred before the present time and accurate information is still available.

Lost_Country_Life_HartleyTake a look around in your local secondhand bookstore. A brilliant source of information on low-tech agricultural life and culture came in the form of a book I found at a second-hand bookstore in Olympia in the mid-to-late-1980s. It was called Lost Country Life and was written by the late historian, Dorothy Hartley. She details how every aspect of farming was done, the wide variety of tools and equipment that everyone knew how to make and use. If you need to know it, it’s in that book.

As far as I know, it’s still available as a second-hand book and can be found on Amazon.

But let’s go back to the future. If you are writing a contemporary sci-fi novel, you need to know what interests the people in the many different layers of our society. Go to the magazine rack at your grocery store or the local Big-Name Bookstore and look through the many publications available in their racks.

You can also find many scientific papers published online. But for non-scientists, sites like SpaceX, NASA, and Digital Trends will offer a wealth of information in bite-sized chunks and give you leads about where to look next.

Fairy of Eagle Nebula By NASA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Fairy of Eagle Nebula By NASA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Most importantly, if you hope to write hard sci-fi, you must read that genre. Examine their content. Much of what was considered highly futuristic in the era of classic science fiction is today’s current tech. See what other writers think will be the technology of our future.

Talk to scientists. Email them and tell them what you are writing and ask them questions. Many will help you because they don’t like mushy science.

We may be fiction writers, but we are also disseminators of information and dreams. No matter what genre we are writing in, we want the reader to suspend their disbelief and enjoy the story. If we do the proper research, we remove one barrier to the success of our work.


Credits and Attributions:

[1] Wikipedia contributors, “Physics,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Physics&oldid=1109211521 (accessed September 13, 2022).

Fairy of Eagle Nebula By NASA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

17 Comments

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17 responses to “Questionable Physics, Plot Armor, and the Searchable File #amwriting

  1. Okay … Lol Thanks, Connie! This will take more time to get into my brain. But it is a great and very interesting posting. Best wishes, Michael

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh, how I agree. Science Fiction has to be based on real science. That’s why such greats as Arthur C. Clarke and Fred Hoyle were so fantastic. They were scientists themselves and knew what they were talking about.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Because I’ve never been all that good with the subject of science in general, let alone physics, while writing my first sci-fi novel, I’m using an approach to the world that, in some ways puts life back in the past by a calamity. This way I can use physics that have been common knowledge for quite some time.

    Did you like that book you read, or did it make you want to rewrite it for the author?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Connie, I really enjoyed the article and believe you to be right. Science fiction should stick to science even if it is extrapolated from current understanding. When you mentioned “hard Sci-fi” however, that is a breed apart. Hard sci-fi examines possibilities strange and remote, possible sciences of the future rather than anything to do with our understanding of science today.
    So, Clarke, Asimov, Bear, Tchaikovsky etc. are sci-fi whilst Banks, Watt, Brin and Benford are hard sci-fi.
    Two things to note; Firstly, you are right, secondly it is easier to write good sci-fi if your surname begins with a “B” for some weird “hard Sci-fi reason.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I just wish the mechanic had a better grasp on what I mean by “mushy brakes” — and the repair guy believed me about the unearthly moaning my fridge is making. Excellent post, Connie.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Reblogged this on Tidbits by Shannon and commented:
    Pay attention, gentle reader! Your science classes WILL come in handy! And that lone physics mag in the doctor’s waiting room — don’t be scared — pick it up and browse . . .

    Liked by 1 person

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