One of the biggest challenges with writing speculative fiction is clarifying how your story’s magic and/or technology works. Once you’ve accomplished the monumental task of developing those systems, how do you educate readers without making them yawn? They don’t want you to pause the story to give a lesson on all the phenomena, yet they don’t like being confused (and prone to disbelief) either. (Aren’t readers exasperating?) Thankfully, through a few tricks, you can relay the necessary information without frustrating anyone.
1. Lean on Clichés
Since sci-fi and fantasy are popular genres in novels and on the big screen, audiences are already familiar with a wide assortment of technology and magic. Holograms, dwarves, advanced communication devices, door-sealing spells, hover cars, and teleportation aren’t the least bit mystifying. You can include those in your story and assume that readers will understand them.
Of course, once you start incorporating clichés, where do you draw the line? Though clichés are useful for quick communication and worldbuilding, if your story is overrun with unoriginality, it will become predictable. Only resort to clichés for the nonessential parts that don’t strongly affect the plot or the theme. In The Hunger Games trilogy, the story revolved around the character interactions and the culture’s depravity, so the technology was standard futuristic gear while the culture was (at the time) groundbreaking.
What sets your story apart? Which details need to be unique? And where can you rely on clichés to simplify the worldbuilding?
2. Spark Curiosity
Now that you’ve leveraged clichés to round out as much of your story world as you can, you need to do the heavy lifting. Remember, the golden rule of info dumps applies: pique readers’ interest so that they’ll welcome the facts.
If your magic system is fascinating, show it in action. In Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings, Szeth-son-son-Vallano Truthless of Shinovar carries out his bloody business with the magic of lashings. The strange devilry, combined with the intensity of Szeth’s scenes (especially his opening), intrigues readers. When the magic is finally defined, readers eagerly accept the slowing of the narrative to learn about it.
If your technology raises ethical questions, have a prominent character wrestle with those issues. Once your technology is meshed compellingly into your story, readers will not only forgive you, they’ll thank you for going into depth.
3. Introduce the Technology as New to Your Hero
The easiest and most natural way to help readers comprehend your story’s technology is to tell the scene from the viewpoint of a clueless character. This allows readers to absorb data alongside him instead of being force-fed.
Think about Dr. Alan Grant from Jurassic Park, or Casey Newton from Tomorrowland. As their stories began, they both walked into a world completely foreign to them, and gradually the holes in their knowledge were filled until they mastered the technology enough to navigate the climax.
4. Make the Technology or Magic Relevant to the Hero’s Plan
If a gadget or potion is integral to the hero’s strategy for addressing a problem, you’ll be able to describe various aspects of it as he moves forward.
In the novel Mortal Engines, Tom Natsworthy has lived in London his whole life. He’s fully aware of how the technology in his world functions. However, after he gets kicked out of London, he embarks on a book-long journey across the rugged outlands of the post-Thirty-Minute-War. During his travels, he encounters Airhaven and Shan Guo, which eventually lead readers to the climax.
How Much Should You Explain?
Finally, as you’re figuring out how to acquaint readers with your sci-fi and fantasy elements, keep in mind that they probably don’t need to be experts at sorcery or rocket science. You should focus on two main goals:
- Avoiding Confusion. Provide the fundamentals of your story’s magic/technology (not necessarily how the inside nuts and bolts connect) so that readers don’t feel lost and decide to turn back as they’re exploring your book.
- Setup and Payoff. If the fantastical components of your story were unimportant, you wouldn’t be writing speculative fiction. Effective technology and magic will influence the resolution of the primary conflict, often unexpectedly (such as the alien’s language in the movie Arrival). Be sure to supply the details that readers need for the climactic twist to make sense.
Although inventing technology and magic can be fun, these systems ultimately exist to serve your story. Consider how they impact the plot, characters, and setting, and tailor your explanations accordingly.
“Well, I’m back.” The emotion those words spark in Lord of the Rings fans across the world perfectly describes how Brandon feels on a daily basis when he finishes writing and starts working on homework. (Yes, writing comes first.) His fictional worlds, where the suns never set and Rutel is Servant-Lord of the Sky, leave him wanting more…but unfortunately life is still a thing. When Brandon can’t hang out in Faërie, he fills his time with normal mortal things like homework, work, friends, (oxford commas) and family. He enjoys backyard football (or any sport), board games, English country dancing, and reading. He doesn’t particularly enjoy (but still spends time) driving, doing math, and waiting for YouTube ads to end.
Brandon enjoys writing-related-but-still-not-actually-writing activities including critiquing, outlining, and updating his blog, The Woodland Quill. Some of his favorite books (there are too many to list) are The 100 Cupboards by N.D. Wilson, Look and Live by Matt Papa (warning: nonfiction), and Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie. (Due to his Lord of the Rings reference at the beginning of this blurb, he’s not going to bring that pinnacle of literary genius up again, although he probably should and sort of just did.)
Brandon lives on the Nebraska plains, where the people don’t actually live in teepees but do plant as much corn as the stereotypes suggest. His wonderful family keeps him somewhat grounded in reality, his friends keep his extroverted personality from imploding while he’s writing, and his ice cream keeps him…happy.
Poor ice cream.