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.
Raised on C. S. Lewis and matured (to whatever extent) on Tolkien, Brandon Miller is a huge fan of Christian speculative fiction. His favorite stories artfully bend physical reality to reveal spiritual realities that apply to all realms, kingdoms, districts, and solar systems (including our own).
When not writing fiction, Brandon spends his time landscaping the great outdoors, sportsing, or romancing his all-star and lifelong co-author, Megan.