In a previous post, I spoke about how essential communication was to the survival of our species. In the critical stages of our evolution, when humans were few in number and they could not glean information from a device in their pocket, misinformation meant death. Give someone the wrong directions, and they will walk into a swamp or get turned around in a frozen tundra. Inadequately describe an edible mushroom or berry, and the next time you go check on your neighbor, you’ll find them dead. These instances still occur today, but less frequently due to the ease at which we can access validated information. But this has also made us lazy and we often assume information comes from a reliable source.
Misinformation in research journals has a toxic effect on science. All it takes is one publication to slip through the cracks and suddenly, anyone who reads that article and doesn’t know better, will now be a source of misinformation to the rest of their colleagues. Misrepresentation of a biological process, data fabrication, misuse of terminology, or even a misinterpretation of a theory, can spread unchecked in scientific journals until it becomes an epidemic. Billions of dollars have been wasted on the experiments that resulted from this misinformation.
In the entertainment industry, this isn’t called misinformation, it’s called ‘artistic license,’ and it gives the industry the ability to alter, fabricate, and withhold any and all information for the sake of entertainment. Everyone who has watched a movie will have seen a 5 gram bullet knock a 90,000 gram individual back a few yards. Aren’t grenades supposed to explode in a huge fireball? Of course we all know that heroes can dodge every single bullet shot at them, that scientists can cure every disease with just a microscope, and that sound is easily carried through the vacuum of space. These examples have the desired dramatic effect, but don’t we owe it to our audience to avoid perpetuating these inaccuracies?
There is a lot of misinformation between writers that is given in the form of advice. Many new authors will hear this information and treat it as fact and be very vocal about ‘the rules’ on most writing forum. We have all heard the writing rules, but the truth is, there are none. Writing is very subjective. Unless you write in a made-up language, or completely disregard grammar, you will likely find someone who is interested in your book. What works for some might not work for others. Even this writing advice is completely subjective. Separating fact from opinion is much more difficult in this industry than in science. It is generally a good idea to listen to the advice and learn ‘the rules,’ even if all you intend to do is break them.
How to overcome misinformation-
What do you do if your entire plot is built on inaccurate science? Despite my assertions that many things can be explainable with science and that writers don’t have to break the laws of reality in order to achieve their plot goals, there are certain things you can’t explain with science, but work as decent plot devices. For example, there is no possible way for a mutation to cause an individual to grow fur, muscles, and claws within seconds. Biology doesn’t work that fast on the macro scale. But then we wouldn’t have werewolves. There is no scientific basis for telekinesis or turning a deck of playing cards into flying explosives, but then you wouldn’t have the X-men. Warp drives, or anything that can travel faster than light, violates causality and many laws of physics, but it is the only way to move spaceships quickly from one star-system to another. So, depending on where you stand in the hard or soft sci-fi category, your plot might be limited by the laws of science.
When writing other forms of fiction, however, research and accuracy rarely limits your creativity. Not only will readers appreciate your adherence to fact, many will have learned something. When a reader recognizes an incorrect statement in your book, they will be shaken out of the story. Some reader will even think less of you, especially if it concerns something they are passionate about. If your main character is a lineman who repairs power lines for a living, make sure you research their standard practices and the correct terminology. If you have a character hack a database, make sure you actually use correct computer terms and give plausible scenarios. Anything from the process of making cheese to the appearance of a flame in zero gravity, make sure you have the facts, because chances are someone will know more than you. This is why they say to “write what you know,” because that is the tried and tested method to write a believable story. This doesn’t mean I should only write stories about a caffeine-addicted scientist who spends way too much time on the computer, it means I should educate myself on a topic before writing about it.
The higher purpose of a writer-
People read books for entertainment, but shouldn’t they gain more than a few hours of enjoyment? Teaching your readers something is easy if it is done right. Long paragraphs explaining the mechanics of an internal combustion engine will have your readers dozing, but a dialogue between father and son as they work on a common hobby will feel more natural and realistic. Better yet, have the son damage the engine, and show the suspenseful process of him trying to repair it before his father comes home. Your reader might not even realize that they’ve learned something.
If you point out the what-ifs, things that might actually happen given our current understanding of the world, you can inspire your reader as well as educate them. In my opinion, that is where speculative fiction is at its best. Ever since the ideas of space elevators, solar sails, ion engines, and hover cars were popularized, huge advances in research and engineering have brought them so much closer to becoming a reality. Many of the scientists I know today are big science fiction fans, and many of them entered the field because books and movies first inspired them to learn more and to create something. How disheartening would it have been for them to make it all this way only to find out that the thing that inspired them had no basis in science or reality, that it was based on fabricated information and flawed from the start.
I originally created this blog to help encourage others to look to science to inspire their writing, but another major hope of mine is that their writing will inspire science. Putting science aside, the accurate portrayal of events, the coverage of a controversial subjects, and calls for change, can all inspire action in your readers. That is how we as writers can effect real change in the world.