A few years ago, someone approached me about adapting a thriller into a screenplay. Reading through the first few chapters, I wasn’t sure where the script should begin. The first scene involved an autopsy where the pathologist missed the symptoms of a biological agent. The author took us through each stage of the autopsy including each instrument the pathologist used, where he made his incisions, and the weight of every organ.
It was clear the author knew what he was talking about, but he wasn’t telling a story, he was teaching a lesson.
The scene had no conflict until the author told us about the crucial detail the pathologist missed. The prologue read like it was supposed to function as the opening stinger of a crime drama. This might have worked if the pathologist had struggled to find a cause of death or started to show signs of the contagious infection, instead he gave an extremely technical description of a routine procedure with no conflict.
Writers have a tendency to over share our research to prove we’re qualified to write about certain topics. We write what we know and we want to make sure you know our knowledge extends beyond Wikipedia. The problem is, it’s clear when we’re compensating for something.
The trick is figuring how much technical information our audience needs to understand our story and how to reveal it naturally.
The Importance of a Well Placed Point of View
If technical information is necessary for the audience to follow your story, find a point of view character to relay that info through. The point of view character could be someone in a new profession like Agent J in Men in Black, or someone trapped in a new situation like Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games, or even someone that’s unaware of their own importance like Neo in The Matrix.
In fantasy stories point of view characters are proxies for the audience. They have limited knowledge of the fantastical elements of their universes, until a call to action forces them to go exploring. Their limited experience justifies lectures from mentor figures, like Obi Wan, Gandalf, and Dumbledore. Authors build worlds around these characters, inviting audiences to see the new terrain through the point of view character’s eyes, ensuring we’re all on the same page.
In stories set in the real world, point of view characters are necessary to bring us into situations requiring a minimum level of technical expertise. This is why so many pilot episodes follow rookie cops, paralegals, and resident physicians.
Sometimes the point of view character is an expert returning to a job they’d quit. In Thomas Harris’s novel Red Dragon, Will Graham is a former FBI profiler who’s persuaded to return to the bureau by Jack Crawford, his old mentor. Jack bring’s Will, and the audience, up to speed on an active serial killer. In NBC’s adaptation, Will Graham is a forensic psychology professor who’s lectures happen to be on whatever case he’s investigating. In one interpretation of the story Will is the audience’s point of view, in another it’s his students.
There’s more than one way to share specialized information. The point of view character doesn’t need to be the protagonist, they could be an apprentice our hero is relaying wisdom to.
In the Lincoln Lawyer, Matthew McConaughey plays a defense attorney who shares legal strategies with his driver. In Nightcrawler, Jake Gyllenhaal plays a videographer who explains his methodology to an intern. In Inception, Leonardo DiCaprio plays a dream thief who reveals his cerebral schemes to the newest member of his team.
The problem with passing information through a POV character comes when you use the wrong one. When you funnel information through someone who should already know it, the audience gets wise to what you’re doing. In the film Gravity, George Clooney’s character keeps telling Sandra Bullock how satellite debris behaves in space, I kept expecting her to say, “You do know I’m an astronaut too, right?”
This is the equivalent of one character saying, “As you already know,” before dispensing wisdom to another. This makes no sense. If both characters know something already, this character is breaking the fourth wall to relay it to the audience directly.
It breaks the suspension of disbelief when experts give each other text book information. The film Interstellar got around this by specifying that each astronaut’s knowledge was limited to their area of expertise. Matthew McConaughey, our point of view character, was a pilot, not a quantum physicist. It made sense for his peers to share information on how black holes distort space time (2nd McConaughey reference in the same article, alright alright alright).
What is Too Technical?
When it comes to technical information, give your audience just enough to follow the plot, establish your characters’ skills, and flavor your universe.
Michael Crichton filtered his medical knowledge through scenes. He was a master at creating urgent scenarios where characters shared what they knew to survive. He kept our attention by respecting the flow of the format, rather than just dumping information.
Right now, I’m reading a book by an author who’s guilty of writing chapters where nothing happens, where characters list things they know about seedy subjects just because they feel like sharing. These characters cease to be three dimensional the moment they become mouth pieces for the writer’s research. Their monologues would read better in social psychology books.
It’s alright to know less about an area of expertise than your characters. If a cop has a walk on role in your story, you don’t need to know every police procedure, just enough to represent them in their scenes.
Sometimes sharing too much information on an area of expertise can reveal how little you know about it. If you’re copying and pasting information from sources that go over your head, your story will have problems. You might be basing it on a theory that’s already been discredited.
The more technical information space opera writers put out there, the more they give Neil deGrasse Tyson to tweet about.
Not every Science Fiction fantasy needs to take place in the realm of possibilities, but it helps to have an understanding of what you’re building on. If your foundation is a fringe theory, it might fall apart upon closer examination. If your premise is shrouded in mystery, we might not spot its weaknesses. This is where some well placed ambiguity can really help a story.