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I'm writing a Science Fiction book. While this book doesn't push reality very far, there are some new technologies and tools that I have added. One tool is used more frequently than all the others, and it has a very complex system (although there are other systems just as complex used somewhat less frequently in the story). For the sake of this question, we'll call it MYTO. The protagonist and the other supporting characters use MYTO on a regular basis, and an adequate understanding of it is critical to understanding and enjoying the story due to the frequent use of it. Normally, it wouldn't be a problem for me to introduce it and describe its functions. However, due to the complexity of MYTO and the systems surrounding it, I've found myself in a bit of a predicament.

I've written several drafts and concepts trying to describe MYTO and the systems it uses, and I've ruled out an all-at-once approach - it would take too long, and the reader would get lost and bored. Because MYTO is used in settings with high action, it is very difficult to describe it as I go along.

For a bit of a background, MYTO was a pre-existing technology based on other communication technologies used by the military and special forces in my story. My main character took it and modified it to create an improved version with several more functions and more polished functionality. I've tried to write this out, but it also gets very technical and boring, so I'm put back to square one.

How should I go about introducing the technology and its functions? Some of the functions can and have been explained throughout the story as needed, but they are lesser functions.

If any additional information is needed, please let me know in the comments.

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5 Answers

up vote 11 down vote accepted

Lauren gave the single most universal method - let me expand on that.

Note there doesn't have to be a literal character for the cabbagehead - a virtual one will do. Get some quotes from 'MYTO for dummies'. Get a cautionary work safety series series "Accidents resulting from and involving mishandling MYTO". Outright break the fourth wall having the omniscent narrator turn directly to readers (possibly in a condescending manner, for added irony if that's the tone).

If the system is complex, on top of brief summary of its function, if your publisher allows, you can throw a schematics in. A picture is worth 1000 words and things like these add flavor to sci-fi.

Last but not least, one of characters may be tasked with writing an instruction manual for cabbageheads, and we can follow their struggles with the daunting task - say, editor complaining "The readers won't understand complex words like 'shall', this must be changed!".

Including quotes and excerpts doesn't work well in movies, and not at all in TV shows, but it's a well-established technique in novels, so you can use it freely to circumvent the need to introduce another character or lower IQ of any of existing ones.

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I love this! There are plenty of ways to peel the cabbage, so to speak. –  Lauren Ipsum Apr 2 '13 at 10:13
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Labeling your paragraphs 0-4, I'll add to number four. Consider the opening quotes in Dune, 'cited' from books like "The Manual of Al-Muad'Dib". If the 'MYTO' gets really dangerous later on, or possibly messes with reality on a grand scale, having those quotations come from a 'manual' or a history book suggests that a history is being played, or alternatively, that 'you've seen nothing yet'. –  Mussri Apr 2 '13 at 10:40
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@Mussri Another great idea, although I'll add one caveat: Don't overdo it. Gael Baudino took this concept to a ridiculous extreme in her Water! trilogy -- it was a neat writer's experiment, but a PITA to read. If you go this route, stick to one or two paragraphs at the beginning of a chapter. –  Lauren Ipsum Apr 2 '13 at 12:16
    
@Mussri hm, that's an idea to consider... I'm also with Lauren Ipsum on not overdoing it, though. Of course, I've always planned to publish a few things after the main series, or in addition to it. One of them could be the "Operator's Manual" for the device. Also to be published are many of the notes I have from the development of the characters, story, and world (including early concept stories). Well, look at that. A tangent! I think that means my comment should be done. :P –  JMcAfreak Apr 10 '13 at 21:05
    
@JMcAfreak, that could work. But if you're publishing your notes, consider editing them to a professional 'independant' level. That is, give them the appearance of independent, tailored, technical books/notes/... . That's to give them 'the mood'. Also make it clear they're fictional. And remember that most of your readers may not get anything but the main books, so include the really good/necessary quotations in the main books. –  Mussri Apr 12 '13 at 9:23
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Show the guy who modified it leading a training session to teach others how to use it. Doesn't have to be a classroom setting; it could be on-the-job or in-the-field. This gives you plenty of opportunities to have the students ask the questions that the reader will want to know the answer to. A whole room full of cabbageheads, so to speak, although for good reason. Needn't be a huge number, but the people who are being trained should have reason to need the information. To keep it fun, include some banter and give the cabbageheads distinct personalities. At least one might be further involved in the story.

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Show it breaking or failing to work as intended. You can describe the steps to get it working again as well as explaining why.

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Lauren's and SF's answers give good advice for dealing with the necessary explanation. My additional advice is: make sure it's really necessary.

Driving a car is a pretty complex task (ask anyone who's taught a teenager :-) ), and there are cases where it might be important to describe in detail the revving of the engine, the easing-out of the clutch, the braking technique to prevent a skid on ice, the timed firing of the rear thrusters -- oh sorry, wrong technology :-) -- but usually this doesn't matter and you can talk about the driving of the car in a less-specific manner. Sometimes in the process of developing a new thing (technology, world, social structure, etc), one can come to over-emphasize it. Remember that your technology is, fundamentally, a tool to help you tell a good story. Focus on the story first and the rest will tend to follow.

Also, you don't need to do it all at once (and your readers may give up if you do). Let it come out in bits and pieces in the context of what's going on in the story.

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Introduce a cabbagehead character.

"Cabbagehead" is a term from Phil Farrand, who wrote the Nitpicker's Guides to various Star Trek series. He points out that particularly in NextGen, it became necessary for one person to abruptly (and temporarily) develop the IQ of a head of cabbage, so that the other characters could explain the situation and the audience could get the information they needed. This position rotated depending on the episode and the plot.

So if you have someone who's a newbie to the MYTO system, and your protagonist has to train him or her in its use (or at least explain the gist of it), that will allow you to give the basics to your audience.

I would recommend trying to get away with as little explanation as you can in the beginning, though, since (as you noticed) too much exposition drags things down. Teach the newbie the basics and then drop in more details elsewhere. A chapter or two later, someone moderately skilled could come in and say, "Hey, Bob, I just tried out the Foo function you added to the MYTO. That was amazing, man!" and Fred says, "What's the Foo function?" and Bob can explain what it is.

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Said Cabbagehead might even find themself in a situation which inspires the main character to do his modification/refinement stuff. –  Wayfaring Stranger Apr 1 '13 at 23:20
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MYTO for cabbageheads... I kind of like the sound of that, myself. :) –  Michael Kjörling Apr 2 '13 at 8:18
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Gah! I wish I could select two answers! SF's answer is more fitting for my current idea, so I've chosen that as the answer; I may end up using yours instead if I can't find a good way to implement SF's method without hurting the book's mood (I still have room for another character). –  JMcAfreak Apr 2 '13 at 18:19
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