When to introduce “scientific” devices critical to a plot into a story

If your writing includes “science in fiction” through to wild SF, one question that has to be faced is how and when to introduce the “stuff”? A lot of writers seem to think that the time to introduce it is when it is needed. I do not think so. One criticism that I have heard of some SF is that the protagonists get themselves into some horrible situation, then everything is resolved by some “magic” that just appears right then. The problem is, either the protagonists knew about it previously, and it is only the reader that did not, or they did not. If they did, the story is a little like someone leaving the house to get the newspaper with the reader having been told that the protagonist has to avoid packs of rabid wolves while doing so, only when he comes back, he cheerfully announces there never were any wolves. Trying the wolves trick to make an “exciting story” out of getting the newspaper is just crass. Had the protagonists not known about it, then it is no better than the magic wand, or deus ex machina. One reason some people get turned off SF is that it is sometimes ill-disciplined fantasy with liberal use of deus ex machina. Something quite incomprehensible turns up and saves the day, and that is simply tedious.

To avoid this, my advice is to introduce the causes and devices as early as possible, so that they become well-established. That means that the story has to revolve around the characters, but that is what good story-telling is all about. Some examples, again, using the cloaking device as an example, are as follows.

One good example of what I am saying comes in Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings”. The invisibility is introduced as a party trick very early, which gives an excuse to explain the backstory of the ring, and, of course, it sets the whole point of the story. The story might seem to be about how to destroy this ring, but the real story is about how the hobbits go about trying to do it.

Another interesting method lies in H. G. Wells’ “The Invisible Man”. The story starts when a man (Griffin), who is almost completely wrapped up, comes to an inn at Iping, takes a room, and stays in it, almost in total seclusion, only coming out still totally wrapped up. This is, of course, a mystery to the locals, but surely not to the reader who has presumably read the title. This is an important point of such devices; the story is not about the device, but rather how it affects the characters. In “The Invisible Man”, what we see is Griffin’s frustration at being unable to reverse the effect of what he has done to himself. First he has a fit of pique and shows himself, then he resorts to burglary to pay his rent, and when he feels betrayed, he seeks revenge. As the story proceeds, Griffin’s actions become increasingly violent and destructive. The important point is that the story is about Griffin’s character, and the invisibility is merely a tool to bring out the worst aspects of it.

SF should also say something about people’s lives. Now, invisibility as a concept seems to say very little of relevance to modern people’s lives, but can you, reading this blog (assuming someone is) think of anything very important relating to invisibility that is relevant to your life? Meanwhile, nobody has responded to my last quiz question: can you think of a famous story involving a cloaking device that underpins a plot involving abuse of power, pride, wishing for what you should not have, and the curse of chattering women? As a clue, think revenge.


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