Don’t know? Then don’t explain.

In a previous blog, I asked when should one try to explain what underpins the scientific or magic devices in the story? My first attempt at an answer covered, at least part of “never”. That might seem to be something of a cop-out, and one could argue that leaving out explanations cannot help develop the plot. Nevertheless, there are times when “never” is a good idea for the author, even if not for the story. An obvious example is when there is a real explanation, but the author is not on top of it.

The purpose behind an explanation is to engage the reader. If the reader accepts what is put to them, then the explanation helps the reader to understand why the plot works, it might add colour to the story for those interested (in murder stories, quite a few people know the characteristics of arsenic now and so might recognize the symptoms before the murder becomes obvious) and in addition, it might give the reader some interesting additional information. It is even possible to convey a message, although whether it gets through is another matter. In my ebook Puppeteer, I put in an argument against hydrogen as a motor fuel by having two pieces of terrorism caused by having hydrogen pipes shot. Hydrogen is the most readily leaky fuel known, and when mixed with air in a very wide range of proportions, it is explosive. So, I used the resultant explosions as the starting point for certain thefts. I also mentioned in passing that filling a car with petrol cost a thousand dollars, which I hope conveys what everyone is looking at if society does not do something about finding replacement fuels for oil.

However, there is a very good reason for an author not to explain if he or she is not on top of whatever it is. I recall once reading a thriller by, if I recall correctly, Tom Clancy and the hero creeps up and immobilizes a guard by spraying him with, . . .  wait for it . . . dimethyl sulphoxide (DMSO). Oh dear! Anyone who knows anything about DMSO will know at once that this would annoy the guard because, amongst other things, the usual DMSO has a bit of a smell to go with it, and in any case, who wants to be sprayed with some unknown liquid? That might well encourage the guard to raise the alarm, shoot the sprayer, beat the living daylights out of the sprayer, or some combination. But whatever else it does, it will not immobilize anyone. Clancy did get one thing right: DMSO passes rapidly through the skin. Once upon a time it was used for rubbing down athletes, for muscle relaxation, but after a while that was banned because there is potential trouble with eyes with prolonged such use. Accordingly, in this world where no warning is too strong (at least to avoid the downside of litigation when someone inevitably does the most stupid thing imaginable) every now and again you see serious warnings about “don’t let this touch the skin”. So, as I said, anyone who knew anything about DMSO would get an immediate release of tension and lean back either laughing, or shaking the head. Not the desired outcome.

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