Oh for Goodness sake! Get it RIGHT!

by limebirddennis

The other day my family and I were sitting around talking about the TV programmes that we watched as children. I was reminiscing about “The Six Million Dollar Man” and remembered how it used to really bug me when Steve Austin would jerk his bionic arm away from his body to break the chains that were binding him. Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of the strength of steel would know that the chains wouldn’t break; all that our hero would do would be to drag the chain through his un-bionic body, creating an even bigger mess for Oscar and his team to clear up.

That got me to thinking, am I the only person that, upon reading something that breaks the rules, sits backs and moans: “Oh for Goodness sake! Get it RIGHT!” Don’t get me wrong, I am happy to suspend disbelief, but, once I have accepted that faster-than-light travel, or super strength, or whatever, is possible, then the author owes it to us (or at least owes it to me!) to stick within the new rules of the game. Friedrich Nietzsche said that “I’m not upset that you lied to me, I’m upset that from now on I can’t believe you”; and I feel that, when someone breaks the rules, it makes it harder to immerse oneself in what they are saying – I find that part of me is sitting back, looking for other errors.

In the novel that I’m writing, faster-than-light travel is needed. I could have just been vague and made up a technology to achieve it, but I feel that this is cheating the reader. So I went out and researched the options, and settled upon a ship powered by an Alcubierre drive (first proposed in 1994) and have my heroine discuss the basic principles with the ship’s engineer.

When the ship arrives in the target system, they have to make a short hop sunward to reach the planet; I have Talatu note that “days before, I had calculated the distance to the planet. We were thirty million kilometres above the invariable plane of the system and one hundred and ninety three million kilometres out from Campbell’s Star. The planet that we were aiming for was thirteen million kilometres closer to the centre of the system than us, but was also about thirty degrees behind us in orbit. This meant that we would have to shift approximately ninety eight million kilometres to move into orbit around it. This would take us exactly one hundred and five seconds – compared to the nineteen years and nine months that it had taken to get here!”

Again, I could have just plucked a number out of the air, but I didn’t. I dusted off my almost forgotten trigonometry knowledge and worked it out.

Another thing that I do, when writing anything longer than a short story, is to keep a file of notes (pictures of uniforms, potted biographies of characters, technical summaries etc.) so that, if I’m not sure about a point, I can refer back to it, and make sure that everything remains consistent.

So I have four questions:

1) Am I weird in wanting things to be right? Does it get to you as much as it gets to me?

2) What examples do you have, from your own writing, where you went beyond the call of duty to make sure that it was right?

3) How do you ensure that errors and inconsistencies don’t creep in to your work?

4) Please post examples where your suspension of disbelief was knocked by a basic mistake.

Here are a couple of mine…

* In Larry Niven’s “Ringworld” Louis Wu teleports to the east to extend his birthday, this would actually move him later in the day and would shorten his birthday. Niven was constantly teased about this until he changed it in later editions so that Louis Wu teleports into the west.

* In Dan Brown’s “Angels and Demons” Robert Langdon tells his students that the Christian tradition of communion, eating the body of their god, comes from the Aztecs; a basic mistake by someone who stresses that his novels are based on facts. Communion has taken place since the first century; some twelve to thirteen centuries before the Aztec civilisation came into being.

33 Responses to “Oh for Goodness sake! Get it RIGHT!”

  1. Totally agree with you Dennis. In fact I was just planning on writing a blog with a similar (sort of) theme to this! Consistency is very important to me. I have to say in examples such as the one you cited, it would seem to be to be a case of poor ‘hack’ writing more than anything else. Come on people, exercise some proper creativity, and don’t just take the easy option!

    • I suppose you’re right Mike; but one definition of hack writing could be a tendency to be less than careful about the facts…

  2. I totally agree as well! My word, how many times have we sat through a movie and said to each other, they wouldn’t do that in real life, they couldn’t do this that way, etc.; or I’ve been there, and they don’t do it that way…

    When you see something that doesn’t fit, it takes you out of the story because you now have to think about this, is it right? Can you do that? – then it’s hard to get engaged in the story again. Too many of them and I’ll put the book down. If I like the book I want to be in their world and not have to keep returning to mine.

    • Yes, Neeks. If their world is supposed to be confusing and playing fast and loose with the rules that’s OK (and can be fun). However, when something is set up they have to stick with it.

      I have to keep quiet at home when I watch a movie with my partner!

      • My daughter reminds me allllllll the time – “It’s just a movie Mama!” I love it when I get to turn the tables on her and say it back, hehehe. Great post!

  3. Excellent post! When I catch things like that, I’m taken out of the story as Neeks said. And then I start looking for other problems as I read. That can’t be what the author wants.

    Time travel is central to my sci-fi WIP, and I’ve been reading up on the “real” science behind it — well, the theories since we can’t yet do it. If a physicist ever reads it, I’d like him/her to just enjoy the story and not email me to tell me how wrong I got it!

    Like you, I keep a detailed record of the characters: bio, stats, background facts that aren’t in the books. I’ve also got a calendar for keeping track of when each scene takes place so I don’t mis-reference them in later scenes. I’m looking forward to doing future works in Scrivener because it’s going to let me keep better notes in the same program with my manuscript.

    Star Wars — The Millenium Falcon made the Kessel Run in some number of parsecs (can’t remember off-hand). Parsecs are a unit of distance, not time. That’s like saying it made the run in 10 miles. So unless the Kessel run is based on distorting distances instead of saving time, it doesn’t make sense.

    • I forgot the Star Wars one; that always winds me up when I watch it!

      The idea of a calendar is a good one (I have had to go back and work timings out in the past) I’ll try and be more organised in the future.

  4. Yes, I get as crazy as you about errors of this kind. I haven’t done any writing but blog lately, so those questions will have to stay blank. I can think of a couple, but they are in movies. 1) In 2012, a bunch of cardinals are sitting in the Sistine Chapel, praying, when the ceiling begins to crack. It proceeds to crack exactly between God and Adam in the Creation of Adam fresco. And in Angels and Demons, the antagonist knows how to fly a helicopter because his father, THE POPE, told him to learn to fly. How convenient, as the Church Lady used to say on SNL. 😎

    • Thanks for the comment Judith. Yes, in both your examples it could happen, but when things are so neat it does make one pause for thought.

  5. Dennis, to answer each of your points, in a different order …
    1) No, you’re not weird! It IS fiction, though, so sometimes the invention of a fiction (like a fictional physics to support interstellar travel) is called for. I did that in my books and I just recently allowed a PhD in math who also has a deep interest in astrophysics to read what I had proposed and he thought it did the job.
    3) Ensuring that errors don’t creep in is tough. Just do your homework (and the internet makes that so much easier than it used to be), question everything as you write, and revise endlessly, paying attention to how things stated on page 35 relate to what is said on page 210.
    4) The best thing I can think of right off the bat is the character of Zhaan in the TV series “Farscape.” While I loved the character as much as any fan, I never could accept the concept that a plant could evolve to have a humanoid form!

    Then back to 2) …
    My math background is almost nil, but I did manage to calculate the orbits of planets rather than just guessing at them. I used Keplar’s formula “the cube of the planet’s distance from the sun, measured in astronomical units (AU), is equal to the square of the planet’s orbital period, measured in Earth years.” I also submitted this calculation to the math professor mentioned above and he said I did it right, except that with systems other than the Earth’s one would have to take into account the different mass of the star. He also agreed with me that in well-plotted fiction nobody is going to quibble too much over something like that. For example, people would notice if the orbital period of a planet in the same location as Earth relative to the star was 20,000 years, but they won’t quibble over a variable of 10 years.
    Another example is my giant termites. It’s accepted that insects can’t get much over the size of a Hercules beetle here on Earth, although in the Carboniferous Period, they got much larger, probably because oxygen content of the atmosphere was about 35%. The diffusion method by which insects breathe would be insufficient to oxygenate such a large quantity of tissue with our present oxygen levels. Also, the exoskeleton of an insect between one and two meters (to say nothing of the really gigantic ones seen in B movies) would have to be so heavy to hold the thing together that it would be impossible for it to support its own weight. I address both these points promptly in my book “The Termite Queen.” I hope whenever you read the book, you will find my explanations satisfactory.
    Also, in regard to the termite planet, I wasn’t paying attention early on and ended up with an ecosystem that has marine invertebrates, land invertebrates, arthropods both marine and land (including all kinds of land insects), reptiles, and birds. No mammals, which is fine, but no fish or amphibians, either. Later, I thought, this can’t work. How did the vertebrate reptiles and birds evolve without a vertebrate marine ancestor? I ultimately decided to make a catastrophic extinction responsible – something comparable to “Romer’s Gap,” the period of die-off at the end of the Devonian Period, when almost the only fish to survive was the shark. In the case of my planet, vertebrates would have already moved onto land and become reptiles, while something would have caused all water-dependent creatures to become extinct. I mention this theoretical possibility in the second volume of TQ because I’m confident somebody will notice that.

    • Thank you very much Lorinda for your detailed comment! I think what you have outlined in your process is exactly what all writers should be doing. To quote The X Files “question everything”!

      You’re right, the internet is a great resource and a great way of finding experts. I was writing a time travel story set in South Africa and wanted to know whether three main characters from three different ‘radial classifications’ would be able to travel together on a train in 1927. I searched and found a scanned copy of a typed document on South African Railways and Harbours from, I think, 25 years ago. I used LinkedIn to track down the author, now a professor at Wits (I would make a great stalker). He gave me some great advice and reassured me that what I had written was plausible.

      Your way around the marine vertebrate problem illustrates the point perfectly. You saw the problem and came up with a plausible explanation.

      Looking forward to reading The Termite Queen!

      • Of course, in South Africa, they were ‘racial classifications’ not radial classifications’! Oh for an edit button!

      • Thanks, Dennis, I hope you will read it! It shouldn’t be too long now! In fact, I plan to post the first 4 chapters on my blog starting Monday.

        I just want to add that I keep all kinds of detailed notes. I have chronological tables that cover the 21st up through the 30th century, both historical events and things like the birthdates of seminal characters. It’s so easy to forget that sort of thing. One thinks – I’m sure I mentioned back there somewhere when this character was born, but where’s the reference ? Even with the search function in Word, I can’t always remember the right key words to identify the location. So a table really helps. What doesn’t help is when you end up with notes in different places and one says the character was born in 2718 and the other says 2719. And so you discover that suddenly this set of twins is only five years older than their sister when they should be six years older and graduating from prep. Then you have to do a lot of rewriting to make things jibe. Fortunately, that happened in the novel that I haven’t yet finished. But I bet I’m not the only writer to have that sort of problem!

      • You are definitely not the only one to have that problem! You name it, I’ve done it (names changing, physical description changing etc.) that’s why I’m so careful to keep track now.

  6. It bugs the hell out of me. The lack of believability in the very first fight scene in Charlene Harris’ first Sookie Stackhouse novel means that I’ll never know if the rest of the book is any good or not. I just put it down and moved on. Sure, I’ll believe there are vampires living in America. And that people can hear other people’s thoughts. What I don’t believe is that a small girl would walk past her brother (who knew how to fight), pick up a chain and beat up two experienced fighters armed with knives. Especially since her moves were not physically possible.

    I once worked my way through Learning Python The Hard Way so that I could immerse myself in a supporting character who was a programmer. I needed to know enough coding to know how he would do stuff, so I learned coding (well, the basics, anyway). Then I ran all the coding and hacking parts of the book past two coders to make sure it held up. It did.

    • I research before I buy (books, DVDs etc.) and so, so far, haven’t been in a situation where it was so bad that I put something down without finishing. I guess I also try and learn from their mistakes…

      As for learning Python to get inside a programmer’s head… WELL DONE! I have never gone that far, I just learn enough to fake it 🙂

    • Hello,

      Random note here. The Sookie Stackhouse books are AMAZING! There is an explanation why she does this fight a bit later on, but I don’t want to spoil it if you’re ever thinking of reading them (or if anyone reading this is). I hope you give them another go, especially if you’re a supernatural fan. 🙂


  7. I think that I have ruined many a good film through logic. If, for example, a door is ajar, then why would you go through it? You know full well that something bad will happen. People just dont leave doors slightly ajar anymore! And if you enter a house and a satanic voice whispers loudly “GETTTTT OUUUUTTTT!” Then surely you must realise your prescence is unwelcome? Then I have to remind myself of artistic license and i should spend more time supspending my disbelief as I did when I was younger. Perhaps we might sometimes be too picky about the why’s and wherefore’s of certain peices of literature and films. Maybe we have lost our inner child.

    • I think that the age of innocence is long gone, Elkam! My partner and I love to go for coffee and ‘skinner’ (which is a uniquely South African word which means something like gossip) about the other patrons. With all the police procedurals on TV now we have a game where we identify the murderers in the coffee shop, why they are going to kill the person they are with, and how…

  8. 1) Am I weird in wanting things to be right? Does it get to you as much as it gets to me?
    No, you’re not wrong, its your experience! It only gets to me if it’s something I really understand and it’s glaringly obvious.

    2) What examples do you have, from your own writing, where you went beyond the call of duty to make sure that it was right?
    I uhh.. I don’t ._.

    3) How do you ensure that errors and inconsistencies don’t creep in to your work?
    REREADING. 😀 Making notes, and just having such a love for the story I remember all of it and if something makes me go “Wait… what?” I figure out why.

    4) Please post examples where your suspension of disbelief was knocked by a basic mistake.
    Not so bad, just in one book I’m reading. The main character has a terrible-paying job, bald tires, but also has an iPad. I know some people will do things such as buying unimportant things instead of fixing important, but the character doesn’t strike me as this type of person.

    • Yes Ottabelle, re-reading is definitely needed. On that point; it’s interesting how much can still slip by after one has read something umpteen times. That’s where it’s important to have other readers who can both proofread for mistakes such as typos and also point out any factual mistakes.

  9. Yes! My writing group and I were just discussing this. Getting it right is so important. I’ve been known to spend hours on research just to be able to write one word – but it was the right word, and that’s whats important. What you said about losing trust in the author for the rest of the book if they don’t get right, is exactly how I feel. So, I make sure to take time with the details (and am just happy I don’t have to do trigonometry to get it right for my novel!)

    In the book I’m reading right now the character just made a huge speech that is so completely out of character for who this person is, setting of a chain of events based on this unbelievable speech that I became so frustrated I wanted to put the whole book down saying, “This character would never have said that. This are not her words and thoughts! It is made up drama to suit the needs of plot tension! Its so obvious it make me ill!”

    I can never understand how mistakes like can make it through to publication, even after multiple re-reads, and beta readers and editors critiques.

    • The problem with your example is that it isn’t a hard fact. You may be completely correct that the character would never talk like that, but, some writers, and some publishers, are not so worried about that. It moves the story along so great.

      However, take too many such liberties and the reader will eventually move on to a different author.

  10. I am always driving people crazy when I watch shows and start screaming “writers! writers!” Some of the scripts / actions are just so unbelievable…it’s rubbing of on those around me….

    • Same here (I have caught my partner frowning a few times recently). Just last night we got to the end of a movie on TV and said, “OK it had great SFX but there was no story

      Slowly, slowly, the battle is won!

  11. I have found, when writing of real things in a novel — you have to obey the laws that apply. When making up a new ability, technology etc, you can establish the new law, but then be faithful to it. I remember reading James Blish, Cities In Flight series. The ability of surrounding an entire city and a huge chunk of earth under it, propelling it through space, while confining the atmosphere gravity etc, was just explained by the term Spindizzy Generator. As readers we were not there to find out “how” it was done, we were reading to find out what happened.
    Very often one can fall into a trap. I was reading a paper by Isaac Asimov who wrote that to portray high/new tech simply was often the best course, rather than explain why the doors in the society we were reading about had all been changed and why, and how etc, he said the author merely wrote: “As Jeff approached the door, it irised open…” No need to explain.
    If you are explaining why, how FTL technology was discovered, than go ahead and explain it if it is necessary to the story. Remember though if you do – readers are now free to question your explanation. Rather that going through that you might be better to say “He switched on the Johnson FTL Drive once he broke Earth orbit.” And leave it at that. Perhaps mentioning that the drive had been developed in the early 22nd century by Johnson Labs and after 20 years of testing had been adapted to spaceflight for all FTL vehicles.
    Oh and yes the 6 Million Dollar Man — chain thing would get me too. But since they did not bring anything up (no explanation) I assumed they had strengthened his skeleton as well.

    • You are exactly right. Any explanation will do but be consistent to it once you have set it up.

      On The Six Million Dollar Man, they were very specific about what they did (a new arm, two new legs and a new eye). If they had every explained that a whole skeleton had been fitted I would have been a bit more mollified but that was never done.

  12. I’ve a work in progress that involves FTL and time travel as well, and I’ve spent so much time looking for the right stars to populate, and software to model systems, and then working hard on equations in order to ensure the correct delta-V is used getting into orbit, out of orbit, and so on.

    The one novel I really hated because it played so fast and loose with “facts” was “Silver Tower” by Dale Brown. The station could change orbital inclination–10, 15 degrees–like it was nothing, and do it every other hour if it needed, without ever needed to ask for fuel. And the station also had a laser that, in the big boss fight at the end, was vaporizing cruise missile ships from 300 miles up–I mean, literally vaporizing then. And doing it every 5 seconds. They built some great handwavium generators back in the late 1980’s.

    For some reason this novel came up at work, and I discovered my boss and one of my co-workers just *loved* it, and I had to, just had to, rip it to shreds and tell them why. My boss’ reaction was, “Can’t you just enjoy a story for what it is?” Yeah, I was a freak.

  13. I could have written this post myself, I’m such a nitpicker. It’s nice to know I’m not alone.

    By the way, Dennis, you’re an intuitive thinker with a quirkily artistic style and intellectual ambitions.


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