Writing Excuses 9.8: When Is Your Handwavium Good Enough?
Key Points: Handwavium, when you can’t support it, but maybe if you wave your hands hard enough, the reader will just believe it? Related to technobabble and magic systems. Science fiction may be inspired by real science, but there is a gap that we can’t currently do. That’s handwavium. The science needs to be plausible and not break things people know. Consistency! You, the writer, needs to recognize that there is a problem and cover it with technobabble. Is it something that your character just uses, or has to solve or fix and must understand how it works? Stand back and avoid details, use technobabble to fill holes, or just ignore it? Establish your credibility using science you know and can explain, then skip past the big holes quickly. Fantasy tends to create a magic system and then maintain consistency. Internal consistency often means proper foreshadowing. By the time the crisis hits, the reader should know what is happening and go along with it. I.e., don’t introduce handwavium at the last moment, build it up before you need it.
[Mary] Season nine, episode eight.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, when is your handwavium good enough?
[Howard] 15 minutes long, because you’re in a hurry.
[Mary] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Brandon] And the part of Dan this week will be played by the Wilhelm Scream.
[Brandon] [chuckle] And we once again have Eric James Stone joining us. Thank you once again, Eric, for coming along on this ride.
[Eric] Thanks for inviting me.
[Brandon] We’ll try not to shoot you with a bow and arrow.
[Brandon] So. Handwavium. You pitched this one, Howard, give us an explanation.
[Howard] Okay. I’ve heard two accounts of where the term handwavium comes from. The first is the Star Wars reference. Wave your hands at somebody and use the Force on them. These aren’t the droids you’re looking for. This is not the science you’re looking for. The second is just… It’s powered by… It’s just powered by waving your hands. It’s just handwavium. I’m not going to explain this. You just need to believe that it works. I use the term handwavium to describe when I know my science is not going to be supported by numbers. Whatever it is that I’ve built, if we drill down into numbers under it somewhere, it will fall apart. So I stand the reader far enough away from it that they can’t actually look at numbers.
[Brandon] Ah. So this is different than for instance, like, Star Trek technobabble? Where they throw something out and you’re just supposed to nod and say yes?
[Howard] Yes. This is different than technobabble in that…
[Mary] No, no, I would say that technobabble is totally…
[Howard] Well, I would say that technobabble is handwavium, but it’s not very good.
[Mary] It depends on the… I think it depends on how the technobabble is… Because you can have really good technobabble that is… That’s complete garbage. Anytime you’re dealing with a magic system, your techno… You’ve got technobabble.
[Howard] Yeah. But in those circumstances, your technobabble is going to be… Well, I think it should be consistent with the other technobabble.
[Mary] Yeah. One does want it to be good.
[Howard] Sorry. When I think of technobabble, I think of…
[Eric] Reversing the polarity.
[Howard] Reversing the polarity. But there were Star Wars [should be Star Trek?] scripts where the story writers would get to a point in the story and they would just throw a pair of brackets and say science words here.
[Mary] I find nothing wrong with this as a writing technique.
[Brandon] Yeah. I’m going to go with you there. Just depending on the type of story. You’re writing hard science fiction. You need… I mean, by its nature, you’re writing…
[Howard] Well, I’m writing science fiction that people sometimes say is hard. I’m the man behind the curtain, and I can tell exactly how hard it isn’t.
[Brandon] See, but here’s the thing. I want to make this definition. The fiction part of what you’re doing… There can be… Like hard science fiction has to be fiction… Science fiction inspired by real science. But it can’t be real science. Because if it worked, we’d be doing it. To an extent. Now it can be really, really close, and it can be… But it’s not possible right now. There are different gradations. Here… Would you agree, Eric? You’re…
[Brandon] I mean, we’d be doing it if it weren’t science fiction. So what you’re doing, you are trying to use all of this correctly but at some point there’s that gap. That gap is what we can’t currently do. That has to be handwavium for almost all stories.
[Howard] I’ll give you an example from the current Schlock Mercenary arc. They’re in a space station that is made out of a material that has to be stronger than any known material. I am positing post-transuranics. In science, in actual atomic science, they have postulated the existence of islands of stability way out past element 120, 130, 150. When I say post-transuranics, that was my word that suggests islands of stability. I’m not going to throw out an atomic number. No way, no how. I’m going to say post-transuranics. But it’s important for me to say that that’s what they are, because one of the plot points for the story is that they’re really, really expensive to make. Because after… And this is where real science meets the road, anything after iron, in order to fuse enough protons and neutrons together, it costs energy instead of giving you energy. So the energy expenditure to get out to element 120 or 150 or 230 or whatever is going to be really, really high. I wanted to have energy budget feature into the story.
[Brandon] See, but… Oh, go ahead, Mary.
[Mary] What that’s getting to is that you need the science to be good enough to be plausible and to not break things that people will know.
[Brandon] On my notes here, I actually just wrote the word plausibility and kind of circled it because… And plausibility is going to depend on your audience and the type of story you’re telling. Which is going to inform the type of handwavium.
[Eric] I think one of the keys that I use is one of Clarke’s laws which is fairly well known. “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” So you can then kind of work backwards from that and say, “I want this really cool thing to happen, so I’m going to say it’s advanced technology.” Then technobabble comes in to explain how you have this advanced technology. Transuranic islands of post… Of stability and things like that. That explains your magical ability to have this superstrong material.
[Brandon] Now I suppose we could kind of talk about the Star Trek technobabble which again, I have no real problem with, except for the fact of if it’s not consistent with itself, that could create a larger scale problem with your own internal narrative.
[Eric] One big thing is that you have to recognize that there is a problem and cover it up with the technobabble. For instance, inertial dampeners. You know that if you’ve got a starship that is accelerating to lightspeed in a very short period of time, everyone is going to be smeared into a spot on the back wall unless you have some way to counter that. So inertial dampeners. It’s enough to give you the idea, okay, they know there’s this problem. They’ve come up with some technological solution. They never explain how it inertial dampener works.
[Mary] Yes. Or why no one wear seatbelts, but… They… It is… It’s very much the “Yes, we know this is there, and don’t worry, we’ve dealt with it.” Some of it… When you’re dealing with handwavium, is… And how much you have to… Getting into the idea of how much do you have to explain is whether or not the handwavium that you’re dealing with is something that your character has to solve or it’s just something your character uses. And whether or not your character understands how it works. Like these are all questions that… Like if my character has to fix an inertial dampener, then I have to have a lot more thought and science… Well, you can have as much thought, but I have to have a lot more about how the inertial dampeners work on the page then if it’s just, “Oh, yeah, inertial dampeners.”
[Howard] When the Toughs in Schlock Mercenary were trying to salvage the warship Integrity, one of the components, one of the systems that was down, was the… I think we called it the DCI. The drive tide compensation inertics. Because I didn’t want to steal inertial dampeners from Star Trek. The effect of not having compensation for the drive tide is that the drive of the starship created tides within the ship that was going to break things. Which is just fine. That was all that needed to be said. I needed to establish there’s a problem, we can’t lift off yet, we’ll break things.
[Brandon] So, let’s go ahead and do our book of the week. Mary, you’re actually going to do the book of the week. I believe it’s a book you read.
[Mary] Yes. So I narrated this. This is The Incrementalists by Steven Brust and Skyler White, narrated by two of us, Ray Porter handles the male POV character and I handle the female POV character. The Incrementalists is really interesting because it posits that there is a secret society that’s been among us for about 40,000 years, only 200 people. They basically… It’s taking that idea of racial memory and just running with it. Because they can pass memories and communicate with each other through this collective subconscious. And then use that to incrementally… Use that collective experience to collectively nudge human society. It’s a really interesting thought experiment. And is also a really good example of handwavium because he has to explain how this works without explaining how it works.
[Howard] Excellent. Head out to audiblepodcast.com/excuse, start a 30-day free trial membership, help support your favorite writing podcast, unless it’s not Writing Excuses, and then you’re supporting Writing Excuses instead.
[Howard] By downloading a copy of The Incrementalists by… And I forgot who the author was.
[Mary] Steven Brust and Skyler White.
[Howard] Steven Brust and Skyler White, narrated by Mary Robinette Kowal and…
[Mary] Ray Porter.
[Howard] And Ray Porter.
[Brandon] Now looking at this whole idea of handwavium, I actually have kind of divided it in my head into three categories. Because there’s what initially Howard mentioned, which I think we should talk about a little bit more, which is the take a few steps back… Design your story in a way that you don’t have to do… You can… This. There is the technobabble to fill in the holes. Then there is what I’ll lovingly call the Star Wars approach, which is we don’t care. Right? Because they have sound in space and gravity in space. It’s not that their ships have artificial gravity because when their ships turn, you fall down toward the southern part of the ship. They just ignore all of this. There is no explanation, and they don’t want to explain it. It’s space opera. Okay. My question is, how do you decide, Howard, when you’re going to give some technobabble, when you’re going to be like I’m going to stay away from this so we don’t have to explain it?
[Howard] [Whooo] I will only throw technobabble if there is a plot reason or a joke reason. Those are the two things that drive Schlock Mercenary. If I can make a joke out of somebody trying to educate somebody else about how this works, then I will. If there’s a plot point to be made about the explanation, then I will make the plot point. I’m trying to think of a recent example, where there’s been a joke about it. I can’t think of one. Oh well.
[Brandon] Do you do… Have you done all three of these or do you do like two of them, is there one you gravitate towards, Eric?
[Eric] Basically, one of the things I do is something that I think Stan Schmidt suggested to me. He was the editor at Analog. That is you can… Focus on something that you know how to explain the science of and explain it very clearly in such a way that the reader goes, “Oh, yeah, this guy knows what he’s talking about.”
[Howard] Little truth, big lie.
[Eric] Then you can get away with much less explanation of the bigger thing. That allows you to get by with the technobabble because they now have confidence in your science ability.
[Brandon] My approach, writing fantasy primarily, is to create the system of laws and then stay consistent with it. I’m not even sure I get… I guess that’s technobabble. I guess that’s what they’re supposed to be doing in Star Trek. What I always think they’re doing in Star Trek. Although it seems like sometimes they just aren’t being consistent, and you can just basically do anything with the right…
[Mary] I think they just have a generator, technobabble generator.
[Brandon] But, yeah, this is what I do, and my technobabble then becomes the science of my world and things like this. It works very well for me. But even still, there are times when you have to just… I learned this from Robert Jordan, you have to say, “That is an interesting theory. The question, you, fan, are asking me about how the magic works. I will explore that someday.”
[Brandon] Which in the meantime is really me saying, “All right. Time to ask Peter how this would work.”
[Mary] Yeah. I… Because I write science fiction and fantasy, I approach the issue pretty much the same way for both of them in terms of how it appears on the page. The backstage stuff is a little bit different because with science fiction, I actually have to do the research and check with someone to make sure that it’s real. With the fantasy, I just have to make sure it’s internally consistent, which means that the person I am researching with is me.
[Brandon] Right. The internal consistency often is a matter of proper foreshadowing more than anything else. Because you are… Often times when this is happening, it’s a moment of tension and climax, and you’re like, “We need to do this. Hey, I made this work.” If you’d done your technobabble earlier in the book correctly, because it’s not just babble, it’s… If you’ve done it the right way, then when it happens,… You’ve said this several times in Schlock Mercenary, when you actually have the climax happen, everyone’s up to speed on what’s going on and they know when you make that jump of “hey, we need to do this” everyone says, “Yes, we need to do that.”
[Howard] One of my favorite moments in the writing process is when I am writing the climax and I realize, “Oh, gosh, I need to get this character or this prop or this whatever into this circumstance or this position, and I’ve just… I’m not sure how… Oh, wait, if I do this…” Then I realize that earlier in the book, I said something that totally sets that up and I realize, “Oh, this is going to look like I’m a genius.” I’m just very, very lucky. I love that moment. Sadly, every time that moment happens, I fail to document it.
[Brandon] So, Mary. Writing prompt?
[Mary] So for your writing prompt, I would like you to write some technobabble. What I want the technobabble to explain is how turtles have hyperspace.
[Brandon] Wow. Turtles have hyperspace. All right. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.