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Difficult Stuff

The movie is set in a distant time and place where just about anything can happen.  The potential for amazing special effects is built into the scenario, which is always good.  It gets difficult when the characters have to explain what’s about to happen in a way that is believable.  Usually, it’s done with a simple analogy that the audience can relate to.  “It’s like a rubber band that if you stretch it too far it’ll break!”  Take the same need to explain and put it into the real world, however, and it gets even harder.  Accuracy is critical, if nothing else, because a bad analogy is worse than no analogy.

There are many parts of our world that are hard to understand.  Finance, law, and even the fine points of theology can be too much for people not trained in the art.  There’s nothing quite like science, however, to be just a bit too complicated to be explained in the words that we use everyday.  As we learn more and more about the universe around us, the details become more complicated, specific, and separate from our routine experience.  Writing about science for a general audience requires special skills that go beyond analogy.

Hurricanes are a topic that particularly fascinates me.  In many ways, they are nothing but a hole in our atmosphere that works a lot like the water swirling down the drain.  The difference is that Caribbean heat is being drained, and it’s going up rather than down.  The principle is basically the same, however.   This analogy breaks down where many of them do – when you start asking a lot of questions about it.  Why does a drain or a hurricane swirl?  How does escaping heat make the hole in the first place?

There are other ways to explain scientific phenomena that are more useful.  In anthropology and zoology it’s often possible to explain things in entirely human terms that make intuitive as well as logical sense.  It can start as an analogy, such as the Star Trek episode “Devil in the Dark” when the rock eating monster was shown to be just a protective mother.  If the audience can put themselves in the place of the person or thing in question, they can start filling in details on their own.

Sometimes, the situation has too many interactions to lend itself to simple analogy.  When that happens, often the best way to explain difficult things is to take a long walk through what happened, straight up.  To pull this off, the unity of your story is absolutely critical.  That means you have to avoid extraneous details, no matter how compelling, and move it all forward.  This is usually done chronologically, using the process of discovery as the storyline, but it can also be used to create a story by adding one detail at a time.  It takes a master storyteller to write the story of the atom one particle at a time, for example, but when it works it’s brilliant.

Many times, the details are nowhere near as important as the overall value of the discovery.  When the topic is something that saves lives, people may not care about the details at all no matter how you explain them.  In those cases, how something affects lives or our understanding of the universe may simply be enough.  Go with the most powerful part of the story – and if it’s not the details, don’t sweat them too much unless that’s what the assignment is all about.

We live in a world with many complicated things that are critical to our life.  They can all be explained in a way that ordinary people can understand if someone does it well.  There are a few tricks which make it easier and in skilled hands they are as entertaining as fiction.  This process is one of the most critical skills in a world where technology is advancing faster all the time and careers become both more specialized and more integrated.

2 thoughts on “Difficult Stuff

  1. Pingback: Insured « Barataria – the work of Erik Hare

  2. Pingback: Expert Opinion « Barataria – the work of Erik Hare

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