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ServiceScape Incorporated
ServiceScape Incorporated
2021

How to Write Believable Technobabble

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If you're writing science fiction or fantasy, it's probably inevitable that you'll end up writing some technobabble into your work at some point or another. Technobabble has a long history in fiction and non-fiction writing, and is accompanied by numerous and varied opinions regarding its use. In fiction, technobabble is most often used when describing some technological, mystical, magical, or otherwise unfamiliar and/or unrealistic component of the story.

We can look at Luke Skywalker's lightsaber in Star Wars as an example for understanding technobabble. Before the film's release, the general public would not have known what a lightsaber was. Granted, they may have been able to contextually make sense of it since they probably are familiar with the terms "light" and "saber" and can synthesize the concepts meaningfully on their own. As the audience experiences the Star Wars universe, they gradually develop a better understanding of what a lightsaber is by observing how it is used, what effects it has on the world and other characters, and how it relates to other technobabble in the universe like "deflecting blasters" or "kyber crystals."

According to Techopedia, an element of technobabble is the often scientific terminology applied to technologies that may not be fully understood by the common person when they were designed and introduced to consumer audiences. While technobabble is often inevitable and sometimes desirable, it can be obtrusive and really spoil an otherwise effective piece of work. It's important to develop the ability to strike a good balance when writing technobabble for your work; we'll look into a few concepts that can be very helpful to keep in mind during your writing process.

Do your research

As with most other aspects of your writing process, writing technobabble should begin with a healthy foundation of research. At this point, you should be giving ample consideration to what kind of writing you are doing and what technobabble matches well with that type of writing. Consider the setting: what is the time period? Location? What is and isn't available to characters? Think about what characters will be interacting with the technology you create and the technobabble you and they use to talk about it. Is it more appropriate to be talking casually about this technology with less jargon? Or perhaps the scene involves a group of scientists discussing amongst themselves and dialogue laden with jargon would be more believable and absorbing. It's also necessary to consider what medium we're writing in. The constraints of a novel or short story will require a different approach from a television or film script.

As authors, we need to keep in mind that every word we put on a page is meant to serve one purpose: to convey meaning to the reader. This is no different with technobabble, and so we have to ask ourselves if our technobabble is performing something meaningful or if it's superficial. Philip Athans looks to Star Trek in his musing about technobabble, pointing out that successful use there is when it is used to talk about the importance of key decisions and pivotal personalities, the fragility of consciousness and the concept of fate, and other heady philosophical concepts.

The most important thing to keep in mind while writing technobabble is that it should serve a purpose in your narrative. Ciara Wardlow notes that One of the most consistent trends in technobabble is that in a string of science words, there's usually one that's not completely off-base—but it's in seeking that truly jargon-y polysyllabic mouthfeel that technobabble tends to shoot itself in the foot. Wardlow uses an excellent example from the film Alien, in which the alien's blood is referred to as molecular acid. Wardlow points out that this is nonsense, as all acid is molecular, and no one who knows how to use the word molecular would use it this way. So, while it sounds more scientific and official, it is really diminishing from the believability.

Once you have a good grasp on what it is you're writing and what role technobabble will play in it, it's a good time to begin your research into real-life terminology and concepts surrounding your created technology. It's best to ground your technology and technobabble in real-life, with small aspects that will be familiar to the reader that they can grasp on to. This provides them with some level of comfort and also stokes the excitement of learning about a new and mysterious technology, engaging the reader as they attempt to solve the mystery you've set for them.

If you are writing in a previously established universe, like if you are writing fan-fiction or as part of a series, you can use this to your advantage. In most cases, the reader will already be familiar with some terminology or concepts that have been created for the fictional universe. It is important to research the fictional universe if you are writing in continuation with it. Maintaining consistency in your technobabble will keep it immersive and entertaining rather than sounding pretentious and frivolous. Remember that small details work wonders for immersion. Sometimes, descriptions of the mundane things surrounding your fantastical technology or magic will conjure better images in your readers' minds than overwrought technical descriptions. One Redditor reminds us that the research process is an excellent source for new ideas as well. Don't close yourself off to the possibility that a better understanding of the technology you're basing your fiction off may open up solutions to problems in your writing.

Don't be overbearing

Sometimes, keeping things vague can work to your advantage. Let's imagine we want to describe a scene of a character turning on a car. We can imagine a technobabble ridden passage such as: "he inserted the key into the ignition receiver of the steering column and turned it to spark the gasoline aerosolizer, which injected the liquified substance into the engine manifolds as they sprang to life." Aside from this being absolute nonsense because I don't know how a car really works or the names of the parts involved, we're left wondering why we just read this passage. The purpose of the passage can be achieved with something devoid of technobabble like: "he turned the key and the engine came vibrating to life." Simplifying like this can help us doubly. Most importantly, we have much less of a chance of looking like a fool to anyone that may have some knowledge about how cars are turned on.

On the opposite side though, we don't alienate the reader that may not have any knowledge base in automobiles and might find that technobabble confusing and/or intimidating. Additionally, if a reader does have knowledge about cars, the vagueness of our phrasing may serve to spark their imagination and force them to fill in gaps better than we ever could ourselves.

Follow the advice of others

Plenty of readers and authors alike have chimed in with their own opinions about technobabble and tips on writing it successfully. Many people have commented on how possibly the worst use of technobabble in a story is as a deus ex machina. While we're typically taught to avoid this convention in general, a conflict resolved out of thin air that is attempted to be explained away rationally can be particularly frustrating and disillusioning. It can also be frustrating to a reader if too many details are provided. Oftentimes, most of these details are unnecessary, and the process of reading this can disjoint the tempo of a scene, spoiling the immersion for the reader. Leaving things to the imagination also puts the reader's mind to work, keeping them engaged with your piece while developing a personal connection to it as well. A useful note to remember is that a lot of real scientific discoveries and inventions bear the name of their creator/discoverer. Employing a proper name in your technobabble can provide some familiarity both because it aligns with naming convention in reality and because it is not a polysyllabic, pronunciation-mountain of a textual speed bump.

Consistency is also a common refrain from readers and authors. Whether it's within a novel-spanning universe or a thirty-page short-story, it's crucial to be consistent with how you use technobabble. Take into consideration not just the particular names you give your technology, but also the naming convention, and how characters in your world interact with it. While random technobabble generators certainly exist online, you should work on developing your own naming convention for your fictional universe. These generators can provide a helpful springboard, but don't rely too heavily on them.

It's commonly recognized that basing your technology in something familiar to the reader can help make it effective. It's important to strike a balance of this with technology the reader doesn't understand and finds mysterious. The familiarity will provide the hook to grab the reader's attention, while the mystery will sustain their interest and cultivate a process of critical engagement between their mind and your text.

When describing your technology, you should focus on telling what happens, not how it happens. This is the classic "show, don't tell" convention, but is particularly useful for technobabble and returns our focus to making sure the words on the page are there to convey meaning. Similarly, just write about your technology as if it was ordinary and mundane. Try to put yourself in the mind of the characters using this technology, who probably interact with it on a daily basis. This can help direct your descriptions towards what and not how.

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