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How to Turn Cutting-Edge Science into a Page-Turning Thriller

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Author James Rollins has been compared to Michael Crichton, and his latest book The Eye of God includes biohacking, DIY mad science and other current ideas. In this essay, he talks about visiting Fermilab and explains the secrets of transforming science into a cracking good read.

Turning Science into Fiction

By James Rollins

Tell me what scares you about your research, what keeps you up at night…

That’s the challenge I posed to a group of physicists seated at a cafeteria lunch table at Fermilab, the national particle accelerator lab outside of Chicago where, as a writer of science-based thrillers, I was invited for a personal tour of their facility. And that visit gave me the opportunity to toss out the question I frequently present to scientists or researchers. The answer that follows often becomes the grist for another novel.


In this particular case, my query became a roundtable discussion on the state of reality. It was the first I had heard of a theory that the universe might actually be a hologram and that the facility was building a “holometer” (a version of a Michelson interferometer) to test this very idea. The gist of the conversation eventually boiled down to the insubstantiality of the physical world. I came later upon a quote from physicist Brian Greene that summarized how unreal “reality” is: “If you remove all the space within the atoms making up the human body, every person that’s ever lived would fit inside a baseball.”

That’s how little of the world is solid and tangible, and that strange concept became the core of my latest thriller, The Eye of God.


And that’s the crux of looking to science to inspire fiction. Start by asking questions. But how do you turn those answers into story?


First, get it right.

If you’re going to tackle a scientific topic in a story, do your research, perform your due diligence. Between libraries and the Internet (though be careful with the latter’s accuracy) learn as much as you can about the subject matter. And again, don’t be afraid to ask questions: by phone or by email. It’s surprising how open people are to such inquiries. I found that scientists are generally happy to share their research and insights. For example, I once sent a query to NASA’s website about a new evacuation system on the space shuttle, only to come from work one afternoon to find the operations manual for the shuttle sitting on my doorstep. So I guess if I ever need to fly a space shuttle, I’m prepared. But do you need that much information to write a story?


Accept that you can’t know everything.

You don’t need a PhD in the science you want to explore in a story. Over the course of my novels, I’ve tackled a multitude of disciplines: nanotechnology, evolutionary biology, quantum physics, dark matter and dark energy. But the only scientific degree I hold is a doctorate in veterinary medicine. The key for an author is to know just enough about a subject to collect a core group of “telling details,” those bits and pieces that are important to your story. In my novel Deep Fathom, I didn’t need to know how to operate a space shuttle, but I did learn about the evacuation system and put that into the book. If you accumulate enough of those details (and get them right), you can write a novel with seeming authority.


Remember it’s a story not a textbook.


The bane to all fiction, no matter the genre, is called “info-dumping.” Whether it’s trying to fill in a character’s backstory or explaining the science behind quantum physics, never stop your story to lecture or teach. So how do you get that necessary information into the book without bringing your story to a grinding halt? By remembering the adage: story = conflict. Information should be revealed to the readers through a variety of techniques: shared through an argument between characters, or perhaps teased out within the scope of an action scene, or left unresolved as a tool of suspense. Use that spoonful of sugar to help that medicine go down. And it works. After I wrote my novel Black Order, I received a flurry of emails stating “I never understood quantum mechanics until I read those three pages in your book.”

Read…read deeply and broadly in your genre.

Growing up, I devoured H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. I also became addicted to the Bantam reprints of the old pulp novels from the thirties and forties: Doc Savage, the Avenger, the Spider. It was those novels that first inspired me to tell stories that mixed science, history, and adventure. Later still, I became enamored of Michael Crichton, who blazed the trail for the modern science-based thriller. In fact, I had a weathered copy of Jurassic Park above my desk when I wrote my first novel Subterranean. I used his book as a lesson and a template for how to tell such a story: when do we first see a dinosaur, how did he fold the science into his stories, how did he craft his book’s climax? So if you want to mix science and fiction, read everything you can. When asked about my best tip for writers, I say it’s a simple one. Write every day…but read every night. It’s within the pages of a novel that you’ll find inspiration and instruction for your own writing.


Look beyond the horizon.

Science at its core is about exploration, whether inward into that void within atoms or outward into our world and beyond. When it comes to crafting a thriller, it’s at those very fringes where I find the best stories, taking current-day research and extrapolating where it might be headed next. Also it’s at those edges where the science not only raises physical challenges, but often tests the moral and spiritual compass of my characters, putting them in conflict with one another. As I mentioned before, “story = conflict.” So take your readers to that edge…and jump off.


Be honest with your readers.

Readers can sniff dishonesty from a mile away. In the end, I never purport to be an expert in the fields about which I write. In fact, I conclude every one of my novels with an author’s note titled: “What’s True and What’s Not.” It’s in those last pages where I separate the wheat from the chaff, the facts from the fiction. I do this for several reasons. First, because truth is often stranger than fiction. Some of the scientific concepts raised in my books, that could be taken as fiction, are in fact based on hard science. And I like to draw that line in the sand. I also like to leave breadcrumbs at the end, so that if any aspect of the science or history in a novel intrigues a reader, I leave something for them to follow and delve deeper into if they like.


In the end, strive to inspire.

I love this distinction between the definitions of fiction and nonfiction. The goal of nonfiction is to transmit facts to the reader. The goal of fiction is to transmit emotions. If done right, a novel should inspire readers, especially when it comes to illuminating the beauty and thrills of the universe around us. After writing now for fifteen years, I’ve begun to hear from readers, from people who have written to me and said they’ve switched careers or changed majors at school because of the wonders I’ve shared with them within the pages of my novels. I’ve heard from archeologists, math majors, biologists, and physicists. As an author, there is simply no greater honor than to know your books are more than mere popcorn thrill rides, that when that last page is turned and the book closed, you’ve left the reader with something to ponder and wonder.


So let me do the same now. Back last December, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study showed that U.S fourth graders lagged significantly behind students in Asia and Europe in science and math, but contrarily those same students were the top performers when it came to reading. And perhaps that’s the key to swinging that pendulum of education: to use reading as a gateway to a resurgence of interest in science and math, to use stories to inspire a new generation of scientists, mathematicians, and thinkers.


And I believe that pendulum is beginning to swing already, that we’re in the middle of a fundamental sea change when it comes to an interest in science. How do I know this? At San Diego Comic-Con this year, the most enthusiastic audience I found was for the panel announcing the new Cosmos series on Fox, where astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson was treated as a rock star. Additionally he revealed that Bill Nye, the Science Guy, was in the audience, which nearly blew the roof off the place. But for me, as a writer of science-based novels, the greatest thrill was to see all the young kids in the hall, clapping and cheering, their faces full of the wonder of the universe.

So if that pendulum is indeed turning, let’s get out there and give it a hard push.


For the next generation…and beyond.

JAMES ROLLINS is the New York Times bestselling author of international thrillers, sold to over forty countries. Known for unveiling unseen worlds, scientific breakthroughs, and historical secrets, Rollins' knack for breakneck pacing and stunning originality has been hailed by critics and embraced by millions of readers around the world. His latest bestseller is The Eye of God.