Writing Dialog If Your Character Is a Scientist

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I talk with scientists a lot, as I’ve mentioned before. But until this last weekend, when, due to the fact that it was time for us all to March for Science (and I hope everybody did), what I’ve mostly thought about when I talked with a scientist was what words I would use if I needed to translate what the scientist was saying into Regular English. Translating Science, after all, is my job.

But I’ve been writing fiction for some time now, and a writerly mindset seems to be taking over my brain. Instead of doing as I usually do, and mentally translating the March for Science speeches into the common language of most of the crowd, I found myself analyzing them for the specific characteristics of Science-ese that really define the way a scientist speaks. I was trying to figure how to subtly incorporate those characteristics into dialogue in such a way as to give the impression that a character is a genuine, bona fide scientist.

Early on, I learned that in writing dialogue, it’s sometimes little things that make all the difference. One of the first novels I ever wrote was set in the very early nineteenth century, and though I naturally wanted the dialogue to sound convincingly early-nineteenth-century-ish (or at least not jarringly modern), I also didn’t want to try to reproduce actual speech from the era. I guess some writers can pull that off, but when I do it, it always sounds fake. So I immersed myself in period literature for a few months, trying hard as I did so to pick out some stylistic detail that I thought nicely defined the difference between early nineteenth-century and modern style.

I found it in the old rule that I was taught in high school English class: “Don’t split infinitives.”

This is a stupid rule, and no one has obeyed it for the last two hundred years. But briefly—very briefly—it was an absolute; and that brief period happened to be the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

So the characters in my novel never ever, in speaking, split their infinitives; and friends who read it said, “Oh, your dialogue is so good! It really evokes the era!” They were friends, so mostly they refrained from pointing out the hundred other things that I’d done wrong.

Scientists, of course, split their infinitives.

They also sprinkle a fair number of scientific words into their conversation, and you would probably think that mimicking this (annoying) tendency would work well to make a character sound like a scientist. Somehow—I don’t know why—it doesn’t. It is, however, unbeatable as a device for making a character sound pretentious; so keep it in mind.

Scientists also talk about their research a lot; and if, in a novel, every conversation involving a particular character somehow wound up back on the topic of, say, neutrophils, that character would sound convincingly like a scientist who studied neutrophils. However, this is tricky to write for the author who is not also an authority on neutrophils. You may believe me when I say that if you get one picky little word wrong, you will hear from every neutrophil-loving scientist in the world about it. There are a lot of them. Not all of them will be tactful.

Looking back over the texts of some March for Science-day speeches, what jumps out at me most is the fact—it is a fact—that scientists are never certain. Somehow they never forget, even for a moment, that nothing can ever be definitively proven. They know that even something as well-established as gravity may actually be wrong. One day we may penetrate to the earth’s core and find that dropped things fall because there’s a giant Stuff-magnet in there, pulling everything toward the center of the earth with its powerful Stuff-attractant Rays. You don’t believe me? A scientist at our local March was asked by a heckler if she believed in the theory of evolution (the questioner emphasized the word “theory”). After gently correcting her interrogator’s terminology (he meant “natural selection”), the scientist replied—not “yes”, although natural selection is a cornerstone of biological science—but “So far, that is the theory that best explains the evidence.”

Since I know that the shortest and best way to define a character is with one or two lines of really trenchant dialogue, I’ll write a book with a scientist in it when I’ve come up with something as brilliant to write as “the theory that best explains the evidence.” Or better still, I’ll aspire to something even more brilliant; something on a level with the exchange between Ray Stanz (Dan Ackroyd) and Winston Zeddmore (Ernie Hudson) in the original Ghostbusters movie.

Winston asks Dr. Stanz if he believes in God.

Says Dr. Stanz, “I never met Him.”

That is the perfect scientist answer.


[Image of the March for Science at Portland, Oregon from Another Believer (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons]

Share Your Writing!

Here’s a wonderful opportunity from Charles French.

charles french words reading and writing

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(https://pixabay.com)

Hello to everyone! I want to offer an opportunity for all writers who follow this blog to share information on their books. It can be very difficult to generate publicity for our writing, so I thought this little effort might help.  All books may be mentioned, and there is no restriction on genre. This include poetry and non-fiction.

If this event is successful, I will do this about once a month.  To participate, simply give your name, your book, information about it, and where to purchase it in the comments section. Then please be willing to reblog and/or tweet this post. The more people that see it, the more publicity we can generate for everyone’s books.

I hope this idea is successful, and I hope many people share information on their books!

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Please follow the following links to find my novel:

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Print book

Thank you!

The book…

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A Plug for Ogden Nash

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We’re getting ready to redecorate a couple of rooms at my house—new doors, carpet, paint; the lot—and as is usual around here, prepping a room to be carpeted and painted involves much putting of books into boxes. Every room of the house is crammed with books (not excluding the bathrooms), which have to be packed and stowed somewhere before anything else can be done. So far I’ve packed and stored nineteen box-fulls, which only leaves about nineteen more box-fulls to be taken out of the rooms we want to decorate; and about five thousand more books not in boxes spread out over the other rooms of the house, unpacked and readily available to read.

So why is it that every book I need or want right now is in one of those nineteen boxes?

Yesterday I wanted The Collected Works of Ogden Nash.

I’ve always loved Ogden Nash. Most people only know him for his little poems about animals (“Fleas: Adam had’em.”), but he wrote all kinds of poetry. For a week after I turned thirty, I went around muttering “How old is spring, Miranda?” to myself at intervals, which comforted me, but made other people think I might be a dangerous lunatic. And after my daughter was born, I became especially fond of his poems about his own two daughters.

In one, Nash wonders why people condemn adults for a staggering gait and slurred speech, but find the same behavior adorable in a toddler. It’s not his best poem, but I thought it was cute, and I read it to my husband. I expected it to make him laugh.

I forgot he was a scientist. The poem didn’t make him laugh; it made him thoughtful.

A few days later, Husband announced that since hearing Nash’s poem, he had been closely observing our own and other peoples’ babies, and become convinced that infants are not, as Nash suggested, milk-drunk. Rather, Hubby said, they’re stoned out of their little minds. Demonstrating a worrying level of expertise about the subtle differences between alcoholic inebriation and drug-induced delirium*, Hubby said it was now clear to him that all babies are born completely zonked, their brains awash in psychotropic substances which gradually wear off as they mature, allowing them to engage more and more rationally with their environment. Puberty, with all its agonies, should therefore be regarded as a side-effect of drug-withdrawal, and be treated as such, including at least a short period of in-patient care.

He wasn’t joking.

And now it turns out that Hubby was absolutely correct. Recent studies confirm that the brain-scan of your average toddler closely resembles that of an adult tripping on LSD.

And that’s why I wanted my volume of Ogden Nash: To re-read it and see what other scientific discoveries he anticipated. Only now I’ll have to wait until the rooms are painted and re-carpeted, and all the books are back on the shelves. No point in attempting to find what I want now, in one of those boxes. I’ve tried that before. The volume I’m looking for is always in the very last box, on the bottom.


*Come to think of it, I’ve been meaning to ask him about that. For thirty years.

 

Giving Evil a Toe-hold

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My parents were middle-aged when I was born, and interestingly, their parents were middle-aged when they were born, too—although the middle of life came a little earlier in those days than it does now. In fact, all of my relatives were old. (Most children think all their relatives are old, but in my case, I have the dates—many of them beginning with an 18—to confirm my impression.) While this meant that I didn’t have any grandparents alive to spoil me when I was growing up—which I regretted—the situation also had its positive aspects. My friends’ parents looked at the manners, music, fashion, and morality of the Younger (i.e., my) Generation and saw the decline of Western Civilization. Mine saw—more of the same things they’d seen before. Short skirts? My mother had worn them in the twenties. Long hair on men? My dad had long hair in the thirties. Rock ‘n’ roll? In her youth, my mother had ditched choir practice to sneak off to a concert of what was known as “race music”; a euphemism for jazz before white men started playing it.

Mom got caught because she fell down a flight of stairs as she was leaving the performance, and her mother (who was the first married woman in the neighborhood to bob her hair, by the way) told her it was God’s judgment on her for lying. But my grandmother didn’t object to the music itself. Her three brothers were all musicians, and they liked all kinds of music. In fact, her youngest brother, who played the oboe with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, even liked that awful Stravinsky fellow, whose “Rite of Spring”, when the orchestra played it, caused half the audience to walk out in disgust. When Uncle Oboist heard about the concert he thought he saw a kindred soul in my mother, and for a time, they became quite close.

My mother never traveled much herself, but her uncle opened her eyes to the world beyond the Chicago suburbs. The orchestra went to Europe, of course; and European symphony orchestras came to America, too. Musicians are a tight group, and my mother’s uncle knew hundreds of them—especially the ones from Germany, since the conductor of the Chicago Symphony at the time was Frederick Stock, who was originally from Germany himself.

In the nineteen-thirties, long before she heard it anywhere else, her uncle told my mother that there was going to be another war in Europe, probably very soon. His German musician friends had told him that the new leader of Germany, Adolf Hitler, wanted war; and the mood in Germany was such that what he wanted, he would probably get.

Some of the musicians actually supported Hitler; but many more (at least, many more of the ones who shared their thoughts with Uncle Oboist) were simply resigned to putting up with him for a while. They thought Hitler himself was a very bad man, with pernicious ideas; and that he was supported by the worst kind of people. But the Bolsheviks, they assured my mother’s uncle, were the real threat; and the Nazis were taking a hard line against the Bolsheviks. They said that once the Nazis had taken care of the Communist menace, the “better sort” of people in Germany would in turn “take care” of Hitler.

Of course, there was that distasteful National Socialist anti-semitism thing; but there had always been anti-semitism in Germany. When the Bolsheviks were gone, Uncle Oboist’s friends said, National Socialism would blow over, and things would get back to normal. Even some of the Jewish musicians agreed with this. They thought that it might be worth putting up with Hitler for awhile, too—but just until he’d cleaned out the Bolshevik nest, of course.

Some of the other Jewish musicians weren’t so sure. The first thing they asked when they saw my uncle was whether the Chicago Symphony had any open positions, and how they could get an audition. I don’t know if the orchestra acquired any new players this way, but they certainly could have.

My great-uncle wasn’t so sure, either. He told my mother that he didn’t think one evil could be used to cure another evil. Once a weed has taken root in a garden, he said, getting rid of it usually involves the death of every growing thing around it, including the rose you’d rather nurture, and keep.

As we all know, Uncle Oboist was absolutely right about this. In support of what many people thought was a noble goal—thwarting communism—evil was given a place to grow in Germany; and millions of roses had to be sacrificed to root it out.

—And if anybody thinks they see any modern-day parallels with this story… Well, so do I.

Science as a Plot

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I’ve written before about why, even though I know them well, I don’t make scientists protagonists in stories. Here’s why I don’t make scientific research a plot, either.

Many years ago, my husband made his first big splash as a scientist when he published the complete sequence for a gene that causes blood to clot. How big a splash? The research institute for which he worked issued a press-release, the local television stations sent news-crews, and an item about this discovery appeared in the News of the World, directly below an article headlined, “CHOCOHOLIC MOM GIVES BIRTH TO SUGAR-COATED BABY!!!” *

Hubby was briefly a minor celebrity; his hat-size increased by a full half-inch; and honestly, for a few weeks there was no living with the man.

Then it all passed off and he got back to work in the lab.

The cloning of that gene sequence was far from being the most significant work my husband has ever done. So why was it the thing that got the most attention? It was because the cloning of the tissue factor gene had a plot. It followed an arc from Young Scientist Embarks on Quest; through Difficulties Along the Way; through Gamble On Using Last Available Sample for Final, Risky Experiment; through Triumphant Moment When Final Risky Experiment Yields Desired Result. There was pathos: At one point Young Scientist was putting in such long hours at the lab that his two-year-old announced, “Daddy doesn’t live here. Only Mommy and I live here.” The press particularly loved it that the effort to clone and sequence the gene turned out, in the end, to have been a race. Two weeks after Husband’s lab published the sequence, another lab published the same gene-sequence in another journal; and a third lab published a slightly different sequence a month after that. The press made much (much more than there actually was) of the “rivalry” between the labs.

Science—real science—that makes good fiction is a once-in-a-career event. Most science makes terrible fiction.

For one thing, the path of scientific discovery meanders. A lot. Everybody knows from high school that research starts with a hypothesis, of course. What people sometimes forget after high school, however, is that the point of the experiments that follow are intended—not to prove—but to disprove the hypothesis. Trying to disprove something doesn’t lead to any big dramatic moments—the ones where the scientist turns to the members of his lab and says, tears in eyes, “That’s it! We’ve proven it!” because there’s always the chance that someone somewhere will subsequently uncover that crucial missing bit of information that means that everything the scientist postulated is wrong. The most the scientist can usually say is, “Well, our second-choice journal says if we do a few more experiments, they’ll accept our paper.”

Not much drama there. Just sighs of relief.

Even life-saving new medical treatments don’t generate drama—at least not for the scientists involved. By the time a new discovery makes it into the clinic it has gone through so many steps—promising result, to confirmation of result by subsequent researchers, to further research, to—and I’m simplifying here— tentative treatment, to hand-off to other scientists who do appropriate animal studies, to small-scale clinical studies, to many major and minor modifications to treatment, to licensing to drug company, to wider-scale clinical studies, to finally entering mainstream medicine—that any drama has been dissipated to the point of non-existence.

So, I don’t write about scientists as scientists (the scientist-type—and there is one—makes a great character, though); and I don’t write about real science, either.

On the other hand, I think the scientific community is long-overdue for “exposure” in some sort of modern Peyton Place-ish fiction (remember Peyton Place?), and if anybody wants material for something like that, contact me for some very juicy stories!


* Husband’s work was also covered by the New York Times; but I think we can all agree that the News of the World piece was the really important one.


Image source: wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/60/Biochemistry_laboratory_MPI-CBG-panorama.JPG